From Gabriola to Flanders Fields
The Centennial of the Great War on Gabriola Island
One hundred years ago, 30 young men from Gabriola Island left their island homes to fight in the fields of Flanders in Belgium and northern France, in what was then called the Great War.
Six did not return.
In the summer of 1914, Europe seemed a world away for the 250 people who called Gabriola Island home. Few islanders paid attention to reports that an Austrian Archduke had been shot in Sarajevo, in the far-off Balkans.
Canada was part of the Empire, and now at war with Germany. Everyone expected it to be over by Christmas.
Imperial recruiting poster appeals to the colonies. Photo: Dept of National Defence.
More than 600,000 young Canadians, most between 18 and 30, rushed to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
Among them were 30 Gabriola Islanders.
This is their story.
A knapsack, kit bag and cap, pins and badges. A canteen and field glasses.
Two silk postcards and a Christmas box.
These poignant reminders of the First World War are part of a former display at the Gabriola Museum, along with photographs and information about those who served.
Between 1914 and 1918, thirty young men from Gabriola enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) and fought in the trenches of the Western Front.
Six died there.
John Silva and his wife received an embroidered silk postcard from one of their sons on December 18, 1918, with a message that he expected his unit would be returning to Canada soon. The Museum display has more information on the silk postcards and Christmas boxes that were popular with the troops.
A segment of the Silva Bay Stories exhibit film also tells of the story of Gabriolans serving in “the war to end all wars.”
A transcript and pictures from the moving WWI tribute Event presented in November, 2014, is below.
These colourful, up-beat cards were issued to the troops. Photo: Gabriola Archives
Walter Asher, born August 22, 1891,
served with the 7th Battalion, killed September 28, 1915.
Buried in Bailleul, France.
William Duncan Goodall, born March 3, 1892,
served with the 8th Battalion, killed August 29, 1918.
Buried in Feuchy, France.
David Hoggan, born August 17, 1875,
served with the 29th Battalion, killed May 6, 1917.
He has no known grave.
William Frederick Juriet, born December 7, 1896,
served with the 29th Battalion, killed August 9, 1918.
Buried somewhere in France.
John A. Langlands, born April 17, 1891,
served with the 31st Battalion, killed June 6, 1916.
He has no known grave.
Frank Silva, born July 25, 1890 on Gabriola Island,
served with the 29th Battalion, killed on August 21, 1917.
He has no known grave, his name is engraved on the Vimy Memorial.
Frank Silva in uniform of 29thCanadian Infantry Battalion.
Photo: Gabriola Archives.
“My name is Frank Silva. I took the boat from Gabriola to Nanaimo on January 25, 1915, to join up. My younger brothers Louie and Eddy had already enlisted last August when the war started. They shipped over to France with the 29th Canadian Infantry Battalion. With so many of the fellows already overseas, it was my turn to go.
My folks weren’t happy about me going too. Father used to say one of the good things about Canada is there’s no army to take young men off, like in the old country. He was from Portugal and jumped ship in Victoria during the gold rush when he was just 17. That’s where he married my mother who was from the Lyaksen Indian band. They already had two kids when they came to the south end of Gabriola in 1883, and settled on the bay everyone now calls Silva Bay. That’s where the rest of us – seven including me, Louie, and Eddy were born.”
John Silva settled Silva Bay in 1883.
Photo: Gab. Archives.
National Defence archives in Ottawa hold Attestation Papers, or enlistment forms, for every member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
Frank Silva’s form lists his place of birth as South Gabriola. He is described as “5ft, 5 and one half inches tall, with dark complexion, dark brown eyes and black hair.” His profession is recorded as rancher. The medical officer noted one distinguishing mark, a “scar one and one half inches long on the dorsal surface of the hand over the first meta carpal bone.” The officer did not indicate which hand.
“In the recruiting office in Nanaimo they asked me a lot of questions: who was my next of kin, what did I do for a living, and had I done any soldiering? Then a doctor checked me over and I had to sign something called an Attestation Paper.”
Finally, Frank was required to make a solemn oath.
“I Frank Silva, do make Oath that I shall be faithful and bear true allegiance to his Majesty King George the Fifth, his heirs and successors, and that I will, as in duty bound, faithfully defend His Majesty, His heirs and successors, in person, crown and dignity against all enemies, and will observe and obey all orders of His Majesty, his heirs and successors, and of all the generals and officers set over me. So help me God.”
The 29th Battalion
Like his brothers Eddy and Louie, and most of the Gabriola recruits, Frank Silva was posted to 29th Infantry Battalion.
The 29th was a front-line unit of 37 officers and 1,104 enlisted men from Vancouver, New Westminster and Nanaimo. The battalion landed in France in 1915 as part of the 2nd Canadian Division. For the next three years, they fought at the Somme, at Vimy Ridge, Fresnoy, Lens, Passchendaele and Rosieres.
As men were killed or wounded, replacements were sent out from Canada. Most of the Gabriola recruits were assigned as replacements to the 29th Battalion.
29th Battalion enlisted soldier’s cap badge. Photo: Gabriola. Archives
Robert “Dorby” Gray
“My name is Robert James Gray, but everyone called me Dorby. Dad named me after his father who came to Gabriola in the 1860s, and cleared land for a farm near Degnen Bay. Grandpa was also one of the first lighthouse keepers at Entrance Island.”
“Dad mainly farmed, but he had a strong sense of civic duty and was the island postmaster, on the church building committee and helped organize the first school board. As children, we were expected to do our part, helping neighbours who needed a hand, or at community events.”
“When the war started I was only 16; too young to go. But as soon as I turned 18, I knew what I had to do and enlisted in the army. Mum and dad were awfully proud that I would be doing my part.”
Robert “Dorby” Gray standing between his proud parents after he enlisted. Photo: Gabriola. Archives.
“My name is David Hoggan. I was 39 when I signed up in New Westminster. Though I was older than most of the others, I was used to hard work and as fit as the younger fellows.”
“On the enlistment form I gave my married sister in North Vancouver as next of kin, though the rest of the family still lived on North Gabriola where I grew up near Hoggan’s Lake.”
“As I wasn’t married and had no dependents, the recruiting officer assigned me to overseas service with the 29th Battalion.”
Like most recruits, Billy poses for a formal studio portrait in his new uniform. By 1914 photography had become affordable for even the lowest private soldier to have his portrait taken.
Photo: Gabriola Archives
“My name is Billy Jureit. My folks came to Canada in 1888 from Lithuania, which was then a part of the German Empire. They were both just 19.”
“At first they settled in Nanaimo, but later moved to Gabriola and farmed land near the top of the big hill, up from Descanso Bay. That’s where we were born.”
“I was the oldest. My sister Annie was two years younger and my brother David was the baby. There were two other children, both boys, but they died when they were only a few weeks old.”
“We were a small family on the island. A lot of the neighbours had eight, nine and even ten children.”
As soon as he was old enough, Billy found work in Nanaimo driving a horse-drawn delivery van. But he would return to Gabriola on weekends and holidays. Billy was a good looking, popular young man; always welcome at community picnics and dances.
The Jureits were sensitive about their German origins. When war was declared they hoped it would pass them by. But with so many of his pals already in the army, Billy went to Victoria where he enlisted without telling his parents. He was 19 years old.
“When I got back to Gabriola and walked into the house in my new uniform, Mum didn’t say a word. But I could see the tears in her eyes. I told her not to worry, and said I could take care of myself.”
“Our group of recruits were sent to France as replacements for the 29 Battalion. Like a lot of the fellows on Gabriola, I hunted in the winters and was used to handling a gun. So they put me in a scouting squad where we were trained to crawl into no-man’s-land and raid enemy trenches.”
The Western Front
When the Canadians arrived on the Western Front they were ill prepared for the realities of trench life. At training camps at Valcartier, Quebec, they had camped out in field tents and cooked over open fires. Military drill was mostly close order marching and wild bayonet charges behind brightly uniformed flag bearers and drummers. It was all a bit of a lark, more like a boy scout jamboree than a military training.
Once in France the Canadians had to quickly adapt to modern industrial warfare. The new weapons of 20th century science, like high explosive artillery, machine guns and poison gas that made men blind, had transformed battlefields into empty no-man’s-land.
To survive, men lived underground in deep trenches dug into the water-logged fields of Flanders.
“We learned to eat, work and sleep under ground- like moles. When it rained the trenches turned to mud and the water could rise waist deep. If a man slipped and fell he would just vanish in the muck. Sometimes you’d see bones, some still wrapped in scraps of uniform, sticking out of a trench wall.”
“You could get used to the lice, and the big rats that grew fat on the corpses. But one thing you never got used to was the stench. You could smell a trench a mile away: a mix of unwashed bodies, rotting garbage, decomposing flesh and human waste.”
“In a trench men relieved themselves in the nearest shell hole, or in shallow latrines scooped out of the mud. But shells would blast the latrines and shower faeces everywhere.”
“You just learned to live with it. Sometimes for years on end.”
“We didn’t write about it in letters home. Besides, the censors would just black it out anyway.”
Keeping the Home Fires Burning
The Gabriola Museum Archives contain cards and letters sent by men at the front. These colourful cards, most with patriotic or sentimental themes, were issued to the troops by military censors.
We have no letters from Frank Silva, but a card from his brother Eddy to their mother is typical:
“Just a few lines to let you know Louis and I are getting along fine and dandy and hope to find you enjoying the best of health. I will write a letter when I get time. From your loving son Eddy.”
Other cards are similarly brief.
Last photo Billy Jureit mailed home to his family on Gabriola. Photo: Gabriola Archives)
World War 1 was the first war where public opinion mattered. If people knew what trench life was like, governments feared support for the war would falter.
The British government even created a War Propaganda Bureau headed by popular novelist John Buchan. The term “propaganda” had not yet attained a negative connotation.
Buchan recruited well known authors like Arthur Conan-Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, HG Wells, and Winnie the Pooh creator A A Milne, to write good news stories about the war.
It was only after the 1918 Armistice that the world would learn of the horrors of the Western Front.
By then, Buchan had become Lord Tweedsmuir, Canada’s new Governor General.
“In April 1917, for the first time all of us Canadians fought together as a single Corps at Vimy Ridge. Vimy was a German strongpoint that the French and British had been trying to capture.”
“Most of the boys from Gabriola were there when we finally scrambled to the top and cleared the German out of their dugouts.”
“They called it a great victory. And the folks in Canada celebrated. But for us the war just kept on.”
“A month after Vimy, we were ordered to capture Fresnoy, a grimy little French mining village. It was some of the worst fighting we’d been in. But we got the job done and dug into the rubble of what was left of the place.”
“That’s when shells started falling.”
Fresnoy, France, 1917
The German artillery barrage lasted for almost 20 hours. When the shells finally stopped, stretcher bearers gathered the remains of the dead, and stuffed them into canvas bags for burial.
There were more than 1200 Canadians casualties at Fresnoy. David Hoggan was one of them.
His death record states “on May 06, 1917,whilst in the support line northwest of Fresnoy, he was killed instantaneously by the explosion of an enemy shell.”
He has no grave. Only his name remains, carved on the Vimy Memorial.
The day after David Hoggan died, a German counterattack pushed the Canadians out of Fresnoy. The Germans held the town for the rest of the war.
“It was at the end of summer in 1917, and hot, when we moved up towards Lens, another French coal mining town. The place was a lot like Nanaimo – slag heaps, mine shafts and little miners cottages. Only the cottages were brick, not painted wood like in South Nanaimo and Wellington.
The key to Lens was Hill 70, a big rocky mound where the Germans had dug in heavy machine guns in cement bunkers.
We fought our way up, and the Germans would push us back. We had to wait for breaks in the shelling for food and water to be brought up, and the wounded carried out. Then we’d attack again.
It went on like that for 10 days before we finally captured Hill 70.”
Lens, France, 1917
Frank Silva disappears.
Frank Silva, had survived Vimy Ridge and Fresnoy. But during the fight for Hill 70, he was badly wounded by shrapnel.
The 29th Battalion’s war diary for August 21, 1917, notes that he “was last seen making his way back to a dressing station. From that time all trace of him was lost and exhaustive enquiries have failed to obtain any information concerning him”.
Like more than 400,000 other soldiers, Frank Silva was listed as missing and presumed dead. He most likely simply laid down in the muck and died.
His name is engraved on the Vimy Memorial. He was 26 years old.
“By August 1918, we were pushing the Germans back across the entire front. We all hoped it would be over soon.”
“After Vimy and Passchendaele, our Canadian Corps was the spearhead of the British advance.”
“As scouts, we had to crawl ahead and pin point the barbed wire barriers and machine gun nests. The trick was knowing when to move fast, and when to stay put and keep your head down.”
“In the dawn of August 09, we were in shallow trenches near Rosieres, France. We were waiting for some of the new tanks that were supposed to cover us before going over the top. But the tanks never came.”
“Then the Germans opened up with shells and machine guns. When the order came to attack, the boys just wanted to just get out of there. Better to take your chances in the open than sitting in a trench waiting for a shell to get you.”
Rosieres, France, 1918
Billy Jureit is shot.
According to the 29th Battalion’s War Diary for Aug 09, 1918, “enemy machine guns opened a heavy fire as soon as our men started, and German artillery also put down a barrage of all calibres. Our tanks had failed to arrive. Meantime our men were dropping in considerable number all down the line, though no hesitation was shown.
On the left in particular heavy machine gun fire was thinning our ranks.”
Billy Juriet was hit as he climbed out of a trench. Battalion records note he was “killed by a machine gun bullet in the face, shortly after leaving the ‘jumping off’ position during the attack on Rosieres.”
Billy Jureit was 21 years old.
“At precisely 11 am on November 11, 1918, all the guns stopped. It was raining. And strangely silent. No cheering, no bands, no speeches.
It was over. And we just wanted to go home.
When I got back to Gabriola I didn’t talk about the war. If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t understand. And if you were, you just wanted to forget, and get on with living.”
“I was lucky. I hadn’t been seriously injured. At least nothing that you could see.
Some of the boys, like Louis Silva, had been badly wounded. He didn’t talk about it, but I could see the pain in his eyes.
Eddy Silva, came back without a scratch. He married, raised a family, built a boat and fished out of Silva Bay. For the rest of his life, he never once mentioned the war.
It was better that way.”
The Cost of War
34 million men were killed or wounded between 1914 and 1918.
62,500 Canadians died, 212,500 were wounded.
6225 British Columbians died, 13,607 were wounded; a greater proportion than any other province.
Gabriolans in the Great War
Walter ASHER (killed)
William D GOODALL
Robert “Dorby” GRAY
David HOGGAN (killed)
William “Billy” JURIET (killed)
John LANGLANDS (killed)
Alex MACCORD (killed)
W E PALMER
Henry Rudolph SEIMON
Frank SILVA (killed)
November 10, 2014
From Gabriola to Flanders Fields
Community Commemoration of the Centennial of the Great War Produced by the Gabriola Historical and Museum Society
Produced and Written by Ivan Bulic
Gabriola Island Singers: Gail Lund, Director
Antony Holland …………………… Narrator
Thor Zupanec……………………… Frank Silva
Samantha Montgomery-Swan……. Robert “Dorby” Gray
Elias Jacobson …..………………… David Hoggan
Sam Hooton………………………… Billy Jureit
Piper’s Lament: Christopher McBride, Pacific Gaels Pipes and Drums
Thank you to Gabriola Veterans: Virginia White
Directed by: Adrienne Vance
Lighting: Lawrence Spero
Sound: Charlie Cheffins
Images: Cecil Ashley
Video recording: Jules Molloy, Close to the Sun Productions
Graphics: David Andrews
Special Thanks to Gabriola Island Veterans Association, The Haven, The Gabriola Players.