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No stories to tell: St. Anthony First World War veterans kept experiences to themselves

Wilfred Boyd, 87, holds a picture of his father Joseph Boyd who served in the First World War and his brother Arthur Boyd who served in the Second World War, in his St. Anthony home.
Wilfred Boyd, 87, holds a picture of his father Joseph Boyd who served in the First World War and his brother Arthur Boyd who served in the Second World War, in his St. Anthony home. - Stephen Roberts

ST. ANTHONY, N.L.

Speaking with descendants of war veterans, you hear a familiar refrain — their loved ones never spoke about the war.

In St. Anthony, children and grandchildren of those who served in the First World War don’t have many stories to pass on about their parents’ experience during those times.

Their ancestors who fought on the battlefields of Europe 100 years ago rarely opened up about those times. 

Joseph Boyd’s helmet and bayonet are on display at the Royal Canadian Legion in St. Anthony.
Joseph Boyd’s helmet and bayonet are on display at the Royal Canadian Legion in St. Anthony.

Wilfred Boyd’s father, Joseph Boyd, served in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment from 1915 to 1918.

When he returned home, Joseph worked on the Grenfell Mission boat, carrying doctors and nurses and medical supplies all around the Northern Peninsula and Labrador.

He was later lightkeeper at the Fox Point Lighthouse on Fishing Point in St. Anthony for 14 years.

Joseph was also one of the men instrumental in starting the Royal Canadian Legion branch in St. Anthony.

He raised five children with his wife Elizabeth, including Wilfred who was born in 1931.

Joseph lived to the age of 96 but all through the years he never spoke about the war.

“He wouldn’t tell nothing about the war,” Wilfred told The Northern Pen.

The only thing Wilfred ever learned about his father’s experience was that he got a bullet in his right heel.

“Father had one bullet right in the heel of his foot, he showed us that,” he said. “That was the only bullet he took.”

Documents from The Rooms confirm this, showing that Joseph Boyd was hospitalized twice during the war — once for acute appendicitis on Sept. 12, 1918 and the first time for a gunshot wound in the right foot on Nov. 27, 1917.

Wilfred says other veterans also stayed quiet about the war, such as his father’s cousin, William F. Fennemore (Royal Newfoundland Regiment) of St. Anthony. 

Caleb Warren of Cook’s Harbour served in the Newfoundland Royal Navy during the First World War. His grandson George Carroll says he could never get Warren to open up about the war. - Photo from Francis Patey's book
Caleb Warren of Cook’s Harbour served in the Newfoundland Royal Navy during the First World War. His grandson George Carroll says he could never get Warren to open up about the war. - Photo from Francis Patey's book

George Carroll’s grandfather, Caleb Warren of Cook’s Harbour, served in the Newfoundland Royal Navy and he never spoke about his experiences either.

Carroll can recall having a few drinks while playing cards with his grandfather one day, hoping it might loosen his tongue.

But nothing could open him up about the war.

“He said, ‘Georgie, there’s better stuff to talk about than that,’” recalled Carroll. “I thought when he’d get two or three drinks, he’d might speak about something like that.”

Moving on

According to Justin Fantauzzo, a history professor at Memorial University in St. John’s whose research focuses on the First World War, this was typical for war veterans.

“A lot of veterans coming back from the war simply were uncomfortable talking about what had happened in the war,” he told The Northern Pen.

Fantauzzo provides a couple reasons for this.

Firstly, he says they wanted to put the experience of the war behind them and move on with their lives, returning to civilian life.

This was a process that was difficult and rehashing memories with family members may not have helped.

Furthermore, they also felt that only other veterans could fully understand what they went through.

“For them, trying to explain what it was like to be on the western front in 1916 or 1917 to their wives or their small children didn’t make a lot of sense to them,” he said. “Not to all of them of course, but to a lot of them.”

Fantauzzo says it was rarer than we think for First World War veterans to open up about the war experience.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, as the world entered the Great Depression, some veterans attempted to come to grips with what had happened during the war and whether it was worth it.

This was reflected in literature such as “All Quiet on the Western Front” written by Erich Maria Remarque, a German First World War veteran.

Even though this may have influenced the public’s popular conception about the First World War veterans, Fantauzzo says this was not typical. He stresses that most soldiers were not writers and did not have the classical or university education of those writing literature in the aftermath of the war.

“They were from working class or lower-middle class backgrounds,” he said. “These weren’t guys who normally kept diaries in their civilian life or wrote autobiographies.”

More of them were like Joseph Boyd and Caleb Warren, keeping their stories to themselves.

stephen.roberts@northernpen.ca

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