The 100th anniversary of the commencement of WWI along with the 75th anniversary of the commencement WWII represents an opportunity for Canadians to reflect on the country’s proud military history. Both conflicts are among the most important chapters in world history, touching the lives of countless families and communities across Canada. We must ensure that those who served and those who continue to serve our county in an effort to uphold the values of freedom and peace, are honored. The sacrifices and contributions of the veterans are never to be forgotten.
My family was one of the many Canadian families who certainly felt the aftermath of the war on a personal level. My great grandfather, David Johnston had four of his six sons join the forces in WWI. One was a prisoner of war for 3 years, another son died and is buried in a Belgium cemetery. His youngest son attempted to enlist but was rejected due to poor eyesight. The family felt blessed that three of the four came home. My father, Willis David Johnston (named after his uncle who died in WWI) enlisted in WWII thereby continuing the family history of military service.
The oldest son, Hugh “Norman” was recruited by the Edmonton 101st Fusiliers “D” Company in August, 1914. He was subsequently taken to Valcarier, Quebec where he was transferred to the 9th Battalion. He sailed aboard the S.S. Zealand and arrived in Plymouth, England in October 1914. As the 9th Battalion had been dispersed, he was transferred to the 3rd Battalion. After four months of training, the 1st Canadian Division crossed the Bristol Channel to France in February 1915. On April 22, 1915, Norman was at the front for the “Second Battle of Ypres”. The Germans, in an effort to eliminate the salient, released 160 tons of chlorine gas which drifted into the French and British trenches. The Canadians were the only division that was able to hold the line. On April 23, 1915, Norman suffered a gunshot wound to the left chest area, fracturing a rib and perforating the left lung. From there he was taken prisoner and transferred to a POW camp in Stendal, Germany. Camp life was documented as very harsh with shortages of food and illnesses being rampart. Once armistice was declared, Norman was a repatriated prisoner of war and arrived in England on January 2, 1919 following which he sailed for Canada and was discharged in Edmonton in April 1919. Norman received the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Norman passed away on August 8, 1942 at the age of 53 from heart failure and is buried in the military section of the Edmonton Cemetery. Unfortunately there are no pictures of Norman in uniform – possibility due to the fact he was a prisoner of war.
The 2nd oldest son, Willis David was also recruited by the 101st Edmonton Fusiliers in August, 1914. He was sent to Valcartier, Quebec where he was transferred to the 9th Battalion. He sailed on the S.S. Zealand and arrived in Plymouth, England in October 1914. Following which he was transferred to 1st Field Butchery CASC, arrived in France and began front-line service. He was appointed to the rank of Corporal in May 1915. In 1918-1919, a flu pandemic known as the “Spanish Flu” crossed Europe. The close, troop-quarters increased the soldiers’ susceptibility to the disease. Willis was listed as “dangerously ill” in his service records and passed away on January 3, 1919 at the age of 27. He is buried in the Kortrijk (St. Jan) Communal Cemetery in Belgium – an area that was under German control at one time during the war. The family of Cpl. Willis Johnston subsequently received a scroll and note of gratitude from King George of England. Willis’ name is listed in the “Book of Remembrance” which has a record of all the Canadian and other forces of the British Empire that gave their lives in the Great War. Willis received the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal and a sports medal that must have been issued by his unit. In November 2007, the Canadian Fallen Heroes Foundation, whose mandate was to memorialize the lives of those who were lost in WWI, presented a framed picture of Willis complete with a biography to his great grand-niece, Wanda Zenner. The picture is proudly displayed at the Bezanson Legion.
The 4th oldest son, William Earl, enlisted on March 13, 1916 in Edmonton with the 194th Battalion. He arrived in England aboard the S.S. Olympic in November 1916. In February 1917 he was transferred to the 2nd Battalion Canadian Machine Gunners Corps and served in France. Upon demobilization, Earl was discharged in Toronto in May 1919. He received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Earl died on June 9, 1942 at the age of 47 from heart failure in Los Angeles, California. His body was cremated with the ashes being interned in his mother’s plot (Jane Anne Johnston) in the Maitland Cemetery, Goderich, Ontario.
My grandfather, Charles Bell, the 3rd oldest son enlisted with the 48th Highlanders in May 1917. He was transferred to the 5th Res. Battallion Central Ontario Division. He arrived in England aboard the S.S. Scotian in December and subsequently sent to France. He was discharged on demobilization in Toronto in June 1920. Charles received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. He passed away on April 8, 1966 at the age of 72 and is buried in the Goodwin Cemetery.
The youngest son, Elmer attempted to enlist in March 1918, stating it was his 19th birthday however that would only have been his 17th birthday. Unfortunately the medical board had to reject his application as he had a defect in one of his eyes. He passed away at the age of 80 and is buried in the Whittier Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.
The April 2nd, 1918 issue of the Grande Prairie Herald reported:
“One point of patriotism that should not be overlooked is that shown by a young man from Glen Leslie who came in on March 30th his 19th birthday and offered his services to the country. After signing up it was learned that he had one brother a prisoner of war in Germany and three others fighting in the trenches at the present time. On going before the medical board it was discovered he had a slight defect in one of his eyes. The boy left the medical board broken hearted. This shows the true patriotic spirit of some farmers’ sons in comparison with others who are using any old subterfuge in evading their duty”.
Another article of interest was published in the July 13, 1915 issue of the Grande Prairie Herald:
By Wanda (Johnston) Zenner – written in 2014