IODE War Memorial, Central Park
Postcards from the Past, PC 1478
Last week we celebrated the 95th anniversary of Vimy Ridge. It is said that the Canadian action at Vimy was the turning point for Canada. Before Vimy we were a frozen outpost of the British Empire, after Vimy we were a nation. That bit of information is certainly crucial to an understanding of Canada’s role in the Great War . But I am a bit of a micro-historian myself. I believe that we can also come to an understanding of the impact of world events by understanding the role of individuals in those events. This ties in nicely with my interest in genealogy, but it has also served me well in a new role I have taken on. Library and Archives Canada have a project called Lest We Forget, which involves collaboration with libraries around the country. The goal of this program is to bring the lives of Canadian soldiers to students in high schools by exposing them to primary source documents, in this case, the service records of men and women from their geographic area. I was a little leery of this to begin with. I love working with primary sources but I’m not sure if that is a sign of some dysfunction or if there might be others out there who get the same thrill from dusty old papers. Well, the students we have come in contact with seem to have the same feeling about micro-history and primary source materials that I do. Who knew? So now with this affirmation in hand, I am spreading the word about primary source research and Canada’s military history.
All of this leads me to Private Thomas Lawless. One thing that was really driven home by my involvement in Lest We Forget is the absolute horror of the battlefield. Photos of no-man’s land show a churned up, muddy pit of horse carcasses and dead bodies. It was, to belabor an obvious point, a chaotic nightmare where the niceties of tradition could not be observed. Bodies sometimes had to be left where they fell. Thomas Lawless was one of these soldiers who were left behind. As a matter of fact, his body was not discovered until 2003, and therefore he was still on the missing list until 2011, when scientists were finally able to confirm his identity. Thomas was from Ireland, but lived in Calgary when he enlisted, on November 22, 1915. He was 27, had sandy hair and a fresh complexion. He arrived in England in June of 1916 on the Olympia, but seems to have immediately contracted tonsillitis, which seemed to be a chronic problem for him, and was admitted to hospital. He ran a fever for a short while but by July he was fit enough to rejoin his regiment. After he died, his next of kin, listed as Mrs.K. Johnstone of 8th Street West, Calgary, received $275.46 of his back pay. His brother in Ireland received his medals.
How do I know all of this about Thomas? His service records have been digitized and made available by Library and Archives Canada. You can access the Soldiers of the First World War database here: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/databases/cef/001042-100.01-e.php
As the files that we are using in the Lest We Forget project are scanned, they are also put in this database. So while some records only include the attestation papers (but you can order the files if you want to see them) some include the entire service record. If you are researching an ancestor, or have seen a name on a cenotaph that you would like to pursue more information about, check out the Soldiers of the First World War database.
And just on a more personal note, some of the students from one of the schools in the Lest We Forget project are in France and were a part of the celebrations at Vimy. They are also going to visit the battlefields. They all carry their soldier’s story with them and I’m certain they will see the Great War through new/old eyes.
Attestation paper of Thomas Lawless
Soldiers of the First World War database, Library and Archives Canada