Into the trenches.

I was talking to my brother the other week about the notion that how far one can trace back one’s family roots has a lot to do with when/by whom it was deemed appropriate to start keeping records of ordinary people. But it’s also true that for most of us, it’s access to those records that matters.

For some time now, Canada has been working on digitizing its WWI service records. To say that Canadian service in WWI was widespread is putting it mildly. Over 600,000 Canadians enlisted, and over 400,000 of them actually served overseas. I don’t know when the project of digitizing it all started, but it was apparently this January that they finally got around to the “M” names. I hadn’t checked in a while, so when I discovered yesterday that they had indeed gotten as far as “McNally,” my day got very interesting.

I’d had Stephen Joseph McNally’s enlistment papers for a while — in a previous post, I examined what his marriage license and his enlistment papers, matched by a signature and a few other datapoints, could tell us. His full service record opens up some more details, and it gives us a window into the life of a Canadian soldier in WWI. You can find the full record here. (Note: The file includes references to traumas of war, as will the rest of this post.)

If you know a thing or two about WWI but would like a little more context on Canada’s participation, here’s Indy Neidell’s “The Great War” with a special on Canada’s participation.

Most of the 78 pages of the record deal with pension and medical records, and it is the latter I find most interesting… and most awful.

Private McNally enlisted in August 1914 and, after training, was shipped to the western front. It turns out he was kind of a scoundrel, going AWOL for something like two weeks in England before being shipped to the continent. His records reflect punishment and docked pay for that. But in November 1917, he was given a medical discharge for chronic bronchitis:

SJM Gassed and Buried.png

WWI buffs will recognize the first date as the Second Battle of Ypres, the first time that the Germans deployed chlorine gas (168 tons) in the field. The Canadians were on the French flank on 22 April 1915, including Stephen Joseph McNally. This is the same battle (April 22-25) that prompted the famous John McCrae poem, “In Flanders Fields.”

Just a month later, he found himself in Festubert, amid furious shelling. On 23 May 1915, it would seem that a falling shell buried him alive in mud and, presumably, the bodies of his mates. Small wonder that two days later, his medical record reflects the following diagnosis:

SJM Shock Serious

Shortly after that, it appears he returned to England, where he was under varying levels of convalescent care and worked, I think, with training squads bound for the continent. In 1916, he was still based in England, where he continued to have respiratory problems. His doctor’s notes from an October 1916 exam:

SJM 1916 Doctors Notes

One of the things I find most interesting about these notes is that family lore has him as an abusive alcoholic, but note under “Habits,” his ale consumption habits are listed as pretty normal, and he’s noted as “never” drinking “to excess.” It also notes that he claims he “did not suffer much at the time from being gassed,” even though it clearly became a problem after that. It notes that the shell-shock “after being buried by a shell” lasted for “2 months or more” — Yeah, I bet. The final note is telling, too — “Nerves got out of order + he seemed to break down.” Yeah, that sounds like a man who’s still got some issues more than a year after being gassed and buried alive in a matter of weeks.

But part of my mission is and long has been to reclaim my people, particularly in my father’s line, who were poorer, more mobile, and less likely to talk about family, for various reasons. The other thing the file provided me, which I’d been missing, was a death date: 2 February 1939. The file had given me his story (or more of it), but that one datapoint gave me something else — the man himself. As soon as I had the date, there he was, in the Edmonton Municipal Cemetery.

SJM Gravestone

Rest in peace, man. We found you.

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