Skip to content

Letters home described life overseas during First World War

'I have witnessed sights here which are almost indescribable,' wrote a local prospector who enlisted early in the war effort; Miners used their underground experience to tunnel into enemy territory and place explosives

Remembrance Day is fast approaching. It is a day Northern Ontario communities mark with pride for their contributions to Canada’s wartime past. Right from the beginning, residents from the Timmins area showed their bravery and love of country.

Even though the Porcupine Camp was a new settlement during the First World War, locals volunteered to do their part. About 600 local men signed up to serve.

A recruitment campaign began in 1915 among miners. The miners would put their underground evacuation skills to work in the trenches during the war.

The 2nd Battalion, Canadian Pioneers were an engineering unit. Among their duties was to tunnel under the battlefield in France and place explosives in enemy territory.

Pte. Timothy Reddy was a member of the 2nd Battalion. Born in Renfrew County, Reddy was a prospector living in South Porcupine when the war started he and enlisted in October 1915. He shipped to England in December and over to France in 1916. He was discharged in June 1919.

The Dec. 20, 1916, edition of The Porcupine Advance included a letter written by Reddy to Timmins resident John Cunningham. It appeared under the headline From the Front and Elsewhere.

“At present I am sitting in my billet a short distance behind the firing line, feeling quite happy under prevailing circumstances,” he wrote. “While I am sitting here, there are about fifty of our aeroplanes passing overhead, which is a common occurrence in this country. Where they are destined for, I cannot say, but I guess they are about to make a raid on some place which we will no doubt hear about in a few days.

“We have been going to the trenches here since March the 17th, that memorable St. Patrick’s night, a night I don’t think I will ever forget if I live to be one hundred years of age. It certainly was some exciting place at first, but I have got so well used to it now that I don’t mind it any more than if I were going over the road to Pottsville in a Bartlett auto.

“We have certainly done some travelling since we left dear old Canada. We have been through Flanders and over the same ground where Napoleon had once trodden and did some of his hardest fighting right near where he met his downfall.”

Reddy went on to describe life during wartime in Europe.

“There is some very hard fighting going on over here at present. The artillery fire is something dreadful,” he said. “It is surprising what a person can go through without being hurt. I have always been among the lucky ones so far, although I have been in some pretty hot places at times. A person who has not seen active service can hardly realize what war is or what a soldier has to go through. I have witnessed sights here which are almost indescribable. It is certainly a little hell on earth.

“No doubt you have read about the advance the British are making in the Somme district. The Canadians certainly made a name for themselves there, as well as on several other occasions, including, of course, the 2nd Canadian Pioneer Battalion. I guess Fritz has realized by this time that he is up against a pretty hard proposition there, for he is slowly giving way and is falling back step by step. His gas attacks seem to be of very little avail. The Allies are too well prepared for them. As a general rule, the gas causes more loss of life in the German lines than it does in ours, by blowing back on them.”

Reddy also talked about other Northerners he met or heard news about during The Great War.

“I have met quite a few boys from Northern Ontario over here,” he wrote. “There were quite a few of the Grenadier Guards drafted into the first battalion and it was there that some of them met with such hard luck. Amongst those being killed were the two Mansfield boys, Gordon Moore and Herb Grundy of South Porcupine. Fred Connelly was shot in the foot and is a hospital in England, but is getting better. Jack Whitton was wounded also, but is back again to his battalion. Young ‘Scottie’ Elgie, who used to work at the King George and Connaught Hotels, was wounded also, and his father was shell-shocked.

“Mike Warnock of the Princess Pats has been wounded the second time and is in England. I also met Billy Wilson and some more of the boys from that country in the 87th Battalion, but I have not seen any of them now for about two months.

“All the boys from that country in this battalion have been lucky. They are all well and in the best of spirits. You would hardly know Gerald Kennedy, he has gotten that big and stout. Army life seems to agree with him OK. He certainly felt bad when he heard about Packie’s death.

“They say he was one of the best aviators they had in England. He had passed all his examinations and was to come over here the following week. Eddie is still in England, but expects to come over here shortly.”

Reddy mentioned gas attacks in his letter home. The Aug. 29, 1917, edition of The Advance included a short piece on a local man wounded during a similar event.

“(An) Official announcement has been made that Capt. Ernest Holland is among those suffering from a German gas attack in the recent battles on the Canadian front,” the story read. “He is reported in the hospital but recovering from the effects of the gas. He is one of the best-known of the North Land’s old-timers. He went overseas with the Borden Battery in 1914, was wounded at Vimy Ridge, won the Military Cross and was granted a captaincy for distinguished conduct in the field.”

Holland was granted three weeks leave after the gas attack to recover. He was killed in action in March 1918.

Germany signed the Armistice ending the First World War on Nov. 11, 1918. Celebrations were held around the globe, including The Porcupine Camp, as outlined in a front-page story in the Nov 13, 1918 edition of The Advance.

“Before six o’clock on Monday morning, the news had reached Timmins that the Armistice had been duly signed and the fighting was thus over for the present. Timmins at once commenced to celebrate and kept it up all day and most of the night,” the story read.

“First, the fire bell rang; then all the other bells and all the steam whistles joined in the chorus, the outgoing T&NO train adding its due quota of joyful noise. Flags and decorations were brought out, and from an early hour in the morning, groups of boys and girls were out with their horns, whistles and tin pan bands. After the noon hour, the crowds began to gather in the main part of the town, one of the chief centres of interest being Marshall-Ecclestone’s window where an effigy of the Kaiser was displayed.

“The effigy was made by the Hollinger carpenter staff and was an unusually clever piece of workmanship. The form was made of wood, the limbs and body being perfectly formed and the face and head well-shaped. It was more than life-size and very life-like. Dressed in long boots, brass helmet, iron crosses and shining sword, the wooden Kaiser was stuffed with oakum ready for the flames.”

Celebrations continued in the afternoon in Timmins.

“The fire team, autos and crowds of people joined in a monster parade. As one man said, ‘You could see nothing for flags and hear nothing for noise.’ Later, the Italian Band joined the good work and were generous in their supply of patriotic music.”

The celebration kicked into high gear in the evening.

“The Fire Team headed the parade, then came Undertaker Easton with his Black Maria bearing the body of the Kaiser to the Athletic Grounds for the flames. The band played the funeral march. On the grounds, returned soldiers took charge. Short addresses were given by some of the soldiers, including Sgt. Paddy Highet. The returned Italian soldier who served 15 months with the Canadian Army Overseas, Antonio Nusea, took charge of the execution of the Kaiser, giving him a shot for each of the Allies and batting him over the head in addition for Belgium. The Kaiser was then burned in effigy, and his blazing limbs used as touches for the monster procession.”

The same story said South Porcupine also held “a very creditable celebration” with addresses delivered in the council chamber and “a monster parade being held.”

The First World War ran from 1914-18. An estimated nine million soldiers were killed in combat. In addition, about five million civilians died during military attacks or from hunger and disease during the war.

Canadian personnel records of those who served in the First World War are available online here.