Published by Iris Russak
The First World War began in August 1914. At that time, when Britain went to war, Canada also did so automatically. While Canada was a self-governing dominion of the British Empire, it did not control its own foreign affairs. The war lasted for more than four years, and killed approximately nine million people in uniform. Over that same time period the war also killed an estimated twenty million civilians. The world would never be the same. While Canada’s contribution to the First World War led to its growing autonomy and international recognition, it came at a great cost. (Source: Canadian War Museum – Canada and The First World War)
Two of the young men facing the frontlines were brothers Thomas and James Neill of Galt, ON (today’s Cambridge). Their service records on the British Commonwealth Archives were recently brought to the attention of their grandson/great-nephew Jim Neill of Kingston, ON and his sister Sandra Neill. The Neill family is holding on to mementos such as medals, photos and original military orders. One morning we met over coffee, looked closely at these artifacts and Jim decided to share their story with the community.
The basis of research into Thomas’ and James’ war time experiences are their service records which are publicly available on the Canadian Archives. The War Diaries of their respective units can be viewed as well. Another good source, helping to make this story come alive, are letters sent home to Canada by Thomas’ and James’ peers in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).
For me personally, researching the Neill family’s story was a tremendous opportunity for learning about Canada’s role in the First World War. Having been raised in Germany, this is a view on world history that I was not aware of. Being brought up with anti-militarism, anti-nationalism and a great suspicion of heroics in war, I never quite understood the meaning of Remembrance Day in Canada. Following the experiences of Thomas and James has helped me along enormously – realizing how just about every family in Canada was touched by the war. I am by no means a historian but I did my best to read the records available properly, verify dates and places, find supporting information and put into perspective what these men experienced a century ago. At the end of this series, I am including a list of sources and further reading that helped my understanding and will also suggest ways to explore World War I further in the Kingston community. A wonderful starting point for me was the website of the Canadian War Museum.
The Neill Family Roots And Enlistment of James & Thomas
The Neill family traces their roots back to Northern Ireland, where Jim and Sandra’s great-grandfather James Neil was born. In the wake of the Potato Famine of 1845-1852 the family fled to Manchester, England. There, James II was born on May 10, 1897 and his brother Thomas arrived on March 11, 1899. The Neill family immigrated to Canada in search of work in 1912 when the boys were 14 and 12 years old, respectively, and settled in Galt, ON. James became a machinist and in his attestation papers, Thomas notes ‘pattern maker’ as his profession, which likely would have referred to industrial pattern making.
Recruitment efforts began in earnest in Canada soon after the war broke out, and across the country English-speaking Canadians born in the British Isles were usually the first to flock to recruiting stations. In Waterloo County, attitudes towards the war were complicated because of the area’s strong German heritage. Not only were residents divided by ethnicity – German and British – but longstanding civic rivalries between Berlin (now Kitchener) and Galt (now Cambridge) increased the tension. This friction resulted in Waterloo Country attempting to raise two overseas battalions – the 118th in North Waterloo based in Berlin, and the 111th South Waterloo stationed in Galt. Although the 111th sailed for Europe in the fall of 1916, the 118th Battalion had more difficulties with recruiting and did not leave for England until the next year. The German heritage of many of the settlers of Waterloo County affected locals’ support for the 118th Battalion. (Source: www.waterlooatwar.ca and Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies, Source City on Edge: Berlin Becomes Kitchener in 1916″ Exhibit at Waterloo Region Museum, on display 2016.)
During the four years of the war, there were more than 600,000 enlistments in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Thomas and James Neill both enlisted in Galt, ON on the same day – March 19, 1916. All of the men and women who joined completed an attestation paper, the information provided within them revealing the eclectic make-up of the CEF during the First World War, in terms of nationality, occupation, and even physical description.
In his attestation papers, James Neill is described as 5 ft 5 ¼ inch (just over 165 cm) in height with brown eyes and dark brown hair. Thomas’ attestation papers state the exact same. Both are noted as appearing to be exactly 18 years of age, which was certainly the case for James, but Thomas turned 17 years old only a few days before enlisting.
At this point, there was no mandatory military service in place for men in Canada and voluntary enlistment was at its peak. The brothers were assigned consecutive regimental numbers -730624 and 730625- as was quite customary for brothers signing up together. Both of them were assigned to the 111th Battalion (South Waterloo), CEF.
Please follow this blog to read further into Thomas’ and James’ journey through World War I. The next segment will follow them as they start training with the 111th Battallion South Waterloo in Canada and then continue on to further training in England.