Wednesday, July 20, 2016

World War Wednesdays: The Best of the West

Rodney area members of Elgin's own 91st Battalion (WWI). Front row: John Watson, Earl Peace, Bob Gray, Hilton McNally, and Jim Burnett. Back row: Jack Morelock, Albert McVicar, Leon Auckland, Jim Campbell, Frank Janaway, S. McIntosh, and A. Templeton. Archie Gray and Ross Peace are not pictured. All returned safely.
     After almost two years of Dunwich-centric posts related to both World Wars, I've finally realized that it would be of interest to readers if I paid homage to the brave men and women on the other side of the Dunborough, some of whom are my own ancestors. As a good general overview, I found a piece called "World War I and II Veterans" in a volume called Rodney 1870 to 1950 by John Sinclair Dorland, which was graciously provided by the West Elgin Genealogical and Historical Society and is available for consultation at Backus-Page House Museum. I thought I'd share the essay, along with my own little contributions here and there, so that we can showcase some of our hometown heroes and the best of the west.

     In 1914, Canada, together with other British Commonwealth countries, followed Great Britain into a war with Germany. Although Canada had sent men to other wars Great Britain had been involved in, this was the first all-out effort to fight for the mother country.
    Many young men from Rodney and district volunteered to help fight, some paying the supreme sacrifice on the battlefields of foreign countries. 
     The home front did its bit also, with church groups Women's Institutes and other organizations and individuals sending clothing and food parcels to the Armed Forces and invaded countries.
     After the Armistice, and the men came home victorious, they formed the Great War Veterans Association with branches throughout Canada. In Rodney, they had a club room on the second floor of the T. F. Robinson building where, for a few years, they spent many happy hours reminiscing, playing cards and holding parties.
    Originally formed as a group of Canadian war ex-servicemen the association was dedicated to help veterans secure pensions and to the service of our country. It was because of their unceasing efforts that veterans of future wars were able to receive benefits equal to, or better than, any other allied ex-service person.
     For the year 1920, the Rodney and District Association elected the following officers: Thomas Lamb re-elected president; Alex Campbell re-elected vice-president; Hilton McNally secretary-treasurer; executive committee, Frank Janaway, Alex Colthart, James Burnett and Walter Terry.
     By the late twenties the association gradually went out of existence leaving veterans with no organization to present their cause to the government or anyone else.
     In June 1930, the first reunion since demobilization took place at the St. Thomas Armouries, with some 250 veterans from Elgin attending.
     Around 1932, the West Elgin branch of the Canadian Legion was formed, consisting first of World War I veterans from Rodney, West Lorne and Aldborough. Later, in 1936, veterans of Dutton and Dunwich joined. Some of the key promoters from Rodney area were: Frank Janaway, Dr. A. C. Steele, Tommy Lamb, Alex Colthart and Bill Katzenmeyer.
     Meetings alternated between West Lorne and Rodney, with family nights held and annual picnics at Port Glasgow.
     Formed in the depth of the depression it brought veterans together again who, like many others, were hit hard financially during the depression years.
     During these years, Jack McDonald of West Lorne, sparked a drive to collect cigarette packages which could be exchanged for toys for needy veterans and their wives to give to their children. Later the Poppy Fund was organized, with money raised for needy veterans.
     The first president of the West Elgin Legion branch was Earl Lemon of West Lorne, with Frank Janaway of Rodney as vice-president.
     When World War II started in 1939, the Legion organized and trained the Home Guard. In Rodney a platoon of volunteers was quickly formed with Dr. Arthur Steele as Acting Commander and Victor Campbell as the instructor. The platoon had weekly evening drills at the fairgrounds, where they were taught the rudiments of marching and taking instructions.
     In June of 1940 a unit of the Home Guard was formed by Aldborough, West Lorne and Rodney with Major James Black commander.
     For the second time within a generation the young men and women of the village and surrounding area volunteered for service for their country. Again, some paid the supreme sacrifice on foreign battlefields.
     When it was all over in 1945, and they came home victorious, there were so many veterans in the area they decided to organize a Rodney branch of the Canadian Legion.
     Land was purchased just west of Wights' Produce on the north side of Victoria Street and a new hall was erected in 1949.

John Watson
Elgin County Archives
     Seated in the front row of the first photo in this post is my three times great-uncle, John Arthur Watson. I had previously never thought I had any familial connections to the First World War, until I recently began creating a database of Western Elgin veterans and came across his name. After doing some digging among the family as well as some archives searches, I realized that he was indeed my great-great-grandfather, Robert A. Watson's, brother. John was born December 29, 1881, the son of Arthur and Mary Jane Murray, grew up in the Crinan area, and married Bell Williams. Their daughter Jean was born March 6, 1914 and he enlisted March 14, 1916. Remarkably, he was a guest of King George V on August 28, 1917 as a representative of Canada along with one man each from Australia and New Zealand, was wounded at the Somme and Vimy Ridge and invalided out of France back to England along with six other St. Thomas soldiers who had all met each other in hospital within an interval of five minutes. John returned home on December 17, 1919 and spent his later years in a small red house near the Rodney fairgrounds. His was a difficult and sad life, which seems to be a common memory among surviving relatives, but after a bit of searching I was able to uncover some amazing information about him and he remains a fascinatingly complex character in the family tree.

     I hope you all enjoyed this historical journey into the next township! As always, if you have any information to add about any of the individuals mentioned this week, I'd love to hear it. As long as you all keep reading, I plan to keep writing.
     Thanks for reading,
     Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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