By Cathy English, Revelstoke Museum & Archives
In 1915, Revelstoke, along with every other community in Canada, was coming to terms with the fact that what would become known as the Great War would not be over quickly.
After a year of conflict, there were no signs that peace would be coming soon. Life went on in the community, but there was a sadness starting to creep into everyday life, along with a determination to fight the battle to the end and to support the men who were on the front lines.
The Governor General of Canada, the Duke of Connaught, called for prayers for peace at all of the Sunday church services in Canada on January 3.
In early January, 124 men of the 30th battalion passed through on the train from Victoria en route to France. Among them were four Revelstoke men. Two of them, Walter Robinson and James Forbes, both died on April 22 of that year, during the second battle of Ypres, making them the first casualties from Revelstoke.
Robinson was born in Revelstoke in 1893, the son of John Robinson, a pioneer in Revelstoke’s forest industry.
Forbes had come to Revelstoke to work in a local bank just before the war began. After his death, an article in the newspaper told of his bravery during battle.
“A brave deed was performed by Private Forbes, who saw a comrade fall about 40 yards from his trench. Private Forbes, along with another, got out of the trench and carried the wounded Canadian, whose leg was broken, into the trench, and helped in rendering first aid. After the severe fighting, the Canadians were relieved and, while a party was in the trench, Private Forbes was struck by a piece of shrapnel in the head and died instantly.”
Leonard Carver also died in that battle. He was working as a carpenter at Rogers Pass when war broke out and was one of the first men to enlist from this region, although he is not listed on the local cenotaph. Another Revelstoke man, John Boyle, died on April 24 of wounds from the same battle. John Boyle’s father was a local baker, and John was one of many young men who lied about his age. He signed up at the age of 17, and was just 18 years old when he died.
Five other Revelstoke men also died in 1915: Cecil Roy Brown on May 21, Walter Sydney Cowling on Sept. 27, John Dochard on Oct. 8, David Pyper on Nov. 17 and William McInerny on Dec. 28. This was the beginning of a death toll that would reach more than 100 men from Revelstoke and district before the end of hostilities on Nov. 11, 1918.
PHOTO: Revelstoke recruits for the 54th Kootenay Battalion at the Revelstoke Drill Hall, June 9, 1915. ~ Photo by W. Barton. Revelstoke Museum & Archives
In May, the 54th Kootenay Battalion was established to receive recruits from the Kootenay region, and training began at Camp Vernon. Local men enlisted in great numbers and, on June 12, 1915, 93 men from Revelstoke headed out on the train for Vernon, along with another 700 men who had come up by steamer and train from Kaslo, Nelson and other West Kootenay towns.
A reception and send-off were held for the Revelstoke men, who marched down Mackenzie Avenue to the station, led by the city band. Local doctor J.H. Hamilton was the chief medical officer for the 54th Kootenay Battalion, and served overseas in this position until he was wounded and discharged.
The community of Revelstoke increased its support for the war effort, with the formation of a local branch of the Red Cross Society which, over the course of the war, would send hundreds of packages to soldiers and raise money for war orphans and other causes. The Women’s Canadian Club also worked tirelessly for the war effort. A High School Cadet Corp had been formed as well as the High School Girls’ Patriotic Society.
In addition to the hundreds of men from Revelstoke who enlisted, there were also about seven women who enlisted as nurses. Among them was Jean Matheson, who was matron of the Queen Victoria Hospital in Revelstoke from 1912 until she enlisted in 1915. She was later decorated by King George V for her war work. On her return to Canada, she was appointed as Matron at Shaughnessy Hospital in Vancouver, a position she held until a year before her death in April 1938.
While the war raged overseas, life continued in Revelstoke. The newly formed Revelstoke Ski Club held their first Winter Carnival in February, and later that year, negotiated for the use of land for a ski jump within Mount Revelstoke National Park. Ski jumping would continue at that site until 1975.
Construction on the Connaught Tunnel in Rogers Pass began in 1913 and continued until the opening of the tunnel in December of 1916. During 1915, six men died while working on the tunnel: two due to falling rock, two in explosions and two from being gassed.
The forest industry in the region suffered a severe blow with the arson fire of a large sawmill at Comaplix, on the north-east arm of the Upper Arrow Lake near Arrowhead. As well as the mill, the townsite and about 14 million board feet of lumber, the steamship Revelstoke was also lost as it was tied up at the Comaplix dock at the time. Despite the offer of a large cash reward, the crime was never solved.
The local Italian community was pleased when Italy entered the war on the side of Great Britain in May of 1915, and they held a rally and a parade, led by the Italian band. One of Revelstoke’s prominent Italian citizens declared, “The Italians are heart and soul in favour of the cause of the allies.”
In September of 1915, an alien internment camp was established on Mount Revelstoke. The camp was only in use for two months, but during that time, housed 200 internees and 75 guards. The camp was short-lived, as snow was falling by the time the first men were moved in, and by December they had all been moved to camps at Yoho, Banff and Vernon.
To learn more about Revelstoke during First World War, visit the exhibit, “Answering the Call” at Revelstoke Museum and Archives and follow our blog at www.revelstokemuseum.ca/blog/ for profiles on Revelstoke’s fallen soldiers.