Why I remember the summer of 1916 a century later

"Suddenly, before their oars have been wetted, a current propels the terrified trio toward the falls and into the churning water below. It's not until Sunday, July 2, that a canoeist spots Lillian's body. "



It was the kind of day when – cliché be damned – you’re just happy to be alive.

As the fishing rods and worms are stowed, the rowboat is pushed away from the dock. For Mrs. Darcy and the boat’s other two female occupants, an afternoon of limitless possibilities lies ahead. Sun, fun and fish. Perhaps a dip?

It’s a quintessentially Canadian scene played out in waterside communities every summer across the country.

But it’s a century ago on Tuesday, June 27, 1916. The trio work at the Burleigh Falls Hotel, 40 kilometres north of Peterborough.

And something is about to go horribly wrong.

Suddenly, before their oars have even been wetted, a strong current propels the trio toward the falls. 

Screams can be heard above the din of rushing water as the rowboat tumbles down the chute, spilling its terrified passengers into the churning water below. Luckily, there are witnesses.

A canoeist paddles frantically to the scene and, without regard for his own safety, dives deep, extends an arm as far forward as possible, grabs a handful of hair and pulls the girl attached to it to shore.

Mrs. D’Arcy, the girls’ employer, clings to a nearby rock in the channel until a “nine-link human chain” comes to her rescue.

My future grandmother, 16-year-old Violet Smith, who has been saved by her flowing locks as well as Jack Blewett’s bravery, is shaken by the ordeal but soon recovers back at the hotel.

But her 15-year-old sister, Lillian, has disappeared.

***

The news spreads like “wildfire,” according to a front-page story in the June 28, 1916, edition of the Peterborough Daily Review. 

The girls’ mother, Rhoda Ann “Annie” Smith, has six younger children and another on the way, and a husband, Pte. Edward Samuel Smith, serving in the trenches in Europe. As she’s rushed to the scene, she’s regretting her decision to find summer work and lodging for her two oldest.

“The lumbermen have laid off work today,” reports the Daily Review, “and are busy searching for the body of the unfortunate girl.”

In the days that follow, the lumbermen, joined by Trent Canal employees, scour Perry’s Creek. Dynamite is set off in Stoney Lake in an attempt to expose the body. On June 30, stoplogs, which had been taken out of the floodgates on the day of the tragedy so the flow of water would be strong enough to carry lumber for the mill over the falls, are replaced to try to lower the water level below Burleigh Falls.

It’s not until Sunday, July 2, that a canoeist spots Lillian’s body.

***

In the tragedy’s aftermath, the lumbermen collect $40 for Mrs Smith. The owner of the Burleigh Falls Hotel, H.W. D’Arcy, pays the funeral expenses. The local relief association has approved a grant of $10 a month for the family from the Patriotic Fund, topping up the separation allowance provided by Smith’s husband’s service overseas.

Ottawa is less sympathetic. When Pte. Smith, a recent English immigrant and a bookkeeper with the Quaker Oats Co., applies for home leave, it is denied.

After all, the British Empire is under siege. The French are hanging on, just, at Verdun. The architect of Britain’s war effort, Lord Kitchener, has been lost at sea. Mass slaughter, with its less-discussed corollary, mass bereavement, is sweeping the globe, so compassion is in short supply. 

Half a world away, the Second Canadian Division, to which Pte. Smith’s 4th Machine Gun Company is attached, has been ordered to take the Sugar Factory, a strongpoint in the German Somme defences.

Scant weeks after Lillian’s death, on September 16, Smith goes over the top, swept along by a current as powerful as that which claimed his young daughter’s life.

And it’s just as deadly. Shrapnel, which accounted for 75 per cent of all deaths on the Western Front – a very impersonal war, this war – kills Pte. Smith.

Annie is left a widow, and her seven children, soon to be eight (she gives birth to a girl, Lillian – yes, another Lillian – in November 1916), fatherless. Again the Smiths make the Daily Review’s front page.

Looking for a fresh start and in search of work, the Smiths move to North Toronto. But they are not yet free of the Great War.

While Annie becomes a tireless advocate for veterans’ welfare, joining the Women’s Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, my grandmother Violet marries a veteran, William Edward Gibson, who, already minus an arm lost at Fresnoy in May 1917, dies young in 1929, leaving her to raise two small boys, including my father, on her own.

She joins her mother in collecting a widow’s pension.

***

When my sister, a native Torontonian like me, and her husband bought a home in Lakefield in 2011, it felt like the Smith family had come home, returning to its immigrant roots on the edge of the Canadian Shield where tragedy had struck my forebears. 

My sister Kim, brother-in-law Gunnar and I paid a visit to Little Lake Cemetery in Peterborough, where we’d been told (and the July 3, 1916, issue of the Daily Review confirms) Lillian was buried.

With a little help from the cemetery office, we soon located Lillian’s modest “grass marker.” Surprisingly, it wasn’t a weather-beaten, barely decipherable stone of a near-century’s vintage, but a rather recent replacement.

The cemetery staff could shed no light on the mystery. They suggested that a search of invoices from recent years might yield a clue. A big job, no volunteers. We let the matter drop.

***

It’s November 2015. I’m in the middle of a three-month stint in Westouter, Belgium, walking, biking and writing about the nearby battlefields and rear areas of the Ypres salient where the Canadian Corps spent so much time 100 years ago.

In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, I find myself speeding south on the A1 motorway in northern France on a pilgrimage to Pte. Smith’s final resting place.

This trip yields its own surprise.

The doyen of First World War historians, Jay Winter, has dubbed the Pozières British Military Cemetery in the Somme, where Pte. Smith lies, a “site of memory.” But it’s also a very tangible place, with its own unique setting, architecture, landscape, religious imagery, epitaphs and guest and guide books. And, lest we forget, headstones.

Originally quarried from rough-surfaced English Portland stone (across which I’d first run my fingertips on a previous visit in July 1993), Pte. Smith’s headstone had been replaced by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission with smoother, marble-like Italian Botticino stone.

All of a sudden it all made perfect sense. New, unexpected (and inexplicable in the case of Lillian’s) grave markers in both Peterborough and Pozières, separated by an ocean, completed a fateful symmetry across a century.

Craig Gibson’s first book, Behind The Front: British Soldiers And French Civilians, 1914-1918, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2014. 

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