Sunday, April 26, 2015

# 55 ~ Toronto & The First World War, Part VIII - Lamentation

Canadian soldiers examine a skull found in one of the battlefields of the First World War.


This is the eighth in a series of nine posts leading up to the centenary of John McCrae's writing of In Flanders Fields, on May 3, 1915.  I've planned for articles to be posted over the next several weeks, and to culminate with actives commemorating the centennial of McCrae's poem.

Images of John McCrae or the poppy, or recitals of the poem, In Flanders Field, are usually just relegated to Remembrance Day.  We have come to associate certain images so much with November 11th, that they seem out of place during the rest of the year.  As I publish these posts, I hope that you will find enough about Toronto's history, to make the articles of interest.

John McCrae wrote his poem during the Second Battle of Ypres, which took place between April 22nd and May 25th of 1915.  The battle saw the first massed use of poison gas by German forces on the Western Front.  It was a important engagement for Canadian troops ~ for the first time, a group of "colonial" soldiers defeated a European power, on European soil.  Military experts often refer to how engagements like the Battle of St. Julien or Kitcheners' Wood helped to usher Canada into national adulthood.  

However, instead of focusing on an analysis of military activity in Europe, my series of posts will mostly follow how the war was "fought" on the Toronto home front.


This eighth instalment of my series in Toronto during the First World War is on “Lamentation”.  It includes some of the personal tragedies of those in Toronto who lost love ones during the war.  Some of these casualties were from well known families, while others are seldom called to mind.

All through the war, Torontonians continued to read of the impact that the war had on some of the city’s leading society families.  The Battle of Ypres would become one of the most infamous battles of the Great War, and a landmark event in the history of Canada.  The battle saw one of the first deployments of poison gas used by the Germans.  The Canadian Division paid dearly, losing more than 6,000 men, resulting in a hard earned respect for Canadian troops among our allies and around the world. 
Among all those thousands of Canadian soldiers who took part in the fight at Ypres, the death of a few would inexplicably capture that attention of the public at home.  Such was the case with 27 year old Captain Robert Darling, of the 48th Highlanders, was seriously wounded when a bullet pierced a main artery.  On March 23, 1915, he was evacuated to a military hospital in England.  The young Torontonian died a few weeks later, on April 19, 1915.  His body was shipped back home, and the Darling family – a family well placed in Toronto society – held a private service at the Darling family home, at 2 Dale Avenue, in Rosedale. 
Captain Robert Darling

The Darling family home on Dale Avenue, Toronto.

A public funeral for Captain Darling was held at St. James’ Square Presbyterian Church, on May 6, 1915, and he was laid to rest in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.  He was buried in close proximity to other fallen Highlanders, including Colonel Davidson, the unit’s first commanding officer.  There had been a long standing tradition of burying military casualties near where they fell, but Captain Darling was amongst the first of Canadian soldiers to die on foreign soil and be returned to Canada for burial.

Captain Darling's funeral cortege drew thousands of spectators.

Captain Darling's funeral.

The grave of Captain Robert Darling in Toronto's Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.

The death of Captain Darling drew an emotionally patriotic response in Toronto. Those who attended his public funeral service included John Strathearn Hendrie, the lieutenant-governor of Ontario, provincial cabinet ministers, Toronto’s Mayor, Thomas Langton Church, and members of Toronto’s City Council.  Tens of thousands of residents gathered outside the church and lined the funeral route along Yonge Street, north to Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.  A graduate of Kingston’s Royal Military College, Darling had been “one of the most popular and efficient officers in the city", according to the Star newspaper. 

Ontario's Lieutenant Governor John Strathearn Hendrie.

Toronto Mayor Thomas Langton Church.

Coverage of the death of Captain Darling and the remarks that Mayor Church made when informed of his death.

Why did Captain Darling’s death strike such an emotional chord in Toronto?  Darling certainly wasn’t the first Toronto soldier to fall in battle, nor the highest ranking.  The circumstances of his death, although certainly tragic, were not regarded as particularly unusual. But in the days after he died, newspapers began reporting the death of thousands of Canadian soldiers, while those who survived Ypres gave accounts of the horror of that battlefield. 
Even the minister at Darling’s funeral, Reverend Andrew Robertson, noted the larger symbolism of Darling’s funeral.  In his sermon, he told the mourners that their gathering was “in some sense representative of a great nation suddenly thrust from the verge of the world travail into the very heart of its agony and loss.”

“Around us in our service today there gathers a shadowy army of the dead, fallen in distant battlegrounds, who can never come back to lay themselves to rest in the kindly soil of this Dominion of ours,” he said. “We hold this to be in a very real sense a vicarious service. Where they fell in the rush of the conflict, those gallant sons of Canada, they must lie — for a time, at least, if not until the day on which the trumpet shall sound — and it is not possible for us to keep them out of mind even if we should want to do so. They are our dead — Clifford Darling’s comrades in battle and blood, and with him fallen in glorious sacrifice for the great cause.”


The Denison family were another noted family in the annals of Toronto society.  Members of the Denison family first arrived in the Town of York – the precursor to Toronto – all the way back in 1796.  Successive generations of the Denison family served in the military during times of peace, but also fought in various conflicts, including the War of 1812 and the Rebellion of 1837.  Members of the Denison family made up some of the most extensive landowners in Toronto and were frequently mentioned in the society pages of the city’s newspapers.  The names of some of Toronto’s thoroughfares, like Bellevue Avenue and Rusholme Road, are taken from Denison family estates, and of course Denison Avenue and Denison Square are also named for the family.
Bertram Denison would briefly carry on his family’s legacy of military service.  The dashing young officer went off to fight, but his military career – and his life – were cut short on the battlefields of Europe.  During the Battle of Le Cateau, in France, Denison received a head wound that left him blind.  He was injured on August 26, 1914, just a few short weeks after the outbreak of the war.  He lay injured on the field of battle for two days before he was taken prisoner by German forces and transferred to a makeshift hospital.  Lieutenant Denison would cling to life for several weeks before dying of tetanus on September 15th. 
Lieutenant Bertram Denison was considered the war's first casualty from Toronto.

At least 2,910 Torontonians died in the Great War – at least, that is the number of dead Canadian soldiers who have been linked to residential addresses in the city.  But when news of the death of 30 year old Lieutenant Bertram Denison reached Canadian shores, the Toronto Daily Star ran headlines identifying him as “Toronto’s First Casualty of the War”.  Six weeks after Canada entered the war, the conflict had drawn its first blood from Toronto. 

Born in 1885, Lawren Harris was a member of the group of Toronto artists who, after the war, would become known as the Group of Seven.  As an heir to the Massey-Harris farm equipment fortune, he was also one of the group’s patrons. He was educated at the private St. Andrews College before enrolling at the University of Toronto, but he was soon pursuing his art career.  Harris joined the army in 1916 and served with the university’s Canadian Officers' Training Corps.  He was a gunnery officer, but also painted landscapes and villages that were later devastated during the war.  One of his works, a panorama depicting a ruined Belgian village, was used at the School of Musketry’s rifle range in the unfinished Hart House.  But Harris didn’t last long in the military: in 1918, he reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown and was discharged.
Lawren Harris was an artist and soldier.  He did see combat during the First World War, but suffered a nervous breakdown in 1918.  Not all casualties of the war suffered death.

Howard Kilbourne Harris, Lawren’s younger brother, was born in 1887.  He excelled at the University of Toronto and went on to law school.  He was beginning a promising career when the war began in 1914.  He travelled to England in April 1915 to become a commissioned officer in the 11th Essex Regiment, and was promoted to captain in February 1917.  That May, he was awarded the Military Cross “for successfully directing with great coolness and skill an attack on the enemy’s trench near Albert.”  He was killed on February 22, 1918, while making a reconnaissance on an advanced German post about 20 kilometres northeast of Albert.  When the memorial carillon was installed at Soldiers' Tower at the University of Toronto, Bell No. IV was dedicated in his memory. 
Howard Kilbourne Harris was killed in action on February 22, 1918.


 Another prominent Toronto family, the Ryersons, would also experience tragedy during the Great War.  Lieutenant-Colonel George Sterling Ryerson was a nephew of public education crusader Egerton Ryerson.  Among several other contributions, George Ryerson would serve as founder and president of the Canadian Red Cross Society.  Ryerson travelled to Europe in April of 1915, to survey military hospitals and see how the Red Cross back in Canada could best provide support.
Lieutenant-Colonel George Sterling Ryerson, Founder and President of the Canadian Red Cross Society.

A membership card for the Canadian Red Cross Society, signed by Ryerson.

Two of George Ryerson’s sons entered military service early in the war.  George Crowther Ryerson, 31, was a captain with the 3rd Battalion.  Arthur Connaught Ryerson, 24, was a lieutenant with the 9th Battery of Canadian Field Artillery.  Both of these Toronto units were caught up in the fighting at Ypres on April 23, 1915.  George Crowther Ryerson, the elder brother, was killed “while leading his company against overwhelming odds and under heavy machine gun and artillery fire,” according to the University of Toronto Roll of Honour.  

In a twist of fate, Arthur came across his brother’s body on the battlefield as his unit was in retreat. “I did my best to carry it off when a shell exploded near, and a small fragment struck me in the stomach,” he told the Toronto Telegram. He was sent to hospital in England to recover from his wounds.

Obituary of Captain George Crowther Ryerson.

His mother, Mary Amelia, and younger sister, Laura, wanted to be with him. They arranged to take the next transatlantic crossing on the RMS Lusitania, departing New York for Liverpool on May 1.  On May 7, the ship was hit by a German torpedo near the coast of Ireland.  It was listing so badly that many of the lifeboats couldn’t be launched. Laura and Mary made it into the last boat, but it overturned as it was being lowered to the water.  Laura swam about 250 metres to a raft, then to another lifeboat.  It had a hole in it and started taking on water, but she and the other passengers on board were able to keep it afloat for three hours until a destroyer rescued them and brought them to England.

  The Lusitania sank in 18 minutes. Of the 1,959 people on board, 1,195 died.  Eighty-six of the victims were from Toronto, including Mary Ryerson.  Her body was never found.
The sinking of the Lusitania.

Loading a lifeboat from the Lusitania.

Mary Amelia Ryerson was killed when the Lusitania sank.  Her body was never found.

Arthur Ryerson returned to Canada to recover and his father and sister also made their way home.  Laura described the sinking to newspaper reporters, but she left out her role in the ordeal: once the survivors were rescued, she helped the other women out of their wet clothes, warmed them with blankets and made sure they ate.  For her bravery, the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem bestowed on her the title of Lady of Grace.  Later that year a third Ryerson brother, Eric Egerton, enlisted in the army. He survived the war.


A map of Greater Toronto & Suburbs, 1916.

It goes without saying that four years and more of war, suffering and death had a profound impact on the sensibilities of all Canadians.  Whenever the Great War is discussed, the point is inevitably made that it was supposed to be a short war, lasting a mere matter of months, but instead became a global conflict that was measured in years.  In Toronto, as in many communities across Canada, the suffering was brought home to families and doorsteps across the country.  Every home with a son serving in military service overseas waited desperately for some sort of news from the front.
In Toronto, about 2% of the male population was killed in the war.  Approximately 4,035 people who died in the First World War seem to have some kind of residential connection to Toronto.  The names of 2,910 soldiers who were killed during the war could be linked to a modern residential address in Toronto.  An additional 124 had addresses on streets that no longer exist in the modern city.  About 299 casualties of the war had next of kin in the city.  Hundreds more were living in villages like Weston and Swansea, which were not part of Toronto then, but have since been incorporated into the city. 
So, thousands of households across Toronto lost loved ones during the war.  Many families lost more than one person.  A couple living at 113 Langford Avenue, north of Pape and Danforth, lost three sons, aged 28, 30 and 31.  One died at Ypres in 1916, another was killed by a shell during a trench raid at Vimy Ridge in 1917, and the third, gassed in 1915, lingered on to die in Toronto a few weeks before the end of the war.
Toronto’s Shannon Street is a one block street that runs just south of College Street, between Dovercourt Road and Ossington Avenue.  The street is made up of a few dozen homes, but in total, ten soldiers who died in the Great War gave one of these homes on Shannon Street as an address for their next-of-kin.  Shannon Street serves as a microcosm illustrating the impact that the deaths caused by the war had on Toronto.
William Edmund Fry, of 5 Shannon Street, died of unknown causes on February 10, 1920, at the age of 22 years old.
33 Shannon Street was the home of Richard and Frances Peacock.  On August 8, 1918, their son, artillery gunner Richard Ellis Peacock, was standing by his horse team at the wagon lines at Beaucourt-en-Santerre in Somme, France, when an enemy shell exploded close to him, killing him instantly.
41 Shannon Street was the home of Private Thomas William Sharp and his wife Ellen.  Private Sharp was evacuated from the trenches in July of 1918, and died a few days later from pneumonia at the age of 37 years old.
46 Shannon Street was the home of James Ross Shephard.  He was killed in action following a trench raid near Lens, France. His body was never identified; his name is on the Vimy Memorial in France.
John Reid lived at 54 Shannon Street.  He was in the 10th Battalion of the Canadian Engineers regiment. He died at the age of 28 of unknown causes and was laid to rest at Prospect Cemetery in Toronto.
59 Shannon Street was the home of Elmer Wadham, a soldier in the Canadian Mounted Rifles regiment. He died on June 2, 1916, eight days shy of his 19th birthday.
David Johnstone, of 60 Shannon Street, worked as a stonemason before enlisting in the army. He died in Belgium on April 12, 1916, at the age of 31, after being shot in the abdomen.
Emerson Crosby, of 62 Shannon Street, was listed as missing and presumed dead after fighting at St. Juline in the Second Battle of Ypres, in Belgium.  He was 23 years old.
65 Shannon Street was the home of Private William Henry Bird and his wife Rose.  Private Bird died of wounds received in January of 1917, at the age of 23 years old.
George Herbert Brown, of 76 Shannon Street, went missing and was presumed dead, on April 24, 1915, at the age of 24 years old.  His name is on the Ypres Memorial in Belgium.

These men, these casualties of war, died overseas and in many cases were buried within kilometres of one another.  But on the Toronto home front, during the Great War, their families lived a few doors down from one another, all on the same street.
A map of the casualties on Shannon Street.  Each household that suffered a casualty is marked with a poppy.


Coming up : My next instalment of the "Toronto & The First World War" series is entitled "Commemoration".  It chronicles the way in which Toronto reacted to the news that the war was finally over, and shows just a few of the monuments that were built around the city, in the aftermath of the conflict.



  1. Brilliant history, please hurry with the next installment. One question, will you be mentioning the Hospital that I believe was close to Mount Pleasant Cemetery? The number of burials in Mount Pleasant seems to be a hint of a hospital close by.