I am taking my blog completely off-topic today in order to commemorate one of the 10 million soldiers, sailors and pilots who died in the First World War.
One of my hobbies is family history. I have been researching my family tree for 20 years now so I am pretty obsessed. It is not about the genealogy for me – or not just that – because it is about more than names and dates and who begat who. For me it is a route into history, a personal connection to social, local, national and sometimes global history. It’s about history in a microcosm as much as it is about the people who made me who I am. Right now we are in the middle of the centenary commemorations of the First World War. Frustratingly, it is not getting much coverage in the US (because obviously America did not enter the conflict until 1917) so I am following events online and in the family history magazine I subscribe to. So I am doing my bit, contributing to the commemorations, by blogging today. I have scores of war dead in my family history but I am writing about one, one to represent the many, selected because he is the closest of my relatives to actually die in the conflict.
His name was Hugh Hay Gowie and he died exactly one hundred years ago.
Hugh was born on 16 October 1889 in Aberdeen. His mother was named Jane Hay and she had been abandoned by her nomadic photographer husband, George Cromar Gowie, in November 1885. The identity of Hugh’s father is unknown. He was born into a household of women, a mother and three older sisters, a 2 year old brother having died that Spring.
The United British Women’s Emigration Association funded the passage of two of Hugh’s sisters to Canada, Georgina in 1904 and Evaline in 1906. My Great-Gran was the sister who stayed behind in Scotland. Hugh then followed his sisters to Canada. In the 1911 Census, he appears in Walkerville, Ontario with his sister Evaline and her family. A border crossing document shows that he crossed from Canada into America in August 1911 and this paper states that his occupation was a Machinist. The Diamond Manufacturing Company had branches in both Detroit and Walkerville which stand on opposite shores of the Detroit River. It would appear, therefore, that Hugh was an employee of that company and moved between that company’s locations. It was a company producing parts for the automobile industry as well as items from steel, copper and brass.
I only have one photo of Hugh, a group portrait with his mother and sisters. However, his immigration and military papers provide a description of him as an adult. He was 5’6” or 5’7″ with a dark complexion, brown eyes and very dark hair. He had tattoos on both hands and on his right thigh above the knee. I wish the documents had recorded what the tattoos were of.
Hugh enlisted with the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force on 17 September 1914, just weeks after its creation. His attestation papers indicate that he had previously served with a militia so perhaps that is why he was particularly eager to join up. Hugh served as a Private with the 1st Battalion of the Western Ontario Regiment of the Canadian Infantry. The Battalion sailed from Quebec to England on the ‘Laurentic’, arriving on 14 October 1914, the first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force to arrive in Europe. The Battalion then trained on Salisbury Plain that winter before being dispatched to the front line in February 1915.
Hugh possibly fought at the Second Battle of Ypres, which took place between 22 April and 25 May 1915, as his regiment was involved in that battle. It was that battle that inspired a fellow Canadian soldier, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae to write his poem ‘In Flanders Field‘. The War Diary for 15 June shows that the Battalion were involved in battle at La Bassee. This appears to have been part of the Second Action of Givenchy, an attempt to secure some high ground and construct some communication and support trenches in preparation for future assaults. The Canadian troops were based next to the canal and very close to the German front line. A wire-cutting operation exposed to the enemy exactly where the attack was going to take place and a series of postponements also afforded the Germans the opportunity to rebuild some of their defences. The 1st Battalion suffered 366 casualties including 20 officers. The whole exercise was a bloody failure due to mines, mortar attacks and snipers. The War Diary for 16 June indicates that the wounded were evacuated. It seems likely, therefore, that it was in this battle that Hugh was mortally wounded.
Hugh died exactly one hundred years ago, on 21 June 1915, and is buried in Etaples Cemetery, the largest of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s cemeteries in France. Etaples was the location of several hospitals and Hugh was transferred there from the front line before dying of his wounds. He was 25 years old.
So that is the story of my Great-Great-Uncle. One casualty of the First World War among scores in my own family history; one casualty among millions in that conflict.