All the excitement of the war for the Canadians from Montreal had died in April and in May of 1915 . So many of the young men had been killed or wounded at Ypres and the sinking of the Lusitania had shown that not even children were safe.
There was not a family in the Square Mile in Montreal that was not affected.
How do you respond to the loss of a child? The leading women characters in our stories have to confront this question. Some will surprise us and themselves with their resilience. Others will descend into a form of hell. A hell that they will never escape from.
Let's start with my great aunt Marguerite who lost Gwen and Anna on the Lusitania.
Aunt M had jumped into the water holding Anna's hand. Her friend, Frederick Orr-Lewis, had done the same with Gwen. Both girls had died.
Aunt Marguerite had left Ireland on May 11th on a special train for survivors with her son Hugh and her eldest daughter Martha. Uncle Montagu was in Canada. The Allan Line's agent stayed on to search for the bodies of the girls. On May 16th, Gwen's body was identified. But Anna's was never found.
Her older children had taken her to her new home, Encombe. It is yards away from Shorncliffe Camp that would be the centre of the Canadian reinforcements for the war. Here is where she will live for the next 2 years. Here is where she recovers from the loss.
She had a broken collar bone and the insurance report says a fractured hip. I imagine that the pain in her body was nothing compared to the pain of the loss of her girls.
Surely her mind would take her back to that moment at the rail when she said to them all "We will all die together." Surely at night, she would find herself back in the water and feeling Anna's hand slip away for the last time?
Will she see Gwen's body? I assume that she did. For they sent her body back to Canada to be buried in waiting for her parents. Imagine the circumstances of the viewing in England weeks after her death? But at least she had seen Gwen. She never sees Anna and can only think of her forever in the water.
Would she not ask herself why she had lived and not them? What guilt did she feel? Might she have been even bitter that Emily and Annie, her maids, had lived and not her girls? Might she have blamed Frederick for not holding onto Gwen?
We cannot ever know.
Our own losses tell us how impossible it is to understand sudden death. How can this person be gone? Often this sense of impossibility can be relieved by contact with their body. But what if there is no body?
This loss of a child is going to be the common experience of millions of mothers in the next 4 years. For Canadian mothers, whose boys are all buried, except 2, in France and the UK, none will never see their boy again. And for the many dead boys, who are pulverized in the Salient, no one at all will ever see them again. They have become the unknown dead who fertilize the soil for farmers to come. Only their names remain on the Menin Gate.
This loss is the great equalizer. None of her privilege has saved Marguerite from the loss that so many other Canadians, rich or poor will feel.
It is this common loss that starts to change Aunt M.
She, who had been the centre of "Society" in Montreal becomes a new woman. As she recovers in Encombe, she finds a new role. She will join up with her friends, Julia Drummond and later Alice Yates, in a crusade. It will be a crusade based on helping other mothers look after their boys, whether their boys be alive and fit, wounded, dead or captured. They will become the connection. They will invest all their energy and wealth into this work.
They will respond with transcendance.
Here is Guy as a boy. In London, Julia, Lady Drummond was absorbing his loss on April 22 at Ypres.
She also had in her care her two daughters in law, the Braithwaites, who had lost their husbands and now had lost their sister on the Lusitania. Both were pregnant. One of the questions that faced them was whether to stay in London alone as widows or return to Canada. Both their sons were born in Canada, we can assume that they braved the U-boats and made the journey home to have their babies with their mother as a help.
Far from causing her to collapse in grief, Guy's death polarized Julia's attention and her focus. Nothing, and no one, would get in her way in her mission to serve her "Boys". She was "well acquainted with grief." She was uniquely free to act.
This is a picture taken after death of her first born son, Julian. This may seem macabre to us today, but, when photographs were so rare, a photograph was often the only momento for a lost child.
Julia had also buried two husbands. Now, free from any other emotional tie, she committed herself to all the other boys.
As we will see in later posts, she was to take the Information Bureau to new heights. In particular she will make prisoners a priority. 1,500 Canadians had been taken prisoner in April/May. The Information Bureau set up a new department that identified who was a prisoner and then sent them regular parcels.
And she made taking leave in London another priority. She had provided Guy and Trum with a home away from home when they were alive. No she would do the same for all the Canadians. After Guy's death, she set up a series of Club/hotels called the Maple Leaf clubs that would give all Canadian soldiers a safe home in London.
Here she is with Prime Minister Borden outside a Maple Leaf Club in London.
As Hammie Gault used his position in Montreal society to support the Pats, so Julia used her equally eminent position to bring the elite in both Canada and the UK to help her set up a series of "Hotels" for Canadians. Among her early supporters was Rudyard Kipling who was to lose his own son, John, in the fall of 1915 at the Battle of Loos. Here they at Loos after the war.
Mrs Caroline Kipling became the Chairwoman. She held this position for more than 3 years.
In Julia's and Caroline Kipling's response to tragedy, we see a new aspect of womanhood. Much has been said about how working in factories and in other male roles during the war helped change the role of women. But little has been said of the role of women in running very large organizations.
Julia, Mrs Alice Yates (Who will lose her husband Henry in 1916), Mrs Caroline Kipling and my aunt Marguerite Allan will channel their energy into becoming incomparable managers of large and complex organizations. Like General Currie, who had no formal education before the war and certainly no military education, these women discovered that they had the same kind of talent for organization that had been hidden from everyone, not the least from themselves.
But we are all different. Who knows how brave or resilient we really are until we have been tested like this?
We end our post today with the story of another of our characters who could not cope.
Here is Marguerite Gault with Hammie before the war on one of their adventures. In May, she had lost her mother, Mrs Stephens, on the Lusitania. She had lost her nephew, John too. Hammie had been wounded on Feb 28th and had been back in the line only 4 days before being wounded again very badly on May 8. Most of the officers of the Pats had died. She lived in deadly fear that it was only a matter of time before he was killed.
Almost worse, he had no time for her. All he wanted was to be back with his men.
He was back in England now. His wounds would take months to heal.
And then she met someone who seemed to care about her. Little did she know that Bainsmith was a total cad who had no real interest in her as a person but only as a trophy. Worse he was a junior officer in the Pats and so the betrayal was even worse.
No one, other than Hammie and Marguerite, knows what Hammie saw when he came into her room and found them both. But for Hammie, for whom duty and loyalty was everything, this was unbearable. Their breakup and later divorce was a huge scandal and a terrible drain on them both. Worse, she ended up in the arms of yet another predator. From this point on, her life will spiral down.
More later as these events unfold.
More also later on how the men in this story coped. For they too lost sisters, brothers and sons. All lost close friends.
Who is Uncle Montagu? Who is his son Hugh? Who is Henry Yates and how is he linked to Jack McCrae. Who is my grandfather, Alec? What does this loss mean to them? And what of our true hero on the Lusitania, George Slingsby? What of Frederick-Orr Lewis who never forgave himself for letting Gwen's hand go?
We will explore the first great loss for them next and as we do, we will also learn more about them. It's harder for them because the custom was to say nothing and not to comfort the other. They all came from the time of the "Stiff Upper Lip".
We will see that even this trembled.