On the 11th of November, 100 years will have passed since the guns fell silent in France, marking the end of the First World War. The Great War. The War to End All Wars. Since I’ve been writing historical fiction set in that era, I wanted to commemorate this tragic and momentous period by dedicating my blog each week until the 100th anniversary to the voices who have moved so many of you, the voices who were impacted greatly by the violence and destruction of the First World War and the peace that followed. Although fictionalized, these characters’ recollections evoke a true sense of the devastation and the lives undone.
(Will Parsons is a main character in the first book of my First World War & 1920s trilogy, None of Us the Same.)
Mr. Parsons, can you tell us where you’re from?
I was born in my parents’ home, just across the road from the Anglican Cathedral in the center of St. John’s, Newfoundland. My family has been in the Dominion since the early 18th century. However, you could call me half English. My mother was born and raised in England, the daughter of a Church of England bishop.
I thought I detected a little English accent.
My friends always teased me that I sounded too posh for a Newfoundlander. Blame that on the mater. And I’m engaged to marry an Englishwoman myself, another daughter of a churchman who I met and courted during my convalescence in England during the War. There may be some residual Englishness from my time commanding a company in the British army, although it was a Welsh regiment. I’m sure my family appreciates that I did not pick up that accent. Most of the other officers were English.
I take it your family is rather wealthy? Can you tell me a little of that story?
Like nearly every family in Newfoundland, my family’s prosperity began with fish. What made Newfoundland England’s first colony was the rich codfish banks just off our coast. In 1799, my great-grandfather was apprenticed to a chandler, a merchant who supplies and equips the ships of the fishing fleet. The master chandler died of a fever, leaving a wife and several children. My great-grandfather stayed on to run the business for her and married the eldest daughter of the family soon after. He was a canny businessman as it turned out, and he grew the shop on the waterfront into a large enterprise. In Newfoundland, such a big company that supports the fishing fleet is known as premises. Hence the beginning of the Parsons Premises. My grandfather and father expanded the business well beyond supplying fishing schooners. My father owns or has invested in a dozen shops and smaller companies, as well as a bank. And now I’m to take my expected place within the family business.
Did the people of Newfoundland raise a regiment of their own to serve in the war?
Yes, my father and the other leading men decided that in order for Newfoundland to prove itself an equal member of the Empire—like the Canadians, the Australians, the New Zealanders—we had to send our own force. There had been some discussion about shipping us off to fight in the Canadian regiments, but father and the others wouldn’t hear of it. Of course, they weren’t the ones who had to do the fighting, were they? When war was declared in August 1914, four friends and I were visiting a lighthouse up the coast kept by an uncle of one of my pals. We’d been going up as a group since our earliest days together at school, when we were 11 or 12. While we were at the lighthouse, we spotted a flag signal from a passing coastal ship that told us war had been declared. It was settled among the five of us, promising that we would all enlist together as private soldiers. We were so optimistic, believing the War would be over in months and we’d miss the excitement if we didn’t rush to join the new regiment forming up. So my friends and I enlisted as part of the First Five Hundred, so we were called.
Was that odd? I believe you had some time at university before the war broke out. Wouldn’t it have been more likely for you to join as an officer?
That was certainly my father’s opinion. I don’t know that I’d ever seen him so angry when I told him I was enlisting with my friends. He thought it a huge embarrassment to the family’s reputation and he asked me to leave our family home. I suppose I can see now why my father thought my enlisting as a private soldier was a few steps down the ladder for the house of Parsons. But once I was commissioned a lieutenant after Gallipoli, all was forgiven.
How did you become an officer?
I was made a corporal just prior to embarking for the fighting on Gallipoli. We lost more men to disease there than to the Turks, including officers. So after evacuating, we were sent to France where I was made Lieutenant Parsons because of my brief university education. The regiment went over the top the 1st of July in 1916 on the Somme. Every officer became a casualty that morning.
So the Newfoundland Regiment made you an officer. Then how did you end up commanding a company of Welsh soldiers?
I certainly didn’t intend for that to happen. While I was convalescing in England from wounds I received on the Somme, someone somewhere in the War Office discovered my mother was English and I was offered reassignment to a battalion of the Glamorgans. I thought a change of duty might suit me, although the scenery was the same—back to the muddy trenches in France for me and my battalion of little Welsh miners.
You mentioned earlier that you were on the Somme. Can you tell us something of that experience?
I don’t remember much of it really. Just a few glimmers of memory. I don’t believe I was fully conscious of what happened to me until I awoke in a hospital back in England which means I was unconscious or delirious for most of a week. More fortunate than most, just a little stiffness in my leg and a fading scar on my cheek. And I was… I suppose you could say, rather nervy for sometime afterward. A little shakiness and trouble sleeping, like so many others.
Do you have any lingering effects from this nervousness? Have you experienced any shaking since you returned?
Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps from time to time, now and again. I find a little brandy helps, a whisky or two before heading off to bed. Nothing to be concerned about, I shouldn’t think.
Looking back, was it the war that you and your friends had expected?
Hardly. We were so young, thought it would be all parades and kisses from pretty girls. Thought we’d knock out the Kaiser, dust off our hands, and be home by springtime. Rather ludicrous in hindsight, after so much death and destruction. More than four years of it—one has to wonder if Europe can ever be the same. I suppose the most shocking thing for me was the scale of the violence. The War wasn’t won or lost by brave deeds of valour so much as by which nation’s factories could produce the most shells and bullets, tanks and poison gas. Rather ironic that all the technological progress that went before found its apotheosis in the production of suffering and death on a grand, unimaginable scale. But that made no difference to the King-and-Empire men, like my father, did it? They made their intended mark before the world, although it was in the blood of us younger men.
How do you see your life going forward, Mr. Parsons?
Well, I’m to be married in summer. As is the way of things, I’ll likely be a father soon after that. I’m back with the Parsons Premises, running imports and exports. It’s deathly dull and my sister Gussie—Augusta— kept the whole office running during the War and continues to handle most of the work. I sign a lot of shipping and importation documents, sit through ghastly meetings with bankers and suppliers, then toddle off home to start my whole banal existence again the next day. And so we march toward the grave. I shouldn’t feel sorry for myself—I’m at least still here to complain.
(Newfoundland, a separate dominion within the British Empire until united with Canada in 1949, had a population of 240,000 when Parliament declared war on Germany the 4th of August 1914. From this modest population, 8,707 men would serve with the Newfoundland Regiment in Gallipoli, France, and Belgium. Another 3,296 Newfoundlanders would fight with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. This represented 35.6% of all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians between the ages of 19 and 35. Several hundred more served in the Merchant Marine and Royal Flying Corps, as well as 175 women who served as nurses or in Volunteer Aid Detachments. By the War’s end, 1,281 Newfoundlanders would be killed, 11% of all those who served.)