This story is made of many stories, as stories always are. There is my story, as I gradually uncovered the depth of loss within a single family during the First World War. There are the stories of three young brothers – two of them twins – who died. And there is the story of the archival records that connected me with them, allowing me a glimpse of their short lives and their deaths: records, ironically, produced by the vast bureaucracy that administered those deaths.
In this post, I’ll be unfolding how I learned more about people who deserve to be seen and remembered many years after their deaths. I’ll show how records from different institutions help weave back together strands of lives. In doing so, we can learn something important about the humanizing potential of archives. Archival records, like those produced by officialdom, are like lenses. They have a narrow focus; of their subjects they only capture what was important to that officialdom. Yet, supplemented by the contextual research of historians and archives workers, we can use them to bring out the humanity behind the documents.
The records that started it
For archivists, part of making records accessible involves describing them so that people can find and understand them. This task often involves research into why and when the records were created, and who and what they are about. Normally we must set a realistic limit to our research; for one thing, while many of us are subject experts in some fields, we certainly aren’t experts in all fields. And for another, we want to avoid predetermining how other researchers will view and use these records.
Every now and then, however, archivists encounter documents that take hold of us and won’t let us go. Then we can’t help delving further into the stories unfolding before us. The following is one such instance for me.
A while back we received a slender envelope of loose documents from the First World War, including forms and letters from Canadian military authorities in Ottawa to a Whitehead family in Malton (now part of Mississauga). The donor was a distant relative by marriage who had inherited them and hoped to find them a good home.
Official communications to families during the War often make for distressing reading. The fact that families kept them long enough for us to inherit them in the 21st century is a sign that these letters marked the lives of those who received them. True to form, the first letter I picked up – the only handwritten letter in the cache – stopped my work day in its tracks.
The envelope was plain and only identifiable as military because of the censor’s sticker. (During the war, mail from the Front was opened and read by designated officials so they could obscure any passages potentially harmful to the war effort. The censors would indicate their activity by marking letters.)
The letter was from an officer of the 31st Battalion to Mrs. R. Whitehead. It read as follows:
Mrs. R. Whitehead,
It is my sad duty to inform you of the death of your son, Pte George Whitehead No. 696412.
It was his first trip to the trenches. The evening of the fifth day of the tour (March 29th) we were shelled heavily and your two boys were manning the parapet; a few minutes before, the brother was with him, but fortunately was ordered into a “dug out.”
That death was instantaneous there is no doubt and you may be proud to know that your boy, although a stranger to war, stood the test magnificently, a brave lad, held in high esteem by all and of whom we are all proud.
The brother is well and the boys do what little they can to cheer him; I trust he will be spared to return to you.
In extending my sympathy I trust you will take comfort in knowing that your son died heroically doing his duty. The sacrifice shall not be in vain.
I have the honor to be, madam,
Your obedient servant,
[?] Carson, Lieut. 31st Bn Canadians, B.E.F.
It was impossible not to be moved: the paper I held in my hand had caused immense pain to someone else. I thought of the mother who had opened it with her own trembling hands, to learn one child had been violently killed and the other grieved, while remaining in mortal danger. (Another letter in the bundle revealed that the official telegram about the death had gone astray due to an incorrect postal address – so this handwritten letter was indeed the mother’s first notification.)
And I couldn’t help wondering what happened to the unnamed “brother” whose sibling was struck down just as he had left his side. As I sorted through the rest of the papers, my question was partially answered.
The rest of the small jumble of documents largely consisted of burial reports, and letters about administering the reports and settling estates. There were also – mysteriously – three official envelopes, used but empty, whose postal dates did not match any of the documents in the pile. Scrawled at the top left on each of the envelopes was the name of a different cemetery and date. And there were a few photographs of a military funeral in an unidentified cemetery.
Searching for a way to establish or re-establish order in the small bundle, I noted that, in the precise manner of the Department of Militia and Defence, each document began by quoting the name and regimental number of the Whitehead soldier concerned (you can see two examples in the box below). As I sorted by name, three piles emerged, each with a burial report.
Paper has a memory of its own. If you’ve ever tried to refold a sheaf of papers now disassembled, you know that unless you exactly replicate the previous angle of the folds, the curve of outer sheets around inner sheets, you feel a resistance. On the other hand, if you reproduce exactly how the papers were once united, the sheets willingly collapse around one another. This is what happened within each of my three piles after some observation of angles.
I realized that each of the three mysterious empty envelopes didn’t belong to any one of the letters as a mailing container. Rather, someone had repurposed empty envelopes to use essentially as files: three packets, three soldiers, three deaths – all sons of the Whitehead family. (You can see the three packets at the top of this post.)
The cemeteries and dates scribbled on the envelopes were the burial places and dates of death of the three brothers. These facts were repeated in their burial reports, along with a tersely noted cause of death:
Private Robert Whitehead. July 17, 1916. Pneumonia. Shorncliffe Military Cemetery, England
Private George Whitehead. March 30, 1917. Killed in Action. Écoivres Military Cemetery, France
Private Arthur Whitehead. February 6, 1918. Died of Wounds. Sucrerie British Cemetery, France
Robert, George, and Arthur died at the ages of 21, 24 and 22 respectively. Arthur, then, was “the brother” whom the battalion officer hoped would be spared – the brother who had been standing beside George shortly before he was killed. And Arthur was not even the second brother of the family to die, but the third.
Searching our Canadian censuses before and after the war showed that the Whitehead family were farmers. Robert and Elizabeth Whitehead had ten children in all. George was born in 1892, and Robert and Arthur four years later in 1896 – making them twins.
I was now determined to find out whatever I could about how and where these men had died. Somehow this would be a sign of how they had lived too; it would turn them from faceless contributors to the war’s tragic statistics to three-dimensional human beings. What I found took me all the way from a hospital bedside in England, to an iconic battlefield in France, to a court of military justice and punishment.
The form of forms
There are many ways we can learn about documents and the world they came from besides the meaning of the words written on them. One is the structure of the documents themselves. The study of the form and context of written documents is called diplomatics. In an earlier blog post, our senior archivist Kyle Neill applied the broad principles of diplomatic analysis to government records to solve mysteries and reunite records.
Above you can see another example, in my reconstruction of the original order of the Whitehead letters by the physical marks of wear on the folded letters. This shows us how someone stored the letters to memorialize the dead.
First World War documents also reveal signs of bureaucratic processes. The scale of the war (together with modern printing methods) meant that preprinted forms and pre-prepared text were mobilized as never before. On the right below is a letter asking Elizabeth Whitehead (the mother of the boys) to return another enclosed form. We can see this is a form letter (with text meant to be used in multiple cases), because unique personal details have been inserted by a different typewriter.
On the left below you can see Arthur’s burial report. The standardized form is given a unique number for each recipient, who is told that “all communication regarding this report should quote the above number.”
Measures like these allowed record-keepers to track deaths and notify families, but they may strike us as cold and impersonal.
Encountering Canada’s First World War records
The trouble with the records we had received was that apart from their regimental numbers, dates and causes of death, no detailed glimpse of the brothers’ experiences were visible, except in the handwritten letter. Even then, George Whitehead’s officer did not reveal the locale or military action in which George died. As tactically sensitive information, this would not have made it past the censor.
To learn more about the Whitehead brothers’ experiences in the war, I turned to military records still in federal custody. When ordinary people interact with the government, official records end up in at least two places: one is in the hands of the individuals concerned (from there, they can eventually come to an archives like ours by private donation). The other is in the records systems of the authorities themselves. Taken together, they give us a fuller picture of the relationship between people and the large organizations which affect their lives.
Fortunately, significant information-rich records of Canada’s First World War servicemen and women are available online at our national archives, Library and Archives Canada (LAC).
The First World War is often characterized as the first global industrialized and mechanized war; the size and scope of movements and actions were enabled by technologies of mass production and communication, from motorized vehicles to the telegraph and telephone, and of course by weapons capable of inflicting mass death and disablement. What we often don’t appreciate, however, is that records and record-keeping were a primary cog in the war machine.
What is striking to a new researcher of military records is their detail and complexity. The moment a soldier committed himself to service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, he entered a system which tagged, coded, and moved him along with a new type of efficiency and precision. Depictions of the Great War in popular culture often focus on the chaotic – mobs of men charging, the disorienting smoke and artillery hail, the clamour of battle. Less evident is the high degree of method behind the madness.
On the Western Front, soldiers were not so much poured out on the battlefields as they were processed, even in death. Nowhere is this clearer than in records dealing with individual servicemen and women. Service records are plastered with a bewildering array of abbreviations, numbers, codes, labels, stamps, initials, signatures, and counter-signatures. Fortunately, experts have compiled guides and glossaries to help today’s researchers interpret these records.
In what follows, I’ll uncover stories of the service and deaths of the Whitehead brothers as I was able to interpret them in several sets of standard First World War records at Library and Archives Canada. It’s important to know that, as is the case with most archival records, these documents had very specific practical uses – they were never intended to form biographies. Part of my discovery process involved examining and cross-referencing numerous documents to come up with a coherent narrative. In lieu of replicating this rewarding but challenging process, you can read more about the sets of records I used in the box below. At the end of this post, I have also linked to the work of historians I used to help me understand these records.
Following are the main groups of records I used to flesh out the service of the Whitehead brothers. Thanks to years of work by staff at Library and Archives Canada, they are digitally available via online databases.
Personnel (Service) Files: These files document the movements and dispositions of serving men and women. Among other assorted documents they typically include attestation papers (personal details and agreements obtained on enlistment), records of service and casualties, pay sheets, and rudimentary wills.
War Diaries: War diaries consist of daily summaries of the activities of units such as battalions. They drew on eye-witness accounts, orders, maps, and other material (which are sometimes attached). They were partially maintained with an eye on future historians, so were monitored for completeness.
Court Martial Proceedings: While some infractions could be dealt with by commanding officers, more serious charges were prosecuted in military court, with a presentation of evidence, and a chance to mount a defence. These files include trial documents.
There is one important set of records I couldn’t use. Normally the most straightforward way to access the location and manner of death of a soldier in the First World War is to consult the Circumstances of Death registers. Sadly, the volume containing the Whitehead documents did not survive.
As we follow the brothers’ stories, we need to remember that Robert, George, and Arthur were neither drafted nor professional soldiers: like so many others, they were volunteers. When they responded to the call for troops to aid Great Britain’s cause, conscription had not yet been invoked in Canada. Young Canadians who volunteered to fight overseas had many reasons. They included idealism (a sense of duty to their country and to Britain, or a desire for adventure); practicality (pursuit of regular pay and training); and unrelenting social pressure (fear of the stigma of cowardice). And of course, many simply did not fully realize what awaited them. We don’t know what motivated the Whitehead brothers.
Robert Whitehead 1896 – 1916
Robert Whitehead enlisted at the Toronto Reporting Depot a few days after Christmas in 1915. His personal details show he had light brown hair and blue eyes and was covered in the scars typical of a labouring farmer.
In late May the following summer he sailed for England on the S.S. Olympia and arrived on June 8 as part of the 95th Battalion. Along with his fellow Canadians, at Shorncliffe Camp on the southeast coast of England he trained under British soldiers for trench warfare in France, with the distant tumbling of battle drifting across the English Channel.
Robert would never leave Shorncliffe. A month after arriving he reported to hospital with a pain in his chest, a cough, and chills. He told the doctor he had never been sick in his life before, except for breaking his leg while catching a runaway horse.
Robert deteriorated quickly. He became feverish and delirious. Pneumonia was diagnosed, the lab report noting his mucus was “loaded with various types of bacteria.” A doctor documented the affected area of his lungs by colouring in a stamped anatomical illustration. The last ten days of his life in Bed 2 were measured out by a nursing sister who meticulously documented his soaring temperature and the sponge baths meant to relief it.
Robert died on July 17, 1916, far from home and the family farm, within earshot of the guns of France he would never face. In the orderly safety of camp, he received a military funeral in Shorncliffe Military Cemetery, at which photographs were taken. Shorncliffe was regarded with great affection by its inhabitants and the local population. You can read an evocative account of the camp in the article by Diane Beaupré listed below this post.
George Whitehead 1892 – 1917
George enlisted in Medicine Hat on February 5, 1916. It seems that before the War, he and his younger brother Arthur had left Peel for Alberta, perhaps to make their way in the world as a duo. George was fair-haired with hazel eyes and still described himself as a farmer.
George left Canada as part of the 21st Battalion from Halifax on October 4, 1916 with Arthur by his side. Sailing on the S.S. Saxonia, they arrived in England on the 13th of that month and trained at Seaford Camp on the Sussex coast.
Together the two brothers were shipped overseas for battle in France on January 19, 1917, now as members of the 31st Battalion. By January 20 they were in the field of battle. In the spring of that year, George would be killed in action, as we know from the letter sent to his mother above. However, from records at Library and Archives Canada, we can piece together a little more about where and why he died.
War diary entries in the days leading up to the day of his death show that George’s battalion was in the Thélus Sector. Thélus is a village near Vimy in France. This put George in the vicinity of preparation for the Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge.
The battle of Vimy Ridge is taught in Canadian schools as an event which marked a turning point in the country’s emerging sense of identity. Canadian troops united to plan and carry out the capture of a heavily defended German position, during which 10,000 Canadians were killed or wounded. While the duration of the battle is traditionally given as April 9 to 12, 1917, historians point out that Canadian forces paved the way for the attack weeks prior. One activity involved a series on raids on German trenches to reduce the future capacity of enemy retaliation.
Putting together the war diary entries, the official date of George’s death, and the officer’s notification letter above, it appears George may have died in the early hours of March 30 as a result of orders carried out on the evening of the 29th. That day dawned fine and clear, but rain came in the evening. At 7:20 pm, groups from George’s battalion undertook a raid on the German front line. Crossing No-Man’s Land under cover of darkness and a protective barrage of their own artillery, they attacked enemy trenches. (You can read the orders on the right.) Causalities related to the raid were 11 O.R. (“other ranks”, that is, lower ranks). It’s possible some deaths resulted from retaliatory fire, including perhaps George Whitehead’s.
Arthur Whitehead 1896 – 1918
Arthur Whitehead too enlisted in Medicine Hat, several months after his brother on June 28, 1916. He had hazel eyes and brown hair and was also a farmer.
His movements then track those of his older brother as the pair left Canada for England, and England for France, where on March 29, 1917 near Thélus they found themselves side by side for the last time.
After losing his brother, Arthur’s story becomes increasingly fraught. Arthur must have been in the Battle of Vimy ridge itself. The 31st Battalion’s war diary entry for April 9 notes: “attack by the Canadian Corps on VIMY RIDGE started this morning” and refers to the Battalion’s successful capture of the village of Thélus at Vimy.
On April 17 the Battalion was occupying a position near Vimy Railway Station. The battalion war diary reads that “the enemy shelled our lines more vigorously than usual today…our Headquarters came in for its full share of ‘hate’” The diarist also admits that “the men show signs of becoming exhausted on account of the long exposure to cold and rain, the hard work…and the lack of facility for cooking…Great difficulty is being experienced in bringing the guns up behind us owning the bad roads and heavy rains.”
By April 18 – three weeks after his brother’s death and a week after a grueling and bloody battle—it seems Arthur had had enough. He shot himself – not seriously, but enough to take him out of the trenches and into a different kind of trouble.
Arthur’s version of the event, for which he had a witness, was that in cleaning his rifle, he failed to notice a loaded bullet and accidentally shot himself, destroying a toe on his left foot.
Unfortunately, this accident bore all the hallmarks of an attempt to achieve what was known as a “Blighty”: a minor wound which, if it were acquired in battle, would result in evacuation to England for recovery and respite. But escape over the channel was not to be Arthur’s fate. On his hospital transfer form, “self-inflicted” appears in red ink, as well as a stern note from a medical officer: “This man must not be evacuated to England.”
Deliberately self-inflicted wounds were relatively rare but rumors of how they could be achieved circulated in the army, and Arthur’s case appeared to be a textbook example. With a witness to the “accident,” the army couldn’t prove an act of cowardice, theoretically punishable by death. Nevertheless, even acts of negligence resulting in self harm were subject to military discipline.
Was Arthur’s injury a mistake, a calculated decision, or an act of desperation? We can’t know of course, but historian Mark Humphries suggests that self-inflicted wounds were a way for soldiers to exercise what little power and control they had over their own bodies and conditions. Nevertheless, the stigmatic code of “SIW” or “SI Wound” – Self-Inflicted Wound—would dog Arthur’s record thereafter.
After treatment in base hospital, Arthur was court martialed on April 30, and charged with the catch-all “Section 40” offence under the Army Act: “acting to the prejudice of good order and military discipline”. In mitigation of his punishment Arthur stated: “at the time of the accident, the locality where I was was being heavily shelled and I was much excited.”
Arthur was found guilty. On May 2 he was sentenced to 28 days of “Field Punishment No. 1.” Nicknamed “crucifixion,” this penalty was as much about shame as it was about discomfort. It involved being tied, standing, to a stationary object for two hours a day – in all weather and “in as public a place as possible.” The rest of the sentence involved menial labour on base.
Arthur’s punishment was delayed, however, when his wound became extremely infected – a common occurrence in injuries exposed to filthy conditions in the trenches. He was admitted to hospital in Wimereux on May 8 for treatment. It was not until early August he was pronounced “fit to undergo punishment.”
In September and October Arthur was again back in hospital in Boulogne and Etaples for bone inflammation in the injured foot – perhaps the result of the field punishment. He did not return to battle until late October.
Arthur was killed on February 6, 1918 in the Avion Section, on a clear day with “slight mortar activity in the afternoon and evening.” Death on the front lines could strike randomly even during relatively quiet periods. After sustaining a shrapnel wound to his head, he did not die immediately. He was taken to a Field Ambulance – a mobile hospital close to the front lines. He likely succumbed to his wounds there, since it appears he was never evacuated to medical stations further back from the lines.
The Whitehead documents we received at the Region of Peel Archives reveal the uncertainty families experienced after a war loss. As I mentioned above, one letter explains how a telegram went astray. Another letter warns about delays in finding personal effects. Yet another letter includes a cheque settling the estate of Robert Whitehead two years after his death. George and Arthur had each left him ten dollars in their wills. The total sum was now being passed on to his mother.
In fact, all of the war-related correspondence sent to the Whiteheads in Malton was addressed solely to their mother, Elizabeth, rather than to their (still-living) father, Robert. The federal military records above reveal that this was because the brothers had listed her as their next-of-kin for notification purposes. Their choice was perhaps due to her relative literacy, but it undoubtedly increased her harrowing burden.
In the Great War, families did lose siblings, especially when brothers were close in age and candidates for recruitment. But multiple loses were infrequent enough to shock communities, especially in Canada with its relatively low population. When conscription was finally imposed to bolster sagging enlistment, one of the proposed exemptions were for men whose brothers were already serving.
The hamlet of Elmbank near the village of Malton was a small farming community when the Whitehead brothers were lost. And their deaths were sadly not the only trial for the family. Just a few days before Arthur’s death, their daughter Laura had died suddenly at the age of 18. The cause of death was listed as a hemorrhage. The weight of the family’s grief made the local newspaper:
Ironically there is no evidence in Arthur’s service record that he ever made it back to England to recover, as this clipping suggests. Was this claim a genuine misunderstanding by his family, or a bid to save face? We will probably never know.
There are no further mentions of the brothers’ service in the newspapers. In the 1930s, tenacious Peel researcher and historian William Perkins Bull somehow obtained photographs of the brothers to publish, among many other photos of servicemen, in his book on the military history of the county (I have used these portraits above); but mysteriously, he wrote nothing about them as he did about others.
We don’t know what the Whitehead brothers liked and disliked, hoped for, or believed. We know them most of all through and because of their deaths. But, again, archival records are like lenses. They only allow us a limited, even distorted, range of vision. But they do (or should) prompt us to remember the life that breathed beyond their edges.
What was once the Whitehead’s farm is now occupied by part of the runway of Terminal 1 of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. Here millions of people from all over the world come and go every year – some facing incalculable losses themselves. The act of piecing together the last years of the Whiteheads’ short lives has involved me in layers of memory. A slender piece of this family’s story has become part of me, and by extension helped to humanize countless other lives who are otherwise captured only in statistics.
I will remember them.
Samantha Thompson, Archivist
Reference Sources and Further Reading
Thanks to the following researchers and historians:
Nick Moreau, for family and local history sleuthing.
Tim Cook and Laura Brown (both of the Canadian War Museum) and Mark Humphries (Western University) for pointing me in the direction of useful sources.
Humphries, Mark. “Willfully and With Intent: Self-Inflicted Wounds and the Negotiation of Power in the Trenches.” Social History 94, vol. 47 (2014): 269-397 Accessed digitally.
Beaupré, Diane. “En Route to Flanders Fields: The Canadians at Shorncliffe During The Great War.” London Journal of Canadian Studies 23, (2007/2008): 45-65. Accessed digitally.
McIntosh, Robert. “The Great War, Archives, and Modern Memory.” Archivaria 46, (Fall 1998): 1-30. Accessed digitally.
Bull, Wm. Perkins. From Brock to Currie: the military development and exploits of Canadians in general and of the men of Peel in particular, 1791 to 1930. Toronto: The Perkins Bull Foundation, George J. McLeod Ltd., 1935.
Morton, Desmond. When Your Number’s up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War. Toronto: Random House of Canada, 1993. Accessed digitally. Accessed digitally.
Pratt, Sisson Cooper. Military law, its procedure and practice. London: Kegan Paul, ca. 1915. Accessed digitally.
First World War web resources:
The following site at the Canadian War Museum is the definitive accessible web resource on Canada in the First World War. Be sure to drill down into all the sections and sub-sections: https://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/
This site offers a rigorous international perspective on numerous topics related to the Great War, with good Canadian coverage: 1914-1918-Online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War (WW1)
The following article in particular helped me to understand the process of clearing the dead and wounded under British command: The evacuation chain for wounded and sick soldiers – The Long, Long Trail (longlongtrail.co.uk)
The following information package is helpful in interpreting records available at Library and Archives Canada: https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/lest-we-forget/Documents/first-world-war-information-package.pdf
Additional information and interpretive help for First World War records in their care is available at Library and Archives Canada: https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/Pages/introduction.aspx
Library and Archives Canada, RG9-III-D-3. Volume/box number: 4937. File number: 429, “31st Canadian Infantry Battalion War Diary,” 1916/10/01-1917/09/30. Accessed online via LAC database October 2021.
Library and Archives Canada, RG9-III-D-3. Volume/box number: 4937. File number: 430, “31st Canadian Infantry Battalion War Diary,” 1917/10/01-1918/08/31. Accessed online via LAC database October 2021.
Library and Archives Canada, RG150 – Ministry of the Overseas Military Forces of Canada, Series 8, File 649-W-8936, Microfilm Reel Number T-8687, Finding Aid Number 150-5. “Whitehead, A [Court Martial proceedings]”, 1917. Accessed online via LAC database October 2021.
Library and Archives Canada, RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 10310 – 29, “Whitehead, Arthur [Personnel file].” Accessed online via LAC database October 2021.
Library and Archives Canada, RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 10312 – 36, “Whitehead, Robert [Personnel file]. Accessed online via LAC database October 2021.
Library and Archives Canada, RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 10311 – 18, “Whitehead, George [Personnel file]. Accessed online via LAC database October 2021.
Non-archival images sources:
Image of Alfred Doughty via Wikimedia Commons
Image of Pearson Airport via Wikimedia Commons