Friday 8 August 2014

Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the First World War

This week Canadians commemorated the 100th anniversary of our nation's entry into the First World War. On August 5, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany, which meant that Canada was also involved. Before the war ended in 1918, 620,000 people were part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. 67,000 were killed, and 250,000 were wounded.

The Catholic Church considered itself impartial, and condemned the fighting. However, it did play a part. Many chaplains were fielded, and parishes participated in relief efforts.

At ARCAT we have records of another way the Catholic Church tried to help. Within the office of the Secretary of State of the Holy See, the Ufficio Provvisorio per Informazioni sui Prigionieri de Guerra (Temporary Office for Information on Prisoners of War) was formed. As detailed in an article "The Vatican and The Missing" in The Sacred Heart Review (Volume 58, Number 13, 8 September 1917 pp. 8-9), the office was formed in response to letters that Pope Benedict XV had been receiving from many countries with pleas for assistance in finding information about captured and missing soldiers. Catholic officials across Europe were able to visit prisoners of war and gather information, which was meticulously filed and made available to family members.

Archbishop McNeil assisted Catholics of the Archdiocese by personally writing to the office. Below is an example of a response which was received:

A letter to the Archbishop of Toronto acknowledging receipt of a telegram requesting information regarding Esmonde Clarke and instructing him to wait with patience while the necessary research is undertaken.

Below is a letter to Archbishop McNeil from an official of the Canadian Bank of Commerce, writing on behalf of Sir John Aird for information about his son, Hugh R. Aird.

We don't know what happened to Hugh R. Aird while he was in Turkey, but we do know that the family received a response:

Other things we know about Hugh are that he was born on September 2nd, 1892, and that he was a lumberman when he enlisted in February, 1915. He was 5'8", and had fair hair and blue eyes. His father, John Aird, lived at 89 Madison Avenue in Toronto. This information comes from Hugh's attestation paper, which can be found in Library and Archives Canada's Soldiers of the First War database.

Hugh's name can be found in a list of men who were in Eaton's Machine Gun Battery, but we know from his father's letter that he eventually became a part of the Royal Naval Air Service and served in the Gallipoli Campaign.

We do know that Hugh was able to make it home safely, because he went on to marry, and he became the father of John Black Aird, the 23rd Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.

We also know that Hugh died in 1971 and is buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto, as found on the website

The 'Great War' was extremely brutal and devastating to human life. By remaining impartial, the Catholic Church was able to bring comfort to soldiers and their families. As Archbishop McNeil explained in his 1918 pastoral letter The Pope and the War, "The Pope is necessarily neutral in this war. He is in justice obliged to be impartial. Catholics are patriotic in their respective countries. The war has made this clear. Whether right or wrong in judgement, they are convinced of the justice of their respective countries' cause, whether French or German. If the Pope publicly condemned either group of belligerents at the outbreak of war or at any stage of it, he would thereby place many millions of Catholics in the agonizing necessity of choosing between their Church and their Country, and he would favor one section of the Church at the expense of another. The war would go on in any case."

As we take time to commemorate this event in history, we pray that the lessons that were learned between 1914 and 1918 will be remembered and that peace can be attained for all people.

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