On Sunday, people across Canada took time to remember all those who served and all those who lost their lives while serving Canada in a time of war and during peacekeeping missions. However, we unfortunately often overlook those who were living in Canada at the start of a war, but who chose to leave to serve in another country’s military.
This was particularly true at the start of the First World War. There were large numbers of people in Red Deer and area who had recently arrived from Europe. As soon as war was declared, several were anxious to get back to their former homelands to help defend their family, friends and former neighbours.
There were a number of individuals and families in the City of Red Deer and the Village of North Red Deer who were originally from the Flanders region of Belgium and Northern France. For example, Lerouges, Hermarys, Wiarts and Jaspars of North Red Deer were all from the City of Lille, which was located very close to the Western Front.
According to incomplete records, 42 young men from Red Deer and district enlisted in the French army and navy. Another five enlisted with the Belgium army. Because many enlisted in August 1914, or shortly thereafter, they served for as long as four and a half years. Not surprisingly, given the long periods of time they spent on the front lines, many were killed, wounded and/or taken prisoner of war.
A good insight into the experiences of those who went to fight for their former homelands can be found in the story of Joseph Mons. He coincidentally had the same name as the city in Belgium where the fighting on the Western Front began in August 1914 and ended on Nov. 11, 1918.
Mons was born in Belgium in 1887 and immigrated with his wife Matilda to North Red Deer in 1906. Although their daughter Louisa was less than one-year-old when the First World War broke out, Joseph paid his own way back to Belgium. He then enlisted with the Belgium Army on Aug. 29, 1914.
He was stationed at Fort van Walen, near Malines. The Fort was besieged during the German advance on Antwerp. Of the several hundred Belgians defending the Fort, only 175 were left alive when they finally surrendered.
Joseph was wounded, but was forced to walk 50 km. to Brussels. He was then shipped to a prisoner of war camp in Hanover, Germany.
Conditions in the camp were dreadful. While he was interned, Joseph dropped from 83 kg. (183 lbs.) to a mere 45 kg. (100 lbs.). He was finally released in 1918 near the end of the War and sent back to Alberta via Switzerland. His health was so poor that he had to spend several months in hospital recovering.
Another insight comes from the story of the Jaspars. After both of their parents passed away in France, seven of the Jaspar children moved to North Red Deer, where their older brother Stephane (Steve) had settled in 1908.
When the First World War broke out, three of the brothers, Gaston, Joseph and Paul, returned to France and enlisted in the French army.
Gaston was killed on Nov. 2, 1914 while on patrol in an abandoned castle. After his death, title to his homestead in Central Alberta was transferred to his sister, Marie Therese Wiart. Joseph was taken prisoner of war at the Battle of the Aisne in January 1915. Fortunately, both Joseph and Paul survived the war, although neither came back to Red Deer.
In addition to Gaston Jaspar, more than a dozen of the Central Albertans, who served in the French and Belgium military, were killed in action or died from wounds (i.e. a death rate of more than 25%). Like Joseph and Paul Jaspar, many of the three-dozen others were too ill from their wounds to return to Central Alberta, or else re-established new lives back in their old home countries.
Not all the French and Belgian immigrants enlisted in military in their old homelands. Just after he turned 17-years-old, Pierre Lerouge decided to enlist in the Canadian 233 Battalion to serve as a sapper. However, once overseas, he was transferred to the six Canadian Railway Troops. He was severely wounded when he was twice gassed while on the front lines.
Pierre remained active with militia after he returned to Red Deer. Amazingly, despite the damage to his lungs, he was the bugler at the first Remembrance Day service at the Red Deer Cenotaph on Nov. 11, 1922.