Red Deer Fire Department and the First World War

The week of Oct. 5th to 11th is the annual Fire Prevention Week.

This is an occasion to remind us of the various measures which we can take to help protect our families, our homes, our businesses and ourselves from the hazards and losses of fire.

While Fire Prevention Week focuses on reducing risks and increasing safety, the week also provides us with an opportunity to recognize the work our local emergency services personnel do for our community. This ranges from picking up old Christmas trees after that holiday season to literally risking their lives to protect and rescue those who are in danger of injury and/or death.

This year is also the centennial of the outbreak of the First World War. What is often over looked is that the members of the Red Deer Fire Brigade enlisted in very high numbers to serve their country in this time of war. Tragically, several lost their lives in that terrible conflict, while others suffered permanent wounds during their service overseas.

Since firefighters were generally young adults, in excellent physical condition, they were prime candidates for military service. Many of those in the Fire Brigade were past or current members of the militia. Some had seen service in the South African (Boer) War. Consequently, a large number already had military training.

When the War broke out on Aug. 4th, 1914, a full third of the Fire Brigade immediately answered the call to serve ‘King and Country’. In the following months, another third followed their colleagues and enlisted in the military.

Some of the firefighters, such as Thomas Cosgrove, went to England to enlist in their old regiments. Others, such as Herbert Wightwick, joined the 35 Central Alberta Horse of the First Canadian Contingent.

In the fall of 1914, recruitment commenced for the Second Contingent. The men were sent to Calgary for training. Once there, they were given what were described as ‘comfortable billets’ in the swine building at the Calgary Exhibition Grounds. An officer wrote that this was the best accommodation in the camp.

Early in 1915, recruiting began for C Squadron of the 12 Canadian Mounted Rifles. Temporary billets were provided in the Red Deer Armouries, which later became Red Deer’s Fire Hall in 1961.

However, once spring arrived, the men were moved to barracks in the livestock buildings at the Red Deer Fairgrounds. The medical officer of health took the precaution of having the men inoculated for typhoid fever.

In April 1915, Herbert Wightwick was killed during the terrible battle of St. Julien, where poisonous gas was used as a weapon of war for the first time. Shortly thereafter, the Fire Brigade decided to create a roll of honour for all firefighters on active service. The Roll was put on prominent display in the Fire Hall.

As the War continued, new waves of recruitment took place for such units as the 63, 66, 89, 137 and 187 Battalions. As a consequence, the Fire Brigade found it increasingly difficult to find suitable new members from the dwindling numbers of fit men in the community. In several cases, men joined the Fire Brigade only to leave shortly thereafter to enlist in the military.

In April 1916, Chief Horace Meeres resigned as fire chief to enlist in the 187th Battalion. Shortly before his departure, his old home on Victoria Avenue (43 Street) was turned into a military and later, isolation hospital.

The papers were soon full of the news that former firefighters and many others had been killed or wounded in the terrible battles being waged overseas. Among the firefighters who lost their lives were Fred Bliss, Douglas Warren, Ellis Buckingham, Frank England and Alexander Hay.

Many others were seriously wounded, sometimes multiple times.

For example, Billy Scott was badly wounded in the face with shrapnel and lost the sight of one eye. Rube Gee was shot through both legs and was sent home, where he became a cadet instructor and school janitor.

William Jackson was wounded twice, but was sent back into battle at Passchendaele where he lost his lower jaw. Both Horace Meeres and his oldest son Ray were wounded at the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

On July 4, 1919, a new honour roll was officially dedicated at the Fire Hall for those who had served, and those who had lost their lives, in the Great War.

Promises were made to never forget the courage and sacrifice made by these men in a time of war. Hopefully, these promises will never be forgotten.