The first veterans of the First World War

On Aug. 4th, 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany after the German armies invaded Belgium on their way to invading France.

As a loyal member of the British Empire, the declaration meant that Canada was automatically at war as well.

The news was greeted with great enthusiasm in Red Deer.

Major Carlyle Moore of the 35 Central Alberta Horse wired the Minister of the Militia to indicate the local squadron’s willingness and readiness to serve.

Large numbers of young men flocked to the Red Deer Armouries to enlist.

The outbreak of the War, however, had special meaning for the Belgians living in the community. Their former homeland was under attack; their families and friends were in grave danger.

Hence, many felt the need to rush back to help defend their old country.

An additional incentive came with the reports of the actions of the German military against Belgian civilians.

While the stories were heavily dramatized for propaganda purposes, many were all too true.

The Germans were concerned about Belgian resistance fighters, dubbed ‘francs tireurs’, while the Army was focused on the invasion of France.

Hence a policy of ‘schrecklichkeit’ or ‘frightfulness’ was adopted to crush resistance activities and to terrorize the Belgian civilians into submission.

One of the first Belgians to leave Red Deer for the War was Camille Joseph Mons.

He had been born in the Flanders part of Belgium in 1887 and had immigrated to Canada with his older brother Honore (Henry) in February 1906. He moved to Red Deer with Honore and sister-in-law Trura, around 1913.

He and his brother got jobs on the completion of the construction of the Alberta Central Railway to Rocky Mountain House. In early 1914, Joseph and his fiancée Matilda, also from Belgium, were married.

Although Matilda was pregnant with their daughter, Louisa, when the war broke out, Joseph paid his own way back to Belgium.

He enlisted with the Belgium Army on Aug. 29th, 1914.

He was stationed at Fort van Walem, near Malines.

The Fort was besieged during the German advance on Antwerp.

Of the hundreds of Belgians defending the Fort, only 175 were left alive when they finally surrendered in September 1914.

Although Joseph was wounded, he was forced to walk 16 km to Malines and then 32 km to Brussels. From Brussels, he was 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.).

In April 1917, Joseph was released and sent to Switzerland.

He spent several months recovering in hospital from his ordeal. Finally, he was able to return to Alberta in December 1918, just as the terrible Spanish ‘flu epidemic was abating.

Although he was a veteran of the Belgian Army and not the Canadian or British military, Joseph was able to secure land for a farm near Sylvan Lake through the Soldiers’ Settlement Board. In 1926, he was listed as living in Red Deer.

Another Belgian, who soon left to defend his old homeland, was Henri Paraire. He was also a native of Flanders, who had served in garrison artillery at Antwerp. He was still considered a reservist even though he had moved to Alberta.

He lived in North Red Deer for couple of years, but subsequently moved first to Rocky Mountain House and then to Nordegg, where he got a job in the new coalmines in 1914.

When the First World War broke out, he went back to Belgium on Sept. 17th, 1914 to re-enlist in his old regiment.

He was seriously wounded on April 4, 1915, during the heavy fighting near Ypres. He recovered sufficiently to return to the front, but was killed in action in October 1916.