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I started researching both sides of my family tree when I was doing my doctoral research over a decade ago. Digging into the past and through ancestry and genealogical websites proved to be a gratifying distraction from the (often) mentally tiresome pursuit of academia.
Over the course of three short years, I amassed hundreds of bits of family history and photos. Near the end, I slid into some form of ‘genealogical fatigue,’ but – by then – had thoroughly documented seven generations on both sides of my family tree.
All of this research stimulated an interest in the World Wars for me. In particular, I became fascinated with the Great War – World War I – and with those that we had lost there. My great great Uncle Augustine “Gus” Fehrenbach was one of those casualties.
Gus Fehrenbach entered into service in May of 1916, recruited into the 188th (Saskatchewan) Battalion. He was 31 years old at the time and a bachelor. Gus lived with and supported his elderly, widowed mother Johanna. After a few months of training, Gus traveled to Liverpool on the SS Olympic (October, 1916) where he was transferred into the 46th Battalion in France.
We know very little about great great Uncle Gus and his experiences in the war other than what has been documented by the Veteran Affairs Canada and through the War Diaries.
Who were his friends in battle? Did they share moments of easy camaraderie amid the mud, the blood and the blast of gunfire? We will never know.
What we do know is that Private Fehrenbach died on October 26, 1917 on the first day of the Second Battle of Passchendaele. Battlefield conditions were horrific:
“On the morning of October 26, the battle began…The men, weighed down by wet and mud-caked greatcoats and slipping and falling in the muck, made progress, but at great cost. The 3rd and 4th Divisions suffered more than 2,500 casualties, gaining less than 1,200 metres of territory. Machine-gun fire from the pillboxes was deadly and the slow-moving Canadians were easy targets for the German gunners. The 46th Battalion suffered an appalling 70 per cent casualties in the advance.” – Canada in the Great War
Many of the soldiers were killed by ‘friendly’ fire:
“…At 5:30 a.m. of the 26th the Barrage started and remained 8 minutes before the company started to advance. This barrage was very irregular in fact it was impossible to tell where it was supposed to be resting. Many casualties were caused by our shells falling short before the 8 minutes were up.” – War Diaries, October 1917.
Today, we are left only with military records and the odd photo here and there as evidence of what men like Gus Fehrenbach sacrificed serving our country and the Allies.
The last surviving Canadian World War I veteran, John Babcock, died in 2010. As time moves on and more generations separate us from these important historical events, will we forget?
“We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders Fields.” – John McCrae
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Veterans Affairs: http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/collections/virtualmem
Book of Remembrance: http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/collections/books