As we approach the centennial of the armistice that ended the First World War, people across Canada are pausing to reflect on the war that tore so many nations apart a century ago.
The battles of the First World War took place primarily on two fronts: the western front in France and Belgium and the eastern front near Russia and the now-defunct Ottoman Empire. It’s easy to imagine the First World War as something distant and isolated — something that happened somewhere else.
Geographically, the war did take place overseas. However, in another way, it also happened right here at the University of Saskatchewan. Those fighting and dying in the trenches weren’t faceless, nameless soldiers — rather, they were members of the campus community. One of them was Charles Bayne, a civil engineering student who enlisted in his second year just two days after Christmas.
Another was John Fisher, a 19-year-old agriculture student, and a third was faculty member Reginald Bateman, an English professor who enlisted in October 1914.
When analysing the impacts of the First World War a century later with no survivors left to tell their stories, it is easy to fall into a series of vague abstractions. We repeat phrases like,“They died for us,” and “If we don’t learn history, we are doomed to repeat it.”
While these are certainly legitimate and valuable thoughts to have, I’ve always believed that one of the best ways to gain a deeper understanding of the impacts of the First World War is to engage with the stories of those who fought and learn about them as real people not just statistics from a distant historical event.
The First World War was catastrophic for hundreds of communities around the world, Saskatchewan among them. The majority of recruits from southern Saskatchewan were part of the 46th Battalion, which fought at many of the war’s bloodiest and most devastating battles including the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Ypres and Passchendaele.
The 46th was even nicknamed the Suicide Battalion for their sickening casualty rate — 91.5 per cent between 1915 and 1918.
This was the grim reality for students of the U of S just over a century ago. Any man who could pass a physical was expected to enlist and do his part, while the rest of the community cheered them on and supported them from the home front.
Young men who had never left Saskatchewan were sent to a continent on the other side of the world to fight an enemy they didn’t know, and many of them never returned. Among these men was Charles Bayne, the civil engineering student who was killed in action on Oct. 26, 1917 — only five days before his birthday.
His body was never recovered, and he has no known grave, but his name is carved into the Menin Gate Memorial in Belgium alongside more than 54,000 other soldiers who went missing on the Ypres Salient.
Agriculture student John Fisher was praised for his “very good” military character, which helped him rise to the rank of captain. He survived right until the armistice but suffered severe injuries in the war. John died on April 17, 1919 of injuries inflicted during the war. He was 23.
Professor Bateman was killed in action with the Suicide Battalion and has no known grave. He is commemorated
on the Vimy Memorial.
If you would like to commemorate the U of S casualties of the First World War, visit the Memorial Gates at the original entrance to campus near Royal University Hospital. All 68 student fatalities are commemorated, as well as Reginald Bateman, the sole U of S professor killed in action.
Photo: Tony Walker