Wartime memories

The following excerpts about WWI wartime life (1914 – 1918) near the Welland Canal are from an autobiography by Frances Cairns (nee Pidduck), my maternal grandmother. “Lou” is my grandfather, Louis Cairns. Lest We Forget the sacrifices made on our behalf.

poppy and wheatIn Nineteen/thirteen, the first year we were at McCalla’s the Welland Ship Canal was started and there was a lot of men looking for work, of course they could not employ all the men that arrived looking for work, so we would have men knocking on our doors wanting something to eat. For a while we always gave them food, but it became too much, because when one left the house, he would put a chalk mark on the telephone pole in front. This we found was to let others know where they could find food. Mr. McCalla would go out and rub the marks off and they too, stopped giving them food. Some days we would have twelve or more. Finally it got so bad we had to keep the doors locked, some would even try to open the door.

welland1At the end of Scott St. they built large sheds for the men to live in, and they had their own cook to do the cooking for them. This was paid for by the Government. They also had large stables there, where they kept the mules they used for hauling ties for the railway. These were laid down for the train, that brought rocks to build up the banks of the canal. They never lifted these rails, just covered them over and laid another railway on top. There are thousands of tons of buried rails in those banks. Jim left the farm and went to look after the mules that were stabled on the canal bank. The canal work closed down during the war, and did not open again until the war was over. It was not finished until later.

By this time the city [St. Catharines] had passed a law that all milk had to be bottled. Before that, the milkman would come around with large cans of milk, using a ladle, that measured a pint, he would measure the milk into the customers own container. Now the bottles had to be washed and boiled in a big copper boiler.

That winter of Nineteen/fifteen, Lou went to work in the ammunitions plant. It was hard work and his muscles would be very sore, as they turning the out large shells on a hand lathe and he was working thirteen hours a night. He become quite sick from working so hard, also, [as a farmer as well] he had never been used to working indoors.

In Nineteen/sixteen during the war everyone was to have dark curtains, to keep lights from showing on the outside. They placed wardens in different places to see that this law was carried out. Lou and a Mr. Brown were two of the wardens and were to meet at a certain spot each night. Mr. Brown came along swinging a “lighted” lantern, so of course Lou told him to put it out, as they were to look for people who had not shut in the light. Before the war we were allowed to drive along the canal. After the war broke out we had to have a pass, and you had to have a good reason for wanting one. Mother and Father lived on Lake St. and it was a short cut to their place. Once when we were going along there, a boat was tied up in the canal. Just as we were driving past, they tightened the ropes that held the boat to the wall. It raised the buggy right off the ground. No one was hurt, but the ropes were loosened in a hurry.

poppiesAt the start of the war before conscription, a married man did not have to go if he had a good reason. Lou had, he also had to carry our marriage certificate, to prove he was a married man. My Father begged him not to join the army, as he was the only one to look after things, if anything happened to him. Lou’s Mother and Father also begged him to stay. They said they already had three sons at war. Bill in the Black Watch as a scout, Jim in the Gordon Highlanders, and Bob a dispatch rider on a motorcycle. It was Jim that sent [our son] Will the kilt from Scotland.

In the spring of Nineteen/seventeen, Lou decided to stay working in the city, where he had worked all winter in the ammunition plant…

About Craig Chamberlain

Ward 3 Guelph resident, dad and step-dad.
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