by Sam McBride

John Francklyn “Jack” Peters was born October 19. 1892, the middle child of Frederick Peters and Bertha Gray of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.  Sister Helen Peters was five years older and brother Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters was three when Jack was born at the Peters family home known as Sidmount House.  At the time of Jack`s arrival, his father was the Hon. Frederick Peters, premier and attorney general of Prince Edward Island for more than a year.

Clockwise, from bottom left: baby Jack with sister Helen and brother Fritz, 1892; Jack as a toddler; Helen with Gerald (left) and Jack; Jack at about age 15 (McBride Collection)

Two years later in 1894, fraternal twin brothers Gerald Hamilton Peters and Noel Quintan Peters were born.  In 1899, after the family had moved across the continent to Victoria, British Columbia, sister Violet Avis Peters was born, seven years younger than Jack.  His father had resigned as premier in October 1897, and moved his family to Victoria where he established a law practice with another well-known departing Maritimer, Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper.

Jack attended school in Victoria, and then in 1900 he went to England with other family members.  They resided at Bedford, north of London, where his mother Bertha`s stepmother moved after the death of her husband John Hamilton Gray in 1887.  Jack and brother Fritz were students at the Bedford Grammar School in the 1900-01 school year, and sister Helen attended the Bedford School for Girls.  The following year Fritz transferred to Cordwalles School in Maidenhead, known as a preparatory school for future Royal Navy officers, in line with Fritz`s dream of a naval career.  Jack continued at Bedford Grammar school for another two years.  We do not have details of his further schooling, but it appears from his letters that he returned to Victoria where he attended school and participated in militia training.  In January 1905 brother Fritz enlisted in the Royal Navy, and in November 1905 younger sister Violet died in a fireplace accident in the family home in Oak Bay, immediately east of Victoria.

In 1911 Jack moved with the family to the north coastal town of Prince Rupert where his father took the family when he accepted the position of Solicitor (lawyer) for the City of Prince Rupert.   At the time, it appeared Prince Rupert was going to be a boom town, and a port to rival Vancouver.   The following year sister Helen married Edgar Edwin Lawrence “Ted” Dewdney in Esquimalt, and the couple moved to Vernon where Ted was an accountant with the Bank of Montreal, with whom he had worked since 1897.  Perhaps assisted – or at least inspired – by brother-in-law Ted Dewdney, Jack went to work as a clerk at the Bank of Montreal branch in Prince Rupert.  About the same time, brother Gerald was employed as a clerk with the Union Bank in Prince Rupert.  Jack, Gerald and Noel all served in the Earl Grey`s Own  Rifles militia in Prince Rupert.

At the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 he and brothers Gerald and Noel rushed to enlist, but only Jack was accepted for war service.   Like Jack, Gerald was tall at 6 foot, one and a half inches, but Gerald`s chest measurement was below the army standard, so he was rejected.  Gerald later travelled to Montreal to enlist there, and this time passed the physical exam.   Noel was rejected because of a slight, but noticeable, mental disability, and was not accepted for military service until he was allowed to join the Canadian Forestry Corps in Britain in May 1917.

Jack was in the First Contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, serving with the 7th British Columbia/Duke of Connaught battalion.   He trained at the Valcartier base in Quebec and then went overseas to England where he trained in Salisbury Plain with other Empire troops in the wettest winter weather on record.   He arrived in France in late February and was in minor trench action for the next couple of months, including the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.

In a letter home to his mother in January 1915 he said “You needn’t worry about me because I don’t intend to put my head up above the trench to shoot the Germans.  Me for where the earth is thickest and highest.” He was happy to let his brother Fritz be the war hero of the family.

However, Jack would be the first of three Peters brothers to die in the world wars of the 20th century.  He was killed on Saturday, April 24, 1915 in the 2nd Battle of Ypres when Canadian troops made a courageous stand against a massive German attack that used poison gas for the first time on the Western Front.

The use of poison gas in artillery shells was forbidden by the Hague Conventions which both sides had agreed to in 1899 and 1906, but the German commander at Ypres thought he could get away with spreading the gas directly from canisters and piping from their own trenches, depending on the wind to take it to the enemy.  The completely surprised French colonial troops on the Canadians’ left panicked and ran away from their positions upon experiencing the greenish-yellow cloud of chlorine gas late in the afternoon of April 22nd, which left the inexperienced Canadians to fill a four-mile gap in the Allied line protecting the headquarters at Ypres and the coastal ports.

from bottom left: Jack at Bedford, England; Jack in Prince Rupert; as a teen; with his bicycle (McBride Collection)

Reinforcements promised by the French never arrived.  The Germans did not expect the gas to have such a dramatic impact – wind conditions and temperature were ideal for distribution of the heavier-than-air gas, unlike a previous attempt to use poison gas on the Russian front — and were not prepared with reserves to immediately take advantage of the break in the line.  They were ready by the early morning of Saturday, April 24th, launching a full-scale offensive with gas directly against the Canadians.

Jack in the 7th battalion would have been right in the middle of the vicious battle.  The Canadians found they could function somewhat under the gas by holding urine-soaked handkerchiefs against their faces and partially neutralizing the chlorine.  Records show that relatively few soldiers died from just the poison gas; they would be hit by bullets and shells when drawn away from their trenches by the gas and unable to defend themselves.  Flame-throwers were also introduced for the first time in the offensive, making a horrific situation even worse for the defenders.

If the Canadians had not held the new battle line, the enemy could have easily encircled 50,000 Allied troops and marched to the North Sea to capture ports (as happened at Dunkirk in May 1940 in the Second World War), which would have been a devastating blow to the Allies.  British General Sir John French gave the Canadians credit for extraordinary bravery and said they “saved the situation”.  The Germans began respecting Canadians as adversaries after this battle.

While we don’t know exactly what happened to Jack in the battle (witnesses died too), it is noteworthy that he was a part of what was arguably the most important defensive stand in Canadian history.

There were hundreds of Canadian prisoners taken in the shifting front that day, and for a period the military authorities thought Jack might be among prisoners in Belgium or Germany.  Dozens of soldiers of the 7th Battalion were taken prisoner after the Germans surrounded and captured the small village of St. Julien.  The Peters family felt 100% sure that Jack was safe as a prisoner, largely because Fred`s cousin Helen Francklyn in Bristol said a friend of hers in Switzerland found out that Jack was at the Celle Lager prison in Hanover.   However, the Red Cross found that the prisoner in question in Hanover was in fact someone else, so on May 29, 1916 Jack was officially presumed to have died “on or after April 24, 1915”.  Of 900 men and 24 officers in Jack’s battalion, 580 men and 18 officers were casualties in the 100 hours of frantic action that followed the first gas attack.  Four Victoria Crosses were awarded to Canadians in the battle, including Lieutenant Edward Bellew of Jack’s 7th battalion.  John McCrae, a surgeon in charge of a field hospital, wrote his famous poem “In Flanders Fields” on May 3, 1915, inspired by the death of a close friend in the same battle in which Jack died.

After being assured for so long that Jack was safe, his mother Bertha refused to believe he had died.   She did not accept his death until the war was over, and no further information on Jack had emerged.  She grieved much more for son Gerald, who died in the Battle of Mount Sorrel in June 1916.  Gerald was her favourite child, and they were exceptionally close.   A memorial plaque (image below) with the names of Jack Peters, Gerald Peters, their cousin Arthur Gordon Peters, and seven other Charlottetown boys who died in the war was installed at St. Paul`s Anglican Church in Charlottetown.  The names of Jack and Gerald Peters are also listed on the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres that includes the names of thousands of Allied soldiers who died at Ypres with no identified remains.

The letter below was the first of six letters from Jack in the Peters Family Papers that have been kept safe over the years, first by his mother Bertha, then by his sister Helen Dewdney, and most recently by his niece Dee Dee McBride.  His last letter, dated April 13, 1915, was mailed to his cousin Evelyn Poole in Guildford, Surrey, southeast of London, who passed it on to his family in British Columbia.   The letters were handwritten in pencil, often with smudges of dirt from the trenches.

from bottom left: Jack; Jack second from top left in a group that includes Gerald (to his left), Noel (bottom right) and two unidentified boys; and Jack on a log (McBride Collection)

Private Jack Peters to his family in Prince Rupert, dated December 18, 1914

{sent from England}

Just received yours of Nov. 23rd.  As it is pouring with rain we can’t go out on parade so I’ve got a chance to answer it.

Capt. Harvey1 gave us a lecture on attacking a fortified position between 9 and 10 this morning.  About which he doesn’t know much.  All the old soldiers are busy imitating him now.  They, of course, know what a real attack is like.  Although, as a rule, they don’t say much about the Boer War. 

I was very glad it rained today as I was feeling tired after a day’s work digging on the railway about five miles away from here.  The pick and shovel work caused many casualties amongst the company.  Mostly, the “lurking fever”.  They all claimed it was vaccination, but the hard-hearted doctor sent them all back to work.  Except one to whom he gave some medicine.  The others all agree that it is lucky that he took it first before they tried it.  My arm hasn’t bothered me at all.  I hope to escape inoculation.

It’s awful to be ill at camp.  “Sick Parade” sounds at 7:15and you have to parade at the doctor’s tent then await his pleasure.  Needless to say, it prevents anyone from going sick when they aren’t.  The ones who really are ill, generally die.  I believe I’m feeling quite well, so far.  Eric Poole2 is in hospital as a result of trench digging on a wet night.  Ray3 is a major now.  We are all a bit excited owing to the bombardment of the East Coast.  One fellow in the next hut whose house is inScarborough had his home destroyed, and feels that his people may have been killed.  The general nervousness in camp is not owing to anything like that, but whether Christmas leave will be stopped.  All the old soldiers live for the huge bust that they go on when on leave.

I am down for leave from Dec. 30 to Jan. 4. I expect I’ll go up to Hodsocks4 and have a cheap holiday. London is a little expensive.  I arrived in camp with 1/35.  If I hadn’t been taken I would have had to work with pick and shovel to enable me to get back toLondon.

I feel sure that we will be in Franceby the time you get this.  Of course, we will be at least eight weeks at the base or on the lines of communication.  The 1st B.C. regiment are the cracks of the Contingent.  Some of the Eastern men are awful looking mutts quite on a par with Kitchener’s rather scraggy army.

I’ll send you a photograph as soon as I can.  My uniform will soon be all messed up.  They provide us with slacks and a khaki shirt which I generally wear.

(continued Sunday)

We had parade on Friday afternoon.  I saw the biggest aeroplane that I have ever seen.  The plains are alive with them.  They have a Union Jack painted on the bottom of the planes.  I’ve seen as many as 5 in the air at once.

Saturday morning was the hardest on record.  We paraded at 8:30 but had to go on fatigue instead and help the engineers build a heavy truck road.  I had the job of carrying ties about 8 feet long weighing a terrific amount.  It was pouring with coldsleet and rain as well.  We labored for 3 hours.  The hardest in my life.  I was over to see Harris on Friday evening.  The 72nd are about a mile away from here.  I got lost coming back in the dark.  Hundreds of huts all looking the same.

Jack`s attestation papers. Note the signatures of Captain Harvey and Colonel Hart-McHarg, both of whom were men of distinction who died in the Second Battle of Ypres along with Jack.

I had a two hour job finding my own hut.  Harris goes on his holiday this week.  So I can’t go to Yorkshire with him.  Gus Lyons of Victoria fame is in the 50th Highlanders right near us.  I haven’t found Willie Abbott6 yet. 

We had a church parade this morning for the first time since my arrival.  Mr. Barton I believe is our chaplain.  It was cold out in the open air.  I didn’t envy him in his thin surplice.

Fritz has written to me several times since I came.  He can’t give any news.

The war in the opinion of most people will last for 18 months at least.  The Russians have just been badly beaten by Von Hindenburg.  The Germans again threaten Warsaw.  So it is up to Kitchener to finish the war as neither France or Russia can.  I expect you don’t hear anything about the Russian defeat in Rupert.

Kitchener rules…

1 Captain Rupert (aka Robert) Valentine Harvey (1872-1915) was born in Liverpool and taught school there before moving to Canada in 1899 to teach at Queen’s School in Vancouver.  In 1901 he took over as headmaster and then in 1908 merged his school with UniversitySchoolin Victoriathat had been founded two years before by Rev. W.W. Bolton (who had taught Fritz Peters at his school on Belcher   Avenuein Victoriabefore Fritz went to Englandfor preparatory school in 1900) and J.C. Barnicle.  Harveybecame Warden of the UniversitySchool(now known as St. Michael’s UniversitySchool, the largest residential school in B.C.).  In a 1917 letter to his father, Fritz Peters mentioned meeting Harvey several years earlier and discussing schoolmastering with him, which Fritz was considering as a career at the time.  Harvey was a strong believer in cadet corps and scouting, but he didn’t serve in the Boer War.  In 1914 he left with his regiment, the 7th Battalion, as Captain for overseas duty.  On April 24, 1915 in the Second Battle of Ypres he and the No. 3 Company he commanded were surrounded by Germans in their full-scale assault on Canadian forces.  Harvey was seriously wounded but refused medical treatment until injured men in his company were taken care of.  He was taken prisoner, and died in a prison hospital in Germany on May 8, 1915.[i]   Captain Harvey’s signature is on Jack Peters’ attestation papers.

2 – Jack’s cousin Eric Skeffington Poole was a son of Bertha’s sister Florence Gray Poole.  He was born inNova Scotiaand lived inEnglandafter the family moved there in 1905.  He was a Second Lieutenant with the West Yorkshire Regiment in July 1916 when he suffered from shell shock during theBattleof theSomme.  He had recurring periods of confusion after returning from medical treatment, and then onOctober 5, 1916he wandered away from his platoon at the front.  He was arrested by military police and faced a court martial for desertion.  Despite evidence that he was still suffering from the shell shock (or what today could be referred to as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) which made him anxious and confused, he was found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad.  British Field Marshall Douglas Haig could have commuted the sentence, but chose to make an example of him to demonstrate that officers were subject to the same basic military rules as their men.  In his diary entry ofDec. 6, 1916Haig wrote “it is highly important that all ranks should realize that the laws is the same for an officer as a private.”  Eric was shot at dawn on December 10, 1916 at Poperinghe, Belgium, about 10 km west of where his cousins Jack and Gerald Peters had died earlier in battles near Ypres.  He was the first British officer to be executed for desertion.  The trial and execution were not publicized in the press at the time, apparently in deference to Eric’s father Henry Skeffington Poole who had aristocratic connections and was ill at the time of the court martial and would die in March 1917.  It is possible that the family agreed to not contest the verdict if authorities kept it secret.  The fact that Jack would comment on Eric being in hospital in a 1914 letter – two years before the “desertion” incident – is interesting because it shows that Eric had longstanding health problems.

3 – Major Henry Raynauld (Ray)Poole was Eric’s older brother.  The obituary published after the funeral of his mother, Florence Poole, in 1923 listed a surviving son Major H. R. Poole, DSO, MBE, indicating he won the Distinguished Service Order medal and was accepted as a Member of the British Empire.

4 – Hodsock Priory, a stately manor and estate in Nottinghamshire, was the residence of Col. Henry Mellish, a bachelor who was an expert sharpshooter and enthusiastic amateur meteorologist.  Mellish’s mother was Margaret Cunard, a daughter of Sir Samuel Cunard and sister of Fred’s mother Mary, so he and Fred Peters were cousins.  One of the envelopes of letters that Fritz sent to Bertha in 1916 was addressed to her at Hodsock Priory, which was one of several addresses Bertha had while inEnglandwhen she was there for about a year during the First World War.  From these letters, the Peters family members appear to have had an open invitation to stay at the huge Hodsock estate virtually whenever they desired.

5 – The standard for stating British currency at the time (pounds/shillings).

6 – William Hamilton “Willie” Abbott was Jack`s cousin.  His mother was Mary Stukeley Hamilton Gray, sister of Jack`s mother Bertha Gray.  His father was William Abbott, son of the Canadian Prime Minister John Abbott.  The Abbott home in Montreal was a regular stop for members of the Peters family travelling by rail to or from England.  Willie, a civil engineer, survived the war.  He was interviewed by the  Montreal Gazette in 1943 after his cousin Fritz Peters received the Victoria Cross.  Willie was a greatuncle of the Canadian actor Christopher Plummer.

Map of Ypres battle area. Top cross is approximately where Jack died; cross at right is where Gerald died; and cross at left is on the road to Poperinghe, Belgium where their cousin Eric Poole was buried after execution for desertion.


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