By Sam McBride
Gerald Hamilton Peters and fraternal twin Noel Quintan Peters were born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island on November 8, 1894 – exactly 48 years before the Oran harbour battle where their elder brother Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters won the Victoria Cross and the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross.
Their parents were Premier Frederick Peters and Bertha Gray, daughter of the P.E.I. Father of Confederation John Hamilton Gray. Other children in the family included sister Helen, born in 1887, and brother Jack, born in 1892. A younger sister Violet Avis Peters was born in 1899 after the family moved to Victoria, B.C. where their father established a law partnership with Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper.
Gerald was the intellectual among the children, preferring to read poetry and watch plays rather than participate in marching and rifle practice. Noel was handicapped with a moderate — though noticeable — mental disability that made his life miserable in an era when there was little understanding of or allowance for such handicaps. Bertha felt no qualms in openly treating Gerald as her favourite child and Noel, her least favourite.
At 6’1½”, Gerald was thin and gangly, and his expanded chest did not meet the standard. Gerald was sensitive, intellectual and, quite literally, a mama’s boy who would not choose army service in normal times but felt compelled to do his part in the war emergency. Perhaps to avoid the same examiners who assessed him in B.C., Gerald traveled to Montreal for a second try at enlisting. This time, he passed and was admitted as a private to the Royal Victoria Rifles 24th Battalion.
Gerald — who had told his sister Helen that he hated serving in the trenches of “Blasted Bloody Belgium” as a private with the Royal Victoria Rifles 24th Battalion through the winter of 1915–16 — got some good news in early 1916 when he was accepted into officer training. In April, he began as a lieutenant with the same 7th Battalion Jack served in, although few remembered Jack because of the almost complete turnover after the horrific casualties in the spring of 1915. Articles in the Prince Rupert Empire reported that Lieut. Gerald Peters was training to expertly analyze captured German documents. The information was mailed by Bertha to her husband Fred. He took it to the newspaper editor, who was eager to run stories about a local boy fighting in the Great War.
His mother Bertha had been in England since the summer of 1915 because she wanted to be close to her boys fighting in the war, particularly Gerald, with whom she was extremely close. She rented a cottage at Hythe on England`s southeast coast, near where the Channel Tunnel of today goes underground, so she could meet with Gerald on his leaves from service.
On June 2, 1916, Germans surprised the Allies with an attack that captured Mount Sorrel east of Ypres from Canadian forces. Success like this was unusual in the Great War because defenders usually had the advantage in any attack. The new commander of Canadian forces, General Julian Byng — later to be a hero in the great Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge and serve as Governor General of Canada — felt Canadians must immediately launch a counterattack to get the high ground back from the Germans before they could establish strong defences.
According to the orders in place for British generals, Byng likely would have lost his command if he had not attacked. As a result, Gerald’s unit was part of a hastily-planned advance on June 3rd which never had any real chance of success. As happened so often in the war to troops on both sides, Gerald went over the top of his trench towards the enemy expecting to die, and he did. As Fritz noted later, without coordinated artillery support the offensive was doomed.
Below is the transcript of one of 22 letters from Gerald in the Peters Family Papers.
Gerald to his father Frederic Peters November 30, 1915
I have now been in and out of the trenches several times. Things are very slack, and I have seen very little excitement. However, we shall no doubt get plenty of it later on. The life seems to be doing me good, at least everyone tells me I am getting fat on it. Of course, everything is made easy for the second contingent, we have no hardships to endure as did the first. So far I have witnessed one fairly good artillery bombardment, which we began and the Germans answered, and occasionally we have been under fire while on working parties etc. But as a rule there is little danger or excitement.
I went down to the place where Jack’s company is billeted about a week ago. It is some distance from here. Unfortunately most of the men were away. I saw one fellow who had known Jack at Salisbury. But he wasn’t near him at Langemarke. However, he promised to make enquiries and I left my address with him. At least so far we have not heard of anyone who actually saw him killed. I think there is a strong possibility of his being wounded and a prisoner in Belgium.
Well, it isn’t much use my wishing you the usual Christmas wishes this year. We can only hope that next year we will be a less scattered family again. I would like to see old Prince Rupert again. The muskeg would be a welcome change from the appalling mud here. Please give my respects to Mr. Broderick and my best wishes to the other fellows there.
You certainly were a prophet when you said that the war was far from finished.
Your affectionate son