By Sam McBride
Capt. Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters was low-profile by nature and particularly secretive due to his involvement in naval intelligence with the Royal Navy and with the spy world of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. It is doubtful that he ever kept a personal diary, but if he did it has never surfaced in the years since his death.
What we do have from Fritz Peters is 28 letters he sent to members of his family in Canada during both world wars, particularly the First World War. Part of the collection of letters and memorabilia known as the Peters Family Papers, these letters are the basis for my biography titled “The Bravest Canadian – Fritz Peters, VC: The Making of a Hero of Two World Wars”.
At age 19 – two months shy of 20 – and with some training in local militia, Fritz’s brother Gerald was considered a good prospect for military service, particularly in a family with a strong tradition of military service and loyalty to Canada and the British Empire. However, as noted in the first of Fritz’s letters, featured below, the Peters family was devastated when Gerald was refused admittance to the army because he failed the physical exam performed on him by a Prince Rupert doctor.
(ABOVE: first page of Sept. 1914 letter at right, and fourth page at left; BELOW: second and third pages of the letter)
Gerald was tall and thin, and his chest measurement did not meet the standards for passing the physical. His brother Fritz, 25, had eight years of service in the Royal Navy before retiring in 1913, and then re-joined a year later at the outbreak of war. Fritz’s advice to his brother in the letter reveals a lot about Fritz’s personality and ideals. The Peters children were all avid readers, so it is not surprising that Fritz uses characters and lines from Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling to make his points in the letter.
Fortunately for the transcriber (me), Fritz’s handwriting is legible and he is a thoughtful and clear writer.
Fritz advises that he has ordered some exercises from a supplier in England that will help Gerald improve his strength so he can pass a future enlistment physical. He advises Gerald to not be downhearted if the exercise regimen does not gain him entrance into the army, because “It is not given to every man to be so fortunate as to fight for his country.”
That comment reflected Fritz’s belief that military service in time of war is not just a duty, but a privilege and wonderful opportunity.
Subsequently, Gerald travelled across Canada to Montreal where he established temporary residence at his aunt Mim Abbott’s home, and was successful in enlisting with the 24th (Victoria Rifles) Battalion. After service in the Ypres trenches in 1915 Gerald was accepted for officer training in early 1916, and became a lieutenant with the 7th (British Columbia) Battalion, the same unit his older brother Private John Francklyn “Jack” Peters was with when he went missing in the Second Battle of Ypres on April 24, 1915. By late May 1916 Canadian military authorities had concluded that Jack died 13 months earlier in the Ypres Salient. For the Peters family, this was only the beginning of their war tragedies. On June 3, 1916 Lieut. Gerald Peters died while leading a charge in the Battle of Mount Sorrel, just a few miles from where his brother Jack died a year earlier.
Ironically, Fritz, who was by far the most enthusiastic warrior among the brothers, came out of the First World War intact, surviving numerous close calls in battle at sea. Earning the prestigious Distinguished Service Order and Distinguished Service Cross medals, his record was such that he was allowed back in the Royal Navy for war service in the Second World War, despite being 50 years of age.
In 1940 Fritz Peters earned a bar to his Distinguished Service Cross. His heroism in leading the attack on the harbour of Oran, Algeria in the Allied invasion of North Africa on November 8, 1942 was acknowledged with both the Victoria Cross and the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross, which was the highest honour the Americans could bestow on a non-American.
“It is not given to every man to be so fortunate as to fight for his country”.
– Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters, September 1914