When Canada went to war in August 1914, the vast majority of Saskatchewan recruits were recent British immigrants. Sixty-three of the first 68 volunteers from the Swift Current area, for example, were British-born. The story was the same at other recruiting stations.
These high British-born enlistment numbers reflected the high British-born settlement rate in the province over the previous decade. British immigrants were the largest group to come to Saskatchewan in the early 20th century. And when war broke out, it was only natural for Britons to do their part — to help their home country in its time of need.
The tug of patriotism, however, often masked their failure at homesteading or their inability to find steady work, particularly during the stubborn recession that crippled the western Canadian economy before the war. It has been estimated that one-fifth of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fled long-term unemployment.
For many, turning a quarter-section of land into a productive farm was a failing exercise. “War is hell,” one recruit quipped, “but what about homesteading?”
Enlistment also offered Britons a free trip home before they entered the trenches along the western front in France and Belgium. In fact, it was widely assumed that the war would be over by Christmas 1914 and that the CEF would not see any action. Why, then, not sign up, especially if it meant that Britons living in Canada had the chance to see family and friends?
Twin brothers Alphonsus (Tony) and Augustine (Gus) Lambert were two Saskatchewan British-born recruits. But unlike other Britons, they did not enlist at the start of the war.
Tony had come to Canada first and found work in the Arelee district just northwest of Asquith, Saskatchewan. His artist brother Gus arrived shortly thereafter in 1913, probably lured West by Tony’s stories about the great future ahead.
It is not known whether the London-born brothers wanted to start their own farms. There is no homestead record for either man. Both worked for other English settlers during the first year of the war, helping to meet the Allied demand for food. But as the conflict overseas descended into a bloody stalemate and the call went out for more men, they could no longer ignore their duty.
Gus enlisted first in Saskatoon on Dec. 21, 1915. Tony followed him into service exactly one week later. Their physical description on their attestation papers (available today online at Library and Archives Canada) suggest that the twins were not completely identical. Gus was an inch and a half taller than his brother Tony. They had just turned 21.
Both men were stationed in France. Tony was wounded at the Somme in the fall of 1916 and was still recovering in an English hospital when Gus, a member of the Canadian Mounted Rifles, entered the battle to take Vimy Ridge in April 1917.
Gus was not so lucky.
Stopping to assist a wounded officer during the Canadian assault on the ridge, he was shot in the head by a sniper on April 10, 1917. He had written his family three days earlier, eerily predicting his own death.
“France à la mud, Dear People, In case ole Fritz gets my number don’t worry. After all I’ve had a good run out here — more than most of the boys. Anyway, you’re (sic) Tony here still and he’ll get a fair exchange! This note may read a bit straight — but when one has been so near the finis so many times he gets hardened. All luck and love, Your loving son.”
Gus is memorialized today on the Vimy Monument.
He was also remembered back in Saskatchewan.
Gus worked as a hired hand before the war, and ever the artist, he could always be found sketching in his spare moments. Many of his simple pencil drawings were tucked into letters about life in Saskatchewan that he sent home to his London parents.
Half a century later, in 1969, Tony’s son contacted the Saskatchewan farm family that Gus had worked for and lived with before the war.
John Jaspar fondly replied, “I can remember crowding around him at the table, with my brothers and sisters, to watch him sketch.”
Those sketches are preserved today in the Glenbow Archives in Calgary.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: Gus (left) and Tony Lambert enlisted in December 1915. Photo courtesy the Lambert family.
Sketch: Gus sketched the Jaspars while working as a hired hand. Sketch Courtesy the Lambert family.
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