At exactly 8:04am this morning, my daughter, Leah, set off for school. She paused at the end of the driveway and stood silently, reflecting upon the fact that her life was made possible by an incident that happened 101 years earlier at that exact same moment. This is the story of that moment.
We would all like to think that we are in control of our own lives; that the path we follow is ours to decide and, to a certain extent, that is true. But, in reality, our lives are inextricably intertwined with those who came before us and the decisions that they made along the way. For a simple example, we were born in the town or city of our birth not because that’s what we opted for but, rather, because our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents made the decision to locate in that community in years past. From purposeful decisions like that, to acts of fate beyond anyone’s control, the portrait of a life well-lived is always coloured by many factors and the line between success and failure, life and death, is often razor-thin, as you shall see in Leah’s case.
When Leah was growing up, we read books together every night. One book series that made a profound impact on her life was The Magic Treehouse series by Mary Pope Osborne. In each MTH book, the two main characters were transported to some historical event and/or met a famous historical figure. Leah found the stories from history fascinating and often spent time researching additional information on her own. She has maintained an interest in History ever since. Being good parents, we have encouraged her love of History by visiting museums with her, taking her to places connected to historical events (such as The Plains of Abraham in Old Quebec City, the Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton and so on) and by giving her access to books and resources that feed her desire to know more about the events that shaped our world.
Not surprisingly, Leah’s interest in History began to focus more on the story of her own family. So, a couple of years ago, it seemed logical to us to take out a membership in Ancestry.ca, a genealogical website that helps people conduct research on their family history. The membership was taken out as a gift for Leah’s Poppa but, because we paid for the membership, we got to set up the passwords and so on. Once that was done, we gave Leah permission to explore the website so that she could be the “expert” and figure out how it all worked and then she would be able to show her Poppa what to do. Well now, letting Leah loose on Ancestry.ca was akin to giving her the keys to the Kingdom’s treasury. She absolutely loved it!
In her research to date, she seems drawn more toward those relatives who have been involved in the military. The first relative she delved deeply into was a Great-Uncle named Albert Eagle. Mr. Eagle was involved in the D-Day Invasion of Normandy during WWII. He died three days later in a tank battle. His body is buried in a cemetery in France that she would like to visit one day when she is a bit older. We were all amazed at the vast amount of documentation that was maintained on each soldier during wartime. Leah was able to find enlistment records, discipline records, as well as, troop movement details up to, and including, the record of Mr. Eagle’s death and the battle that occurred that particular day in France.
But, as interesting as that was to Leah and the rest of us, it was her investigation of her Great-Great Grandfather, Frank Davis, that really brought home the precarious nature of our lives and how easily one event, action or decision could alter the future. In fact, there are so many instances where life and death danced throughout this man’s life, creating a series of connections that it is almost freakish, as you shall soon see.
This is a photo of Frank Davis that Leah has in her bedroom. The lady in the photo is to prove a very important part of this story….of Leah’s life story….but, I will save that for now.
Here is Mr. Davis’ story. Frank Davis was a husband and father when WWI broke out in 1914. At the time, Canada was still a very young nation and did not have a standing army of its own. Instead, various militias existed across the country. Mr. Davis belonged to one such militia called The Halifax Rifles. When War was declared, the Halifax Rifles became part of the 40th Battalion of the Canadian Corps which, as the War unfolded, became known as the Canadian Expeditionary Forces or the C.E.F.
On October 18, 1915 (my wife, Keri’s birthday is Oct. 18), Frank Davis and his fellow soldiers boarded the Cunard transport ship, RMS Saxonia in Halifax harbour. They landed a little over a week later in Portsmouth, England. Once there, the 40 Battalion was assigned to the 9th Brigade and 3rd Canadian Division and stationed at Military Camp Bramshott for training.
While WWI was called a “world war”, in fact, many of the major battles throughout the war took place in a relatively small stretch of French and Belgium countryside. In battles such as The Somme, Ypres, Vimy Ridge or, later on, at Passchendaele, both armies often dug in, quite literally, in lines of trenches and faced off against one another in seesaw battles of attrition in which tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides died to advance the battle front mere metres at a time.
For example, The Battle of Vimy Ridge, in France, lasted for four days but cost the lives of approximately 3600 Canadian soldiers, with another 7500 being wounded. The conditions were atrocious; cold, wet, muddy, no cover to act as protection, deep shell holes that often filled with water and cause many an unfortunate soldier to die from drowning. The land between each side’s lines of trenches was often dubbed as being “No Man’s Land” because to leave the protection of your own trench and attempt to advance across the open ground often meant certain death. This is where Lance Corporal Frank Davis made one of the first decisions that changed his life and allowed Leah to, eventually be born. As his military records indicated, Mr. Davis requested to relinquish his rank and return to being a Private in the army. While Leah cannot be certain as to the specific motivation behind such a seemingly odd request, the truth is most likely, Davis recognized the futility of many of these battles and knew that as Corporal, the odds were good that he would be tasked with leading a charge across No Man’s Land because he had “rank”. The death toll on officers in the C.E.F. was very high so, it was not uncommon for Corporals to be placed in charge during the heat of battle. Being a Private did not mean that Davis was safe but, at least, he would not necessarily be first out of his trench.
The 40th Battalion acted as a feeder squad throughout the early stages of the war. This means that members of the 40th Battalion would be called into battle to reinforce other Units who had too many casualties and who required reinforcements. Eventually, the 40th Battalion was merged into the 26th Battalion. The 26th Battalion fought in the quagmire known as the Third Battle of Ypres in Belgium or, as it is better known, The Battle of Passchendaele. It was in this battle, on November 2, 1917, that Private Frank Davis was exposed to Mustard Gas from the Germans. He was “struck off strength” or removed from his Unit and taken to the 12th Canadian Field Ambulance or field hospital, as it were. Believe it or not but, Private Davis was lucky. Over the course of this battle, almost half a million soldiers from both sides perished. If there was ever such a place as Hell on Earth, Passchendaele was it.
Back in Canada, the War effort was in full swing and one of the busiest places of all was Halifax, Nova Scotia. Halifax Harbour served at the gateway to the Atlantic and, by extension, to the battle fields of Europe. The harbour was often filled with transport and supply ships preparing to head overseas. And so it was, on December 6th, a mere month after Frank Davis was gassed at Passchendaele, that two ships collided in Halifax Harbour; the relief ship Imo and the French munitions ship, Mont Blanc. The Mont Blanc was loaded with explosives. The resulting fire caused the munitions to ignite and then, explode with such tremendous force that over 2000 citizens of Halifax were killed and much of the downtown area, destroyed. Among those who perished were Frank Davis’ wife, Helena and his son, Charles.
As the city rebuilt, so did Frank Davis. He remarried and with his new wife, had a son that he named William. William Davis, in turn, grew up and married and among his children was a boy named Bruce. Bruce, as it turns out, has gone on to be called Poppa at our house……the same Poppa for whom the Ancestry.ca membership was purchased and the same Poppa that Leah was entrusted to train.
But, there is one final, freakish coincidence that bears mentioning. At the time of the Halifax Explosion, Helena Davis and her four children lived in an apartment at 1253 Barrington Street in Halifax. This was not noteworthy at the time that they lived there but, it became noteworthy as a result of Leah’s research and an incredible coincidence that she uncovered.
When my wife was much younger, she travelled to Halifax and stayed at a youth hostel. She was visiting a good friend at the time. Her friend took a photo of Keri sitting on the steps of the youth hostel. This photo was kept in a frame and displayed as a keepsake from, what was, a pleasant life memory for Keri. In conducting her research, Leah connected the dots and discovered that the hostel in Keri’s teenage photo was, in fact, the same building that the Davis Family were living in at the time of the Halifax Explosion. If not for Helena Davis’ death that December day, Keri would never have been born and would never have been able to sit on those steps. Being the good parents that we are, we took Leah to Halifax two years ago and stood upon those very steps ourselves.
And so, at 8:04 am this morning, Leah stopped at the end of our driveway and thought about how lucky she is to be alive and how thankful she is to all of the people who have helped her to know the life that she has and enjoys as a result of their decisions and because of fate. What were you doing at 8:04 am this morning?