A fresh-faced soldier boldly faces a camera in one photo. He smiles broadly, poised on top of a pyramid of his friends in another. The black and white photos of casual, everyday scenes could have been taken yesterday. Instead they will be at least 100 years old in 2016.
The smiles, and the friends, belong to Wilfrid Ayre who joined the 1st Newfoundland Regiment on Sept. 16, 1914. He was 20 years old. He died July 1, 1916 on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme at Beaumont Hamel. Letters of condolences, telegrams and medals were carefully packed into a box by his grieving family. Along with the officialdom of death, a packet of seven negatives that were likely never processed.
The negatives are an "incredible find," according to Kerri Button, history curator at The Rooms, Newfoundland and Labrador's provincial museum. They, and the box's other contents, were recently donated by Ayre's elderly nephew.
A family in war
Wilfrid Ayre joined the 1st Newfoundland Regiment on September 16, 1914. He was 20 years old. He was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in October 1915.
Wilfrid Ayre’s cousins Gerald and Eric also joined the Regiment.
Another Ayre, Bernard (brother of Eric), was at school at Cambridge when war broke out and joined the Norfolk Regiment.
All four were killed on July 1, 1916, on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.
A brother of Wilfrid, Ronald Ayre, served with distinction in the Royal Flying Corps.
"It's not very common at all, most of the images we have were official group shots. You'd have a company posed in their uniforms. To see casual everyday camp life is very rare, and it's not something we've seen very much of at all," she says.
"These are cellulose nitrate negatives and we were every excited about them because we don't often get these coming in. We often don't get them in such good condition. They decay and as they decay, they become quite combustible, and they are highly combustible to begin with. So we were quite excited to receive these and to be able to look at them, and the family hadn't seen these before, they hadn't developed them, so we've been able to produce them."
Button says to see the men — in what's believed to be a training camp in Scotland — going about their daily activities is "quite spectacular."
"This was before they sailed to Gallipoli. This was before they went to the Somme. This was before they had a real taste of what the First World War was really about. It's almost a shot of innocence in a way, a snapshot of it."
'I am heartbroken to inform you'
Along with the negatives, letters describing how Ayre went "missing," that he was killed in action and condolences from King George V and Queen Mary. One hand-written letter Button describes as a personal communication: "It's not an official letter. This is a personal letter written almost to a friend in sympathy." Some of the documents are available at the bottom of the story.
Ayre’s Medals – the Victory Medal, War Medal and ribbons — were given to the family posthumously. The ribbon is unattached because they were never worn. Button notes that Wilfrid Ayre's name is misspelled on his Death Penny, a memorial plaque, as “Wilfred.” His Uniform Pins, which were worn on his collar, were unpolished. Many Newfoundland families displayed their loved one's Memorial Scroll, Ayre's appears to never have been on display and again his name is misspelled as "Wilfred."
"Most certificates are framed and did have pride of place in the home." Button says. "There are any number of reasons.[why it wasn't framed]. It could have been painful for the family. It could have been something that they just wanted to keep. Their grief must have been overwhelming. Cousins Gerald, Eric and Bernard; four that were killed on July 1, it must have been devastating for the family."
CBC Newfoundland and Labrador asked well-known Gen. Rick Hillier to look at the photos and give his impressions. You can see his interviews with the CBC's Vik Adhopia in the video above.
The search for other Wilfrid Ayres
Wilfrid Ayre and his buddies have come alive again because of a box carefully saved and donated by his family. The Rooms wants to know about other Wilfrid Ayres; 700 men lost their lives or were injured on a single day in 1916.
The Rooms launched an ambitious multi-year project last week called Where Once They Stood We Stand. The campaign, which has already received $2.5 million from private donors, will collect stories and first-hand accounts, which will be represented in an exhibit on July 1, 2016 — the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beaumont Hamel.
"The impact of the Battle of Beaumont Hamel is really significant. I think it's in the psyche of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians," says Ann Chafe, director of The Rooms provincial museum branch.
"People still talk about it. it's referred to in schools. Children learn about it. And so 100 years later we feel that it's time to really document and develop a legacy so that future generations will understand more about the battle and it's significance."
But finding the stories is complicated, since most of those killed at Beaumont-Hamel were single men. With no direct descendants, their personal effects were often passed down to now aging nieces and nephews.
Do you have a story to tell?
Contact Kerri Button,
Curator of History – First World War Project
The Rooms Provincial Museum Division
"It creates a challenge in the sense that not much remains from the actual battle. We do have a few pieces. But it's trying to tell the story without what we traditionally use in museums, artifacts and archival material," she says. "So, we're going to rely on people's stories and look for family to come forward with memories."
"The more information they have about an individual or a family or an organization, the more we can interpret about life in the past. It gives us many dimensions in that we can look at the family."
Referring to the contents of Wilfrid Ayre's box, Chafe adds, "And even the fact that the ribbons weren't mounted to the medals, that some of the material was not kept in shiny condition, suggests that perhaps the family didn't want to remember.
So when we get something like that altogether it adds many layers to the interpretation of the story."
The Rooms also wants to know what was happening on the home front, the role of women, and those serving in other services, such as the Royal Navy, the air force and the forestry corps.
"'We lost a nationhood of men.' We often hear that as a common thing that's said. And people wonder what would have happened to Newfoundland and Labrador if they [the fallen soldiers] had been able to come back and live their lives to the fullest."
Chafe says with the 100th anniversary approaching, there is concern that the more direct descendants of the soldiers are dying, and the stories could be forgotten.
"So we we want to hold the torch high and carry the stories on," she says.
You can hover over the documents above to read them more clearly and also click on each of the documents to read it.
Hand-written letter from Governor Davidson to C.P. Ayre on July 6, 1916, informing Ayre that his son, 2nd Lt. Wilfrid Ayre, was listed as “missing” at Beaumont-Hamel.
Hand-written letter from Governor Davidson to C.P. Ayre on July 8, 1916, informing Ayre that his son, 2nd Lt. Wilfrid Ayre, was killed in action at Beaumont-Hamel. Note that the letter is edged in black.
Hand-written copy of the telegram confirming that 2nd Lt. Wilfrid Ayre was reported killed, received by Governor Davidson on July 8, 1916. This was included in the July 8th letter to C.P. Ayre.
A formal type-written letter of condolence from Governor Davidson to C.P. Ayre. This conveys a message of sympathy from the King George V and Queen Mary.