Candid WW I photographs yield 100-year-old mystery

The most cherished treasures of Montreal's Black Watch regiment are on display in its museum, but thousands more remain hidden in a back room. Among them are hundreds of candid snapshots from the First World War.

Time running out to solve 'puzzle' of anonymous soldiers

The back of this photo, one in a series depicting the Black Watch's crossing to England in 1915, reads "Gibson, Signal Bay Meadorrs. Cox. Nickeren. C.O. 124 Rearview." (Black Watch archives)

Tucked away in a back corner of the stately, 100-year-old Black Watch regimental building in Montreal is the tiny, overflowing office where Cynthia Jones works to preserve a century’s worth of treasures.

While the regiment’s most cherished treasures — medals won by officers and mementos from war — are on display in the regimental museum, thousands more pieces remain hidden.

This Black Watch soldier holding a kitten during the First World War is one of the hundreds of unidentified faces in the regiment's photographic archive. (Black Watch Archives)

Among them are hundreds of candid snapshots of the First World War. The faces peering back from the photographs are those of young men, mostly between 15 and 30 years old, who eagerly joined the war effort.

They’re photographed in muddied trenches, marching through fields and readying for war on the journey across the Atlantic.

And, for the most part, their names have slipped into the historical abyss.

The photographs were donated to the regiment’s archives, some from officers and soldiers themselves, others through estates and family members. They were pasted in books, collected in boxes and now mostly live in a collection of drawers and storage, out of the public eye.

Jones is in a race against time to try to reclaim the names of the young men who left the comforts of home for a war like nothing anyone had ever seen.

“It really is a giant puzzle you’re forever trying to fit pieces into,” she said. “It helps to have anyone look at them who might know someone.”

Cynthia Jones, who works in the Black Watch archives, said it's exciting to piece together the puzzle of the anonymous men in the photos. (CBC)

The Black Watch’s archives represent the regiment’s tangible links to its storied past.

One hundred years ago, as war was declared in Europe, the soldiers of the Black Watch were still far from the battlefields.

Three battalions eventually joined the war effort in 1915 — more than 11,000 men in all. They fought in Ypes, Vimy and Passchendaele. When the armistice was reached, Black Watch pipers led the allies into Mons.

Members of the Black Watch pipe through the streets of Mons, France on Nov. 15, 1918. (Black Watch archives )

More than 2,200 men didn’t return and remain buried in fields and graveyards across Europe.

They came from across Canada, and even the U.S. They were farmers and students and businessmen.

Some, like the Molsons, Olglvies, Drummonds and Birks are still recognizable names in Montreal.

Others faded into history.

The regiment’s archives are packed with personal items collected from members.

There are photos and letters, some penned by King George V.

Shorncliffe Army Camp in England in 1915. The camp was used as a staging area for the Western Front. Canadian troops moved to the training camp in the spring in 1915. (Black Watch archives)

There are uniforms and poems written in the trenches and sketches penned by homesick soldiers to document their lives with the “ladies from hell,” the regiment’s rumoured nickname among German troops.

Each one of the pieces is connected to a life once lived by a soldier who walked the halls of this building, fought and died in battle, who returned home to loved ones or remains buried in a field abroad.

Jones, who started her work with the Black Watch after her son started taking bagpipe lessons at the regiment, has worked to digitize most of the photographs, carefully cataloguing each snapshot with the limited information she had.

Now she’s hoping to fill in some of the many blanks. It may be 100 years removed, but Jones says that doesn't mean their memory has faded from modern day. 

"We do still have people who have pictures of their grandfathers, so every now and then some one will look at a picture and say, `That`s my grandfather! We have a picture of him hanging in our home,'" she said. 

"That`s exciting for us because it's one more piece to the puzzle."

Take a look at the photographs. Can you put a name to any of the anonymous young faces of the Great War?

(Photos: Black Watch archives)

Can you put a name to face? Submit a name here

with files from Steve Rukavina


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