Nfld. & Labrador

A tale of 2 brothers: Service record shows longing to leave WW I, return to Newfoundland

Curiosity piqued by the discovery of war medals, a St. John's family has uncovered tragic, yet fascinating stories of two young solders who enlisted in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment during the First World War.

One was killed, the other survived, but still paid a sacrifice

Walter Bennett Day (left) enlisted with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment when he was 14. His brother, James Louis Day (right), died in battle, nine months after surviving the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel. (lewisday.ca)

Curiosity piqued by the discovery of war medals, a St. John's family has uncovered tragic, yet fascinating stories of two young soldiers who enlisted in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment during the First World War.

Sabrina Del Rizzo-Day responded to CBC's request for war-related stories for a new song Chris Andrews is writing for the 100th anniversary of the First World War and the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel.

She told the story of her husband's great uncles — James and Walter Day of Mullock Street in St. John's — who enlisted in the war in 1915.

James was 16, and Walter was 14 — the youngest member of the Regiment, according to Del Rizzo-Day.

"Walter's superiors discovered that he was underage at some point after departing Newfoundland," Del Rizzo-Day said.

He was "temporarily relieved of duty and sent to grammar school. In due course, he rejoined the Regiment."

Conduct sheet for Walter Day

Both boys endured the slaughter at Beaumont-Hamel but — unbeknownst to one another — were able to answer roll call the following day.

It was a separate battle nine months later which claimed the life of 19-year-old James. 

And it was then that Walter learned his brother had survived the Battle of the Somme.

Newfoundland soldiers in St. John's Road support trench, July 1, 1916. This picture was taken before the start of the attack, July 1, 1916. (Wikipedia)

"When a visitor to Walter's bedside in late April 1917 brought news of his brother's death, Walter replied that he had already known," said Del Rizzo-Day.

"He told the visitor that James died at Beaumont-Hamel. Evidently Walter and James had not seen each other since they scaled the parapet on July 1, 1916, and they hadn't heard each other answer roll call the next morning."

Life for Walter after the war was tough. Letters and a conduct sheet for him shows he struggled with alcohol and authority, and longed to come home.

He was just 16 and 17 years of age, when he wracked up a long list of infractions.

  • Dec. 1, 1915: Disobedience to orders
  • Mar. 3, 1916: Absent from Tattoo Roll call until 8:30 p.m.
  • Mar. 8, 1916: Neglect of duty  
  •                      Disobeying an order
  • May 9, 1917: Absent from Tattoo Roll call until 11:15 p.m.
  • May 14, 1917: Unknown
  •                       Disobeying an order 
  •                       Resisting Arrest
  • July 17, 1917: Absent from 2:30 p.m.
  • July 23, 1917: Drinking out of barracks
  •                       Absent from 9 - 10 a.m.
                          Breaking away from room
  • Dec. 26, 1917: Drunk in barracks and willfully damaging government property    
  • Jan. 7, 1918: Absenting himself from parade without permission
  •                     Absent from 2 p.m. parade until 4 p.m.
  • Jan. 9, 1918: Late for (unknown) room parade
  • Jan. 12, 1918: Drunk in High St. about 9 p.m.
  •                       Violently resisting the Military Police
  •                       Breaking barracks whilst (unknown)
  • Jan. 22, 1918: Absent from 10:45 a.m. parade
  • Jan 26, 1918: Damaging government property
  •                      Drunk about 2:30 p.m.
  • Jan. 27, 1918: Damaging government property
  • Feb. 4, 1918: Drunkenness
  •                     Striking his superior officer   

Sad homecoming

Walter Day did return home, and had to break the news to his family that his brother, James, wasn't with him.

"I had to face my mother and father, and like I expected, but I didn't expect it was gonna be so soon," Day said in a videotaped interview in 1971.

"She said, 'Where's Jim?', and that's the first words she asked me, 'Where's Jim?'"

The question Walter, still a teenager, was dreading.

"I'm not fit to answer that one. Imagine now your mother asks. I said, 'Now look mom, we gotta face it.' I said, 'I hope he's in Heaven,' and that's all I could say and I went into another room."

Those videotaped interviews paint a picture of a frightened boy who, decades later, relived the pain and sickness he felt on July 1, 1916.

"The orders were advance, advance, advance and don't stop to care for the wounded. You had to keep going till you were wounded," he said.

It's a toss up of what was more tragic; the tale of the brother who was killed or a brother's ruined life after the war. Walter Day was "permanently damaged psychologically" and had to be cared for by his sister.

He died on the veteran's wing of the General Hospital in Nov. 18, 1982. He was 82. 

now