Every soldier in WW I had a story. You can help tell one

The Adopt-a-Soldier project at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., invites residents to choose a name and do research to learn more about the people who served.

Acadia University's Adopt-a-Soldier project is turning 'lifeless names' into human stories

William Henry Chase, second from the left in the top row, graduated in absentia from Acadia University in 1916. (Frances Willick/CBC)

His is just one name on a list of hundreds.

William Henry Chase: a young man from Port Williams, N.S. — one of 607 students, staff, faculty or alumni of nearby Acadia University who served in the First World War.

Like many of those who joined him on the battlefield, his story has been lost to time.

But not for Wendy Robicheau.

"These names have significance, special importance," said the university's archivist, "because they gave up so much, knowing so little about what they were going to. And they're everybody's grandfather, they're everybody's grandmother."

Wendy Robicheau, the archivist at Acadia University, started the Adopt-a-Soldier project to gather information about people from the university who served in the First World War. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Robicheau is determined to clear the dust from the pages of history and shine a light on the names engraved on the campus obelisks that list the war dead.

"We walk by our cenotaphs and this obelisk and we go to our services every year and we see these names. But we do not know the deeper stories. They just become lifeless names."

Earlier this year, she started the Adopt-a-Soldier project, encouraging people to choose a name from the list and research the stories of those who participated in the war, like Chase.

At the age of 21, Chase enlisted with the No. 7 Canadian Stationary Hospital. In 1916, around the same time that he was arriving in France, an emotional convocation was taking place back home.

Part of a letter William Henry Chase wrote to his mother. (Frances Willick/CBC)

Chase was one of five soldiers who graduated from Acadia in absentia that year due to the war.

His mother was invited onto the stage to accept her son's parchment in front of his classmates, not knowing if he would ever lay eyes on it himself.

An account dug up in the university's archives describes that "most dramatic" scene: "When those brave women came down from the platform there was not a dry eye in the house. I was reaching for a second handkerchief, and the next man to me had his face buried in his hands."

Chase went on to witness the battles at Vimy, Hill 70 and Passchendaele. Gassed at Lens, he was blinded for a few days and never fully recovered from the attack. He was discharged in 1918, came back to Canada, got a medical degree from Dalhousie and became an associate professor of pathology at McGill University.

"Those are such important stories for us to capture and to keep and to tell and to know about," said Robicheau. "We need to understand the human face of this war."

Acadia's Adopt-a-Soldier project is still recruiting volunteer researchers. (Frances Willick/CBC)

So far, 110 of the 607 names have been adopted by people all over the world.

The volunteer researchers use physical archives or online records such as yearbooks, student newspapers and the soldier's military personnel file to find photos and uncover details of the person's life and death. Then, they file a written report which Robicheau hopes to use as background for a book.

She said while some people may initially be a bit nervous about committing their time to the project, after completing the research on one name, many volunteers come back for more.

A photo in the Acadia University archives shows members of the 85th Battalion Nova Scotia Highlanders as they sing their battalion song, 85th Feather. (Frances Willick/CBC)

Laura Churchill Duke has researched 13 names since April and has no plans to stop.

"If I didn't have to work and actually do jobs that brought in money, I would sit and do this all day long," she said, adding that she enjoys being able to do the work online from her home in Kentville, "sitting in my pyjamas with my coffee."

"I think it's important just to keep these people's memories alive and realize the people who have gone before us," she said. "You realize these are real people who did amazing things and accomplished a lot of things and went to war and sacrificed for us."

John Daniel Logan was a Canadian literature professor at Acadia University before he enlisted. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Robicheau reels off names and stories like she knows them personally:

  • Stanley Livingstone Jones, who lay wounded on the battlefield for 36 hours before being taken prisoner of war, his family later trying desperately to arrange a prisoner exchange, not knowing he'd already died.
  • Jessie Jaggard, a nursing sister who tended to the wounded in Gallipoli and died in Greece.
  • John Daniel Logan, a Canadian literature professor and poet who, at 45, just made the age cut-off to serve, went overseas and came back a changed man, "tortured by the entire thing," said Robicheau.

Robicheau hopes the Adopt-a-Soldier project will deepen people's ties to their community and history.

"History isn't something that only just happened yesterday," she said. "You are a part of it. You're making it. It is all around you."

About the Author

Frances Willick

Reporter

Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at frances.willick@cbc.ca