Canada's War Mother and the Great War
|During the winter of 1998, while researching my Uncle Bill's experiences as a Canadian soldier in the Great War, I was lucky enough to come across his album of snapshots taken during his years in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The album concludes with a series of photos of a 1928 British Legion pilgrimage to the Western Front, and I was particularly struck by one picture (right) of an elderly lady whom Uncle Bill encountered in Ypres. She was wearing five sets of service medals - 1914/15 Stars, War Medals and Victory Medals - but Uncle Bill had not recorded her name. He had simply inscribed her photograph, "Lady Lost Five Sons".|
I was curious to find out who the lady in the picture was, and confident that someone who had lost five sons must be well-documented and easy to trace through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. However, without knowing even the lady's surname, it was impossible to make use of CWGC records. For two years, I did not come across any source who could put a name to her face, and the lady in the picture remained "lady lost five sons".
It was not until the winter of 2000 that I came across a chance reference in a senior citizens' magazine to "Canada's War Mother" - a C. S. Woods (sic), who had lost five sons in the Great War. Since then, I have spent a year researching the life of Charlotte Susan Wood and her family, including the five sons lost in the Great War. This article presents the results of that research. I am not a professional researcher, and I had no commercial interest in telling this lady's story. It just struck me as a shame that someone could lose five sons in the service of their country and, just eighty years later, have almost no-one remember even her name.
Charlotte Susan Fullman was born on 27 September 1861, at Ordnance Place, Chatham (pictured below). She was the third of seven children born to Stephen and Frances Fullman, natives of the Medway Valley villages of West Farleigh and East Malling, respectively. Stephen Fullman was a Greenwich pensioner, whose sons attended the Greenwich Hospital School on the south bank of the Thames. A relative recalls that the family "were not very wealthy, but they were educated".
Ordnance Place is this elegant row of Georgian houses, on Ordnance Terrace, Chatham.
The white plaque on the wall of the second house from the left identifies
the home of the young Charles Dickens, who lived there 1817-21 while his father
(like Charlotte's) was employed in Chatham by the Royal Navy.
Charlotte grew up in the Medway towns, and took her first job in Gillingham, when she became a domestic servant to the family of Henry Giles, foreman of the Pier Road gas works. By 1887, Charlotte had returned to Chatham: she was living at 19 Chatham Hill, and earning her living as a laundress. Her neighbour at 22 Chatham Hill was 31-year-old Frederick Louis Wood, the son of a shipwright at Chatham's Royal Naval Dockyard. He had recently returned to settle in his home town after service with the Royal Horse Artillery at Topsham in Devonshire, and was working as a journeyman bricklayer to support his young wife, Elizabeth, and their five small sons.
The Woods moved to Greenwich, on the south bank of the Thames, in the spring of 1888. But tragedy struck the family soon after, when 28-year-old Elizabeth died from complications arising from her sixth pregnancy. Over the following months, Fred renewed his acquaintance with Charlotte Fullman, and they were married at Maze Hill Congregationalist Chapel in Greenwich, on 21 October 1888. Charlotte found herself mother to an instant family of six boys - all under the age of eight. To these six was added Charlotte and Frederick's only daughter, Ellen, born in August 1889. Soon after Ellen's birth, the family moved back to Chatham, where they rented an end-terrace house at 1, Seymour Road.
Throughout the 1890's, the Woods were constantly on the move, relocating within the county as Frederick sought work to feed his growing family. His oldest son, Richard, died during the Kroonstad typhoid epidemic of May 1900, while serving with the British Army in South Africa. Nevertheless, by the time their youngest son was born in 1901, Frederick and Charlotte still had twelve children to support: Louis (aged 19), Joseph (18), William (17), Arthur (15), Alfred (14), Ellen (12), Frederick (10), John (7), Herbert (6), Harry (4), Percy (2) and the infant Charles.
In 1905, the Wood family took the opportunity to build a better life for themselves, by applying to the British Government for a Dominion Land Grant. They were assigned 160 acres of virgin land near the town of Gunn, northwest of Edmonton, Alberta. By 1905, the oldest children were established in Kent, and they chose to remain in Britain. So Charlotte, Frederick and just four of their younger sons emigrated to Canada, where they settled in Gunn and cleared a ranch on their new land.
When war broke out in 1914, Charlotte's sons in Britain were immediately affected. The oldest four - Louis, Joseph, William and Arthur - had probably already seen peacetime service in the Royal Navy, and were immediately called up for wartime service. Their younger brothers, Alf, Fred and Harry, followed them into the military. Alf and Fred went into Kitchener's New Armies, while Harry followed his oldest brothers into the Navy. In Canada, John and Herbert were also old enough for military service, and volunteered for the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). The two youngest sons, Percy and Charles, were too young to serve (they were aged fifteen and thirteen, respectively, when war broke out), but signed up anyway at Christmastime, 1915. By the beginning of 1916, all eleven of Charlotte's sons had enlisted.
War struck home early in the Wood family, with 32-year-old Louis lost at sea when HMS Hogue was torpedoed in September 1914. In the agonising four years that followed, Charlotte and Frederick suffered a succession of losses: Fred, killed on the Somme, while serving with the Royal West Kent Regiment; Harry, killed aged eighteen on the Helles Front at Gallipoli; Joseph, who survived Gallipoli and the Somme, only to perish at Passchendaele; and Percy, who was still a month shy of his eighteenth birthday when he was killed at Vimy. Additionally, at least two other sons, Alf and John, were seriously wounded, but survived the war.
Dedication from Charlotte's floral tribute to her sons, left at Winnipeg Cenotaph.
A relative remembers that Charlotte was extremely proud of what her family had done, but also bitter that she and so many other mothers had lost loved ones and given so much to the "war to end all wars". For the rest of her life, Charlotte channelled her energies into voluntary organisations serving disabled veterans and bereaved family members, and into acts of commemoration for the fallen. She was an active supporter of the Canadian Legion, and President of the Imperial Veterans of Canada; a life member of Comrades of the World and the Association of War Widows; and a life member of the old Contemptible Club in Winnipeg, Manitoba (her post-war home).
In 1928, Charlotte Wood returned to Europe, visiting the Western Front as part of a British Legion memorial visit to France and Flanders. She also visited her home town of Chatham, where the townspeople organised a special tribute to her. She was scheduled for an audience with Queen Mary during the same trip, but had to postpone the meeting, due to illness.
|Charlotte was awarded the George V Jubilee Medal in 1935, and was the first recipient of the Memorial Cross, the Honour which is still awarded to the mothers and widows of those killed while serving in Canada's armed forces. On 16 July 1936, she sailed from Montreal for her second return visit to Europe, this time as part of "The Vimy Pilgrimage". The Pilgrimage comprised 8,000 Canadian ex-servicemen and next-of-kin who were travelling to Vimy, France, for the unveiling of Canada's World War One Memorial by King Edward VIII. On the eve of departure, Mrs Wood told the press: "I would rather have all my twelve about me tonight than all your pilgrimages, so I would".|
The pilgrims reached Antwerp on 25 July, and gathered the next day at the site of the new Memorial. They explored the preserved trenches and fortifications of Vimy Ridge, witnessed the King unveil the huge Memorial's central figure - Canada mourning her lost sons - and laid their own floral tributes at its base. Charlotte Wood was one of three War Mothers presented to Edward VIII just prior to the unveiling.
|Left - Charlotte is presented to King Edward VIII. The Winnipeg Free Press reported their meeting: "The King held the old woman's hand as they told him that eleven of her sons had fought with the Canadian Corps, and that five had been killed. 'Mrs Wood', he said, where are you from?' 'Winnipeg, Sir,' she said, speaking to the king for the first time. 'I wish your sons were all here', said Edward gravely. 'Oh! Sir,' cried the old woman, ' I have just been looking at the trenches and I just can't figure out why our boys had to go through that'. Replied Edward quickly, 'Please God, Mrs Wood, it shall never happen again'....Mrs Wood stood clear-eyed and straight and not until the end of this incident, which she and those who saw it will never forget, was she overcome."|
On 27 July, the Pilgrims arrived in London, and began the British leg of their journey. On the morning of 29 July, they marched through the City of London to Westminster Hall, where they were formally welcomed by Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. From there, the Canadians proceeded to the Cenotaph, where the Bishop of London led a service of remembrance for Canada's war dead. The morning concluded with a short ceremony at Westminster Abbey, where Charlotte Wood was chosen to place a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, on behalf of all the bereaved mothers of Canada. With the acts of commemoration completed, the Canadians spent the afternoon at a Buckingham Palace Garden party, as guests of King Edward, the Duke of Gloucester, and Lady Patricia Ramsay, the daughter of the former Governor-General of Canada, in whose honour the first Canadian Battalion of the Great War - Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry - had been raised.
The 1936 visit to London marked the last time that Charlotte Wood saw her native Britain. She returned to Winnipeg, where she lived for three more years - long enough to see the beginning of another world war which would consume another generation of mother's sons. She died in Winnipeg's Victoria Hospital on 11 October 1939, at the age of seventy-eight. Her daughter, Ellen, and just five of her twelve sons outlived her. The Winnipeg Free Press described her funeral:
"Mother of the Guards and honoured by King and Country, Mrs Charlotte S. Wood, Winnipeg's War Mother, was paid silent tribute as the body was lowered to its last resting place in Brookside Cemetery on Friday.
...The Service was attended by many friends and mourners of the woman who had sent 11 sons to the Great War, five never to return. The Imperial Veterans in Canada, members of the Canadian Legion, BESL, were represented in large numbers; while the Imperial Ladies' Auxiliary attended the last rites in a body.
War widows, of which body she was an honoured member, held the service at the graveside and each member present passed the open grave, dropping a poppy on the remains."
Charlotte Susan Wood - the Lady Who Lost Five Sons - was buried in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on 13 October 1939. She lies today in an unmarked grave in Lot 113, Section 52, of Brookside Cemetery.
UPDATE - MARCH, 2003 - Ceris Schrader
I have had a lot of feedback about the Mrs Wood/"Lady Lost Five Sons" article since it first appeared on "Hellfire Corner" in January 2002. Almost all of it mentions the fact that she deserves something better than an unmarked grave, and this was in fact one of the reasons I researched her story in the first place. When I first thought of researching my Uncle's photo of Mrs Wood, I contacted the Canadian Department of Veterans' Affairs to see what information they had on her; it turned out that they were aware of her existence and had hoped to place a memorial to her, but her family history had proved hard to track down and the department had no resources to pay for a researcher. That was really how I got involved: I told them that I was just an amateur researcher, but that they could have whatever information I managed to unearth, and if it amounted to anything perhaps they could use it as the basis of a memorial to her.
Anyway, you will be pleased to hear that last month I heard this from Veterans' Affairs Canada:
"I think you'll be happy to know that after long last, we are finally going to have a fitting and dignified memorial to Mrs. Wood! As it happens, this year marks the 125 anniversary of Brookside Cemetery. A variety of celebrations will take place in 2003 to mark this milestone and the life of Mrs. Wood will be highlighted in several of the initiatives. A short story of Mrs. Wood's life will be featured in the anniversary booklet we are preparing, and we would like to use your "Lady Lost Five Sons" as the basis for her story. Additionally, a plaque honouring Mrs. Wood and other notable people who are buried at Brookside will be erected. And, a headstone will be placed at her grave site. (The plaque and headstone are possible through the kind donation of Mr. Wayne Larsen of Larsen's Memorials here in Winnipeg.) The plaques will be unveiled in special ceremony on Sunday, June 15, 2003...."
June 3rd 2003 - the gravestone is now in place ready for the ceremony on the 15th, and this is what it looks like:
Picture by Rick Thain, Administrator, Brookside Cemetery,
courtesy of Gabriela Klimes, Veterans' Affairs Canada
For a direct link to the author of this article, email Ceris Schrader
Copyright © Ceris Schrader, December, 2001.
Return to the Hellfire Corner Contents Section