News Story

Discovering Family History on Remembrance Day

When thinking about Remembrance Day, Deborah Martin, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Raymond, Alberta, wondered if the day might feel more meaningful if she knew the stories of her own ancestors who had served during wartime.

“I found the lack of connection to a specific person to be challenging on Remembrance Day.” said Martin. “I have always had an appreciation for the men and women who sacrificed for my freedoms. My father served in the Royal Canadian Navy for 25 years. Fortunately, it was during a time of relative peace. However, I never really knew the stories of any relatives or ancestors who served during a time of war.”

Martin began a quest to learn more. She said, “As I reviewed old family photos, one stood out to me. It was of a man in a military uniform; his name was William John Young. The note on the back identified him as my mother’s granduncle.”

With this photo in hand, Martin used FamilySearch to see if she could find information about Young. Her search first led her to census records that showed Young had been on a ship in the Harlem River, New York. She learned of his survival during an epidemic of typhoid fever and that he worked for years as a marine fireman.

At the age of 37 — older than most of his fellow soldiers — Young enlisted in the 2nd Canadian Division. Martin found a photograph of the ship on which he sailed to England, the R.M.S. Corsican.

The records revealed that Young arrived in France in the fall of 1915. Martin found documents that included the names of the other men in Young’s battalion as well as a war diary written by the assistant provost marshal of the 2nd Canadian Division. Over the winter, the battalion endured the rain, watery trenches, lice and mud while learning to fight the enemy.

In the first six months of 1916, Young was forced to leave the battlefield three times, yet he always rejoined his unit. In January, he suffered with influenza. In April, a gunshot wounded his left ear, and he needed a few weeks of medical treatment to recover. In June, he was treated for three days for “shell shock,” now designated as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The major event that altered his life occurred at the Somme battlefield outside of Courcelette, France. On October 7, 1916, at 12:45 p.m., a high-explosive shell detonated and drove shrapnel into his right femur and left index finger. The vast number of war casualties made it impossible for doctors to address each soldier’s wounds in a timely manner, so his recovery was slow and prolonged. Young endured for two months before his index finger was amputated and for seven more months with sepsis and infection before the shrapnel was removed from his femur and his healing could finally begin.

In the meantime, a small lump appeared on the left side of his chest and grew to the size of a lemon. When it was removed in August 1918, his diaphragm had to be opened in two places to remove the encapsulated tumour. By this time, he had been transferred back to Canada. He was discharged from military service 35 days after the armistice on November 11, 1918. He had survived and was finally able to return to his home in Ontario.

Young walked with a stick the remainder of his life, the frequent thunderstorms in Ontario often triggered his “shell shock,” and his left hand turned blue in the cold. He struggled for the rest of his life and died on April 28, 1951. He was a survivor.

Of the journey of discovery, Martin wrote, “Uncovering, piece by piece, the story of William John Young brought a new type of connection for me. I found more than facts on a page of census records, a war diary and photographs. I found examples of courage, loyalty, determination, struggle, endurance and connection. Each moment of reading and researching connected me to my great-granduncle in a way that I had never before experienced.”

Martin noted the impact that remembering Young’s story has had on her own resilience. “I have learned for myself that knowing the stories of my family can help me in the challenges I face today,” she said. “The experiences of our ancestors can be a source of strength and encouragement. This Remembrance Day, I honour William John Young and all the men and women who served with him. Now I have a heart filled with connection to their sacrifices. Like so many of the young men who died defending freedom, William John Young has no direct descendants to remember him, but he has a great-grandniece who has shared his story so that he is not forgotten.”

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