Maple Ridge’s Thomas Henry Laity in his uniform ready to ship out in 1916. (Image P03316/Maple Ridge Museum Archives)

Maple Ridge’s Thomas Henry Laity in his uniform ready to ship out in 1916. (Image P03316/Maple Ridge Museum Archives)

LOOKING BACK: The enemy they could not see in wartime

Timely retrospective of local soldiers who died of disease during the First World War

by Shea Henry/Special to The News

The scale and world impact of the First World War was unprecedented in the history of warfare.

In this war, new military technologies like the machine gun, long-distance cannon, chemical warfare, newly invented airplanes, and the artillery to shoot them down were developed on all sides of the war.

These new technologies were not met with new tactics to compensate, leading to the bloodiest and most destructive war the world had ever seen.

The physical and mental impact of battle impacted an entire generation.

In Canada, 619,636 soldiers joined military service, nearly 61,000 of whom made the ultimate sacrifice and did not return from the battle.

From Maple Ridge, 221 men joined the military forces and two women joined as nurses. Of those, 34 were killed or died as a result of the war.

Besides the destructive impact of new military technologies, the world had also being hit by the pandemic of Spanish Flu, which would kill 50 million people worldwide.

RECENT COLUMN: Quarantine back in the day of the Spanish flu kept Maple Ridge safe

While military technology had reached new heights for this war, modern medical practices were being forced to grow along with the massive need the war created.

Penicillin would not be invented for another 10 years – in 1928 – and most of the medical battle was being waged against infection in infectious disease.

During the First World War, the majority of the fallen soldiers from Maple Ridge died in action on the field of battle. But there were those, like Roy Cromarty and Robert Fletcher of Whonnock, who died in hospital from their wounds.

There were also those who fought two battles at war, the battle with the enemy they could see, and the enemy they could not – disease.

Thomas Henry Laity enlisted in February of 1916 and with the 131st Battalion was shipped overseas.

Once in England, he volunteered for a reinforcement assignment to France where he was struck by illness, recovered, and was then stricken with diphtheria at the Le Havre hospital. It was there that he died of the disease that took with it many other soldiers on both sides of the war.

Like most soldiers during the world wars, Private Laity was buried far from home.

Wilfred MacKreth of Port Hammond joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1916 and sailed with his unit to England, then France in April 1916.

In October 1916 he was wounded in battle and during the next year fought resulting infections in the hospital.

After being sent back to Canada for treatment, he ended up catching meningitis and dying in the New Westminster hospital. Since he was home receiving treatment, he is the only solider to die during the First World War to be buried in the Maple Ridge cemetery, where he still lays today.

RECENT FROM THE MUSEUM – PHOTOS: Roaring in the 1920s

While we now have vaccines for both of these diseases, they were a serious problem for soldiers and nurses during the First, and Second World Wars. The losses of soldiers and civilians to disease during the First World War would end up pushing medicine forward in its understanding of infectious diseases.

On this unusual Remembrance Day, when we once again find ourselves fighting a pandemic and unable to gather, consider a walk to the cenotaph or the Maple Ridge Cemetery to read the names of those who made the ultimate sacrifice to their country.

– Shea Henry is director of the Maple Ridge Museum

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