By DAVID FULLER
William Albert Heal was 27 when he chose to leave his job as a salesman for the Toronto Electric Light Company and join the army. His name appears on a list of successful applicants to the 95th Battalion published in Toronto newspapers on 1 November 1915, a unit that was only authorized the week before in answer to Canada’s decision to increase the size of its force to 250,000 men.
The oldest of three surviving siblings in the Heal family, he was a graduate of Malvern Collegiate Institute in Toronto’s Beach community and was likely influenced by the significant events of the last week of October. His military career lasted almost three years and yet his service file is short on details, likely because he was an ordinary solider who served for months at a time with little out of the ordinary to report – until the moment he went over the top with the 20th Battalion’s ‘B’ Company on 26 August 1918.
The 95th Battalion sailed for England in May 1916 but on arrival Heal was transferred to the Canadian Pay Office in London where he stayed for seven months. There is no mention in his record of why this move came about but the 95th was designated a draft battalion upon arrival at Shorncliffe and his business experience may have been deemed useful while he awaited assignment.
By March 1917 he returned to the 95th in time to join a group of 120 other ranks being sent to the 20th Battalion as replacements on 27 May but his arrival was delayed until August for reasons unknown. For the next 12 months he spent his days as a soldier, marching, serving in work parties and taking his turn serving in the line and enjoying 14 days leave in the final two weeks of January 1918. Upon returning, his record goes silent again as he continued plying his trade as his battalion moved about the Western Front.
By 26 August 1918, the 20th Battalion was taking up a position in front of the Bois des Bouefs near Guémappe, ready to begin the Battle of the Scarpe. ‘B’. ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies took up their positions at midnight and at 3 a.m., the attack went in meeting with little resistance, according to the war diary. The battalion advanced 5.5 kilometres that day, capturing Monchy-le-Preux and Wancourt.
However, Heal did not move forward with them to experience Canada’s Hundred Days and the end of the war. Shortly after zero hour, he was killed by a shell and his service to his country was ended. He was buried in Tilloy British Cemetery in Tilloy-les-Mofflaines and the news of his death made the Toronto papers on 11 September.
He is remembered on the Cenotaph in front of Malvern Collegiate, one of 25 from the school who died in the war.
HALLOWEEN NIGHT EVENT AT THEATRE IN THE BEACH LED TO RECRUITMENT OF FIRST WORLD WAR SOLDIERS
It’s hard to say what makes an individual sign up for war. Aside from the likely motivations in the fall of 1915 – unemployment, patriotic fervor or simply deciding to “do one’s bit” – there are three events in particular that prompted 200 Torontonians to sign up on the night of Oct. 31, including, possibly, Malvern Collegiate alumnus William Albert Heal.
Two weeks earlier, in the middle of the night on Oct. 12, Nurse Edith Cavell was executed by German occupation troops in Belgium for aiding British and French soldiers and Belgian citizens of military age to escape capture.
When the news of her death came out 10 days later, it reverberated around the Empire, shocking everyone at what was decried as a German atrocity. A day later, newspapers everywhere cited Cavell’s “murder” as causing men to volunteer, intent on revenge against “Teuton brutality”. Her picture appeared on the front page of the Toronto Star on Oct. 2 and by next day there was already talk of erecting a memorial in her honour. On Oct. 27, The Globe and Mail ran a story about more spies being executed, headlined “Carnival of Death” and the Star published a reader’s poem that used graphic language calling Germans “reptiles”, and “babe-killing brutes”.
On Oct. 30, the Globe published a special dispatch that read, “Down to a fortnight ago few of us outside the immediate circle of Nurse Cavell’s family and friends even so much as heard her name now all the world knows it. It has gone as by a supernatural trumpet blast to the uttermost ends of the earth…. Ten thousand persons have assembled in the cathedral church [St. Paul’s] of the capital of our empire to thank God for the great soul….”
While Cavell’s story was repeated daily that week, the Canadian government was deciding how to respond to a speech by King George V calling for more men to volunteer for service at the front to replace significant losses in a year of war. On Oct. 30 the announcement came that Canada had decided to increase the size of its expeditionary force to 250,000 men and it generated a strong response after a period of decline in enrolment. Both in England and in Canada, recruiters were reporting a surge in men coming forward, citing both the Kings’ appeal and Cavell’s execution as probable factors.
In Toronto, on Oct. 29, Sir Sam Hughes spoke to a crowd at a recruiting meeting and declared that such events were not reaching the right class of people. “My meeting at Toronto,” he said, “was one of the largest ever held in that city, and yet I don’t believe there were a hundred men of recruiting age present.”
The problem of getting the message to the right audience was one officials had been grappling with as the initial rush of volunteers slowed. The answer, they decided, was to go where the right class of people were to be found, in houses of popular entertainment.
A special city-wide effort was set for Oct. 31 at 10 movie theatres, including the Peter Pan theatre in the Beach where it is possible that former students of Malvern Collegiate, like Willam Heal, might have heard the recruiters’ message. Each theatre was listed followed by the name of the chair for the evening and the guest speaker, soloists and members of the army who would be present, many of them wounded and just returned from the front.
At the Peter Pan, the chair was to be Lieut. Charles Penruddocke William Kivas Band, a 43-year-old officer with the 10th Regiment Royal Grenadiers and an architect who designed many of the large Edwardian houses in Toronto. The speakers included Alex Fraser, journalist, historian, lecturer, official secretary and aide-de-camp to the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario. He helped found the 48th Highlanders Regiment in 1891 and became Ontario’s first archivist in 1903.
The other ranks chosen to speak were Sgt. Dooney, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, about whom little could be found, Company Sgt-Maj. Albert J. Murphy of the 3rd Battalion, just returned from France where he was wounded, and Pte. Robert Fulton, 3rd Bn, said to be wounded “five times at Langemarck”.
The entertainment for the night was to include suitable movies and patriotic songs performed live. There is no mention of what films would be screened and the setting at the Peter Pan was limited. Located at 1969 Queen St. E., which just four years later would become the site of the Allen Beach Theatre (now the Beach Mall), the Peter Pan was a storefront theatorium operated by one David Lorenzo Minier, an American from Ithaca, New York and one of the pioneers of cinema in Toronto.
Theatoriums were so named because they doubled as venues for live performances. In some, the short films of the day were projected onto a bedsheet attached to the wall while patrons sat on ordinary kitchen chairs. Minier began his career in Toronto with a theatre named the Comique (1908), located near present-day Dundas Square. He moved to the Beach about 1912 and opened the Peter Pan by 1913. In October 1915, films at other theatres featured stars such as Mabel Taliaferro and Charlie Chaplin.
The music of the time was heavily influenced by the war and included titles such as The Best Old Flag on Earth, Boys from Canada, By Order of the King, The Call of the Motherland and Canada, Fall In! Remember Nurse Cavell by Gordon V. Thompson and Jules Brazil was already being performed at meetings but one of the best-remembered songs of the time was Jonny Canuck’s the Boy/Good Luck to the Boys of the Allies. (Visit the COBWFA website to hear it).
Speaking in between performances, each presenter was expected to inspire men to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force. At the time, the unit being raised was the 95th Bn, lead by LCol R. K. Barker, Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, the regiment that supplied men for the 1st, 3rd and 75th Battalions and 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles. It had just been authorized to mobilize five days earlier, following the announcement by the government of the latest call for more men.
CSM Murphy, born in Cork, Ireland in 1880 (or maybe earlier) would have had many tales to tell as his service record was already a long one. In it, we can read claims that he served in South Africa and Egypt with either the Royal Warwickshire Regiment or the 10th Royal Grenadiers, both of which did send contingents to the Boer War. Murphy’s claim to have served with the Grenadiers fits the cast chosen for the evening, however the nominal roll for his 3rd Bn does not mention his affiliation, as it does for others, which is curious for a Company Sergeant Major. All of these discrepancies could be attributed to hasty notations by inexperienced recruiting clerks but the sense that something was amiss grows as his file does.
Murphy, a policeman who was 33 when he attested in 1914, was gassed on either April 23, 25 or May 26 (his medical file lists all three dates at various times) and is said to have been unconscious for 36 hours, coming to in a casualty clearing station. In other entries he is said to have sustained a gun shot wound to the left foot – or both thighs – and suffered from difficulty breathing, vomiting, diarrhea and general weakness, flat feet, hammer toes and deafness in both ears.
His injuries earned him time in Monks Horton Convalescent Hospital, Kent, and eventually a trip home to Canada for more convalescence at the Christie Street Hospital. At the time of his appearance on Oct. 31 at the Peter Pan, he had only been back from overseas less than three weeks and discharged as medically unfit.
Among the tales Murphy might have recounted was the reason for his deafness. He told medical authorities he had been part of a six-man team preparing to explode a mine, when it went off prematurely, killing all the others. There is no mention of the incident in the 3rd Bn war diary, although he might possibly have been referring to service in the earlier war. Murphy’s credibility suffers, however, from the consistent notations in his file that say he was an alcoholic and had been since he was 20, taking as many as four drinks a day. At each stop in his convalescence journey, doctors said his condition would improve faster with “temperance”.
Murphy’s story continued when he attempted to join the 95th in March 1916, now 35 years old but judged fit for overseas duty. Medical examiners at Exhibition Camp disagreed and he was eventually shunted back to convalescence (and given more advice about drinking) only to bounce around to various holding units and military policing duties until he was discharged again in 1918. His death in 1934 was judged “due to service” and he is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery.
Pte. Robert Fulton’s story is more straightforward. At age 39, he was wounded by shrapnel in the shoulder/neck area on April 23, 1915, in the Ypres salient (between Kitchener’s Wood and St Julien, south of Langemark) and afterwards complained of nervousness.
His account of the CEF’s experience in the German gas attack that day would have received rapt attention. He appears to have also suffered bronchitis from being gassed although when this happened is unclear. Born in Paisley, Scotland in 1876, he was a watchmaker and joined the CEF on 12 Aug 1914. He was sent home as medically unfit and discharged in 1916. He died in 1955.
By Monday, when all the attestations from the evening’s events were collected, a total of 200 men had enlisted in the 95th, of which 96 were accepted for service, including Pte William Heal. The battalion left Halifax harbour on May 31, 1916 with 36 officers and 1,061 other ranks on board the SS Olympic, only to be held at Shorncliffe Camp as a reserve unit until it was disbanded in August of 1917.
It is impossible to know if Heal attended that night at the pictures and whether that was the reason he decided to join up, but it isn’t hard to imagine that Nurse Cavell and the King’s call to the Empire played a role, wherever he was that night.
— David Fuller
For information on East Toronto Remembrance Day ceremonies on Saturday, Nov. 11, please see Beach Metro’s story at https://beachmetro.com/2023/11/09/east-toronto-remembrance-day-ceremonies-planned-for-morning-of-saturday-nov-11/