by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)
Note: The following article first appeared in the Real Estate News on November 8, 2002. Since the article was first published, new information has been obtained. With the commemoration this year of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War (Canada was automatically at war when Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914), it was felt to be an appropriate time to republish the article with the inclusion of the additional information.
In the early 1900s, Milton, North Dakota, where Private Kristjan (Christian) Konrad Davidson was born on June 15, 1899, was a thriving agricultural-based community in the county of Cavalier and was primarily populated by Icelandic immigrants. At one time, the population of the town founded in 1887 reached 410 people (1910 U.S. Census). But similar to many such rural communities in Canada and the U.S., the reason for Milton’s existence faded with the passage of time. According to the 2010 U.S.Census, there were 58 people —28 households and 17 families — residing in Milton, but as more families leave to seek opportunities in larger centres, the community hovers on the verge of becoming a ghost town.
Kristjan enlisted on March 29, 1916, in Winnipeg when he was just 16-years-old and only had slightly more than two months to live.
He was a short lad of only five-foot-3 1/2 with fair hair and blue eyes, according to his attestation papers.
His acceptance, despite his relatively short stature and age, isn’t all that surprising. The Canadian Militia Department in 1915 decreased its standards for height and chest measurement because recruitment began to lag. Casualties were mounting overseas, so to meet Prime Minister Robert Borden’s commitment to the Allies’ cause to raise 500,000 soldiers for the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), the length and breadth of Canada was scoured for virtually anyone willing to take up arms to fill the depleted ranks overseas.
Momentum for civilian recruits rose in 1916 as patriotic rallies called upon men and boys to “do their bit.” In Winnipeg, between the autumn of 1915 and the summer of 1916, six battalions (ideally of 1,000 soldiers each, but usually about 600 to 700) were raised. At the time, Winnipeg’s population was 163,000 out of a provincial population of 553,860. The city’s population in 1916 wouldn’t have included surrounding municipalities such as St. Boniface and St. James, which would later merge with Winnipeg to form Unicity in 1972.
And although most of the enlistees would have been recruited locally, many, such as Kristjan, would have left the tedium of the farm to embark on what they believed would be a great adventure. Most had no idea about the horrors that awaited them in the trenches of the Western Front in Europe.
Now renamed Christian in his attestation (enlistment) papers, the youth from Dog Creek, Manitoba, was declared fit for duty by Dr. B.J. Brandson, a doctor of Icelandic heritage. He was also the doctor that my grandmother, Gudrun “Runa” Thompson, had worked for at one time in Winnipeg. As it was, Dr. Brandson was the examining physician for many of those who were to serve in the 223rd Battalion, which was nicknamed the “Canadian Scandinavians,” since it was primarily made up of recruits from Scandinavian — Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish and Icelandic — immigrant families from throughout Western Canada.
It should be noted that recruits termed “Bohemians” (Czechs and Slovaks), as well as Americans, were also among those who were actively recruited to join the 223rd.
“It is absolutely necessary that all Scandinavians who have been thinking about enlisting with the 223rd Canadian Scandinavian Overseas Battalion do so before the end of this month as the Battalion should be as strong as possible by then,” according to a May 18, 1916, article in the Baldur Gazette. “It is impossible to send recruiting sargeants to all points where Scandinavians are settled, and all loyal Scandinavians should enlist at once without being sent for.”
In answer to the call in newspapers serving Scandinavian immigrant communities, volunteers came to Winnipeg, including Christian from Dog Creek.
Dr. Brandson attested both to Christian’s apparent age being 18 and that he “does not present any of the causes of rejection specified in the Regulations of the Army Medical Services.
“He can see at the required distance with either eye; he has the free use of his joints and limbs, and he declares that he is not subject to fits of any description.
“I consider him fit for the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force” the doctor concluded.
“We, who were not born in this country call ourselves Icelandic when asked,” said J.J. Birdfell in a speech to Icelandic-Canadian recruits during the First World War, “but our representation in the war as Canadians shows our loyalty to Canada, our determination never to forget how well we were received and how good our new country has been to us.”
Of course, many of the recruits of Icelandic heritage, such as my grandfather, were born in Canada.
The 223rd also claimed among its recruits other men of Icelandic descent born in Canada, such as Frank Fredrickson who played for the Winnipeg Falcons. The Falcons was made up entirely of players born in Canada of Icelandic immigrant families — the only non-Icelander was Allan Woodman — and were dubbed “Vikings on Skates.” The Falcons brought glory to Winnipeg and Canada during the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games when they won the first gold medal awarded for Olympic ice hockey.
So 16-year-old Christian was in the CEF, but there still remained the nagging question of how he had come to reside in Dog Creek.
That part of the puzzle was answered when I discovered that a Gerald Davidson resided in Milton, North Dakota, although I had not yet determined whether he was a relative of Christian’s. On a hunch, I phoned his number in Milton. He wasn’t in, but I left a message on his answering machine. The next afternoon, a Saturday, Gerald returned my call and proceeded to fill in more details about Christian’s life.
I asked Gerald if he was related to the young lad who had died during the First World War while serving with the 223rd.
“He’s my uncle,” he replied. “My father’s brother. My father’s name was Gisli, and Christian’s father’s name was Magnus.”
I had earlier come to believe that Christian’s father had to be Magnus Davidson, having found him listed in the 1900 U.S. Census. A further clue in the census was that Ingibjorg was his wife, but there was a slight feeling of doubt because of the two sons listed on the census form, as none was named Kristjan Konrad, who would have been the eldest son in the family. The doubt intensified when I found that a labourer living with the Davidsons was included in the census. A labourer, but no Christian? Was I wrong?
All doubts vanished when Gerald confirmed the identity of Private Christian Davidson’s parents and that he had died while serving with the CEF.
Gerald further confirmed that Christian was buried in Milton’s Fjalla Lutheran Church Cemetery.
According to the cemetery’s records, Christian was interred under his Icelandic name of Kristjan. In addition, his mother’s maiden name is listed as Gislason and she was buried in the cemetery as Ingeborg “Emba” Davidson — not Ingibjorg as would have been the more common Icelandic spelling.
Christian’s father, Magnus, is also buried in the Milton cemetery.
Christian’s last resting place was revealed during my earlier research, as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website stated that Christian Konrad Davidson had been buried in Milton with full military honours.
Gerald’s Christian and the one I had been researching were one and the same.
Christian is also under the year 1916 in the Book of Remembrance, which is found in the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa and lists those who died while serving during wartime for Canada.
Gerald, who was 68 when I first contacted him in 2002, passed away in 2013 at age 76 in Grand Forks.
He said in 2002 that on every Remembrance Day, November 11, members of Canada’s Armed Forces come to Milton to tend to Christian’s grave. As a 20-year veteran of the United States Navy, Gerald said this act of commemoration was greatly appreciated by his family.
“How did Christian come to be in Manitoba?” I asked.
“His parents divorced,” was the reply. “They divorced in 1913. Ingibjorg stayed in Milton and Magnus and Christian went up to Canada.”
Other than these scant details, Gerald said he couldn’t provide more information.
“Dad never mentioned anything about his brother.”
Christian eventually came to live with Andres and Sigridur Gislason in Dog Creek, who were the parents of his mother, Ingibjorg. As such, Christian’s mother was my grandmother’s first cousin.
The last part of Christian’s story was how he died. Initially, this information was obtained from a book about those of Icelandic descent who served in the CEF. According to the book, the unfortunate teenager was training in Winnipeg when he contracted pneumonia and died on May 16, 1916, in Winnipeg General Hospital.
More information on his death was found in a brief article in the May 17, 1916, Winnipeg Free Press entitled, Soldier Dies at Hospital. “Pte. C.K. Davidson, of the 223rd Battalion, died last night at the general hospital,” stated the article.
What is amazing about the article is that it said Christian had been in the hospital for 36 days. Such a lengthy hospital stay indicates that he had received little by way of training as he became sick just days after he enlisted. There’s also a possibility that he was already ill when he enlisted and the disease went undetected during his medical examination.
In the brief period of time when Christian wasn’t confined to a hospital bed, he was able to have a photograph taken of himself in his CEF uniform at Eaton’s store — the picture that led to my research into his life story.
Disease claimed the lives of many soldiers serving in the First World War, including Canadian Major John McCrae, who wrote the famous poem, In Flanders Fields, and Stonewall’s Alan McLeod, a pilot who won a Victoria Cross “For Valour.” McLeod survived deadly aerial combat, but caught Spanish Influenza when he returned home to recover from wounds, and died in Winnipeg in 1918.
During the war, 2,221 troops died of disease and injury in Canada. Of the 59,544 CEF lives lost in the First World War, 7,796 died of disease or injury, including a 16-year-old lad originally from Milton, North Dakota.
An estimated 35,000 Americans served in the CEF between 1914 and 1918.
As a final note, my mother told me that as a child she occasionally observed Sigridur staring at the poem dedicated to her grandson, Kristjan, as well as his colourized photo hanging on the kitchen wall. While she looked at the two mementos of his brief life, tears would well up in Sigridur’s eyes. When my mother asked her great-aunt why she was so sad, Sigridur replied in a quivering voice, “He was too young to die.”
No further explanation was offered, and none was asked for, which is why when my sister first posed the question of who was the young lad in the photo, all my mother could say was that he was a relative who died during the First World War when he was just 16 years of age.