by Bruce Cherney
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 in the conflict 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.
“Who’s this?” asked my sister, Rhonda, while holding a colourized, vintage-framed photograph of a youth, who appeared to be barely into his early teens.
“That’s a relative who died during the First World War,” replied my mother, Thorey. “He was only 16.”
“How did he die?” I asked.
“I don’t know. All I know is that he was only a boy when he died.”
My mother then showed us a framed poem commemorating the youth, who was identified in the poem as Kristjan Konrad Davidsson.
The poem was written in intricate and multi-coloured calligraphy, and was truly a piece of art. It was signed by Magnus Markusson (1858-1948). I would later discover that this Markusson was a noted poet, who was often among those asked to recite their poems at the annual Icelandic Festival of Manitoba (Islendingadagurinn) when it was held at Winnipeg’s River Park during the early years of the 20th century (the festival wasn’t staged annually in Gimli until 1932). Starting on August 2, 1902, Markusson was featured in nine festival recitals.
Since the poem was written in Icelandic, I had absolutely no idea what it said.
My mother said she was unable to translate it accurately into English without first studying the poem at length, but verified that it was in praise of Kristjan and served to commemorate his brief existence on this planet.
My mother told us that she remembered that the picture and poem were hung in a prominent place in her great-aunt’s Gimli home. Her great-aunt, Sigridur Gislason, died in 1943 and my grandmother, Gudrun Thompson, inherited the home on Fourth Avenue. My grandmother had been looking after Sigridur, as well as an elderly gentleman named Valdi Thorsteinson, when her aunt died at age 78. Her husband, Andres Gislason, had died 18 year earlier.
The picture and poem remained hanging upon the wall well after my grandmother’s death when my uncle, Rosevelt Thompson, took over ownership of the house. The house has since passed out of our family’s hands, after Rosevelt’s death, but my mother kept the picture and poem, although they were in storage in my parent’s home when my sister came across the two items when rummaging around in the basement.
What was clear in the poem was that Kristjan’s date of birth was given as June 15, 1899, and he died on May 16, 1916. This indicated that he was a month shy of his 17th birthday when he passed away. Although a soldier, Kristjan was underage for service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, since its regulations claimed that volunteers were only accepted between 18 and 45 years of age.
In Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden’s New Year’s message for 1916, he vowed that Canada would enlist half a million troops for overseas fighting “in token of Canada’s unflinching resolve to crown the justice of our cause with victory and with an abiding peace.”
Canada would eventually enlist over 600,000 men and women for overseas duty, but in a country with a population of only eight-million people, it was a difficult boast to keep, which may help to explain why a 16-year-old boy passed muster at a recruiting station.
The fact that Kristjan was so young and so little was known about him spurred me on to seek out more details about his short life. Relatives in Manitoba could provide no assistance, because the lad had died at so young an age, and anyone who may have known him had long since passed away, including my grandmother in 1975. My grandfather, Peter Gisli Thompson, a veteran of the First World War, who had been wounded during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, died in 1956.
With no other options available, I had to turn to other sources of information.
First, I found his attestation papers on the Libraries and Archives of Canada website. According to the papers, Kristjan had lied about his birth year, changing it to 1898 to enable him to enlist in the CEF. But even at the time of his enlistment with a falsified date, he was still three months shy of his 18th birthday. One of the lines on the attestation papers, under the heading Description, asks only for his “apparent age.” In Kristjan’s case, his apparent age was given as 18 with the provision, “To be determined according to the instructions given in the Regulations for Army Medical Service.”
Kristjan claimed to be a farmer living in Dog Creek, Manitoba, which is on the shores of Lake Manitoba near Vogar. This was in keeping with the known details of my grandmother’s side of our family. She had a brother, Steini Jonsson, living in the Ashern area, as well as other relatives, including Sigridur Gislason, the lady with whom Kristjan would eventually live.
Kristjan became Christian when he enlisted, which was a typical occurrence whenever foreign-sounding names were encountered by North American bureaucrats. An “s” was dropped from his surname years prior to his enlistment in the CEF on U.S. government data forms to make his last name the anglicized Davidson. Only the framed poem held to the Icelandic spelling of all his names.
On his attestation papers, Kristjan’s birthplace was listed as Milton, North Dakota, and his next-of-kin was his mother, Ingibjorg Davidson, who resided at “P.O. Milton, North Dakota, U.S.A,” which only added to the mystery. How did a teenager who was born in the U.S. come to enlist in the Canadian infantry?
Eventually, I would uncover this piece of the puzzle, but not until I was further along into my research.
(Next week: part 2)