Kathryn Ryans Cullen’s story of a personal connection to WW1
Thinking of the 100th anniversary of World War 1 as we approach Remembrance Day, I discovered that my grandmother Ethel Rose Pemberton (Silvester) Ryans had a brother named Charlie who was in the Great War. This photo shows Charlie Silvester at age 15 with my grandmother.
In the photo above, Left to right:
- Charlie Silvester at age 15 (Jan 16 1890-May 2, 1915) – my grandmother’s younger brother
- Ethel Rose Pemberton (Silvester) Ryans (1879-1977) – my grandmother
- Alfred Benjamin Ryans (1876-1968) – my grandfather
- Louise Gertrude (Silvester) Relf (1885-1972) – my grandmother’s sister, known as Aunt Gertie
- Arthur Charles Relf – Aunt Gertie’s husband
Charles Henry “Charlie” Silvester
Born: January 16, 1890 in Toronto
Died: age 25 on May 2, 1915 in the 2nd battle of Ypres, at St. Julien
World War 1
As soon as Britain declared war in 1914, Charlie enlisted with the 3rd Battalion (Toronto Regiment) of the Canadian Expeditionary Force which was created on 2 September 1914 with recruits from Toronto, primarily from the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada. The Battalion organized and trained at Camp Valcartier before sailing for England from Quebec City on board the SS Tunisian 25 September 1914. They arrived in England on 16 October with 42 officers and 1123 men. The battalion became part of the 1st Canadian Division, 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade where it saw action at Ypres, Vimy Ridge and along the Western Front.
Points of interest:
- My father was named after grandma’s younger brother, our soldier Charlie Silvester, who died in 1915 in WW1. My dad was christened “Charlie”, not Charles, in memory of Charlie Silvester. My dad’s grandson was named “Ryan Charlie”, carrying on the memory.
- Ypres was the first major battle where poison gas was used by the Germans, contrary to the conventions of war. On April 22, 1915, two Canadian brigades were in the front lines, with a third in reserve near Ypres. At 5 p.m., the Germans released gas against the French 45th (Algerian) Division to the Canadians’ left. An enormous green-yellow gas cloud, several kilometres long, drifted towards the French lines. When it rolled over their positions, French troops either suffocated or fled, their eyes and throats burning from the chlorine. Most of the gas missed the Canadians, but the French retreat had exposed the Canadian’s left flank and threatened the destruction of the whole Allied position in the salient (i.e., the bulge into German territory along the front). British army units shifted positions to cover the gap, but the German gas attack had torn a huge hole, several kilometres wide, in the Allied line. The Canadians fought tenaciously to defend this exposed position.
- The 2nd Battle of Ypres was the first major battle where Canadians participated in WW1. Ypres provided a defensive position from which to protect French ports on the English Channel. It had to be held. All four phases of the Second Battle of Ypres were Allied victories. The official history called what happened here “a great and terrible day for Canada.” The Canadian Division’s trial-by-fire at Ypres earned the Canadians a reputation as tough and dependable troops. But the cost was high: 6,035 Canadians, one man in every three, became casualties, of whom more than 2,000 died, including Charlie Silvester. They were heavy losses for Canada’s little force whose men had been civilians only several months ago.
- The poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ was written by John Alexander McCrae, a field surgeon in the Canadian artillery during the 2nd battle of Ypres. He wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” in May 1915, the day his close friend, Alexis Helmer, was buried. My great uncle Charlie Silvester was declared dead the same day, but his body was never found. He had no burial. The two dead soldiers had fought and died in the same battle at the end of April 1915, along with countless others at the 2nd battle of Ypres. McCrae’s friend’s death (and perhaps, in part, my great uncle’s death as one of “the Dead”) inspired the poem.
In Flanders Fields
By John McCrae
May 3, 1915, Ypres
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Description of the 2nd Battle of Ypres
Follow this link for a good description of the 2nd Battle of Ypres including the battle at St. Julien where my great uncle, Charlie Silvester, was killed.
Obituaries for Charlie Silvester
News clipping — Born in Toronto, Ontario, Pte. Charles Henry Silvester enlisted at Valcartier Camp (Quebec) on September 22nd, 1914. He indicated on his military attestation that he had five years previous experience with the Queen’s Own Rifles and one year with the Canadian Engineers. Silvester was a printer by trade. In honoured memory.
Toronto Star, 16 January 1917 — Pte. C. H. Silvester dead.
Pte. Charles H. Silvester, 705 Ossington Avenue, is officially reported believed to have died of wounds. He went overseas with a quota from the first contingent. He was reported missing after St. Julien. Pte. Silvester was a Canadian, twenty-five years of age and unmarried. He was a printer by trade, and prior to the war was in the Queen’s Own Rifles and the Canadian Engineers.
Letter from the Canadian Red Cross Society “Wounded and Missing Department” to my grandma, Charlie’s sister, dated March 7, 1919
Dear Madam, Some time ago we received from you an enquiry regarding this soldier, 9826 Pte. C.H.Silvester, who, to our regret, was reported as Missing on the 2nd May, 1915, and whose death has since been officially presumed. Enquiries made at the time of the casualty were, unfortunately, not very successful, so that we were never able to send you any further news. We have, however, just received an unofficial report from one of our Searchers and of this we enclose a copy [Ed. note: copy was lost]. I think you know that we cannot vouch for its accuracy, but it is the result of a final effort to establish the fate of Missing men, and I fear it is very definite. With most sincere sympathy
The Menin Gate Memorial
Charlie Silvester is commemorated at the
Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres, Grave Reference: Panel 18 – 24 – 26 – 30
He is one of 55,000 soldiers who have no known grave in the battlefields of the Ypres Salient.
The Menin Gate Memorial bears the names of 55,000 men who were lost without trace during the defence of the Ypres Salient in the First World War. The memorial consists of a Hall of Memory, 36.6 metres long by 20.1 metres wide. In the centre are broad staircases leading to the ramparts which overlook the moat, and to pillared loggias which run the whole length of the structure. On the inner walls of the Hall, on the side of the staircases and on the walls of the loggias, panels of Portland stone bear the names of the dead, inscribed by regiment and corps. Carved in stone above the central arch are the words: TO THE ARMIES OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE WHO STOOD HERE FROM 1914 TO 1918 AND TO THOSE OF THEIR DEAD WHO HAVE NO KNOWN GRAVE.
Over the two staircases leading from the main Hall is the inscription: HERE ARE RECORDED NAMES OF OFFICERS AND MEN WHO FELL IN YPRES SALIENT BUT TO WHOM THE FORTUNE OF WAR DENIED THE KNOWN AND HONOURED BURIAL GIVEN TO THEIR COMRADES IN DEATH.
The dead are remembered to this day in a simple ceremony that takes place every evening at 8:00 p.m. All traffic through the gateway in either direction is halted, and two buglers (on special occasions four) move to the centre of the Hall and sound the Last Post. Two silver trumpets for use in the ceremony are a gift to the Ypres Last Post Committee by an officer of the Royal Canadian Artillery, who served with the 10th Battery, of St. Catharines, Ontario, in Ypres in April 1915.
The Brooding Soldier Memorial, St. Julien Canadian Memorial for Ypres
The St. Julien Memorial, known as “The Brooding Soldier”, commemorates the Canadian 1st Division in action on 22nd to 24th April 1915. The Canadian division held its position on the left flank of the British Army after the German Army launched the first ever large-scale gas attack against two French divisions on the left of the Canadians. From the start of the battle at 17.00 hours on 22nd April and for the next few days the Canadians were involved in heavy fighting, losing some 2,000 casualties – killed, wounded or missing – from the division.
“The Canadians paid heavily for their sacrifice and the corner of earth on which this Memorial of gratitude and piety rises has been bathed in their blood. They wrote here the first page in that Book of Glory which is the history of their participation in the war.”
Charlie Silvester is commemorated on Page 36 of the First World War Book of Remembrance, Ottawa
Canadian Virtual War Memorial page for Charlie Silvester
Virtual Tour of the Memorial Chamber
General info on the Books of Remembrance
Veterans Affairs Canada Memorials
Lest we forget
More info on Charlie Silvester’s Military service
Name: SILVESTER , CHARLES HENRY (“Charlie”)
Regimental service number: 9826
Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 8904 – 31
First Canadian Expeditionary Force
1st Canadian Division, 1st Infantry Brigade, 3rd Battalion
Unit: Canadian Infantry (Central Ontario Regiment)
Division: 3rd Battalion
Soldier Profile of Charlie Silvester
Service Record of Charlie Silvester
Dates of the Second Battle of Ypres (22nd April – 25th May)
- Battle of Gravenstafel (22nd Apr – 23rd Apr)
- Battle of St Julien (24th Apr – 4th May)
- Battle of Frezenberg (8th May – 13th May)
- Battle of Bellewearde (24th May – 25th May)
War Diaries from 3rd Battalion
Scroll way down to April/May for the 2nd Battle of Ypres on this page:
War Diary, 3rd Battalion, Wednesday, April 28, 1915
- 300 A.M. Bn. arrived at Bivouac and entrenched.
- 6. a.m. Bombardment commenced – many hostile H.E. shells dropping within 50 yds. of Bivouac.
- 2 p.m. A draft of 32 men and 4 officers ziz Lieut DAVIS Lieut. CAMERON. Lieut ALLEY and Lieut. HENDERSON from SHORNCLIFFE, reported for duty.
- 4 to 7 pm Violent shelling by enemy with H.E. shells.
- 730 pm. Bn. marched to area W. of St JULIEN for the purpose of digging a line of trenches to be held by the British Lahore Div. Protected by 2nd Bn. extended
War Diary, 3rd Battalion, Thursday, April 29, 1915
- Map Reference: H.2.b
- Entry: 2. a.m. in front, and 1st and 4th Bns. in rear, 3rd Bn dug 1200 yds. of trench and were ready to move away by 2. a.m. The trench ran from farm at C.15 c to farm C,22, a. H. 2. b.
- 430 a.m Bn. returned to Canal crossing B 19 c and marched to Bivouac at farm H. 2. B. arriving at 430 am. Men very tired. Hot tea and food ready. Weather fine and bright.
May 2, 1915
- By May 2nd, Charlie still had not been found and was declared dead. His body was never found, never buried, there is no known grave.
War Diary, 3rd Battalion, May 7, 1915
- Gen. Sir Horrace Smith-Dorrion expressed his entire satisfaction with the work of the division, and desired that all ranks be informed of his conviction that in recent action at St. JULIEN the Canadians had saved what might have proved a disaster to the 27th and 28th Divisions … The legacy of Charlie Silvester.
History of the 3rd Battalion:
The 3rd Battalion was part of the 1st Canadian Division, 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade
Daily rate of pay
$1.00 per diem for Privates
Veteran Affairs Canada History of WW1
Memories from Fairlawn Families
Click the photos below to read more stories of relatives of people at Fairlawn who served in The Great War
Links for researching soldiers of the Great War
A good place to start
- Researching Canadian Soldiers of the First World War by Michael O’Leary, The Regimental Rogue
- Researching Canadians in WW1 http://regimentalrogue.com/misc/researching_first_world_war_soldiers_part1.htm
- Researching the service recorded of Canadians in WW1 http://regimentalrogue.com/misc/researching_first_world_war_soldiers_part2.htm
- The Canadian Great War Project www.canadiangreatwarproject.com
- Library & Archives Canada www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/first-world-war-1914-1918-cef
- The Great War 1914-1918 www.greatwar.co.uk/research/family-history/trace-ww1-british-soldier.htm
Commonwealth War Dead
- The Commonwealth War Graves Commission www.cwgc.org
- BBC www.bbc.com/history/0/ww1 (terrific sound and video clips)
- Ancestry.ca www.ancestry.ca (general family research and FREE at the Toronto Public Libraries)