The Service File Of Peter Gammie

Each month I would check and find nothing but the attestation (enlistment) form for my great granduncle Peter Gammie.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) had a much publicized project underway to digitize and post the full service files for the Canadian Soldiers of the First World War (according to the website, they are about one-third of the way through the digitization project). As batches of these digitized files were completed, they were posted on the LAC website. Available for free for all who were interested.

Long ago, I had paid LAC to photocopy and send me the service file of James Gammie, Peter’s brother. I had great interest in James’, or ‘Jimmie’s, file because his death in the 1918 from injuries sustained in France during combat had triggered the events that lead to my great grandfather, and Jimmie’s half brother, to move the Hadden family to Canada. The move had been at the invitation of my great grandfather and the Gammie brother’s mother Helen.

A distant cousin had once informed me in an email that while James had died in combat, Peter had not seen action in the war. But there was no explanation.

Peter Gammie

Peter Gammie

What was known was that Peter, aged 23, and his younger brother James, aged 21, had enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force together on May 17, 1916 in the village of Aneroid, Saskatchewan. Together, they completed the enlistment form giving their names, dates and places of birth, as well as listing their next of kin. Both brothers listed their mother Mrs. Helen (Shand) Gammie (my 2X great grandmother) as next of kin.

The brothers stated they were farmers willing to serve overseas. They swore oaths to King and Country. They were assigned consecutive regimental service numbers; the younger Jimmie becoming #1010103 and Peter becoming #1010104. Both were found to be medically fit to serve. Both were sent off for training.

For Jimmie, time would see him sent to the front lines in France where he was injured by shrapnel. He spent time in a hospital, recovered from his injuries and was sent back to the front lines. He wasn’t so lucky the next time. On September 28, 1918, Jimmie was killed in action. He was buried in France where an iconic maple leaf adorned gravestone marks his final resting place.

James Gammie gravestone, Bucquoy Road Cemetery, Arras, France

James Gammie gravestone, Bucquoy Road Cemetery, Arras, France

The mystery that surrounded Peter’s military career has now been cleared up.

His service file has now been posted and reiterates what was known. He enlisted with his younger brother and assigned to artillery training with the 229th Battalion. As all soldiers were required to do, on October 20th, 1916 he completed his pro-forma last will and testament, leaving all his possessions to his mother, “Mrs. A. Gammie.”

His medical record indicates that he received his required inoculations and all five feet, nine inches and one hundred and fifty-two pounds of him seemed well and fit. At least until February 1, 1917 when he was diagnosed and hospitalized for 29 days with a severe case of the mumps.

Two months later, on April 24th, 1917 he was again medically examined and was found to have “defective vision and varicose veins,” dating back, although never previously noted, to his pre-enlistment days.

To quote the examining doctor, Peter was “practically blind in right eye – left eye subnormal – varicose veins in right leg below knee.” The vision of the left eye was tested at 20/80 vision.

It is puzzling how a young man, an eager soldier recruit, could be medically examined numerous times by various medical personnel, spend a month in hospital and then, after six months of military service, be found to have pre-existing condition of near blindness in one eye and very poor sight with the other. But, apparently that was the case for Peter Gammie.

The doctor recommended a medical discharge. The medical board agreed and so, on June 7, 1917 Peter Gammie was medically discharged from the army and sent back home to the family farm. Never to see action in the war. Never to see his younger brother again.

I Interrupt This Family History for a Comment on Cuts to Library and Archives Canada

Warning: This post contains personal opinion.

There has been a lot of effort by Canadian librarian associations and genealogical societies protesting the budget cuts at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). Understandably these organizations have a vested interest in the debate. Librarians and archivists, represented by their associations, will fight to save their jobs. Genealogical societies will fight to maintain current service levels and urge expansion and ease of accessibility to record collections.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, they are missing the some of the important elements of a solid argument against the way in which the budget cuts are implemented. While I agree with these various groups that the cuts don’t make much sense, the rhetoric being used doesn’t make much sense. The Canadian Association of University Teachers website states that the cuts will be “devastating for preservation of Canada’s history” while the Ontario Genealogical Society has urged clear change in legislation pertaining the LAC’s mandate, the restoration of services, and exploration of funding models to support LAC.

I want to be clear that I do not support the manner in which the budget cuts at LAC are being implemented. Government budget cuts in this era of austerity have become the norm. I am not an economist so I won’t offer any Keynesian-like opinion on the benefits on austerity measures in recessionary times but as a career public servant (now retired), I can see through some of the ‘bafflegab‘ language that the government and LAC have been using.

First, archives are not held in high place in most government circles. No one seems to know where they fit. Are the archives a cultural entity or are they simply an administrative body, tasked with preserving government documents. This ‘debate’ is central in my view to the Canadian federal government relationship with LAC and plays out in a similar manner in Canadian provinces. Would I like to see LAC expand it’s collection of the documented memory of Canada? Absolutely. Is it likely to ever happen? No, it’s just not really feasible due to both cost and space limitations. The exploration of alternate funding models has been occurring for years at LAC and at other government agencies and departments who find themselves in a catch-22 when faced with ongoing budget pressures. New revenue sources can be found but the funds necessary for the infrastructure to establish those revenues is never available.

My concern for LAC is the manner in which the budget cuts are being implemented. Plain and simple, they don’t make much sense to me. For example, Daniel Caron, the Librarian and Archivist of Canada, essentially the head of LAC, has been quoted as noting that LAC is moving forward with a greater digital presence, pointing to LAC’s new Facebook and Twitter presence. Mr. Caron however likely cannot explain how 899 Twitter followers and an meager 283 Facebook followers gives LAC real bragging rights. This all falls under the bureaucratic umbrella of something called ‘modernization.’

LAC has noted that in-person visits have been declining while website visits have been escalating. It would seem obvious then that the future lies in greater accessibility to the records of LAC through it’s website. I can fully support such a direction. Not everyone can travel to Ottawa, Ontario to make an in-person visit. Online records access makes sense and many private companies (such as Ancestry) are showing that it can be profitable. Mr. Caron and LAC have not explained to me how cutting 50% of the digitization staff is going to achieve this end result. The LAC website states that LAC provides “Democratic access to your nation’s records – at the speed of light. Any time of day or night” following an explanation that LAC holds 20 million books, periodicals, microfilms in addition to 3 million maps, 24 million photographs and 350,000 hours of film, portraits and musical items.

I don’t have access to all of that material “any time of day or night” but I would love to enjoy it. The cuts this year to the LAC budget are likely not the end of budget cuts but nor are they likely the first budget cuts that LAC has experienced. With each passing year, the LAC collection deteriorates and the “democratic access” to my nation’s records goes unfilled. The secret to a successful business for LAC lies in that reality.