I have always had an appreciation for the men and women who sacrificed for my freedoms. My father served in the Canadian Navy for 25 years. Fortunately, it was during a time of relative peace. However, I never knew of any relatives or ancestors who served during a time of war. I found this lack of connection to a specific person to be challenging on Remembrance Day.
I have read that children who are surrounded with family stories as they grow are more resilient and able to face challenges than those raised without these stories. As a result, I have the desire to find my family stories and record them for the next generation in my family.
Utilizing FamilySearch Resources
Family history has a special place in my heart, but I have been more focused on finding the specific information required for temple ordinances. I did not take the time to uncover family stories. After registering and paying to attend the online Brigham Young University (BYU) Education Week 2020, I was encouraged to open the box where I stored my ancestors’ pictures.
As I reviewed my family photos, one stood out to me. It was of a man in a military uniform; his name was William John Young. The note on the back identified him as my mother’s granduncle. His temple ordinances were complete. Thus, I began a quest to learn more of my war veteran’s story.
William John Young: A Veteran of World War 1
My search for William John Young’s story led me to census records where I found him on a ship in the Harlem River, New York. I learned of his survival during an epidemic of typhoid fever. He became a strong man from working for years as a marine fireman.
At the age of 37, older than most of his fellow soldiers, he enlisted as part of the 2nd Division of the Canadian Corps. I found a photograph of the ship he sailed on to England: R. M. S. Corsican.
He arrived in France in the fall of 1915. I found the names of the other men in his battalion as well as a war diary written by the Assistant Provost Marshall of the 2nd Canadian Division. Over the winter he would endure the rain, the watery trenches, lice, and mud while he learned to fight the enemy.
In the first six months of 1916 William would be forced to leave the battlefield three times, yet he would always rejoin his unit. In January he suffered with influenza, but he was away only a few days. In April, a gunshot wounded his left ear, and he needed a few weeks of medical treatment to recover. In June he was treated for three days for “shell shock” (now designated PTSD or posttraumatic stress disorder).
The major event that altered his life occurred at the Somme battlefield outside of the town of Courcelette. On October 7, 1916 at 12:45 p.m. a high explosive shell exploded and drove shrapnel in his right femur and required the amputation of his left index finger. His recovery was slow and prolonged. The number of casualties made it impossible to address each soldier’s wounds in a timely manner. He endured two months of waiting before his index finger was amputated. It was another seven months of sepsis and infection before the shrapnel was removed from his femur, and his healing could finally begin.
In the meantime, a small lump appeared on the left side of his chest that grew to the size of a lemon. When it was removed in August 1918, his diaphragm had to be opened in two places in order to remove the encapsulated tumour. By this time, he had been transferred back to Canada. He was discharged from military service 35 days after the armistice on November 11, 1918. He had survived and was able to return to his home in Ontario
William walked with a stick the remainder of his life. The frequent thunderstorms in Ontario often triggered his “shell shock.” His left hand would turn blue in the cold. He struggled for the rest of his life and died on April 28, 1951. He was a survivor.
Resilience from Remembering
I have experienced the presence of those desiring their temple ordinances. I have felt them guide me to the records as I sought for their information. Uncovering piece-by-piece the story of William John Young brought a new type of connection for me. I found more than facts on a page of census records, a war diary, and photographs. I found examples of courage, loyalty, determination, struggle, endurance, and connection. Each moment of reading and researching connected me to my great-grand-uncle in a way that I had never before experienced
His story has given me encouragement and determination to face my many physical limitations. My challenges have led me to seek out the stories of those who have survived a myriad of difficulties. In the scriptures I see many avenues to survival and paths to resilience: an ark for Noah (see Genesis 6:14), barges for the Jaredites (see Ether 2:6), and parting of the waters and walking on dry land across the Red Sea for the Israelites (see Exodus 14:21).
The story of my great-granduncle William helps me believe that if he could face pain and illness and still carry on, then so can I. I have learned for myself that knowing the stories of my family can help me in the challenges I face today. The experiences of our ancestors can be a source of strength and encouragement.
This Remembrance Day, I honour William John Young and all the men and women who served with him. Now I have a heart filled with connection to their sacrifices. Like so many of the young men who died defending freedom, William John Young has no direct descendants to remember him, but he has a great-grand-niece who has shared his story so that he is not forgotten.