It All Started with Dick

It All Started With “Dick”

This is a story of the search for a person lost to history – someone who had existed but was not again easily found.  It is a success story.  And it is a sad story.  And in the process of telling it, I hope to highlight some online tools that can be very useful in fleshing out your own stories.

In the early 1990s I inherited a collection of postcards.  Addressed to and from my great-grandparents, they dated from 1909 to 1920 and had been kept by them and then my grandmother for over half a century.   For the past year and a half, I have been writing a blog (www.dearjackhistory.blogspot.ca) that follows the postcards chronologically and highlights events, people, and places in my great-grandparents’ lives.  A large amount of my research has been conducted online.  If it were not for Ancestry, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and many other sites, I would not be anywhere near where I am with the research I’m conducting.  As well, many interesting personal connections, added details, and corrections have been made because of Social Media. 

One of the most interesting stories I’ve uncovered during my research has been about one man in particular.  Among the postcards are six that were written in the month between October 25 and November 24, 1915, and were signed by the same man:  “Dick.”  They are a record of his trip across Canada to The Great War late in 1915.  At the start of my research, I had no idea who Dick was – I was not aware of any family or family friends with that name, and neither were any of my living relatives.  Obviously, he knew my great-grandparents, Jack and Nellie McCurrach, who were from Scotland and in 1915 lived in Vancouver, and I had a few details from the postcards, which I will discuss.  But I did not know who he was.  No last name.  No photograph.   

Dick’s story, in the postcards, starts with him (coincidentally) in my hometown of Vernon, British Columbia.  As we see from the front of the postcard (Figure 1), Dick was a member of the 47th Battalion, C.E.F., and in October 1915, he was at the Army Camp there.  The Vernon army training camp opened in 1912 and in May 1915 became a central mobilization camp and training center for men going off to World War 1.[1] 



Figure 1 - 47th Battalion, C.E.F. tents at Vernon Army Training Camp.  Sent to Jack McCurrach October 25, 1915

The postcard reads:  “Dear Jack We are leaving here on the 26th (of October, 1915) for New Westminster if all goes well Dick.” (I have not added punctuation or changed capitalization in the transcriptions of Dick’s writing, and to save space have not included the backs of the postcards here – they can all be viewed online).

The question is: how does one go from “Dick” as a signature on a postcard to find out who the individual was?  I honestly did not think I would be able to do it, but in the end I found him.  The process was fascinating.

There were five other postcards in the collection that were all written in the same hand and signed “Dick.”  On November 9th, Dick wrote a quick note to Jack saying “We are on our way to Berlin every one happy Dick” (Figure 2).  The stamp and most of the postmark are no longer on the card, but below the date he wrote “on the train.”  The photo on this postcard shows the Spiral Tunnels in the Rocky Mountains near Field, British Columbia:


Figure 2 – Spiral Tunnels in the Rocky Mounatins.  Sent to Jack McCurrach on November 9, 1915

I find this one sad – I suppose because I know how the war experience ended up for most soldiers and it is hard to read that they are happy going to Europe.  They did not know what they were in for.  Dick certainly did not.

Also on November 9th, Dick sent a postcard to Jack’s sister, Bella (Figure 3).  The photograph is from the area of Spuzzum, British Columbia, in the Fraser Canyon not far from Yale.  It would seem he bought several postcards showing different areas in the Rockies and then continued to send them as he went across the country.  This one was mailed from Regina, Saskatchewan, and also states that he was on the train:


Figure 3 – Sailor’s Bar in the Fraser Canyon.  Written to Bella McCurrach November 9, 1915

He writes:  “Hello Bella how are you getting along.  We are having a fine time with the girls all along the line the weather is a bit cold here but every one is happy Dick.”  A boisterous note from a young man excited for battle?  Probably.

By the time he mailed the next postcard (Figure 4) from Fort William (now part of Thunder Bay, Ontario), it was November 11, 1915, and he was writing to Jack:  “got to Winnipeg this morning.  Met Bill and the wife.  They went down to the station at 3 in morning and we got in at 4 but we only had a few minutes with them the two of them is looking well, we are having a fine time Dick.”  He wrote the postcard probably the day before he got a chance to mail it.  You’ll note that it is again a photograph from the Fraser Canyon – far west from where he now was:

Figure 4 – White’s Creek Bridge in the Fraser Canyon.  Sent to Jack McCurrach on November 11, 1915.

His last postcard from Canada (Figure 5) was to my Great-Grandmother and was sent from the Quebec Post office on November 13, 1915.  His note reads: “This is our boat we have got started alright.  Started out on the 13th with a black crow on board.  We had the crow on our train so we are all right give my love to everyone and kiss Gladys for me Dick.”  Gladys was my then one-year-old grandmother, and I am touched that he included her in his greeting.


Figure 5 – R.M.S. Missanabie – the ship that carried the 47th Battalion to England.  Written to Nellie McCurrach on November 13, 1915

One final postcard comes from Dick (Figure 6) on November 24, 1915.  This one shows High Street in Exeter, a city in the southwest of England.  The postmark on the back is from Bramshott Camp, a Canadian Military Training camp southwest of London and about 200 km east and slightly north of Exeter.   Bramshott is where Dick would have stayed until called up to go into battle. 

Figure 6 -  High Street, Exeter, England.  Sent to Jack McCurrach November 24, 2015

The back of the postcard reads:  “Dear Jack, just a P.C. to let you know that we got across allright (sic) and are to be at Bramshott ____(?) but the London is my address, as we do not know how long we will be here & do not know & will like this place as we can not ____(?) what like it is for  ____(?) Dick.”  These are his last words to us.

Stepping away from the story of Dick for a moment, I want to highlight something one can do with images.  This particular postcard serves as an excellent example of how to use Google Maps to locate specific places.  By bringing up Google Earth on Google maps (www.googlemaps.ca - search for your area and when you’ve found it, click on “Earth” image in bottom left hand corner to get a satellite image), I was able to find this aerial view of High Street in Exeter (Figure 7).

Figure 7 – Rooflines on High Street in Exeter – Modern day (Google Earth)

If you look at these roof lines, you can clearly see them in the postcard (Figure 8).  The one to the far left is the octagonal roof, the middle roof has parallel straight rooflines, and the right hand one is a single straight roofline. You can see that there is a street beside the octagonal building below.


Figure 8 – Corresponding rooflines on postcard image

In this particular case, there may be no reason to look up this location, but it is good evidence of how we can take a 100-year-old postcard and place it in exactly the right location – facing southwest on High Street in Exeter – a city 6700 km away from where I currently sit (the aerial photo above is rotated from North to show more easily it’s relation to the postcard).  It is much, much less expensive to use your computer than to fly to Exeter to check it out!  But be careful, though – do not make conclusions unless it is absolutely correct.

Returning to Dick's story:  we know he was in the 47th battalion and we know he went overseas.  We also know that he was a friend of my Great-Grandparents.  Beyond that, the postcards don’t enlighten us as to who this man was, only where he travelled on his way to war (and that he had a good time with the girls and got Bill and his wife up at all hours of the morning for a short visit – the fun details).

So where does one go from here?  Well, battalions that used to exist in Canada, are perpetuated by an existing military group – meaning that a current military group (usually one that grew from the first) keeps all the records and the history of the previous group.  A quick www.google.ca search (“Who perpetuates the 47th Battalion C.E.F.?”) lands us on Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org) at the “47th Battalion (British Columbia), CEF” entry.  And here we learn that the battalion is perpetuated by the Royal Westminster Regiment.  I found their website (http://www.royal-westies-assn.ca), got an address and e-mailed them.  There is no harm in reaching out to people through an e-mail or a phone call.  The worst that can happen is that they do not respond. 

The gentleman I e-mailed told me that they had recently published a book called “For King and Country: 150 Years of the Royal Westminster Regiment” within which there was a listing of all the men who had gone overseas with the 147th Battalion on the Missanabie in 1915.  I looked for the book at www.amazon.ca where a copy was available for $99.95.  Although I really wanted to know the information, looking through a list of names was not worth $100 to me.  So I started looking at libraries to see where the book might be located.  

I checked the TRAC system in Alberta (www.tracpac.ca) and didn’t find it.  I then tried the University of Alberta Libraries (http://www.library.ualberta.ca) and couldn’t find it there.  My next shot was the Vancouver Public Library (www.vpl.ca) and there I had success.  The book, however is in special collections, so cannot be ordered through interlibrary loan.  Here’s where I got really creative.  My sister and my brother-in-law live in Vancouver and my brother-in-law (actor, Bruce Harwood) loves to go to the library, so I asked if he would mind looking through the list and writing down all of the men named either “Dick” or “Richard.”  There were no “Dick”s, but there were 10 Richards.  Imagine!  Out of over 1000 men, there were only 10 Richards.  I was surprised.

With a list of Richards, I went to the Library and Archives Soldiers of the First World War search page (http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/first-world-war-1914-1918-cef/Pages/search.aspx ).  I believe the first Richard on the list was Richard Anderson, so I typed in that name and the search engine came up with 14 Richard Andersons who were soldiers for Canada during WWI.  Looking through the attestation papers of all the Richard Andersons, none of them matched the profile of someone who had signed up in Vernon in the fall of 1915.  The next Richard only had 1 listed and he was not a candidate, either.  The third name was Richard Grant.  Nine Richard Grants were in the army in WWI. 

The fifth one on the list of all the Richard Grants who went to war for Canada was one who had signed up in Vernon on September 1st, 1915.  That was a hit.  He was born in Inverness, Scotland in 1885, and his mother, Mrs. Richard Grant, lived in Nairn - the same town Jack had lived in before he moved to Canada.  He was also listed as a miner.  My memory twigged!  I had a postcard written by someone that was postmarked Discovery, B.C. – a small community close to Atlin, where the last great BC gold rush had taken place.  So I looked at the postcard, and sure enough, it was in the same hand as all of the others and was signed with a “D.”  I also had a postcard that was written to a Mr. W. Grant in Discovery!  Could it be that Richard Grant had a brother named William?

So onto www.ancestry.ca where I looked up Richard Grant born in 1885 in Inverness and there was my whole answer in the 1891 census from Nairn.  Richard Grant, aged 6, was the son of Richard Grant and Ann Grant and brother to six other children including William who was a year older than he, and they lived at 25 Harbour Street, Nairn.  Jack and his family lived at 9 Roseneath Terrace – as evidenced on earlier postcards and on the 1901 census.  If I place the two addresses on a map, we can see where the two families lived in relation to each other (Figure 9): 

Figure 9 – map showing relation of Jack and Dick’s houses in Nairn, Scotland

There is no doubt in my mind that Jack McCurrach and Dick Grant knew each other as young men.  Dick was the same age as Jack’s older brother, Alexander.  They undoubtedly either went to school or church together and the families were likely chums.

As soon as I identified Richard Grant, I was then able to look him up on the Canadian Great War Project’s webpage:  http://www.canadiangreatwarproject.com. 

And as soon as I found him … I lost him. 

Corporal Richard Grant, Regimental Number 629491, born on March 19, 1885, enlisted September 1, 1915, and died in action on April 13, 1917.  He was 32 years old and died in the vicinity of Vimy Ridge.  For those of you not familiar, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was a major Canadian battle during World War One.  The battle lasted from April 9 to 12, 1917 and 3,598 men died.  He was buried in the Petit-Vimy British Cemetery in France.  There are three Canadians buried here from the Battle of Vimy Ridge (http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/overseas/first-world-war/france/petit-vimy).  I cried when I found this out.  I was so happy to have identified him and finally know who he was.  To realize that he died in battle – so young, unmarried, no children – just made me so sad.

Through doing the research, however, I was able to get in touch with some of Richard Grant’s descendants (through messaging on www.ancestry.ca).  On a trip to visit my parents in the Okanagan valley last Easter, I was able to meet with a couple of them and was able to see other postcards he had written – some with the same pictures as the ones I had and definitely with the same hand writing – the final definitive proof that I had the right man.  Unfortunately, I have yet to find a photograph of him. 

I also got in contact with Simon Godly (of www.webmatters.net), a man in France who kindly visited the cemetery and took pictures of his grave for me (Figure 10).

Figure 10 – Richard “Dick” Grant’s headstone.

So there we go – starting with only a very common first name – “Dick” or “Richard” – I ended up remembering a man who had been mostly forgotten – one of the (still) faceless thousands who died in a horrible war.  What better end result could one hope for than to bring a little bit of history to the world, and to remember someone who had been forgotten?





[1] http://www.armycadethistory.com/vernon_acstc_main.htm

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