Monday 17 November 2014

Thomas McCloskey: Journey home from war

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One. Naturally, when we look back to that time, we tend to focus on the soldiers and others who served overseas in that conflict, with particular attention to those who were killed. The foremost of these has to be John McCrea. There is also Ed Butts' excellent series of Guelph's Cenotaph Stories published in the Guelph Mercury. Without subtracting from the significance of those stories, it is also relevant and interesting to inquire about Guelphites who did return from foreign service. One of those Guelphites was Thomas McCloskey.

Thomas McCloskey merits our attention in this blog because of a postcard that he sent home from England in August of 1918. Here are the front and back of the card:

The message on the card shows Thomas taking a few moments to connect with his family back in Guelph:

London Aug 12/18 // Dear Sister, On leave for a few days. Received your letter before I left camp. Will write on return. Having a dandy time. Grand Canadian Camphionship [sic] sports to be run off this afternoon, I am not going. Going to Kew Gardens instead. Supposed to be the finest in the world. Please write soon. T. McC. [PS.] Got an extension of 24 hours on my pass. Met a lot of Guelph boys here this time.
The message is pleasant and upbeat, meant to reassure the family that all is well. It reinforces Thomas's connection to home, both because of its destination and because of its mention of meeting "a lot of Guelph boys" in London.

We learn a number of things about Thomas straight away. He is a Canadian soldier from Guelph and is visiting London on leave. On the back of the card, Thomas gives his details as "Pte Thos J. McCloskey, Seaford, 6 C. R. Battalion". This means that Thomas was in the 6th Canadian Reserve Battalion which was situated south of London near Brighton. When Canadian recruits were sent to Europe, they were attached to Reserve Battalions where they prepared for combat (Meek 1971, p. 146):

In the Reserve Battalions, advanced training was carried out by instructors who were experienced soldiers from the front lines. When the call came from France that a Battalion or a Brigade needed reinforcements, then a draft [of trainees] was called together from a Reserve Battalion, and sent to the front.
In other words, the 6th C.R. was just a way station on Thomas's journey to the front lines.

The card itself also tells us something about the situation that Thomas was in during his training in England. Unlike most postcards of the era, the card has no picture on the front. Instead, it resembles a form letter with the front reserved for a message and the back for addresses. In addition, the front carries the patriotic logo, "For God, For King & For Country" and "H.M. Forces on Active Service," along with two cannons. The printer is identified as the Y.M.C.A.

The Y.M.C.A.—also known as the Red Triangle from its logo—took a special interest in the morale of Canadian soldiers and their families. It sponsored entertainment for the troops abroad, including concerts, stage performances and "picture films". In addition, it put on Bible classes and guided tours for soldiers on leave, providing them with a morally acceptable acquaintance with Paris and London (Toronto Globe, 7 May 1918):

"Any clear-thinking person who knows Paris and London to-day, knows that they are zones of great moral danger," Capt. MacNeill went on [to a Toronto audience]. "There is no need blinking that. The facts are too apparent to any man who observes them. It is one of the great businesses of the Y.M.C.A. to surround our men on these leave occasions, with every protection that we can find. We try to close every door of evil influence against them and open every door of good influence for them.
Since he was headed for Kew Gardens, we can assume that Pte McCloskey was not in need of that service. However, he did take advantage of the postcards that the Y.M.C.A. apparently provided so that servicemen could write quick missives home to stay in touch. It even appears that the Y took care of the postage since the back of the card has "Canadian Soldiers Mail" in place of a stamp.

According to the 1911 census, Thomas Joseph McCloskey was born in September of 1896. He was the third of five sons of Frank and Agnes McCloskey resident at 251 Exhibition St. (This may be near the site of the city water tower today.) The house must have been busy as a brother-in-law Alexander and a lodger Winnie are also listed in that household, making a total of nine people.

Thomas's attestation paper states that he was inducted into the Canadian military on 15 Oct. 1917. He was 5', 9.25" tall, weighed 170 lbs., of fair complexion, light grey eyes and brown hair. He had been vaccinated in his left arm in 1907 and was freckled, perhaps a trace of his father's Irish heritage. The examining doctor put him in category "A", that is, fit for front-line duty.

The timing of Thomas's induction may be significant. The Canadian government had recently passed the Military Service Act, permitting the conscription of soldiers. Army recruiters were making the rounds of Canadian cities signing up young men. Here is a photo of a poster printed in the Guelph Mercury in Oct. 1917, issued by the Military Service Council, enjoining young men to visit the Medical Board for examination.

The Mercury would often publish items listing the number of young men examined by the Medical Board in the Armory the previous day. No notice was published on Oct. 16, but the notice from Oct. 17 runs as follows:

Thirty-two Passed Yesterday
Sixty-two applicants for examination appeared before the Medical Commission at the Armories yesterday. Over 50 per cent, or 32 were physically fit for overseas service and placed in Class A. Of the remainder 3 went into Class B, 5 in Class C, 1 in Class D, and 23 were declared unfit for any service and placed in Class E. To-day there are not nearly so many waiting as has been the case during the last week, and at ten o'clock there were only half a dozen in the waiting room.
Thomas was classified fit and sent to England for training, where he ended up sending home a postcard during his leave the following August.

Since Thomas was still in training in mid-August, near the end of hostilities, it may be that he was not sent into combat. (The Library and Archives Canada have not yet digitized his full service record.) In fact, the next official record of Pte McCloskey concerns his return to Canada. The Guelph Mercury often listed the return of soldiers from Europe. On 15 Sept. 1919, the Mercury noted the landing of "T. J. McCluskey" [sic] on the Cedric in Halifax. Three points of interest are concealed by this terse notice: Thomas's return was nearly a year after the Armistice, Thomas did not return to Guelph, and he did not return alone.

It is well known that 11 Nov. 1918 marked the end of hostilities on the Western front in Europe. What is less often recalled is that the war did not end officially until the Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919. Between the Armistice and the Treaty, the Allied commanders faced a difficult decision. Their troops were understandably anxious to return home. However, the end of Germany's war effort brought about a collapse in its government. Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated and various parties attempted to seize power. German army units remained active and involved in the political conflict. As a result, there was no government that could negotiate an official end to the war, and there was a chance that some of the German army might resume hostilities with the occupying forces (Toronto Globe, 16 Jan. 1919):

"On authority of an unimpeachable character," says the Central News, "It can be stated that a situation exists in Europe under which war may break out again at any moment. The Allied War Council has arrived at a decision which means that the British people have mistaken the appearance of peace for reality. This decision means that the new British Ministry must revise the whole scheme of army demobilization."
Moreover, demobilization might embolden some German politicians to resume the conflict.

In addition to this, Canadian politicians were concerned about the surge in unemployment that would be caused by the sudden repatriation of more than a quarter million Canadians from Europe.

Many Canadian soldiers were impatient with the situation. Some marched in protests. There were several riots (Morton 1980). One such riot took place among Canadian troops at Seaford, apparently touched off by attempts of military police to enforce strict discipline on the uninterested soldiery. Authorities put the blame on conscripts (Toronto Globe, 19 May 1919):

A description of the rioting that was threatened in Seaford Camp in England by a section of the Canadian troops quartered there was given by Lt.-Col. Meurling of Nelson, B.C., who returned to Canada Saturday morning on the Scotian with 2nd Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade, the troops called upon to check the disorderly element, and who did so with hockey sticks and cricket bats.
Col. Meurling said that the trouble-makers were principally drafts of conscripts who had seen no fighting at the front. They wanted to be sent home before the fighting, and appointed Soldiers' Council to submit their demands to the officers. There were a number of these Councils in the camps in England. At the Seaford Camp threats were made on May 3, 4, 5, and 6, and the machine-gunners were told to suppress any rioting that might take place. The disorderly faction on May 6 threatened to attack the north side of the Seaford Camp, in which the gunners were located. No actual attack was made in force.
Col. Meurling said that the men complained because they got no satisfactory explanation for the delay in repatriation. He explained that the trouble-makers were among the drafts. The spirit of the corps in the units was high, and the behavior of the men in them good.
The Colonel's account somewhat downplays the extent of unrest. In any case, there is no evidence that Pte McCloskey participated in the Seaford riots. Indeed, he may have had good reason not to.

When Thomas returned to Canada later in 1919, it seems that he went to live in Montreal instead of returning to Guelph. The 1921 census shows him living at 859 Dorchester St W in Montreal along with Gladys McCloskey. Records show that Gladys was born in England and landed in Canada on the Cedric along with Thomas. In other words, it seems that Thomas had met Gladys and married her in England before his return. Did he meet her while on leave in London?

Despite their time in Montreal, it seems that although you can take the boy out of Guelph, you cannot take Guelph out of the boy. The 1928 Vernon's City Directory for Guelph lists Tom J McCloskey and wife Gladys W ("W" for Winifred) as residents in Guelph, living at 12 Alexandria St. That address must have been especially convenient since Thomas is also listed as the proprietor of McCloskey's Service Station:

McCloskey's Service Station
The bright spot—Famous for Service, Tire Repairs, Road Service, Gas, Oil & Accessories—Woolwich St. (Elora Rd), at City Limits, Phone 2725
That would be the corner of Woolwich and Speedvale today, right behind the McCloskeys' house on Alexandria. It seems that the couple must have done well in Montreal.

Unfortunately for the McCloskeys, the service station did not succeed. The 1934 City Directory seems upbeat, showing a name change to the "McCloskey's Serv-Us Station" and noting an expansion in their offerings to include cigars, confectionary, and soft drinks. The location is even called "McCloskey's Corner" and a second location at the corner of Gordon and Wellington St.s is listed. However, the 1935 Directory lists one John H. Brown as the proprietor of the station on McCloskey's Corner, with Thomas as an employee. The tough times of the Great Depression seem to have forced Thomas to sell his business.

The McCloskeys moved on. The 1936 City Directory does not list Thomas or Gladys. Indeed, only his brother Harry, whose wife Thomas wrote to in 1917, remains there at that point. It appears that Thomas and Gladys moved to British Columbia or, more particularly, New Westminster. Without access to the papers there, it is hard to say why or find out more about them. Perhaps they chose that city because New Westminster, like Guelph, calls itself The Royal City. At any rate, it appears that Thomas and Gladys enjoyed a long life together. Gladys died on 13 Feb. 1987 and Thomas shortly thereafter on 30 March 1987. Their grave marker can be viewed at

If I am ever in the neighborhood, perhaps I will look up more information (or some kind soul could post it in the comments). In any event, the tale of Thomas McCloskey illustrates the vagaries of life for Guelphites of that era and the fact that returning from war can be, in its own way, just as turbulent a journey as setting off for one.

Post Script:
I have come across a couple of short columns in the Mercury regarding Thomas McCloskey.

The first is from 31 May 1943:

T. McCloskey state deputy
Word has been received here that Thomas McCloskey, formerly of Guelph, has been elected State Deputy of the Knights of Columbus for the province of British Columbia. Mr. McCloskey left Guelph for B.C. some few years ago. While [here] he was active in the Knights of Columbus and held several offices successively in Local Council 1507.

The second column is from 25 Oct. 1950, noting the death of Patrick J. McCloskey of Port Moody in a car accident:

Born in Guelph he was the son of Mr. and Mrs. T. J. McCloskey who used to operate service stations here. The family left for the west in 1935.
It is interesting that the McCloskeys were still remembered in Guelph years after their departure.


  1. This is fascinating, this was my great uncle. So grateful to have found this. Thank you Kathryn McCloskey

    1. I'm very pleased to hear that, Kathryn! Any news about T.J. after his move to B.C.?

  2. Hi, This is my great grandfather. I am the granddaughter of his eldest child, Rita. From what I was told, they were fortunate and the great depression did not effect them economically. My grandmother told me stories of hungry men waiting at a back picnic table and her mother would feed them. The reason I was told they left Guelph, was the weather. Glady's did not enjoy the harsh winters and missed the English weather. Thomas had heard that BC's weather was similar to England. They packed up the 6 kids (2 additional children were born in BC), 2 German sheppards and headed to BC. My grandmother was 13,and the trip was a huge adventure.

    1. Very interesting! I imagine that they were right about the climate in the Lower Mainland. Thanks for sharing that.

  3. Hi, I forgot to mention that Thomas did see active duty. He was gassed and sent to a hospital in Brighton to recover. This is were he met Gladys, she was a nurse. Michelle

  4. That happened with many a young serviceman, didn't it? I see his service records are now digitized and online, so you can see them there if you'd like. He was given permission to marry on 6 May 1919.