Posted by: alexhickey | November 5, 2017

Remembering Lance Corporal Edgar G. Skinner 1897-1953 ©

Most of us think of the men and women who served and died in war, when we hear the word Remembrance or the phrase Lest We Forget – and so we should.  There is, however, much greater depth to those words, more inclusivity and broader meaning.  There is an abundance of things to remember about war and the toll it extracts on people, places, institutions, culture, religion, society and governments. Yet, the greatest meaning does lie with the lives of those who volunteer or are conscripted into military service.

WW1 or the Great War as it is often called, ripped the innocence out of Newfoundland and left us with a legacy of loss, the extent of which is still being felt generations later.  Though all of the participants in that conflict are now dead, the cultural and genetic memory persists.  We are left on this centenary to ask questions, marvel and wonder at the decisions made by political and military leaders; admire the fortitude and patriotism which sent young men and women to a foreign soil; and lament the losses which affected nearly every community dotted along the coastlines of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Last year there was much attention given to the Battle of Beaumont Hamel where many young Newfoundland lives were lost. Since then, the one hundredth anniversary of the four year war seems to be over.  There is but sporadic attention to events beyond that unfortunate battle. Very little is heard of the heroics of our Newfoundland soldiers as they carried on fighting until peace was at hand. There were heroics and medals awarded as well as commendations and proud moments for over two years after Beaumont Hamel.

One battle which had profound effect on the Newfoundland Regiment took place as part of the continuing Battle of the Somme in April 1917. Newfoundland soldiers carried the day and delivered results well beyond expectations; however, the toll was enormous.  166 men were killed, 141 were wounded, and 150 were taken prisoner; the single largest capture of Newfoundlanders by the German military during the entire war.

The list of names of those who died has been widely circulated; however the bravery of those men who were injured or taken prisoner is often ignored. Their contribution to battles won and lost as well as to the overall thrust of will and valor which contributed to victory in the end, is less recognized.  Those men who were taken prisoner especially so.  This year I choose to remember the Newfoundlanders taken as Prisoners of War and their contribution to all those things we say, have derived from that war.

In highlighting the POW’s from Newfoundland I single out a young man from my hometown of St. Jacques – Lance Corporal Edgar G. Skinner, regimental number 2929.  Edgar volunteered for service immediately after finishing school at Bishop Field College in St. John’s where he was studying to become a teacher. After school closed for the summer the nineteen year old student spent a few days home in St. Jacques visiting family. He returned to St. John’s in early July and enlisted. By the time he shipped overseas on the S. S. Sicilian on August 28th he was assigned to the First Newfoundland Regiment 3rd Battalion, C Company, Platoon Number 12 – Section 16.  In his platoon with him were G. Moore, J. Tizzard, C. Day, W. Murphy, E. Dunphy, J. Sceviour, J. Lambert and D.E. Phelan of St. John’s as well as F.F. Simms of Burin; J.H. Little of Bonavista; S. Hodder of Horwood, Notre Dame Bay; C. Forsey and J. Harris of Grand Bank; J. Loveless of Seal Cove, Fortune Bay; and F. Morris of Trinity.

In less than a year he would be resident in a German Prisoner of War Camp.  At this point in time I know little of his experiences or of his treatment by German authorities.  I can assume with relative certainty that his time spent there was not pleasant, and that his treatment was not good.  Thousands of stories of life inside those camps have come to life over the century since and we can reason that Edgar Skinner experienced quite a bit of what these other men suffered.

Their suffering wasn’t limited to injuries they may have received in the Battle of Monchy; it also included the self-perceived ignominy of being taken prisoner.   It meant you could no longer fight beside the men you commanded or trained with; nor could you carry out orders to take the enemy.  You were forced to work for the enemy tending fields, building roads, repairing trenches, and burying their dead in the battlefield often while your own side unknowingly showered bullets down upon you.  You suffered there behind enemy lines thinking that there were those on your side who saw the fact that you were captured as cowardly.  You imagined that some thought you had surrendered to the enemy to avoid fighting.  All of these things played on the minds of POW’s causing them extreme mental anguish.  Coupled with the continuous hard labour most were forced into, and the poor nutrition which they endured, it is a wonder that any of them made it through to the end of the war.  Some didn’t.

These men endured war at the hands of their enemy unlike anything human beings had seen before.  Their suffering was daily, nightly, and weekly, seemingly without end as the war dragged on.  They were allowed to write letters home, however, their letters were heavily censored, allowing only the perfunctory salutations and most general comments to get through.  Below is an example of a letter from Edgar Skinner sent to his widowed mother on August 19th1917, which she submitted to the St. John’s Daily Star for publication.

Dear Mother,

Again I have the chance and pleasure of letting you know that I am still well.  My address is on the opposite side (my name, number, and company, and after that the writing which is over your address).

Try and write the Red Cross and tell them to send me some parcels. Do not worry about me.

I hope Lester, Owen, and you are well.

From your loving son.

Edgar

Address:

No. 2929 L.C.E.G. Skinner, B. Co., 1st Nfld. Regiment

Prisoner of War

Kriegsfangenan, Friedrichsfelf, Germany.

This was not Edgar’s first letter home for he says, “I have the chance of letting you know I am still well.”  He makes no mention of the injury to his head he suffered during the Battle of Monchy le Preux, nor does he suggest he is being maltreated.  In fact, at first glance it would seem that all is well.  Twice in the short letter he tries to reassure his mother.  He asks her not to worry about him and goes on to inquire about his brother-in-law and nephew.

He asks little of his mother but to entreat the Red Cross to send parcels which is something the Red Cross had positioned themselves to do by this stage of the war.  His seventy-three words are sparse and devoid of anything related to his status as a POW.  Nor does it contain any comment or question about the war. He provides a mailing address but we do not know where he is being held prisoner. There is no indication of who else may be there with him. In short, the letter is almost devoid of information.

The Daily Star offered the following comment below the letter:

From the above it is evident that prisoners of war are only allowed to write at fixed intervals, dependent probably upon good conduct or upon the pleasure of the Camp Commandant. Lance Corporal Skinner was made prisoner in April when so many of our boys were either killed or captured.

Commander Edgar G. Skinner, WWII – Library of Canada Photo

There were other letters from Edgar during his time as prisoner of war.  All of them held true to the scarcity of information in this letter. Edgar remained a prisoner of war until he was repatriated on December 25, 1918.

The twenty-one months Edgar Skinner spent as POW must have been horrific in many ways. He wasn’t alone in his experience.  Other Newfoundlanders shared the experience though not always in the same prison camp.  What we must never forget about those prisoners of war is that they too were serving their country, giving of their mental and physical strengths to see it through to the end and victory.  What they didn’t know, and must have thought about every day, is what might happen to them if their side lost the war.

Lance Corporal Edgar Skinner returned home to St. Jacques after the war and later moved his mother and nephew to Canada.  There, he rose to the position of Captain on oil tankers shipping between Canada and South America.  He also joined the Navy Reserve and when WWII broke out, volunteered again to serve.  This time he entered the war as a commanding officer and served on a variety of navy ships including the HMCS Arrowhead and HMCS Monnow. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by Canada and the RCNR Officer’s Decoration (RD) by the United Kingdom. Commander Skinner participated in the Battle of the St. Lawrence and the Battle of the Atlantic while on convoy duty.

Following the war he retired to private business in New Brunswick and died six years later.  Edgar was born August 14th 1897 and died on February 28th, 1953 at the age of fifty-five.

Edgar Skinner was the son of Captain Abram and Catherine (Kate) Skinner.  Their home was located amidst the other Skinner homes in the bottom of St. Jacques harbour, sitting on the lower side of the main road between houses owned by Ralph Skinner and Albert Skinner.  Like most of those homes, that building is long gone.  After the Skinner’s left, it changed ownership several times.  Captain James Dyett lived there for a period of time as did Jacob and Blanche Fiander when they first married. The last owner was Mrs. Agnes McCarthy.

There are no direct descendants of Captain Abe Skinner and his family living in St. Jacques now.  But for a monument in St. Michael and All Angel’s cemetery erected to his father who was lost at sea when Edgar was in Europe and a tombstone to his sister Lizelle in the Roman Catholic cemetery there is little trace of them having been here. There is only one cousin of Edgar’s left in the community who is now in her mid-eighties – his second cousin Burnsie (Skinner) Lawrence

For me, that is even more reason to stand on Remembrance Day and remember the sacrifices of men like Lance Corporal Edgar George Skinner.  Let us not forget the many ways in which our people served in the Great War and all those before and after.  This year when the names of those who died are read, let’s remember as well those brave Newfoundlanders who suffered serious injury and those who were taken prisoner by the enemy like Lance Corporal Edgar G. Skinner.

Sources

POW Letter Edgar Skinner 1917-11-13 Daily Star p.8

Further Reading/Viewing

Sons of Terra Nova – The Battle of Monchy

Prisoners of War During World War 1

 

Macleans – Newly discovered letters show darkness of WWI POW camp Patricia Treble, October 21, 2016

Prisoners Mail

Monchy-le-Preux, April 14th 1917

 

 

 

 

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