Ontario Mennonites who fought in World War I

The recent coverage in the national and local press about centennial anniversaries of great battles during World World I (Vimy Ridge, Hill 70), has led me to reflect more about Ontario Mennonites in relationship to the “Great War.”

The war was before the Mennonites from the Soviet Union arrived in the 1920s, so virtually all the Ontario Mennonites were descended from Mennonite immigrants from Pennsylvania, or Amish immigrants from Europe or the United States. The Mennonite Brethren in Christ had attracted a number of converts from a variety of other cultural backgrounds.

Much has been written, including in my monograph, In Search of Promised Lands, about Mennonite efforts to get the Canadian government to recognize their conscientious objection to war, and their unwillingness to participate in active military service. I alluded to this in an earlier blog post.

Less has been written about the few self-identified Mennonites who went into active military service. I have limited information on this topic, and would welcome input from anyone who can add to the information shared here.

I’ve worked at the topic by using two online data sources. One is the Library and Archives Canada website where one can search the Personnel Records of the First World War, including the attestation (enlistment) records of members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. These records include the religious self-identification of soldiers. The other source was the World War I Soldier Information Cards kept at the Grace Schmidt Room of the Kitchener Public Library. One can also search these records of Waterloo County soldiers for the word “Mennonite.”

This approach has limitations. The self-identification does not say whether the person was a member of the church. The Kitchener Public Library cards do not provide religious information on everyone. Many Mennonites lived outside Waterloo County, and could not be easily searched in this way. Some Mennonites had military personnel records after conscription began in the second half of 1917, even though it was only because they were not immediately exempted from service for a variety of reasons and may have been unwillingly detained at a military base for a period of time.

Daniel Brenneman (1895-1957), William Brenneman (1894-1953) and Henry Roth (1894-?) of the East Zorra Amish Mennonite near Tavistock, and Simon Roth (1890-1918) of the Steinmann Amish Mennonite Church were examples of persons who inadvertently got caught in the military for a number of months in 1918. (Simon Roth died of influenza in October 1918). William Roth (1895-1961), who appears to have been a Reformed Mennonite in New Hamburg, and Alvin Roth (1895-?), from Gadshill, Ontario, likely had similar experiences, though the available records are unclear.

Similar stories took place in the Old Order Mennonite community. Norman Bearinger (1896-1963) of Elmira, was shifted among various units while the military tried to decide what to do with him. Bearinger did not appear to remain a Mennonite after the war. Old Order Mennonite Jeremiah Steckle Bauman (1896-1967) was part of the military for only a month at the end of 1918 before he was discharged. Old Order Mennonites Peter M. Martin and John M. Martin mostly had leaves of absence without pay for the six months in 1918 they were formally part of the army. This allowed them to mostly work at home on their family farm.

Reesor-Simeon-3

Carl Reesor and Simeon Reesor in military camp in uniform. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo Hist.Mss.1.287.13-3

Joseph Lehman Smith (1897-1993) of Unionville, Ontario, had perhaps the most difficult experience, since he initially willingly put on the military uniform, and did not tell the officers he was a conscientious objector until he refused to participate in bayonet practice. He was detained in camp at Niagara-on-the-Lake almost six months before he was discharged as part of the general demobilization in 1919. Others from the Markham area who were briefly in the Niagara-on-the-Lake military camp were Carl Reesor (1895-1968) and Simeon Reesor (1896-1988).

There were, however, self-identified Mennonites who actively served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. One Mennonite soldier who died during the war was Ira Diefenbacher, who enlisted in September 1915 at the age of 24. He was a single man who was born in Roseville, Ontario, and grew up near Hawkesville. He was a bookkeeper by profession. In the army, Ira was first an infantry soldier, and later a company runner, who carried messages between units. He was killed by a sniper on one of these missions on August 30, 1918 near Arrass, France. His will left everything to Edna Davey of Kitchener, Ontario. On his “casualty report” he is listed as a Methodist, perhaps reflecting the his rejection by the church of his youth.

A second Mennonite soldier who died was Daniel Russell Fretz (1897-1918), who was born in Jordan, Ontario, but later lived in Didsbury, Alberta. He was drafted in May 1918, and got as far as England, where he died of influenza in October 1918.

One Mennonite Brethren in Christ minister, Thomas John Drinkall (1883-?) of Stratford, enlisted in the army medical corps in July 1916. (The Mennonite Brethren in Christ are now known as the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada.) Drinkall served as a clerk in the army, and returned to Canada in 1919. He did not appear to serve as a Mennonite minister after his return.

Other self-identified Mennonites who served in the military included:

  • Albert Brubacher (1894-1993) of Elmira, Ontario, who enlisted in April 1918;
  • Gordon Henry Good (1894-1943) of Conestoga, Ontario, who enlisted in May 1917. He was a member of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ denomination;
  • Albert Franklin Thoman (1895-?), originally of Markham, enlisted in April 1917, and was wounded twice;
  • Oscar Gingrich (1897-1957), enlisted in March 1916, and worked primarily in railroad construction. At his death Oscar was an active member of the Erb Street Mennonite Church in Waterloo;
  • Aulton (Alton) Cressman (1892-1966) of Breslau, enlisted in December 1915. He served as a sapper for part of his service;
  • John Joseph Burgetz (1895-1980) of Kitchener, enlisted in January 1918. He appeared to serve in the Forestry Corps. He was later a member of the Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church in Kitchener;
  • Addison Brox (1896-1968) of Elmira, enlisted in May 1918. After the war he lived in Saskatchewan;

    Eby---0050-small

    Gordon Christian Eby in camp. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo Hist. Mss. 1.66.4.1-063

  • Gordon Christian Eby (1890-1965) of Kitchener, enlisted in September 1915. He was a direct descendant of Bishop Benjamin Eby, but probably never joined the Mennonite Church. His diaries and photographs from the war years are located at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario.
  • Milton B. Wismer (1898-1970) of Baden, son of the Shantz Mennonite Church minister, Orphen Wismer, appeared to enlist in 1916, but the remainder of his military records are not yet available online.
  • Franklin Leroy Fretz (1895- ?), a brother of Daniel Fretz mentioned above, enlisted in May 1916. He was likely a member of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ. He served as a private in the infantry for three years.
  • Moses Gascho (1886-1966) of Zurich, Ontario, later of Saskatchewan, enlisted in March 1916. He served overseas, but did not appear to experience combat.

I would be happy to learn of other Ontario Mennonite men who served in the military during World War I, especially from outside Waterloo County. I will update this blog with new information if it becomes available.

If you are interested in the Mennonites of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, who were descended from Mennonite immigrants from Russia, you can see a listing of drafted and enlisted men at http://www.mennonitegenealogy.com/canada/WWI/WWIMennonitesIndexSorted.htm.

To learn more about the Ontario Mennonites response to World War I, read In Search of Promised Lands.

 

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