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.


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;


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

  • 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.


Ontario Mennonites in the Military

During World War II most Ontario Mennonites and Amish either had farm deferments or went in to alternative service work camps like the one at Montreal River that was building roads, or camps in British Columbia to fight forest fires, construct trails, or the like. In April 1942, men in alternative service camps were told they would be “in for the duration” of the war.

The turmoil created by the disappointment in the make-work nature of alternative service camp life and the impact of having their service extended for the duration of the war led many Mennonite young men to enlist in the military. The peak in the number of Canadian Mennonites enlisting in the military came in the second half of 1942.


Personnel of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps in England treating “casualties” during rehearsal in England for raid on Dieppe. Source: Canada at War website

Throughout Canada at least 30 percent of military-age Mennonite young men joined the armed forces during the war. The percentage may have been slightly lower in Ontario, but not significantly so. Within the Mennonite Conference of Ontario, its Peace Problems Committee calculated after the war that almost 20 percent of young men from their congregations had voluntarily enlisted. In the large First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, fully one-third joined the military, and in the St. Jacobs Mennonite Church 25 percent did so.

Among the United Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren the situation was similar. It appears that about 20 percent of Ontario Mennonite Brethren young men joined the military; among the United Mennonites the percentage was closer to 25 percent. At the Waterloo-Kitchener United Mennonite Church, nine of its young men originally registered as conscientious objectors but subsequently joined the military. Out of 107 men of service age in the Leamington United Mennonite congregation, 24 served in the military, including five in the medical corps. Isaak Lehn, one of the latter, died in Europe in January 1945. John Unger, from the Virgil area, was shot down over Europe in 1944.

Within the Ontario Amish Mennonite community probably a smaller percentage joined the military, though half a dozen men enlisted from the East Zorra congregation. Two young men from the independent Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church were killed in action. One of these, Frederick Shantz, was the son of Elven Shantz, secretary of the Committee on Military Problems from the middle of 1943 through the end of the war. Of all the Mennonite groups, the Mennonite Brethren in Christ were the most divided on the question of military service; approximately one-half of the Canadian young men of that denomination joined the military. The rest entered alternative service or had essential work deferments.

Some men joined the military reluctantly. Sheldon Martin, for example, was called to alternative service in British Columbia in mid-1942, just six weeks after his wedding. His wife, Mary Ann, followed and found work in a Vancouver shoe factory. She developed health problems after nine months and required expensive treatment by specialists. To earn more to help pay the costs, Sheldon left the alternative service work  camp and joined the army.


Mennonites at War by Peter Lorenz Neufeld was the first book focused on Mennonites in the military

Other men joined because they believed in the cause. Gerhard “Gerry” Thiessen was a young man from the Waterloo-Kitchener United Mennonite Church who served both at Montreal River and in British Columbia, before finally joining the Air Force in 1943. He had already felt in Montreal River that shoveling gravel was useless work. Although he thought some of the firefighting in British Columbia served a good purpose, he abhorred shoveling snow out of the ditches next to mountain roads in the winter time. While waiting for his enlistment papers to go through, he had a conversation with a Mennonite minister who cautioned him that serving in the military was dangerous. This only reinforced Thiessen’s decision, because he believed Mennonites shouldn’t hide to avoid getting killed; he believed he should be doing something about the war. He served in Canada as a mechanic in the Air Force for the remainder of the war.

Even a few women joined the military. One such was Mary Faust, from the Leamington United Mennonite Church, who joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps in 1942 and served until 1946, achieving the rank of sergeant. This was unusual since women (except for nurses) were not subject to registration and service.

The consequences for those who joined the military during the war varied depending on the denomination with which the young men (or women) affiliated. In all cases, church discipline was administered only to young men who were baptized members. Many who joined the military had not joined the church. Among the more conservative, culturally less assimilated groups, the act of enlistment by a baptized member automatically removed one from church membership rolls.

To regain good standing in the church, a confession for violating the church’s teaching was required. This was also the formal position in the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Ontario Amish Mennonite congregations, but some congregations did not require a public confession for full reinstatement. The United Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren congregations had their own variations. Of the Ontario Mennonite Brethren who joined the army during the war (estimated at 34 in 1945), only seven were baptized members. These were excluded from membership. The United Mennonites, who had 67 of their members join the military, with another dozen joining the medical corps, took a more inclusive approach, but only after considerable debate within the conference. The ministers strongly encouraged the peace position, but stopped short of calling for exclusion of members who joined the armed forces.

The Mennonite Brethren in Christ no longer made pacifism a matter of church membership, and men in alternative service and in military service were treated the same.

One consequence of the Mennonite stance was that young Ontario Mennonite men and women who joined the military received little spiritual counsel or support from their churches while they were in the military. No Mennonite chaplains served in the army, nor did Mennonite ministers visit their parishioners in the military as they did those in alternative service camps. There were a few exceptions, however. A small group of United Mennonites living in Toronto tried to maintain contact with enlisted Mennonite men at Camp Borden. In spring 1942 the independent Stirling Avenue Mennonite congregation established a committee to keep in touch both with the men in alternative service and those in the military. Families also kept personal contact, but the church provided no organized effort to work with men and women who may have been quite conflicted about the decisions they had made.

Some more recent writers have claimed the percentage of Mennonites who joined the military is closer to 50%. These include Peter Lorenz Neufeld, whose book is shown above, but he tends to see Mennonites as an ethnic, not religious, community. A 2010 MA thesis by Nathan Dirks, “War without, Struggle within: Canadian Mennonite Enlistments during the Second World War” also argues for a higher percentage. In any event, I believe “Mennonite” would include those who grew up attending a Mennonite church, whether or not they eventually became a member. I do not count as “Mennonite” those who are a generation or more removed from participation in a Mennonite church.

For more information on Mennonites and World War II, read In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.