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'Whiz bangs' let soldier families know Simcoe Foresters were alive

'We know a lot about what happened during the conflicts,' says museum curator of battalion that's fought many hard-won battles since pre-Confederation founding

Their history predates the Dominion of Canada, but the Grey and Simcoe Foresters continue to operate as a reserve infantry regiment now training for work in the Arctic.

The Simcoe Foresters and their neighbouring brethren Grey Foresters were founded individually in 1866.

The first Simcoe Foresters was the 35th Simcoe Battalion of Infantry. The first big battle of the Simcoe Foresters was the North-West Rebellion fighting an insurgency against the Canadian government let by Louis Riel in 1885.

Members of the Simcoe Foresters fought in the First World War and some of those soldiers are listed on the Midland cenotaph.

The Huronia Museum has a collection of artifacts from the First and Second World Wars with an emphasis on the local men who were members.

"We have a list of all the men from the First World War in the 157th and the 177th regiments," says Genevieve Carter, curator of Huronia Museum and Huron Ouendat Village, holding up the yellow sheets with the names typed, one per line.

They have a photo of the 35th regiment of the Simcoe Foresters at the Midland Train Station on Aug. 16, 1914 when they were heading overseas.

"During the First World War, when the Foresters were sent overseas, they didn't necessarily fight as a group but they acted as reinforcements for other battalions," says Carter.

"Which makes it kind of interesting for us because we have the cap and collar badges from the uniforms. Sometimes we get different badges. It's interesting to track these men through the war," she said. 

Also in the museum's collection is letters and postcards soldiers sent home from the Front. One of the regular items sent home was a field service postcard or a "whiz bang" nicknamed after light-calibre German shells that arrived with little warning.

"So your family gets a quick letter telling you they are alive," said Carter.

It's basically a card with phrases printed on it. The soldier simply had to cross off the items that didn't apply to him.

For example, the opening can be "I am quite well," or "I've been admitted to hospital" or "I'm sick and wounded but hope to be discharged soon."

For correspondence from home, the soldier picks a reply. The choices are: "I've received your letter" or telegram or parcel or "I've received no letter from you for a long time."

Many towns recognized surviving veterans of the First World War with a homecoming medal. The museum has a silver one given to A. MacDonald from Penetanguishene.

There are also photos of soldiers who didn't make it home including Milton Ellery of Wyevale. They have his military photo and a casual photo of him with other enlisted men.

In 1936 the Grey and Simcoe Foresters were amalgamated.

They were infantry units in the First World War and tank regiments during the Second World War.

"We know a lot about what happened during the conflicts," said Carter.

What Carter finds interesting is the stories of the young men, many of whom were underage while others were local farmers, blacksmiths, ship workers and mill workers.

Some people come into the museum to do research while others donate photographs and artifacts.

"It's nice because we can learn about them outside of being a soldier," she said. 

More recently, the Grey and Simcoe Foresters were active in the war in Afghanistan.

The Grey and Simcoe Foresters Regimental Museum, meanwhile, is located in downtown Barrie at 36 Mulcaster St.

Today, the Army Reserve units continue to train at locations in Barrie and Owen Sound. They meet every Thursday and one weekend a month for training in trades, weapons and vehicles.

The current mission is preparation for the Arctic Response Company Group. Members will be trained in winter warfare operations to able to join an operation in the high arctic.

New members are welcome. Call Sgt C.M.M. Young in Barrie at 705-728-3761, ext. 4842 or for Owen Sound call 519-538-1371, ext. 6933 or email [email protected].

The Huronia Museum is hosting its annual fundraising heritage dinner on May 24 at the Oakwood Community Centre in Victoria Harbour. The guest speaker will be a member of the Grey and Simcoe Foresters.

For tickets, contact the museum at 705-526-2844for find them on the museum's Facebook page.

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Gisele Winton Sarvis

About the Author: Gisele Winton Sarvis

Gisele Winton Sarvis is an award winning journalist and photographer who has focused on telling the stories of the people of Simcoe County for more than 25 years
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