Two Uncles, One Apple, The Internet, and Me

by cindy

What keeps me occupied during times of Crisis? Chaos? Covid? Once I finally crawl out of bed, I head to my studio and busy myself with projects I have ignored for a very long time. Throughout the earlier months of Covid, I spent all day every day working on art. Having uninterrupted days to create was a godsend. I have waited my entire life to do that.

At this moment, however, I’m concentrating on bits and pieces of family history. I’m trying to document more than the ‘who married whom and when and how many children were born of that union’. I have some stories that are treasures and I feel compelled to preserve them. Physical papers, letters, and certificates as well as photographs won’t last forever. If one great-great-grand-something ever becomes interested in what I manage to save, the hours at my computer will be well spent. So, thank you, Crisis, Chaos, Covid, (also Cancer who certainly opened my eyes and kicked my butt into action), I am on it!

The work is slow-going because, it would appear, everything I do goes slowly, but, hey! I am having a great time with this! Yesterday, my goal (still unfulfilled) was to write one specific, fascinating story about my Great-uncle Jack. As I began to peruse the collection of letters and postcards lovingly saved for well over a century, I also poked around on The Internet to clarify some details. And that is where my path went awry. Why? Because I LOVE The Internet. With the assistance of The Internet I discovered something that my Great-uncle Harry might have found a bit embarrassing. Of course, there’s also a chance he didn’t and we’ll never know for sure because, well, it all happened a very long time ago.

“Wait!” you ask. “I thought you were writing about your Great-uncle Jack! Who in the hell is Great-uncle Harry?” Good question. I didn’t know I had a Great-uncle Harry.

Thanks to a few of those lovingly-kept letters, I learned that Great-uncle Harry was Great-uncle Jack’s youngest brother. Born November 15, 1898, in Newfoundland, long before Newfoundland was part of Canada (which The Internet says didn’t happen until 1949, by the way), his full name was Henry Martyn Hollands. He was the youngest of nine children. One of his four older sisters was Emily Agnes Hollands Kirk, my maternal grandmother.

Henry, rather, Harry, was only eighteen in March of 1916 when he enlisted in the Royal Newfoundlanders, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment. This, of course, is during World War I, the Great War, the War to End All Wars. He was following the footsteps of Agnes, my grandmother, who was heading overseas where she served as a nurse on the front lines at the French Military Hospital V.R. 76. Her stories may be found here.

He was also following the footsteps of his brother, my Great-uncle Jack. Yes. That Jack. Jack had enlisted into the Royal Highlanders of Canada. His story of service is the next one to write but it is important to know that he died in the trenches of the Battle of Ypres, Belgium, on April 23, 1915.

If we follow the math (fingers and toes), Uncle Harry chose to enlist less than a year after his brother had perished in that same war. That takes a special kind of courage, does it not? And let me be clear: that apple, the ‘courage‘ apple, is not my apple. That apple fell pretty far from my particular tree. I cannot fathom what amount of courage it took to make such a significant decision, especially given the loss the family had already endured.

Perhaps now one can understand why my focus shifted. Suddenly I had to learn all that I could about Great-uncle Harry. Surely his was a story worthy of a few words.

The Internet and I got busy.

With some sleuthing, I realized I already had a couple of photographs of Great-uncle Harry. In this one, he was mis-identified by someone in the family as Great-uncle Jack. But here he is, Harry, standing in military uniform beside my seated grandmother, his older sister Agnes in her wartime uniform.

Thanks again to The Internet, I was able to access Harry’s military records, stored online by The Rooms, a museum in St. Johns, Newfoundland, dedicated to the culture and history of the area. I truly had no idea how complete one’s military record could be. It is here that I found his enlistment papers and discovered his military “number” used throughout his time of service. He was not only Henry M. Hollands but he was also #2239.

His military record was fairly unremarkable, I suppose. Once deployed to England, he was assigned to the British Expeditionary Forces but there is no particular mention of his assignments there. I did learn that during his three year commitment he was hospitalized twice, once for scabies (two weeks) and another time for a shrapnel wound to his nose (three months).

He sent fifty cents of his daily pay to his mother, a tidbit I know because there are many documented messages back and forth through the payroll office. I know that after the war ended, he continued to serve for another few months but was granted compassionate leave after his father had died suddenly in May of 1918, leaving behind his mother who was “of advanced age”. (She was sixty.)

Amidst all the military this-and-that, I was stunned to see a document with very familiar handwriting. I had just recently posted a story here with letters written years later, letters with rather distinctive handwriting. Those letters, and the one I found amongst Great-uncle Harry’s military records were written by Emily Agnes Hollands Kirk. Yes! My Grandmother! Great-uncle Harry’s sister!

Puzzled about their inclusion in these archives, I immediately took a closer look and then broke out into hysterics. As you read the letter below, keep foremost in mind that it was written in the midst of the war. There were thousands of uniformed men all over Europe. They were fighting brutal battles. Think our lives during Covid are chaotic now? I can’t even imagine the pandemonium then. And the ability to keep in touch regularly? Communication was marginal in the best of times, let alone during a world war. Still, his sister clearly had expectations for timely updates…

In spite of all the disruption of a war, the reply to her letter was sent the very next day…

And there you have it. Anyone reading this blog will now know that my great-uncle’s big sister was pretty annoyed that her baby brother hadn’t written to her so she worried herself into a tizzy until she took action and very possibly embarrassed the uniform off him. And THAT APPLE? That’s MY APPLE. Tripping over myself to locate someone I deem “missing” is something I have done over and over and over again—like when my first-born traveled to Italy and didn’t call when I, the untraveled, thought he should have arrived at his destination. Or when my sister moved to Mexico just in time for that big earthquake which took out all possibility of communication (talk about anxiety!). Or like every time one of my children drove anywhere and, you got it, forgot to call me when they arrived wherever they were headed. I won’t tell you what I did or exactly how I might have embarrassed them but, yes, embarrass them I did. That particular apple has created mortification to siblings and children everywhere. Just ask mine. No. Come to think of it, don’t. Just don’t. Please.

Now…about Jack

P.S. For the complete collection of Great-uncle Harry’s military records, follow this link: