Volunteers of a Different Kind:
Clay County on the Canadian Front of WWI
June 25, 2020
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When the U.S. entered World War 1 in April 1917, the country was swept up in a surge of volunteerism. Even here in the isolationist Midwest, thousands of young Americans lined up to assist the nation and our European allies in a variety of ways. In addition to the two million men who enlisted for military service, many women stepped up. In Clay County, they included Rose Clark from Barnesville who became a Red Cross nurse. She served in a forward hospital under fire near the front line. Francis Lamb from Moorhead was a canteen worker for the YMCA in France. Signe Lee from Moland Township signed on as a US Army nurse. Elizabeth McGregor from Hawley worked as the director of a group of nine small hospitals attending to the needs of civilians for the American Fund for French Wounded. Their stories are told in our current exhibition War, Flu & Fear: World War I and Clay County.
The war had raged in Europe for nearly three years before America entered the fray. American volunteers famously served as ambulance drivers in France and Italy, including future literary luminaries John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway. Some young Americans couldn’t wait to get into the fight and enlisted in the French, Canadian, or British armed forces. American aviators formed the famous Lafayette Escadrille in 1916.
We’ve identified at least twenty Clay County natives who joined foreign service. The vast majority were like Bruce Awrey. He grew up in Hawley and served a year in the Minnesota National Guard, but moved to Canada as a young man, took Canadian citizenship, and a job in Alberta. He enlisted in the Canadian Army in May 1916 and spent the war driving trains in France. Other Clay County natives went north before the war to take advantage of the Canadian version of the Homestead Act.
We have found, however, two Clay County men who joined the Canadian Army as US citizens. At least apparently. George Oliver Burnette claimed he was born in Glyndon in 1890 and that in December 1915, he was working in a Glyndon butcher shop. That month in Winnipeg, he signed his “Attestation Papers” (Canadian enlistment papers) in the 144th Battalion, Winnipeg Rifles. He apparently had a change of heart and on August 6, 1916, he went AWOL from Camp Hughes, Manitoba. A month later he was declared a deserter and was never seen again. It is curious that we could not find any evidence that he ever lived in Glyndon. Men went north for all sorts of reasons. He may have pulled the Glyndon identification story out of his hat.
The other is at least more straightforward. Arthur Alfred Buresson was the youngest of Nils and Inga Buresson’s six kids. The Norwegian immigrants moved from Illinois (where Fred, as he was known locally, was born in 1894) to a farm in Cromwell Township in 1901. In 1917, Fred tried to join the US Army but was rejected because he stuttered. In December, Fred went to a recruitment center in Minneapolis and started the Canadian enlistment process. He traveled to Montreal where doctors pronounced him fit for service despite his stutter. He fibbed a bit on his attestation papers, claiming he was born in Winnipeg. He gave his first name as “Arthur A.” and spelled his last name Bursson. He claimed that his civilian jobs were “quarryman” and “navvy.” I don’t know any quarries in Clay County where he may have worked. A navvy is a British term for someone who builds roads, canals and other transportation infrastructure.
He was inducted into the Internal Waters and Docks Service, part of the Royal Engineers. This was an odd and important part of the Canadian-British military. The IWD was responsible for the orderly shipment of war material from Britain, across the English Channel to France, and then onto where it was needed at the front. Much of this stuff was shipped over canal systems, hence the name.
The Brits built a huge shipping base at Richborough on the east coast of Kent in England. Fred was sent there in early 1918 for training. His movements are somewhat sketchy after that. According to his service record, on March 26, he was transferred to an Inland Waters and Transportation unit in France. We know he was disciplined there in July 1918 for being “improperly dressed” in town and docked three days’ pay. The IWT soldiers rarely made to the front but at some point, Fred was injured by poison gas. We don’t know when he was hurt but he was hospitalized in December, 1918 - after the Armistice.
In February, 1919, Fred was loaded onto the HMS Halifax for the trip home. He died at sea on March 8, from “after effects of gas poisoning.” The Canadians sent his body home to Clay County. He’s buried with a British military headstone in the Hawley Cemetery.