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Icelandic North Americans in World War 1 (1914-18)

Updated: Sep 7, 2019

Judy Richardson Arborg, Manitoba

Until my afi’s death when I was five years old, he and I were very close. We lived nearby and he spent a lot of time with me. Everything was fun with him – he took me to the park and bought me chocolate bars. He laughed at my antics and told me stories. I still remember many of them. As a preschooler, he taught me to sip coffee through a sugar cube.

I only learned later, years after his death, that he had suffered from shell shock – an affliction now known as PTSD. He had been a soldier fighting in some of the worst battles of World War One. I never saw that side of him. From family stories, it was much worse for him, my amma, and his children as they were growing up. Shell shock was not a pretty illness.

I got to know my amma much better after my afi died and we moved into her house. Over the next 16 years, we bonded in a way denied most grandchildren. I was so very lucky to have her. She was intelligent, quiet, and funny. We watched movies together, read the same books, and spent many a Saturday evening watching Hockey Night in Canada when there were only six teams in the NHL. But there was always a shadow. Because I wanted to be with her so much, I always watched the Remembrance Day ceremony on CBC with her. It was a deeply sad time. In fact, it was the only time I ever saw my amma cry.

She had lost her only full brother, Fred Josephson, in WW1. I came to realize that although she soldiered on long after his soldiering had ended, she never truly came to terms with his loss. He was one of the thousands upon thousands of missing people from that horrific war. He was killed on the battlefield in France in the fall of 1918, and his body could never be found or identified. There could be no real closure. For many years, she imagined him with amnesia, working on some farm in France. She clung to hope. She showed me a postcard Fred had sent her, and a photo of him when he was a baby. A photo of them together. A photo of him and my langamma.

And so, my life was somehow shaped by that war. I studied the “War to End all Wars” in high school and again in university. In 2014, my husband and I toured the World War 1 battlefields in Belgium and France. It was the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of that unimaginable conflict. The following year we joined Joel Fridfinsson in doing a presentation for the Arborg Thorrablót about men of the area who had been in the Great War. From doing that research, I realized I could do more. In fact, I was hooked.

As a child I had sometimes paged through the family copy of Minningarrit Íslenzkra Hermanna, taking it from the bookshelves and looking at the photos of the soldiers and nurses. I obtained a used copy over the internet and went back to it with vigour. I decided to research every soldier in it. It didn't hurt that I was a librarian and knew how to research. It also didn't hurt that I love history. At first, I didn't know what I would do with the research – just enjoy it, write articles, or maybe write a book. I settled on the latter, and plan to publish in about a year. Along the way, my grandson Tyler joined me in research and in constructing and maintaining a research database. It has been a way to introduce him to our family, our people, and the wonderful history of Icelanders in North America. Icelandic Roots has been a good friend and resource for our research. It is my plan to share anything I discover with them. I know of no better resource for people of Icelandic descent to research genealogy and the history of our people.

I know that there must be many others reading this who had family in World War 1. I am interested in stories, photos, letters -virtually anything dealing with the almost 1400 North American soldiers and nurses of World War One that were of Icelandic descent. If you would like to share anecdotes, letters, photos, or anything else, please contact me at my email.

Vikings of the First World War: Icelandic Canadians in Service runs through March 3, 2019. Here is a photo of the Vikings from their exhibit.

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