A Mother’s Sacrifice

Reprinted from Downhome Magazine, February 2019
by Lester Green

Known by many as the Great War, World War 1 took a tragic toll on many families throughout Newfoundland and Labrador. Some families paid a heavy toll with more than one son enlisting with the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve.

The constant worry by parents on the home front led to many stress filled, restless nights. There were hours of prayers as the parents knelt by their bedside praying for the safe return of their sons.

Combine this with the loss of a husband and four sons who sailed out of St. John’s harbour in 1914 and you have one resilient mother. Martha Smith was such a mother.

Many young men enlisted with the Royal Naval Reserve after the British government gifted to the colony of Newfoundland, the HMS Calypso in 1902. Converted at Placentia and then anchored at St. John’s where it served as a training vessel for the Royal Naval Reserve.

Many young recruits saw the reserve as a potential source of income for their families who had little or no income. Traditionally these men would walk or sail or ride to St. John’s to secure a berth on a sealing vessel. If they failed to secure a berth, they returned home. The Royal Naval Reserve offered an opportunity to replace this loss income, enticing men to enlist.

Martha Smith(right) and friend, Phoebe Martin (courtesy of Baxter Smith)

Numerous Newfoundland families had more than 1 son enlist. In the Southwest Arm area alone, 21 families had more than 1 son. Among them, Joseph and Martha Smith had five sons serve with the reserve. Her sons were all born and raised in the small scenic fishing village of Gooseberry Cove, Trinity Bay. The community’s roots were entangled with the fishery dating back to the late 1600s.

Martha and Joseph were married shortly before 1877, in a small school chapel that overlooked a picturesque, now abandon community, called Heart’s Ease Beach. This beach could be best described by the geographical term tombolo. It had a cobblestone beach that offered  the early British merchants a means of drying codfish. This fish was then shipped back to European markets.

Martha and Joseph were blessed with seven  sons and two daughters. Martha’s family was heavily impacted by the conflict that ravaged overseas between 1914-1918. Four of her sons, along with her grandson, Isaac, enlisted with the Royal Naval Reserve. She had raised Isaac after his father and mother’s death. She considered him her son and likewise, Isaac thought of her has his mother. On his naval application in 1918, Isaac listed her has his mother and his uncles has his brothers.

Gooseberry Cove

Losing her husband two months after witnessing  her four sons sailing from St. John’s Harbour would have caused many of us to feel abandon by God but Martha faith was strong. She had to be brave and not show weakness in front of her children that were still at home.

Her granddaughter, Minnie Ryan, explains that her grandmother was a very religious woman that prayed constantly for the safe return of her sons while holding and rubbing her crucifix that she had received from her parents at a young age. She took comfort in knowing that three children were still at home James, Isaac, and Alice.

The first son to enlist was Luke in March 1906. He was followed by John in March 1909, Uriah in February 1910 and Benjamin in March 1914. All four sons departed St. John’s around the same time but Uriah was assigned to the Royal Canadian Navy ship Niobe. Between them her boys had already provided 18 years of service to the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve.

War is never a pleasant experience and the potential for tragedy always lurks in its shadows. For the family, the drowning of Luke onboard the HMS Laurentic off Lough Swilly created a vivid image of horror that  was forever etched in their memories. The ship struck two minefields and sank within twenty minutes in a raging January storm taking 354 passengers to their watery graves. Among them, 22 sailors from the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve. Luke’s wife, Isabella Spurrell, would never see her husband again and their infant daughter, Viola,  would never get the opportunity to snuggle and feel  the warm embrace of her father’s arms.

The Great  Halifax Explosion occurred on December 6, 1917, eleven months after the death of Luke.  Martha was unaware that two of her sons, Ben and John, were present at the port of Halifax. Ben had just completed his leave at home comforting his mother over the loss of Luke. He was aboard the  HMCS Niobe at Halifax waiting for passage overseas. John was assigned to the Royal Canadian Navy and was assigned to the naval base at Halifax. Both brothers narrowly escaped with their lives but witnessed the absolute horror and shock of exploding munitions on the carnage of human life.

Martha’s crucifix showing the wear of years of worry and grief of prayers during the Great War. The crucifix is not in the possession of her 91-year old granddaughter Minnie Ryan. (credit Lester Green)

For Martha, the final burden of stress came with the enlistment of her grandson Isaac on May 3, 1918. She was so distraught by his decision that family history records that she wrote to the Naval Admiralty at the HMS Briton, St. John’s explaining that the Royal Naval Reserve already had four of her sons , one of which lost his life. She requested that Isaac be kept away from dangerous water and remain patrolling the waters off Newfoundland. Isaac’s naval records indicates that the Admiralty listened and showed compassion towards a distraught naval mother. Isaac remained assigned to the HMS Briton for all of his naval career.

Family members of her youngest son, James,  also claim that she requested the Admiralty not accept any application for his potential enlistment.

Three of her sons, along with her grandson, returned safely to Newfoundland after the war. She could once again be comforted by the presence of her complete family. Uriah moved to the United States shortly after marrying Janet Baker, a teacher from Fogo. They never returned to Newfoundland. John married Dinah Pitcher in 1913 and settled in Sunnyside. Isaac married Rose Breaker, a girl that was in-service at Gooseberry Cove in 1920 and eventually settle in Deer Lake where he remained until his death in 1965. Ben married Mary Jane Lambert in 1919 but she succumbed to kidney failure in 1921. He re-married in 1924 to Eliza Hiscock of Hodge’s Cove and settled in Hillview.

After the war, Martha lived for another 21 years and enjoyed her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. She often said, without hesitation, that she had five sons who served their country during the Great War. We know that the fifth was her Grandson but she died saying there were five sons who served showing her strong commitment to family and all that she believed family entailed. 

After the war, Martha spoke the following words: “I hope that I never live to see and worry about another World War.”

She died on September 1st, 1939, ironically the day that the second world war began.

On November 8, 2018, a Commemorative100 ceremony was held by the Southwest Arm Historical Society to honour  87 sailors that served with the Royal Naval Reserve during WW1 from the area. During this ceremony,  Martha Smith was recognized as the Silver Cross mother for the Southwest Arm area for the year 2018.

It would be an interesting to determine if there were any other families in Newfoundland with 5 or more brothers that stepped forward to serve. She is surely worthy of being recognized as the Silver Cross mother for Newfoundland and Labrador during this strenuous time in our history.

Mother Sacrifice – PDF – Downhome


Uploaded by Wanda Garrett, February 2021

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