Daily Archives: March 26, 2009

William DeWindt: a soldier’s story

n2009-010smFrom California I acquired a Canadian postcard from the time of the First World War.  A laughing soldier, laden down by his kit, poses in the winter snow outside the Quartermaster’s Store.  The photograph was taken in Hamilton, Ontario.  His name is recorded on the back, probably in his own hand.  Wm. DeWindt. 

I wanted to know more about Mr. DeWindt, so I invested a couple of hours and this is what I now know.

William DeWindt was born in Ingelmunster, Belgium on April 26th, 1879.   He said that his mother-tongue was French, so he may have come from a Walloon family.  This is significant, because  there was conflict between the Flemish and Walloon ethnic groups. 

As a young man with limited prospects, William enlisted in the Belgian Army, likely at the age of 16 in April, 1895.  This was a dangerous time to enlist, as the notorious Leopold II, King of the Belgians, was intent on expanding his influence, in particular in Africa.  Having grabbed the Belgian Congo, he insisted on giving it to the Belgian people in 1890, even though most of his government did not want it. 

There was great turmoil in Belgium as landed and industrial elites were trying to squeeze gains from industrial expansion by exluding most of the population.  Since Belgium had become a sovereign state, it had lost access to the sea, and this together with other changes had precipitated economic hard times, which increased internal friction.   Frightening disturbances occurred in Belgium with major unrest betweent 1899 and 1902 over who could and could not vote.  Flemish people battled Walloons for influence and workers took  on factory owners and the government for more rights.  (Even after the extension of the franchise, less than 22% of Belgians could vote.)  Troops were used to put down violent protests particularly in 1893.

I do not know whether William DeWindt was one of the soldiers turned on the citizens.  He may have avoided danger as he was talanted musically, and had been sent to one of the Beligian military bands.  He served in the army for about eight years so he could scarcely avoid seeing some of the violence.   He left active service in about 1903.

At about that time, he married Rachel, daughter of Orchid Remie of Ghent.  A son, Polidor DeWindt, was born in about 1905.  With a new family dependent upon him, William looked overseas and decided to go the United States.  His destination was Chicago, where another appearance of the unusual name DeWindt suggests to me that he had at least one relation.

The U.S. Census says that the whole family emigrated in 1905, but in fact only William left Belgium.    Rachel and Polidor followed later, arriving at New York on October 20th, 1908 on the Kroonland, out of Antwerp.  The little family appear on the 1910 census, living in the Flat Building in Chicago where William was the janitor.

Life expectancy for women in Belgium at the turn of the last century was less than 40 years, but Rachel did not gain much through emigration.  Sometime between 1910 and 1917, Rachel died.  As she was born in about 1879, she was not yet 40.  I do not know what happened to the little boy, Polidor. 

In the autumn of 1917, British and Canadian officers were in Chicago recruiting.   Heavy losses prompted the need for more men.  William enlisted on Dec. 5th, 1917, in Chicago, and was sent across the border to Canada to join the First Depot Battalion of the 2nd Central Ontario Regiment (Serial No. 3105913).  He gave his next-of-kin as his sister back in Belgium.  He was sent to Toronto, and then probably to Hamilton, where this picture was taken, likely in January, 1918. 

William was only 5′ 1″ tall.  Although to his generation this was not as short as it appears to us today it was less than desirable and combined with his age (39) and relatively non-combative background (bandsman) one would expect that he would have been deployed in one of the support activities.  -But I can’t be sure, being reluctant to pay for copies of his file from the National Library and Archives of Canada.  Perhaps he was sent to the Western Front and saw Flanders once more under very different circumstances.

I found William after the War back in Chicago, at the Washington Park Hospital.  He was still single.  At first, I thought he was a patient, but upon examining the census I concluded that he was on staff and living on the grounds.  This was confirmed by the 1930 census which shows William DeWindt, now age 51, occupation “orderly employed by hospital”.

At the hospital, William probably met his second wife, Nettie, an American from New York State who worked at the same place as a nurse’s aid.  Nettie was seven years younger than William, and he married her in late in 1920 or early in 1921.

The couple was living comfortably in a small house in Ward 7 of Chicago in 1930, and that is the last I found of them.  Perhaps there is someone else who knows the end of the story.   William DeWindt lived through a period of great changes, some of them terribly violent.  Imagine the adventures that he likely experienced.

I am indebted to Sandra Halperin, whose interesting book, “War and Social Change in Europe, 1789-1945” was a great help in understanding William’s times.  The book is published by Cambridge University Press.

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