A look back at Saint John's Byng Boys Club

·7 min read
The Original members of the Byng Boys Club photographed outside their west Saint John clubhouse on Milford Road. (Byng Boys Club fonds (Dodge, A.A.-Byng Boys Club), New Brunswick Museum - image credit)
The Original members of the Byng Boys Club photographed outside their west Saint John clubhouse on Milford Road. (Byng Boys Club fonds (Dodge, A.A.-Byng Boys Club), New Brunswick Museum - image credit)

It all started because Laurence MacLaren wanted to commemorate the day he lost his leg.

MacLaren would become a prominent Saint Johner, twice elected mayor of the city, and serving as minister of national revenue in the federal government of Mackenzie King.

He would also be appointed lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick.

But in 1919, he was a young former soldier who had returned home two years earlier from Vimy Ridge with a grievous injury.

digitalcollections.lib.umanitoba.ca
digitalcollections.lib.umanitoba.ca

"He used to have a dinner party every year on the anniversary of when he lost his leg," the late Jim Turnbull, a Byng Boys Club member, told CBC back in 2007. "And he always called it 'When the leg came of age.'"

The club took its name from Field Marshal Julian Byng, the British commander who was in charge of the Canadian troops at Vimy Ridge in the spring of 1917.

MacLaren had served under Byng as a lieutenant with 6 Siege Artillery, which along with 4 Siege Artillery, made up two four-gun batteries raised in New Brunswick to serve with the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Its 8-inch howitzers played a major role in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 and continued to provide artillery support throughout the advance and German counter-attack later that spring.

Library and Archives Canada, C-000148
Library and Archives Canada, C-000148

MacLaren's luck ran out on May 20,  when he was shot in the leg when his unit was moving closer to the trench lines.

The leg could not be saved and was amputated the next day.

According to an article in the Saint John Globe dated Nov. 30, 1917, MacLaren returned to Saint John that morning and "had been fitted with an artificial limb in England and was able to walk about wonderfully well, considering that it had been taken off above the knee."

The charter members of the Byng Boys Club had one important criteria for membership — the soldier had to have been carried off the field of battle.

Public Archives of New Brunswick
Public Archives of New Brunswick

According to a booklet the club put out in the 1970s, early meetings were held at the Manor House, which the City Directory of 1919 lists as being in Glen Falls in what is now east Saint John.

But, in 1922 the club purchased a bungalow at 82 Milford Rd. for a regular meeting place.

They filled the room with First World War artifacts, including rifles, bombs, machine-guns, aircraft insignia and a skull clad in a Prussian helmet.

There was also a photo of German general Alexander Von Kluck, who featured prominently in a bawdy song that was sung at meetings, partly because his name happened to rhyme with the word that made it so bawdy.

Canadian Military History 15, 1  2006
Canadian Military History 15, 1 2006

Over the years, the Byng Boys accepted new members who served in the Second World War and Korea, and the requirement that members had to have been carried off the field was loosened.

The club instead accepted soldiers, sailors and airmen who could prove they had faced combat.

"Basically, I was the only one in the Byng Boys who really qualified because I had my leg shot off and left it in the aircraft," the late George Pridham told CBC in 2007.

Pridham related the story in the book We That Are Left — Remember: New Brunswickers in the Air Force.

Pridham was a turret gunner in a Halifax bomber flying night missions into German territory and had already had a few close calls, including being hit in the foot with a piece of shrapnel from an antiaircraft shell.

Submitted by Karl Kjarsgaard
Submitted by Karl Kjarsgaard

But, on his 48th mission, on June 21, 1943, his aircraft was shot down. He wrote:

"We were returning home from Germany and a German night fighter got underneath us. He literally blew us out of the sky. We were on fire and I believe four of my crew were killed at that time. My Pilot ordered us to bail out but asked for someone to hand him his parachute.

"I got out of my turret to go and assist him and as I did the German fighter came at us again and this time I was hit. It blew my right leg off and injured my back. Unfortunately, the Pilot had no one to hand him his chute so he perished in the aircraft, but he held the plane up so I could get out of the rear hatch."

Pridham ended up in a cow pasture in the Netherlands. He used part of his parachute to make a tourniquet and lay there for 2½ hours until he was picked up by some Dutch citizens.

He was taken to a hospital in Amsterdam, where he said he received excellent medical care from the German staff.

By November, he was in a POW camp in Lithuania. He would eventually be part of an exchange of wounded prisoners in the fall of 1944 and returned to Canada.

Pridham told CBC that membership in the Byng Boys was "an honour."

Many prominent members

The club included many prominent New Brunswickers, and people who served in almost every branch of the military.

Wendell Rogers was an early member, a celebrated flying ace from the First World War who was the first Royal Flying Corps pilot to bring down one of the giant Gotha bombers that were terrorizing British civilians.

The insignia of that aircraft graced the club walls until 2003, when it was donated to the Canadian War Museum.

Roland Black was a prominent businessman in Saint John and served in the Royal Navy, training for amphibious operations.

Isaac Erb & Sons, Byng Boys Club fonds, New Brunswick Museum
Isaac Erb & Sons, Byng Boys Club fonds, New Brunswick Museum

His service record says he was on board HMS Glengyle in the Mediterranean throughout 1941. The ship was involved in several operations that year, including a commando raid on Bardia, in Libya.

It would also take part in the successful evacuation of thousands of British soldiers from Greece and later, from the island of Crete.

Both those operations were carried out at night, in unknown waters, harried by attacks from Axis aircraft.

Kit Graham served with the 8th Hussars in Italy and western Europe but experienced the dangers of war before he even got to the continent.

Unknown author - Société du Musée canadien des civilisations-Collection d'archives George-Metcalf, MCG 19920085-262
Unknown author - Société du Musée canadien des civilisations-Collection d'archives George-Metcalf, MCG 19920085-262

On Nov. 3, 1943, Graham was onboard the troopship SS Monterey in the Mediterranean, headed for Sicily, recently captured by the Allies.

His convoy was attacked by German bombers, hitting and sinking a destroyer and two transports, including the SS Santa Elena.

Graham's ship rescued survivors from the Santa Elena, including dozens of nursing sisters of No. 14 Canadian General Hospital, who had to clamber up 15 metres of netting in rolling seas to safety on board the Monterey.

Harvey Station native Lieut. Margaret Briggs slipped and fell in the attempt, and a cook from Monterey jumped in to get her back to the ship.

8th Hussars would be involved in heavy combat on the Italian peninsula, including the assault on the Gothic Line in 1944 before going to the Netherlands.

Club closes in 2007

The late Rex Fendick was a Canadian officer who served with the British Middlesex Regiment in France, the Netherlands and Germany.  He joined the Byng Boys in the 1970s.

In 2007, he described the club to the CBC.

"Oh, it's just a social club, the whole group was very irreverent. If you couldn't stand to be insulted continually, you weren't fit to be a member," Fendick said with a chuckle.

The meetings usually involved a meal, a poker game and lots of stories.

But if you expect the Byng Boys regaled each other with tales of the war, you'd be wrong.

As the late Alec Penman, who served as a signalman with 3rd Division in France and the Netherlands, said, part of the appeal of the club was the feeling of being understood.

H. Marion Holly, Canadian, 1860-1945, oil on canvas (New Brunswick Museum, gift of Byng Boys Club
H. Marion Holly, Canadian, 1860-1945, oil on canvas (New Brunswick Museum, gift of Byng Boys Club

"It was a great club for companionship, comradeship and they were all people who had gone through the war, World War Two and Korea and knew what it was all about," Penman said.

"So we were, you know, like that television thing, I suppose, a band of brothers."

On May 22, 2007, 88 years after it began, the Byng Boys held their final dinner, and the final tribute to the war wound suffered by artilleryman Laurence MacLaren at Vimy Ridge.

The average age of its membership was 88, and the meetings had become sparsely attended.

Rex Fendick told CBC that night that it was sad to see it go, but the club's end was bittersweet, because it also meant fewer Canadians were experiencing what the Byng Boys had lived through.

"There are no new members who qualify. It's a bit sad but I suppose it's a good thing that there haven't been any new members created."

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