Peterborough during the First World War 1914 - 1918.

Peterborough, Ontario during the First World War 1914 - 1918.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Peterborough’s Youngest Lost Soldier: Anthony Skarrizi

Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetery
Credit: Royal British Legion

The expression “old men declare war, but the youth who must fight and die,” comes to mind when visiting any Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery.  Rows of white tombstones mark the last resting place for a generation of young men of the British Empire. Studies of death records have found that the majority of soldiers died in their 20s, with the median age being 22-26 years old. Most of the soldiers were cut down in the prime of their lives, leaving young wives and children to cope with the loss of a missing partner and father.

14 year old and 8 month old Anthony Skarrizi
Credit: http://21stbattalion.ca

Researchers have come across the graves of soldiers from the Great War that were too young to marry, or even shave. Recently I have come across the story of Peterborough’s youngest fatality of the Great War, Anthony ‘Tony’ Skarrizi who died during the last days of the Battle of Passchendaele. Private Anthony Skarrizi was 16 years and 11 months old when he died on 3 November 1917 outside of Passchendaele, Belgium.
Peterborough Examiner,
 22 November 1917

Government Records show that Anthony Skarrizi was born in Italy in November 1900. Like many Italian immigrants at the turn of the last century, the Skarrizi’s moved to Canada in 1907 hoping of finding employment as labourers. The young Anthony Skarrizi decided to join the military in August 1915. Private Skarrizi falsely attested his birth year as 1897, making the adolescent appear to be 18 to the Recruiting Sargent at the Peterborough Armouries,  in all likelihood he was only 14 years and 8 months old.

Canadian Military Police Corps (Provost)
Private Skarrizi completed his military training in Canada, and embarked for overseas service. After sailing to Liverpool, England he was found to be underage and redeployed for permanent base duty. Military law states all soldiers must be 18 to enlist in the military and 19 years old for overseas service. Once his age was discovered, Skarrizi spent 6 months on base duty being assigned to several guard and provisional units; he became an unruly and irresponsible soldier. His young age combined long rotations in the much hated “bullrings” (reinforcement camps) likely contributed to his declining morale.  By the winter of 1916-1917, Private Skarrizi had several run-ins with the Canadian Provost Corps.

Great War Military Depiction of
Field Punishment No 1
He was arrested and court martialed four times for: neglecting to obey an NCO, absent without leave on two occasions, and absent from parade. The young soldier was punished by being restrained, having his pay docked, and after his second conviction for being absent without leave, he was given the dreaded Field Post No 1. According to the Manual of military law, the Field Post No 1 punishment consists of restraining an individual at the feet and hands and attaching the convicted soldier to a wagonwheel, or fencepost in a public area, whereby all other soldiers could witness the punishment.

Two months after the last conviction, Skarrizi was transferred to France with the 21st Battalion. One month after landing in Boulogne, France, the young private was attached to Kingston’s 21st (Eastern Ontario) Battalion billets in Villers Au Bois.  The question arises: why and how would a known underage soldier allowed to be sent overseas? No one knows. It is likely that Officers decided to send Skarrizi to France because serving at the front would stop the adolescent Italian-Canadian soldier from running away from the Canadian military camps.
Picture of Passchendaele
Credit: Archives of Ontario/RCL

Terrain of Passchendaele
Credit: Library and Archives Canada
Unfortunately for Private Skarrizi, he joined the 21st Battalion only several weeks before the Canadian Corps moved into Belgium to take part in the Battle of Passchendaele. The four month long British led Passchendaele offensive had almost ground to a halt. The British High Command jointly employed their “shock troops” of Australian and Canadians to help resolve the political and military mess that the British Generals had created in attempting to take Passchendaele. The Canadian Commander, Arthur Currie, planned to win the battle but slowly and in several phases in order to insure that the Canadians did not suffer needless losses of men. This article will not go into the general history of the Passchendaele campaign. It is interesting to note that during the research for this entry, I found there was a lack of contemporary historical analysis into the Canadian involvement at Passchendaele.

Aerial Photograph of Passchendaele,
displaying location of Crest Farm
On 30 October 1917, the first phase of the Canadian assault at Passchendaele ended. The Canadians launched the second phase of their attack on Passchendaele after the PPCLI and the 72nd Battalion provided miraculous results for the Canadian Corps. The 3rd Division captured two German strongholds, Meetcheele crossroads, which was lined with concrete bunkers and Crest Farm, a swampy redoubt of trenches and shell holes that overlooked the advances to the town of Passchendaele.

On the night of 3 November 1917 the 4th Canadian Brigade relieved the Canadians that captured the lunar swampy landscape that was Crest Farm at 2:45 AM. The relatively fresh 21st Battalion was sent in to guard the recently captured Crest Farm by the 4th Division. On the right was the 19th Battalion, and on the left the 21st Battalion was on left of Crest farm.

1917 Map and Location of Crest Farm
Credit: McMaster Archives
Contemporary Photo of location
 of Crest Farm Credit: Google Maps
At 3:45 AM, the German started to bombard Crest Farm and reserve and support areas. At 4:50 AM, Brigade HQ witnessed the 21st Battalion sending off  red S.O.S. flares. The attack by German StoƟtruppen (Storm Troops - Specialist Assault Troops) breached the Canadian wire charged right into the 21st and 19th Battalions. The 19th Battalion made quick work of the German attackers, while on the left; the 21st Battalion had to call in a reserve company to help dislodge the enemy. By 6:45 AM, the Germans had launched two small isolated attacks on the 21st Battalion, both of which were halted. Canadian After-Battle reports state German infantry laid in shell holes in front of the Canadian position but were unable to advance. During the defence of Crest Farm, the 19th Battalion provided valuable assistance to not only the 21st Battalion, which suffered 203 causalities, but also to the Australians on the right flank.  The 19th Battalion sent almost a company sized force to help shore up the Australian defences.

Menin Gate, Leper Belgium
During the defence of Crest Farm, 16 year old Private Anthony Skarrizi went missing. There is no record in existence that tells historians what happened to the young inexperienced soldier. All we know is that he never answered his company roll call again. His name is engraved at the monument to the missing at the Menin Gate at Leper (Ypres), Belgium. Like most of the missing of the Great War, Private Skarrizi was likely killed by a direct hit by an enemy shell. The impact of the explosion, and the confusion that followed the battle hampered efforts by stretcher bearers to retrieve the body of Private Skarrizi. After the battle, Anthony Skarrizi’s family at 656 Reid Street, Peterborough, would receive several telegraphs and letters informing them that their son was missing, and eventually declared dead. 


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Author would like to acknowledge the assistance and great research work provided by the 21st Battalion Website. Please visit them at http://www.21stbattalion.ca

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