History of Freemasonry in WWI

Author


V.W.Bro., Ex. Companion Daniel J. Glenney

  • Hazeldean Lodge No. 517, Ottawa District No. 1
  • Maple-Granite No. 61, RAM District No. 12
  • Grand Archivist, Grand Lodge of Canada in the Province of Ontario

Introduction

The material in this essay was compiled as part of my larger research into Canadian Fraternal Orders as sponsored by the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation, while I was Director of Special Projects at the Canadian War Museum, 2005-2006. In addition, I wish to credit Right Worshipful Brother Douglas Franklin, Past District Deputy Grand Master, Ottawa District # 1, Right Excellent Companion Dieter Jeschor, Maple Granite Chapter, Carleton Place, and Worshipful Brother Ivor Bayley, St. John’s Lodge AFAM in Carleton Place, for their valuable contributions to my project.

I am therefore pleased to present this essay on Freemasonry, containing specific references to St. John’s Masonic Lodge in Carleton Place, Ontario, for publication on their web site.

Background

Men of all walks of life have been Masons; however, a vast number of Masons have, in their public avocations, been soldiers. In fact military Freemasons played an influential role in establishing Freemasonry in Canada in the first place. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, many British Regiments came to North America with traveling Masonic charters that allowed them to hold formal Masonic gatherings anywhere the Regiment served. Several modern Masonic Lodges are descended from these military Lodges.

Freemasonry and the Great War 1914-1918

WW1, the war to end all wars, was declared on August 4, 1914 and did not end until November 11th, 1918. Canada was at that time a nation of 8,000,000 people, and raised an armed force of some 650,000 men and women. 65,000 Canadians of all ranks were killed during this conflict.

Masonic Grand Jurisdictions across Canada actively supported the war effort. Thousands of individual Masons from all walks of life volunteered for active service. These Masonic Canadian soldiers fighting overseas regarded their Lodges as symbols of what they were fighting to preserve back home, and were confident that the Lodge would help provide relief for their families if they were killed or wounded.

Many Masonic brethren paid the supreme sacrifice.

Roy Brown and Stearne Edwards

Soldiers serving overseas in WW1 looked to their Lodges back home as a symbol of what they were fighting to preserve. Their Lodges were also part of the normal life they were 2 hoping they could resume once the War had ended. A good example can be found in St. John’s Lodge in Carleton Place, where a magnificent Masonic Temple had been erected on the main street of town in 1911, that continues to be a main feature of the local heritage of the community to this day. Two members of that Masonic Lodge were close friends, Roy Brown and Stearne Edwards.

The year 1915 was a milestone in the life of many young Canadian men. The Great War – WW1 was already well under way. Brown and Edwards had become fascinated with the new concept of war in the air. Given that WW1 recruits for the Royal Air Force and Royal Naval Air Service required flying experience, their fathers were able to sponsor them at the flight school run by the Wright brothers in Dayton Ohio.

While he was in Dayton, Brown thought about joining the Lodge. On October 20, 1915 Brown wrote the following in a letter to his father describing his upcoming schedule to finish flying school in the fall. “That may leave me time to catch the November meeting of the Lodge.”

Edwards graduated before Brown, and returned home for a quick visit. He joined the Lodge in October of 1915, before going overseas.

Brown eventually graduated as a pilot and also returned home for a brief visit. On November 22, 1915, he too was initiated into St. John’s Lodge. Brown then left home for the War in Europe, and service in the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps. In December 1917, Brown and Edwards were able to return home for a short period on leave and received their 2nd and 3rd Degrees in Masonry together.

Brown became a deadly fighter pilot. He earned the designation of “Ace” when he shot down his 5th enemy aircraft in October 1917, and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross in November 1917. By February of 1918 he had become a Flight Leader, and had shot down 9 German aircraft.

Stearne Edwards also earned the designation of “Ace” during WW1, with a total of 16 enemy aircraft. During the War, the 2 friends served together as pilots in the same combat zones, and were able to take some personal time together on leave.

By April 1918, the Germans decided to make a desperate attempt to destroy the Allied forces once and for all. One particular threat to the Allied pilots was the “Flying Circus” the fighter squadron led by a former German cavalry officer named Manfred von Richthofen. He was popularly known as the “Red Baron” due to the bright red colour of his Fokker fighter airplane.

On the morning of April 21, the Allied and German pilots were preparing to fly yet another war patrol. Richthofen’s cousin Wolfram had recently joined the Flying Circus. On the Canadian side, a new pilot Wop May had been sent to fly under Roy Brown’s command. Given the danger in combat to inexperienced pilots, Brown gave strict orders 3 to May that if they encountered German aircraft, May should stay out of combat and circle the action to simply watch and learn.

Later that morning, the German flight engaged a pair of Australian aircraft and was then attacked by Brown’s flight of Sopwith Camel aircraft. Wop May watched as ordered from the distance for a short while. However, he could not contain himself and soon attacked a German aircraft. He had in fact inadvertently attacked the German Fokker flown by Richthofen’s cousin Wolfram.

May’s guns jammed and he was forced to disengage, but the Red Baron spotted May’s attack and set out after the Canadian. May was certain that he was a dead man because he could not get the Red Baron off his tail, but the Red Baron was experiencing trouble with his own machine guns.

Roy Brown, seeing that May was in great danger, was able to come up behind the Red Baron to fire a burst from his machine guns into the Red Baron’s Fokker. The Red Baron was mortally wounded and crashed near the Australian trenches. (The Australians also claim to have shot him down.)

Roy Brown was awarded a bar for his Distinguished Service Cross for shooting down the Red Baron. He left the Royal Flying Corps after WW1, and was involved in operating a small airline in Ontario and Québec. When WW2 broke out he volunteered for service in the Royal Canadian Air Force, but was rejected. He died at the age of 50 in Stouffville Ontario in 1944.

Stearne Edwards was still flying as a combat pilot when WW1 ended on November 11, 1918. On November 12, he took a Sopwith Pup fighter aircraft up for a flight, but crashed. He died of his injuries on November 22.

The Canadian pilot Wop May, whose life was saved that day by Captain Roy Brown, became an “Ace” himself with 13 kills to his credit. During the 1920’s and 30’s he continued to fly as a famous bush pilot in the Canadian North.

Wop May became a Mason after WW1. In 1938, he helped organize a special Masonic meeting in the Canadian Arctic in Kugluktuk, Nunavut Territory, near the present day community of Coppermine. The Grand lodge of Alberta commemorated the event by erecting a plaque that declares this to be the most northerly Masonic meeting ever held.

In distressed Circumstances

Most Canadian jurisdictions issued a Masonic pass to their members when they enlisted for military service. The pass was written in English, French and German. It identified the bearer as a Mason, and requested fraternal assistance in times of distressed circumstances.The pass also declared that his Mother Lodge would repay any financial burdens that this fraternal assistance might require.

Prisoners of War are a major factor in any war, and the First World War was no exception. Major Hooper of Carleton Place was knocked unconscious during a savage battle and fell into the hands of the Germans. Local tradition maintains that a German military surgeon, coming across the Masonic pass, gave him preferential medical attention that probably saved his life. Another anecdote relates that Hooper was at risk of being shot by German guards during his captivity, but that after he made a Masonic sign of distress, he was taken away to safety.

Canadian soldier and Masonic Brother Robert J Meekren was wounded in the Ypres Salient in 1916 and feel into the hands of the Germans. While in the prison camp, a German guard revealed himself to Meekren as a Mason, and at great risk to himself, the guard gave Meekren a parcel of bread and cigarettes. Meekren then tried to contact other Masonic prisoners by embroidering a square and compass on his military tunic. An Allied prisoner approached him and asked, “Have you ever been entirely destitute?” It took Meekren a moment to realize the Masonic significance of this question, and to realize that this soldier was also a Mason. Meekren was then introduced to several other English and French speaking POW’s, and they were able to hold impromptu Masonic meetings by “immemorial right.” One memorable occasion was a Masonic feast with about 20 Masons contributing treats they had secured to commemorate St. John’s Day 1917.

Meekren also benefited from his Mother Lodge. The Secretary of his Lodge wrote him on a regular basis to keep him up to date with affairs back home. Naturally, the Germans censored all letters coming to prisoners. Meekren was therefore alarmed one morning when the German camp censor asked to see him in his office. The German censor, by reviewing the letters, realized that Meekren was a Mason, and revealed himself to be a Mason. Meekren was thereafter allowed to receive extra letters from home and was given a comfortable clerical job in the camp office.

After the War, in 1927, the German General Ludendorff published a book “The Annihilation of Freemasonry Through the Disclosure of its Secrets.” In the book he stated “Freemasonry is a Jewish contrivance” and that special treatment given by German Masonic guards to Allied Masonic prisoners during the War was “national treason.” The extreme opinions expressed in Ludendorff’s book foreshadowed the official policies of the Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party. Once they had gained power, the Nazis actively persecuted the Jews and the Freemasons, first in Germany and later in the occupied countries.

Conclusions

Freemasonry was an important part in the life of many Canadian soldiers during and after WW1. It was a symbol of what they were fighting to preserve, and raised the morale of the Canadian soldiers overseas. It also gave them a focus for the normal life that they hoped to resume once the War had ended.

V.W. Bro., Ex. Comp. Daniel J Glenney