Published June 26, 2014
This year marks 100 years since the outbreak of World War I, one of the deadliest conflicts in history, which took the lives of millions of people around the globe. Although Iceland was not directly involved in the war, as the Danes—who ruled Iceland at the time—remained neutral, hundreds of Icelanders actually fought in the war.
In fact, 1,200 Icelanders fought in the trenches of World War I. They were so-called Western Icelanders, Icelandic immigrants in North America, who mostly enlisted for Canada. About a third of these men were born in Iceland and most of them spoke Icelandic natively. All in all, 144 died and hundreds suffered injuries in the extremely bloody battles on the Western Front.
For many in Iceland, joining the war was thought to be a strange decision. Member of Parliament and lawyer Skúli Thoroddsen, for instance, wrote harshly about his countrymen in Canada: “Everyone who joins the war voluntarily should be considered a lunatic. They should be stopped and not be allowed to join the killing game.” Participating in the war became something of a taboo.
But it seems the Icelandic Canadians saw things differently. At least one saw the decision to join Canada in the war was a way of “paying back” the country’s hospitality, which had afforded many Icelanders a better life. “Now Icelandic blood has been shed for the new motherland and now we love it not only with talking, but with blood—blood as warm as the blood that leaked out of the soldier’s heart who died for us,” physician Björn Jónsson wrote about the “brave Icelandic heroes” who died in the war. “The war’s misery, the wounds and the tears, have bought us real patriotic love in this country.”
Commemorating these soldiers, historians based in Winnipeg, Canada in the early 1900s published a book which contains many chilling accounts of ordinary people stuck in an inexplicable conflict.
Christine Fredrickson was born Kristín Friðriksdóttir, in Hegranes, Skagafjörður on July 9, 1896. She graduated from the Strathcona Hospital in Alberta summa cum laude in 1916 and joined the Canadian Army Medical Corp. She took care of wounded soldiers and contracted the Spanish flu in 1918 and died on October 28 that year.
Guðmundur Kristinn Bjarnason was born in Reykjavík on May 28, 1900. He joined the Canadian military at 15 years of age in 1915. He died from a sniper’s bullet in France on September 2, 1918.
Born in Hallson, North Dakota, on July 6, 1895, Friðrik Rósbjörn Halldórsson joined the Canadians in 1916. He died in Battle of Hill 70 on August 15, 1917. Both the Canadian Corps and the German Army suffered heavy casualties, with more than 30,000 soldiers being killed or wounded in 10 days.