I’ve been meaning to write about Horace Hume Van Wart for about two years now, ever since his photograph came across my desk during a cataloguing rush. The inscription on the photograph speaks for itself:
“To My Darling, Horace Hume Van Dyke Van Wart/Capt. York Regt., 12th Inf[antry] Btn., 1st Canadian Contingent, Officer ½ Signalling Canadians, 259th Canadian Rifles, Siberia, British Military Mission to Siberia and attached to the Staff of Admiral Kolchak, Omsk […] Russian Government | March 1925”
Image: [Portrait of Capt. Horace Hume Van Dyke Van Wart], March 1925. Collections CCGW/CCGG.
From his photograph inscription, it looked like Captain Van Wart had quite the military career; but once I started to dig deeper things got very strange. First of all, Van Wart’s possessions turn up all over the place. There is a tea kettle inscribed to him in the collections at the Canadian War Museum. There is a collection of philatelic items related to him in the hands of collectors across Canada. Finally, there are bits and pieces relating to his university career at the University of New Brunswick. It looks like Van Wart was a pretty busy fellow.
Then there is this blog. Ronald Jack has been researching the history of Saint John, New Brunswick, Van Wart’s hometown, for quite some time now. He has written a two part series looking at Van Wart, which claims that Van Wart’s entire military career was fabricated! Fabricated or not, Van Wart’s career as outlined in the photograph already looks to be a full one, and the New Brunswick Who’s Who listing from 1922 that Jack bases his argument on has even more titles and places listed, including a stint with the Jungo Slav Echelon [sic] during the retreat from Omsk in 1919, a daring escape from the Bolsheviks, and subsequent escape across the Gobi Desert to Japan.
Somehow, after all of this, Van Wart returned to New Brunswick sometime in 1922, re-entered the University of New Brunswick to finish his degree, and graduated in 1924. He subsequently moved to Toronto, was a regular on the lecture circuit about his experiences in Russia, and later served as the Honourary Consul to Czechoslovakia. During the Second World War, Van Wart is credited with providing aid to many Czech refugees in Canada, including a future RCAF navigator, John Gellner.
So who was this fellow? We will probably never know. Ronald Jack thinks he either inflated his career or might have actually been a spy; given his travel records from the 1918 to 1922 period, he did a lot of cross-ocean travel. Somehow, he had enough connections with the Czechs to get an honourary consul position, and used it to help the community. He was also an avid stamp collector. At this point, that’s about it! Horace Hume Van Wart was certainly colourful, if nothing else.
Veterans hoping to find prosperity and opportunity in peacetime were to be sorely disappointed, returning to a Canada whose social and economic landscapes had been