Soldier Spotlight: Hedley Johnson

Regimental Number: 7793
Rank: Private
Branch: 7th Canadian Mounted Rifles; Reserve Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery; 1st Battalion, Canadian Garrison Regiment

According to the Canadian War Museum, some 619,636 Canadians enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, approximately 424,000 of whom served overseas.  With such high numbers, one would expect that there were often soldiers with the same, or at least similar, names and initials.  Sometimes these similarities resulted in cases of mistaken identities, which was never more distressing than when an incorrect name appeared on the casualty lists.  Such was the case with Hedley Johnson.

Hedley was born in Brantford, Ontario on November 30, 1887. He came to Grande Prairie in October of 1910 and filed on a homestead at NE 34-71-5-W6. Hedley enlisted in February of 1915. On June 24, 1915, he married Carmelia “Carrie” Macklin in England. Hedley served only in England and Canada because of his flat feet and bouts of rheumatic fever. In June of 1915, there was some confusion as an H. Johnson was reported to have been killed in action. It turned out to be a H. Hugh Johnston (possibly referring to Norman Johnston, who is also listed on our memorial), and corrections were printed in the Grande Prairie Herald a week later. Hedley and Carrie arrived back to the homestead in February 1919, where they continued to live until they moved into Grande Prairie in 1928. In 1946, they moved to Rocky Mountain House. Hedley died in Edmonton on February 23, 1973.

Sources: Smoky River to Grande Prairie p. 215; Pioneers of the Peace p. 178-179; Grande Prairie Capitol of the Peace p. 70

June 8, 1915

June 15, 1915

June 17, 1915

February 11, 1919

Soldier Spotlight: Private Fred Blanchard

Portrait of Fred Blanchard in World War I uniform, 1915

Regimental Number: 101077
Rank: Private
Branch: 66th Battalion; 7th Canadian Area Employment Company

During the First World War, it wasn’t uncommon for young men to add a year or two to their age in order to get into the army.  Quite a number of eager Grande Prairie boys lied about the year of their birth so that they could enlist, in spite of being under 18.  Fred Blanchard lied about his age too – except that he made himself out to be younger so that he could join up in July of 1915.

Fred was born in Hampshire, England on March 6, 1862. He joined the British navy in 1878, only 16 years old, and served for nine years. His first military service was in Egypt; in 1882 he was presented a bronze medal for distinguished service by the Khedive of Egypt.  From 1885 until 1887 Fred served with the navy in Burma, where he once again won a medal for distinguished service.  Later in his career Fred was engaged in chasing slave traders along the east coast of Africa on board the HMS Turquoise.  He left the navy with an honorable discharge around 1871 and, for a change of career, joined the Metropolitan Fire Brigade of London.

In 1909 Fred came to the Peace country.  His wife Emily and their children joined him in 1910, and a year later he filed on a homestead at SE 17-72-7-W6, on the east side of Lake Saskatoon.

When fifty Grande Prairie boys left for Edmonton in July of 1915 to enlist in the 66th Battalion, Fred Blanchard was among them.  He was 53 years old.  On his attestation paper, he gave 1870 as the year of his birth and passed himself off as a 45-year-old.  At some point his deception must have been discovered as the March 6, 1917 Grand Prairie Herald printed an article wishing Fred a happy 55th birthday as he celebrated in the trenches.  According to two letters to the Herald from Frank Longair, Fred remained in high spirits and good humor during his military service.  Upon returning to Lake Saskatoon after his discharge in January of 1918, Fred said that “he had helped Old England in every battle for the past decade and he must help her through this one.”

His loyal service was still remembered at the end of his life.  Fred died on March 15, 1930 and was buried with full military honors in the Soldiers’ Plot at Hope, British Columbia.

Sources: Pioneers of the Peace p. 33, 34; Lake Saskatoon Reflections p. 101-103

August 8, 1916 ~ “Fred… never for a moment loses his temper or his inimitable stock of humor.  He is always in good spirits and has proved his right to the title of ‘old war horse.'”

March 6, 1917 ~ 55 and “feeling fine, except for an occasional attack of rheumatism, but was holding his end up on the Somme with the rest of the boys.”

January 17, 1918 ~ “…he had helped Old England in every battle for the past decade and he must help her through this one.”

1917 Thoughts on Vimy Ridge

We forget sometimes that those historic events that loom large in our national psyche and have carried such profound resonance over the years, were at the time, only one of the many events taking place in the lives of everyday people.

This article in the 17th April 1917 edition of the Grande Prairie Herald demonstrates the relative importance attached to the assault on Vimy Ridge shortly after the event. Midway down on the right side of the page, the Canadian assault was a smaller news story than the bid for tenders on a new school and the Red Cross Ball held on Friday the 13th.  Still, it was on the front page and shared that space with other news about the war, including the British capture of 13,000 “Hun” prisoners and “World United Against Huns.”

Grande Prairie Herald ~ April 17, 1917

Three days later, April 20 edition of the Lake Saskatoon Journal does not mention Vimy specifically but it does write about the results of the latest Allied offensive on the western and southern fronts by the British and French. This news shares the front page with articles about wheat trade, munition strikers in Germany, new homestead residences for C. Cady and G. Evans, and the marriage of the “Popular Young Couple,” Mamie Moore and Ulia Douglass.  Other war news that day included the story of British subjects in the US being liable for call up, food sources for the Army and Navy, and the return of Private Ralph Witherly to Grande Prairie.

April 20, 1917 ~ This edition of the Lake Saskatoon Journal will be part of our display commemorating Canada’s 150th birthday

By Archivist Josephine Sallis

The Birth of Our Nation: the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge

April 9 – 12, 1917

Across the summit of the ridge
The Maple Leaf battalions pour
They’ve carried it in glorious war –
How great has been the privilege.

(excerpt from The Canadian Machine Gunner, a World War I trench newspaper)

This year, in 2017, Canada will be celebrating its 150th birthday. But for quite some time after confederation, our country was still hiding in the shadow of Great Britain. The Great War, despite its atrocities, was the event that allowed Canada to emerge as a nation and gain the respect, and even awe, of the rest of the world. As Brigadier General Ross so famously said when speaking of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, “It was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then… that in those few minutes, I witnessed the birth of a nation.”

In October of 1916, Canadian battalions began arriving in the Vimy sector in northern France, and by December, all four Canadian divisions (100,000 men) were gathered together in one place for the first time in the war. Months of reconnaissance, planning, and digging lay ahead of the men. Private George Wesley Bass, a South Peace man, spent those six months leading up to the battle working with the Canadian Engineers, laboring in the extensive maze of underground tunnels. These tunnels would be exploded at ‘zero hour,’ and men would pour out of them onto the battlefield. Subterranean subways were also built to transport supplies and wounded soldiers. When going over the top on April 13, 1917, Private Bass was wounded in his side and his arm.

The notorious Vimy Ridge is an escarpment approximately seven kilometers in length. It rises gradually on the western side, and drops more quickly on the eastern side. With an elevation of 145 meters above the Douai Plains, the ridge provides an unobstructed view for tens of kilometers in every direction – which explains why the British and French had tried (and failed) to capture it numerous times earlier in the war.

The attack on the ridge was originally planned for April 8, but because of poor weather it was postponed until April 9, 1917 (Easter Monday) at 5:30am. General Arthur Currie, in command of the 1st Canadian Division, had these words to say to the troops headed into battle: “… To those who fall I say: You will not die, but step into immortality. Your mothers will not lament your fate, but will be proud to have borne such sons. Your name will be revered forever and ever by your grateful country…”. General Currie was promoted to commander of the Canadian Corps shortly after the battle, a tribute to its great success.

By nightfall on April 10, the only objective not taken was ‘the Pimple.’ Many different roles must be played for a battle to be so decisively won. One such role was mopping up, the duty of the 49th Battalion, of which many men from the South Peace were a part. Mop-up parties were responsible for following assault parties in order to kill any remaining defenders. They also cared for wounded men on the battlefield and performed other more ‘lowly’ tasks. David Barr was a private in the 49th Battalion and was killed on the first day of the battle, April 9. Following the battle, his battalion received many telegrams and messages of thanks for their enormous and crucial contribution during the attack.

Of the 100,000 Canadians involved in the battle, 3,598 were killed and 7,004 were wounded by the time the last objective was reached on April 12. Some men, like Private Benjamin Gray of DeBolt, were wounded so severely that they were sent home for the duration of the war. (Private Gray lost his arm due to an injury sustained at Vimy Ridge). His Majesty King George V said to Field Marshall Douglas Haig, “Canada will be proud that the taking of Vimy Ridge has fallen to the lot of her troops.” And I do not doubt that the folks here in the South Peace region felt that pride every bit as keenly as the rest of the nation, even as they waited for their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons to return.

It is said that when having learned of the victory at Vimy Ridge, a French soldier declared “C’est impossible!” but upon learning it was the Canadians who had won, he exclaimed “Ah! Les Canadiens! C’est possible!”

That is our legacy.

researched & written by Kaylee Dyck

Sources:

for biographies of George Wesley Bass, David Barr, and Benjamin Gray, visit South Peace Soldiers Memorial

The Canadian Machine Gunner (see pages 18 & 27)

Preparing for the Attack on Vimy – Veterans Affairs Canada

Canadian War Diaries

Battle of Vimy Ridge – Wikipedia

Historica Canada

Dave Barr – Canadian Virtual War Memorial

Soldier Spotlight: Private William Goldie

William Goldie was born in Greenock, Scotland on February 24, 1892. At the time of his enlistment in July of 1915, William was living Grande Prairie; his homestead was located at 4-74-4-W6. While on his way to North Bay with his regiment in spring of 1916, William left the train and the army assumed he had deserted.

However, in June the true story was discovered.  William had been attempting to pass from one coach to another when he slipped from the step and fell into a lake.  He managed to swim ashore, but there was no shelter available and because of his exposure to the elements, he developed frostbite.  Both his feet had to be amputated at Haileybury Hospital in Ontario.  William was in a hospital in Toronto because of the ulceration of the stump of his right foot when the army located him in June.  By that time he had been “supplied with artificial apparatus which is satisfactory.”  In September of 1917, William was discharged from the army.  He never made it to the front lines and for a time was considered a deserter, yet he bore the scars of the war for the rest of his life.

Attestation Paper

Military Service File

Notice of Enlistment

William Goldie’s Medical History

Pilot Officer Robert Ernest Nelson

While sorting through some long untouched boxes in the Archives, we discovered a display that had been created to tell the story of Ernie Nelson using photographs donated by and research material compiled by Jane Pilling-Cormick, PhD, in 2005.   The story and photographs were too interesting not to be shared!

Ernie as a young teen in Grande Prairie (photo taken in the Forbes House)

Ernie as a young teen in Grande Prairie (photo taken in the Forbes House)

Robert Ernest (Ernie) Nelson was born on March 4, 1925 in Grande Prairie and had four brothers; two older and two younger. The Nelson family lived in the Forbes House, a provincial historic site in Grande Prairie, from 1936 to 1947. Ernie’s father, Isaac Nelson, co-owned the Nelson & Archibald General Store where Ernie spent some of his summers working. As a child, he attended Montrose Elementary Public School and then went on to attend the Grande Prairie High School.

At the age of 17, Ernie Nelson (R212423) decided to join the Air Force and trained to become a rear gunner. Once overseas, he had advanced training. He was posted to 429 (Canadian) Squadron, stationed at Leeming, Yorkshire.

Ernie at 17 in 1942 when he joined the Air Force

Ernie at 17 in 1942 when he joined the Air Force

Ernie in 1944 on the base in Leeming

Ernie in 1944 on the base in Leeming

Just before leaving on his last operation, on November 20, 1944, Ernie received his promotion to Pilot Officer (J92597). The next day, Halifax #MZ377 left the base in Leeming, England, at 15.46 hours for a raid on Castrop-Rauxel, located in the Ruhr Valley, five miles northwest of Dortmund, Germany. The target was the oil refinery. After climbing to 18,000 feet, they set course, went over London, crossed the channel and French coast. Two minutes from the target, at 19.30 hours, over Langenburg, Germany, they were illuminated by a single searchlight. A night fighter, directly underneath, spotted them and opened fire.

Ernie, the rear gunner, opened fire and the enemy aircraft, a JU-88, burst into flames above and to starboard. They continued on to the target. After releasing the bombs, the pilot gave the order to bail out. Ernie turned in his seat, opened the door, and jumped out. The aircraft went completely out of control. The port wing dropped off at the root. The pilot, hearing no response from the crew, looked into the nose to see an opened parachute. The crew could not get out. At 400 to 500 feet, the aircraft went onto its back.

The pilot was thrown out and landed less than 50 feet from the plane, badly burned. The plane exploded over a house in Langenberg, Germany and landed in the garden. The house is still standing today, in 2005. The bomber burned fiercely upon impact, killing the remaining crew members trapped inside. Ernie broke a bone in his foot when he landed. He became a Prisoner of War (POW no. 1254) at Stalag Luft VII (Bankau) and remained a POW until the end of the war. Ernie returned to Grande Prairie and died in Edmonton on October 15, 2004.

Ernie in 1945 after he came back to Canada

Ernie in 1945 after he came back to Canada

Lieutenant James Archibald Foote

James Archibald Foote was born in Perth, Ontario to David and Catherine Foote.  His service files show some conflict regarding his date of birth, with his initial Attestation Paper stating July 23, 1880 and subsequent documents stating July 20, 1887.  In August of 1914, at the onset of the First World War, James enlisted in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and shipped overseas to serve on the Western Front.

The Princess Patricia’s fought at the Second Battle of Ypres, which lasted from April 22 until May 25, 1915.  It was the first mass use of German poison gas, and also the battle during which Lt. John McCrae penned “In Flanders Fields.”  In the days preceding the battle, James was digging communication trenches at Polygon Wood, near Ypres.  On April 11, he “got a rifle bullet through left thigh, about 8 inches above the knee.”  He spent eleven weeks in hospitals in France and England, but the wound had been a severe one and after leaving the hospital James still walked with a limp and experienced pain in his leg.  He was discharged from the army and returned to Canada in January of 1916.

But James by no means left army life behind him.  He was influential in recruiting for the 257th Railway Construction & Forestry Battalion; his forceful public speaking skills made him successful at securing men.  On January 1, 1917 he reenlisted in the 256th Railway Construction Battalion.  This time he left behind a wife; on March 22, 1917, four days before his departure, James married Nellie Alice Mason in Toronto.

James was a dedicated and courageous officer.  On August 16, 1918, he was awarded the Military Cross “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty while engaged in the maintenance of light railways. The area where he was working was subjected to intense shell fire, and the line was broken in six places. He repeatedly reorganised his working parties, who had suffered casualties, and by his example and encouragement kept his men at work under most difficult conditions. By his efforts the line was kept open, and the supply of ammunition was ensured.”

When he returned from overseas in 1919, James and Nellie moved to Sexsmith.  James passed away in Edmonton on August 14, 1949 and was buried in the Soldiers’ Plot at Beechmount Cemetery.

Sources:

Service file at Library & Archives Canada

Canadian Great War Project

Military Cross Citation

“The storied Princess Patricias regiment born during deadly conflict” 

The Second Battle of Ypres

Grande Prairie Herald ~ April 9, 1918

Grande Prairie Herald ~ April 9, 1918

The Herald-Tribune ~ Obituary ~ August 18, 1949

The Herald-Tribune ~ Obituary ~ August 18, 1949

Pilot Officer Bill Bessent

Bob and Bill Bessent, 1944 (SPRA 292.02.10)

Bob and Bill Bessent, 1944 (SPRA 292.02.10)

At the very young age of nineteen, Bill Bessent of Grande Prairie had completed twenty-nine missions as a mid-upper gunner, and became a night vision flying instructor in England.  He was promoted to Pilot Officer, and received the Distinguished Flying Medal.  He returned to Grande Prairie after the war, and has lived here ever since.

Researched & written by Kathryn Auger

The Herald Tribune ~ August 24, 1944

The Herald Tribune ~ August 24, 1944

The Herald Tribune ~ September 14, 1944

The Herald Tribune ~ September 14, 1944

The Herald Tribune ~ November 9, 1944

The Herald Tribune ~ November 9, 1944

The Herald Tribune ~ November 23, 1944

The Herald Tribune ~ November 23, 1944

The Herald Tribune ~ July 24, 1947

The Herald Tribune ~ July 24, 1947

Corporal Harold Hugh Black

At the outbreak of World War I, Canadians eagerly stepped forward to show their support for Britain. In a matter of weeks, more than 32,000 men had amassed at Valcartier, Quebec, and soon the First Contingent, CEF, was headed to England.

Some complained that the men in rural areas were not such keen volunteers, although Britain was encouraging the farmers to plant even bigger crops in order to feed both soldiers and civilians, in Britain and Canada alike . But the men of the South Peace did not shirk their military duty in any way. Hundreds of men from the area (which was quite remote at the time) joined the army, and quite a number were either killed or left with injuries and memories to haunt them.

Harold Hugh Black was born in Fergus, Ontario in 1891. Along with his brother Hubert John Black, he came to the Peace country in 1913, and they settled in Halcourt. In September of 1915, Harold, Hubert, and their neighbour Gordon Moyer walked more than forty kilometers from their homesteads to Lake Saskatoon to enlist. Out of the three men, only Harry was accepted at the time. Hubert was too slender and Gordon had flat feet (it is interesting that they were declared unfit for service, considering the distance they had just walked); however, both were drafted in the 1917 conscription.

Harry embarked for England on April 28, 1916 and arrived there on May 7. In June, he was transferred from the 66th Battalion to the 31st, and shortly thereafter landed in France. In October he was promoted to Corporal. About a year after his promotion, Corporal Black was granted leave in England, and shortly after returning to action, he sustained a gun shot wound to the scalp at Passchendaele. He remained in the hospital for twelve weeks before being discharged to duty on January 28, 1918. Harry returned to France in May and it wasn’t long before he took another bullet, this one in his right shoulder and in the midst of a valiant act that earned him a Military Medal. The citation in his battalion’s war diary reads like this:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty at Rosieres on the morning of August 9th, 1918 – This N.C.O. utterly regardless of personal danger, rushed a machine gun post which was holding up his section, killing two of the enemy and making several prisoners. Later was wounded, not being able to reach the post he crawled up close and succeeded in dropping several bombs into the post, putting it out of action, thus allowing his platoon to move forward.”

Following this act of bravery, Corporal Black spent about five weeks in the Military Convalescent Hospital at Epsom. The war ended not long after he had recovered from the wound, but before returning home he was also briefly posted to a concentration camp in England.

Corporal Harold Black was discharged in London, Ontario on January 30, 1919. He did not arrive in Canada in good health, and as a result of having been severely gassed during the war, he took up residence at the Central Alberta Sanitarium (now Baker Park) in Calgary. Harry died in Calgary on April 10, 1923 at 31 years of age. He is buried in the family plot at Belsyde Cemetery in Fergus, Ontario.

Written & researched by Kaylee Dyck

Sources:

Attestation Paper

Canadian Great War Project

Citation

Grave Marker

Enlistment Information

Farm or Fight

Canada Enters the War

The Mothers Waiting at Home

The letter in this article is from a bereaved mother in Quebec, writing to the mother of a soldier mentioned in her son’s diary.  It is a moving reminder of war’s far reaching effect, even on strangers, united only by their concern for their sons.  The mother in Quebec is hoping to find someone to talk to her about her son; the mother in Rycroft is awaiting news of her son who had appeared in casualty lists.

Researched & written by Kathryn Auger

The Herald-Tribune ~ October 12, 1944

The Herald-Tribune ~ October 12, 1944