The Queensborough boys at Vimy

Letters to William Wilkinson's mother

Local historian Brock Kerby put together this page showing William James Wilkinson, a young farmer from Queensborough who was killed 100 years ago today at Vimy Ridge, and two letters to his mother – one from a fellow soldier, the other from his commanding officer – upon his death, subsequently published in the local Tweed News.

One hundred years ago today, thousands of young Canadian men poured out of trenches and tunnels and onto the battlefield at Vimy Ridge in Northern France. It was “the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together as one formation,” as you can read on a fine summary of the battle and its importance on a Veterans Affairs Canada page here. The Canadians’ victory at Vimy, taking a strategically important point when previous Allied attempts had failed, has become legendary, and is widely seen as a key event in our nation’s history.

Today, on the 100th anniversary, ceremonies to commemorate the Battle of Vimy Ridge are taking place across Canada and, most notably, at Vimy itself. Here is a lovely piece about this morning’s ceremony there by The Globe and Mail’s Roy MacGregor; you can watch the whole event here.

Vimy Ridge memorial

The stunning and very moving memorial to Canada’s First World War dead at Vimy Ridge, France. If you have never visited it (as I have been fortunate enough to do), I urge you to try to do so. You will never forget the experience. Someday I would like to go back and find the names of William Wilkinson, Winfred Glover and other Queensborough boys on it. (Photo from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission)

On a considerably smaller scale, though equally important in a local way, there was a ceremony this afternoon in nearby Madoc, where a new plaque commemorating the battle and the men from this area who fought in it, was unveiled. One of the prime movers behind the project was Brock Kerby, a young man from the Ivanhoe area with a keen interest in local history. As I’ve written before, Brock is doing a wonderful job of preserving and sharing Madoc-area history through his Facebook page Madoc and Area Local History.

Brock contacted me a week ago to share some Queensborough connections to the Battle of Vimy Ridge. In turn, I want to share them with you, and to thank Brock for his research and his generosity with his time and with the findings of that research.

William James Wilkinson photo in oval frame

William James Wilkinson. The badge on his peaked cap is that of the 24th Battalion, the Victoria Rifles, which fought in many of the major battles in the First World War. (Photo tracked down by Brock Kerby from the Canadian Virtual War Memorial)

It is thanks to Brock that I now know something about William “Willie” Wilkinson of Queensborough, who was one of those who went over the top at Vimy 100 years ago today, and who was killed on that same day. “He was shot and instantly killed in the great attack in which our Battalion took part on the 9th last,” his commanding officer wrote in the letter to his mother that you can see at the top of this post. “I cannot tell you at present where he is buried but you will at least know that his grave is that of a hero amongst heroes and that he had a part in the greatest victory the Canadians have yet achieved.”

Willie Wilkinson, a farm boy from Queensborough, was 24 years old.

His enlistment papers (which Brock also found and shared) say that his faith was Anglican, so he would not have worshipped at Queensborough’s St. Andrew’s United Church (buillt as a Presbyterian church three years before Willie’s birth in 1893). However, his name, along with those of others from Queensborough who served in the Great War, is listed on a commemorative scroll that hangs at St. Andrew’s, the only one of Queensborough’s original four churches that is still in operation. After our Palm Sunday service there this morning, I had a closer look at that scroll …

They Heard the Call

and found Willie’s name, seventh from the top:

Names on They Heard the Call

Seeing the whole list of names made me think of two things: one, the name at the very top, that of Winfred (Fred) Glover, about whom I’ve written before; and two, another photo Brock had found on William Wilkinson’s page on the Canadian Virtual War Memorial. Here it is, along with the caption that comes with it on the website:

Queensborough boys

How I would love to know the names of the other young Queensborough men in this photo! I am hoping my readers might be able to offer some clues.

One or more of them might be Dyers; the four Dyer brothers from Queensborough all enlisted. Here they are, in another photo Brock found and sent me:

Dyer boys from Queensborough

Brock discovered that Bruce Dyer, listed on his papers as a cheese maker from Queensborough, was wounded at Vimy. Bruce served in the 38th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and is included here in a project by an Ottawa military historian to provide a biography of every soldier who served in that battalion. Brock has found Bruce’s medical records from the war and the papers showing his discharge because of his wounds. Here’s one page from the medical file:

Bruce Dyer Medical Case Sheet

And here’s a page from the discharge file. Nice to see that Bruce’s character and conduct are listed as “Very Good”!

Bruce Dyer discharge

Most of the images above come from a document that Brock has put together about Queensborough connections to Vimy and was kind enough to send me a few days ago. WordPress (the platform on which this blog is produced) won’t allow me to post it so you can see all of the pages, but if you’d like to know more, please email me (sedgwick.katherine@gmail.com) or message Brock on his Facebook page, and either of us can email it to you directly.

Brock Kerby – who’s about the same age as these young Queensborough men were when they served in the Great War – deserves huge thanks and congratulations for all the work he does to preserve our local history. Today especially, I want to thank him for his work on reminding us of the Queensborough boys who, as Willie Wilkinson’s commanding officer so aptly put it, “had a part in the greatest victory the Canadians have yet achieved.” One hundred years later, as Canada and the world remember Vimy Ridge, we here in Queensborough remember our boys with pride.

The Great War came, and took away a Queensborough boy

Sgt. Fred Glover

Fred Glover of Queensborough, in a photo taken sometime after he was promoted to sergeant in April 1918. He was killed in August 1918, a few short months before the Great War ended. (Photo from A. Stephen Glover’s account of Fred Glover’s life and service.)

A wonderful, moving piece of local history came into my hands just in time for Remembrance Day. It is the story of Fred Glover, a young man from Queensborough who went off to fight in World War I, and who never returned. He lies buried, like so many other Canadians killed in the prime of their lives, in a cemetery in Northern France – so far from the little hamlet that he knew and loved, his final resting place marked by one of “the crosses row on row,” as John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields so beautifully puts it.

Winfred (Fred) Alexander Glover was a 24-year-old schoolteacher in the hamlet of Eldorado (not far from Queensborough) when he enlisted for service in December 1915. He had not yet married, and so he died without children. Fearful that his story would be forgotten, his great-nephew, A. Stephen Glover, who lives in Barrie, Ont., in 2009 put together a remarkable account of Fred’s life and death, and his service in the Great War. It was reading that account, lent to me by a longtime friend in this area, that has indelibly marked this Remembrance Day for me. I am certain that I will think of Fred Glover’s story on every Remembrance Day from now on. It is a story that brings the Great War, fought so far off on the battlefields of Europe, home to tiny Queensborough.

Fred Glover's enlistment report

Fred Glover’s enlistment report. (Library and Archives Canada)

As Stephen Glover’s account – which he has very kindly given me permission to quote from – reports, Fred Glover was the seventh child in the large Glover family that lived just west of Queensborough. When I was a child growing up at the Manse and my father was the minister at St. Andrew’s United Church in Queensborough, Fred’s two youngest siblings, brother Bill and sister Florence (Love), then quite well on in years, were stalwarts of the congregation, and I knew them well. Now, thanks to Fred’s great-nephew’s wonderful work, I feel like I know him too, even though he died more than 40 years before I was born. (I find it remarkable to think that in my childhood we were a lot closer to the time of World War I than, in the present day, we are to World War II. If that doesn’t make a middle-aged person such as myself feel old, I don’t know what will.)

Fred Glover was involved in many of the most important battles – in some of the most brutal conditions – of the war. He was at Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, Hill 70, Amiens, Arras. He was killed not very long before the war ended, which to me makes his death that much sadder; he had survived so much fighting and horror, and was so very close to being able to come home to a peaceful life and his family and the place that he loved – the place that Raymond and I too now call home.

The account that Stephen Glover has put together includes something truly precious: some of Fred’s letters home. They are filled with longing: for home, for loved ones, for mail. Due to military censors (and doubtless also a wish not to provoke more worry than necessary among his family) he almost completely spares them the ghastly details of trench warfare: the mud, the deprivation, the horror of seeing friends and comrades blown apart. About as close as he comes are frequent references to the cold when he is “in the line,” as he puts it. And when things are not so bad, his letters sometimes give a sense of downright cheer that was probably more than he actually felt. On Christmas Eve 1916, writing from “Somewhere in France,” he tells his family:

I can’t help but think of past years at Xmas time and tonight as we lay in our bunks, Harold, Fred F. Bert H. & John O. and Clifford G. have been talking over old times. There is no drill tomorrow & I expect we will all have a great time.

The comrades Fred mentions are all young men from the Queensborough-Madoc area, friends from his youth with whom he was fortunate enough to be posted. “Harold” is Harold B. Harris of the Hazzards Corners area, Fred’s good friend; the Harris family is still very active at St. Andrew’s United Church to this day. One can tell from the letters how much it meant to Fred to be able to share stories of times back home with his friends; in February 1917, also from “Somewhere in France,” he tells his parents:

Harold is right beside me and I think he is writing home too. I am glad we have been able to stick so close together and also be with the other lads from home.

Harold was killed less than three months later, on May 9, 1917, at Fresnoy.

Fred’s references to his life back home in Queensborough are what clutched the most at my heart. I have visited some of the First World War battlefields in Europe, have seen the trenches – how shockingly close the lines of the two sides often were to each other – and the bomb craters and, at Vimy Ridge, the tunnels where the men waiting to be sent up to the front lines were shielded from the sight of those coming (or being carried) back in. I think I have some sense of the horror of what those young men went through, and yet I know the reality was a thousand times worse than anything I could ever imagine. When I think of young Fred Glover, in the mud and darkness and carnage and thunderous noise, dreaming of maple syrup time at his family’s farm in Queensborough – well, it makes it all seem so much more real. And close to home. Because it is.

There is one sentence in one letter that makes me want to smile and weep at the same time. On Jan. 20, 1917, again from “Somewhere in France,” Fred writes to his “Mother, Father & All:”

This is Saturday evening and I suppose if I were home I might be down street. But I am afraid I can just think of it this time.

“Down street” – or, as it is actually pronounced in Queensborough, or at least was when I was a kid growing up here, “down’t street” – is shorthand for being down at one of the two general stores that faced each other in the centre of our little village and that were the heart of town. (I wrote about all that here.) It was where people of all ages gathered until late into the night to shoot the breeze and share the news and just generally enjoy each other’s company and their community. I like to think of Fred being one of those gathered around the stove on many of those late Saturdays – perhaps having just come in on a cold winter night after playing shinny with friends on the nearby millpond.

I am haunted by the phrase “Somewhere in France.” Fred was so, so far from home. In February 1917 he wrote:

I have been away from home nearly four months, I think the longest I ever was at one time. And then imagine how far it is.

Winfred (Fred) Alexander Glover was killed at Arras on Aug. 26, 1918. He is buried in the British cemetery at Tilloy-les-Mofflaines, near Arras. A memorial service was held for him at Queensborough’s Methodist Church (the church for which our Manse was built) on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1918. The North Hastings Review newspaper reported: “The Church could not hold the people. The vestry was used to its capacity and the outside of the Church was surrounded by friends and acquaintances who wished to show their appreciation.”

Fred Glover and his family were faithful members of that Methodist Church. And thanks to Stephen Glover, I have just discovered that a memento of Fred is still there, at the site where a crumbling set of cement stairs is all that remains of that place of worship. When Stephen and I exchanged emails last night, as I asked his permission to write about his work, I sent him a link to a post I’d done about those stairs; you can read it here. In it I’d mentioned that when I was exploring them about a year ago, I came across some initials that had been carved into the cement while it was still wet, and I speculated about who those long-ago people might have been. High-spirited teenagers was my best guess.

One of those sets of initials was W.A.G.:

W.A.G.

Which, as Stephen Glover points out, is almost certainly Winfred Alexander Glover.

Who was both a soldier in the Great War and a high-spirited young man from tiny Queensborough. And who, though buried so very far away, left his mark here, where it is to this day.

In the place he loved and called home. I only wish he could have come back to it.