Nearly 61,000 Canadians were killed while fighting overseas in the First World War.
As Canada’s entire population had just reached eight million between the war years of 1914 and 1918, few communities, including here in the Bow Valley, were spared the loss of men and women who had left home to join the war effort.
Banff, Canmore, Exshaw and Bankhead have their war dead, as shown by the 90 names listed on memorials located in each of the four communities – which in 1911 had a combined population of 2,002 people. In all, 52 soldiers from Banff, eight from Bankhead, 14 from Canmore and 16 from Exshaw were killed on the battlefields of France and Belgium, and of those, at least 27 were killed in 1917 alone (15 from Banff, three from Bankhead, five from Canmore and four from Exshaw).
Canada joined the war on Aug. 4, 1914. The Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) took part in its first major battle, the Second Battle of Ypres, in 1915. It was during this battle that the Germans first used poisonous gas against British and Commonwealth soldiers.
The Canadians held firm and repelled the attack despite the gas. They also held off subsequent attacks that occurred over the following two days, but 6,000 Canadian soldiers were either killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
The following year, 1916, proved to be a difficult and challenging year with battles at St. Eloi, Mount Sorrel and the Somme, but through it all Canadians built a reputation as the shock troops of the British Empire. British prime minister Lloyd George stated that, “The Canadians played a part of such distinction that thenceforward they were marked out as storm troops; for the remainder of the war they were brought along to head the assault in one great battle after another. Whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line they prepared for the worst.”
The Canadian Corps (formed in 1915 from the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force once the 2nd Canadian Division had arrived in France) took that reputation with them into 1917.
While the British and the rest of the Commonwealth forces continued to do their own heavy slogging with high casualties, the Canadians were often called upon to breach difficult spots where previous attacks had failed.
It was for that reason that the four divisions of the Canadian Corps, fighting for the first time as a cohesive whole under the command of British general Sir Julian Byng, was given the task of taking Vimy Ridge. The ridge had proven to be an extremely difficult part of the line to breach given the strong defenses. The Battle of Vimy Ridge began April 9 and ended April 12. A total of 3,598 Canadians died because of the attack on Vimy Ridge including 11 soldiers from the Bow Valley.
At least five Bow Valley soldiers died during the Canadian attack itself: Banff residents Pvt. Frank Horace Ibbetson, 26, Pvt. John Lomax, 19, and Pvt. John Arthur Wanlace, 30, and coalminers Pvt. Henry Littler, 20, of Bankhead and Sgt. James Marion Brown, 19, of Canmore. John Lomax’s older brother, George, 23, died Aug. 24 of wounds he received at Vimy Ridge. As an aside, William Lomax, John and George’s brother, died Jan. 1, 1919 of illness. He had been badly gassed during the war.
Preparing for an attack of the magnitude of Vimy Ridge came with its own hazards and soldiers were often killed during raids on enemy trenches. Raiding was a frequent activity as it provided the opportunity to destroy enemy defences, gather intelligence and undermine the enemy’s morale. Sgt. Robert Sharp, 29, of Banff, who was serving with the 50th Canadian Infantry Battalion, was killed Feb. 14 on one such raid. Norris Cameron, 26, who served with Sharp in the 50th Bttn., Cpl. Arthur Brittain Cain of Exshaw (75th Bttn.) and Thomas Julian Kay, 26, of Banff (54th Bttn.) were all killed March 1 during a massive Canadian raid on German lines. Sapper Robert Edwards of Canmore, who served with 2nd Canadian Tunnelling Co., died of suffocation Feb. 4, 1917, when a fire started in a tunnel he was working in at Mount Sorrel in Belgium.
The attack at Vimy Ridge is often perceived in Canada as a stand-alone battle, but it was part of a much larger battle known as the Battle of Arras and, as Canadians rose from their trenches at Vimy early in the morning April 9, British divisions began attacking the Western Front near the city of Arras, which sits to the southeast of Vimy.
Battle of Arras
Four of Canada’s major battles of 1917, including Vimy Ridge, took place during the Battle of Arras. Sapper Harry Cummins, 33, and Pvt. Robert Wilson Noble, 28, of Banff and Pvt. Frank Wooster, 27, of Exshaw were killed in the fighting. Sgt. Sid Unwin, 38, a Banff guide and outfitter, was badly wounded May 3 during a heavy artillery bombardment.
Unwin, a member of a howitzer battery, received the Military Medal for saving the lives of the men under his command by ordering them back into their dugout during an enemy barrage. Unwin, however, remained behind and kept firing the gun. He died in hospital in June 1917.
As part of the Battle of Arras, one of the big pushes the Canadians took part in came with the capture of Hill 70, a hilltop strongpoint that overlooked the city of Lens, France. The attack on Hill 70 and then Lens was used to relieve some of the pressure on the British and Commonwealth forces as they moved to attack Passchendaele Aug. 18, four days after the Canadian attack on Hill 70 had begun.
None of the Bow Valley soldiers killed in 1917 appear to have been killed during the fighting at Hill 70 or Lens, although, 25-year-old Pvt. Herbert Thompson of Exshaw, serving with the 50th Bttn., died two days after the Canadians stopped the German’s 21st and final counterattack. Thompson likely died of wounds received at Hill 70.
Following Hill 70, Canada’s next major battle took place at Passchendaele, where eight Bow Valley soldiers were among the 4,000 Canadians killed.
The Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, began in July 1917 when British and Commonwealth forces moved to capture important railway hubs and submarine pens along the Belgian coast of Flanders.
In October, the Canadians relieved ANZAC troops (Australia and New Zealand) which had suffered heavy losses. The Canadians had orders to take the village of Passchendaele. Where the battlefields of the Somme in 1916 gave rise to the description of war as a “meat grinder” for the extremely high loss of life, Passchendaele came to represent the horrible conditions of First World War battlefields, namely mud and rain.
During the long and brutal fight to capture Passchendaele, which the Canadians accomplished Nov. 10, Banff and Bankhead appear to have been the only communities in the Bow Valley to have suffered. The fighting at Passchendaele killed two soldiers from Bankhead, Pvt. William Boyd Scarr, 19, and Cpl. George Henry Redpath, 24, and five soldiers from Banff, Sgt. James Arthur Stevenson, 28, Pvt. Frank McDonald Beattie, 27, Pvt. Joshua Glennon, 33, Pvt. Frederick Edwards Evans, 33, and Sgt. Gordon Clifton Carpenter, 19.
Pvt. Joshua Glennon, 33, of Banff died Nov. 7, a day after the Canadians finally drove the German defenders from the ruined village. Glennon appears to have been the last of the Bow Valley’s soldiers to die in 1917.
In 1923, Glennon’s daughter, Annie, helped unveil the International Order of the Daughters of the Empire War Memorial outside the Banff Royal Canadian Legion.
Much of the information about Bow Valley soldiers came from readily available records, specifically attestation papers (the forms soldiers filled out when they enlisted), death records, service records and battalion war diaries. The records themselves can provide a lot of detail about a soldier.
Glennon’s attestation papers, the form he filled out when he enlisted, tells us he was born in Rawdon, Que., May 7, 1884. He was 32 when he enlisted in Montreal, May 19, 1916. He and his wife, Jessie, were separated. He worked as an engineer. He had a “medium” complexion, brown eyes and dark brown hair and stood about 5 ft. 2 in. Finally, Glennon was a member of the Church of England.
The Canadian Virtual War Memorial adds that Glennon served with the 24th Canadian Infantry Battalion (Quebec Regiment) and that his parents, Joshua and Mary Glennon, lived in Banff. Glennon is buried in the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Belgium, 12 km northeast of Ypres (now spelled Ieper).
The Canadian Great War Project (CGWP) website (www.canadiangreatwar.com) includes many of the same details along with indicating that Glennon is commemorated at both the Banff and Bankhead memorials. The CGWP also provides a link to a Crag & Canyon story about Glennon’s daughter, Annie, and the unveiling of the Banff War Memorial.
Battalion war diaries, many of which have been digitized, can be viewed online and provide a near daily record of the activities of each Canadian battalion. On the day Glennon died, the war diary for the 50th Bttn. relates that: “Continuous heavy shelling throughout the day of Support, especially in vicinity of BN Hdqrs.”
It appears that Glennon’s death, which is listed only as “Died in War, unknown cause”, may well have occurred during the “continuous heavy shelling” referred to in the battalion war diary.
But not all the records offer as much information as Glennon’s; many of the records are incomplete, making it difficult to account accurately for all the soldiers from the Bow Valley who died during the war. It can, as a result, be difficult to match records to the names on the memorials.
There are other challenges as well, such as spelling errors on the memorials and very common first and last names, that can make it more difficult. In Exshaw, for example, A. Pontorralla appears to have been misspelled on the memorial and may in fact be Pentaralla or Pontarollo, while in Canmore, R. Edwards generates many possible options.
The CGWP website lists 598 soldiers with the last name of Edwards. Of those, 19 have a first name that starts with “R”. But none of those 19 records have ‘Canmore’ in any of the fields. The Canadian Virtual War Memorial (www.veterans.gc.ca), meanwhile, which lists Canadian war dead online, has 13 listings for ‘R. Edwards.’
The only likely candidate for R. Edwards whose name is on the Canmore First World War memorial is Sapper Robert Edwards, 33, of the 2nd Canadian Tunnelling Co., who was killed in a tunnel fire before the attack on Vimy Ridge.
While the majority of Bow Valley soldiers served with infantry battalions, it’s not a stretch to expect that some of the coal miners joined tunnelling companies as their expertise would have been welcomed and needed. Edwards also enlisted in Calgary, which provides another clue.
And in the case of Robert Wilson Noble, it appears his name may be on both the Banff and Exshaw memorials as R.W. Noble in Banff and R. Noble in Exshaw. Noble enlisted in Banff, as shown on his attestation papers, but, based on his trade, which is listed as labourer, he may have worked at the Exshaw cement plant. Unless of course there was a R.W. Noble in Banff and a R. Noble in Exshaw.
Even with the challenges that come with trying to find the records for the Bow Valley servicemen who died during the First World War, what is there begins to provide a picture of the soldiers themselves. They were of all ages from 18- or 19-year-old teenagers to middle-aged men in their 40s. They appear to have been predominately born in the United Kingdom, a few in Quebec and the Maritimes, so it’s safe to assume that most, if not all of them, came to the Bow Valley alone or with their families looking for work—not unlike what happens today.
They worked in the coal mines and at the cement plant. The Lomax brothers were weavers and Thomas Julian Kay was a government employee working for Banff National Park (then Rocky Mountains Park). Norris Cameron was a tailor. Sapper Harry Cummins was a carpenter. Sid Unwin, known as a good natured and extremely competent guide, helped Mary Schaffer and Mollie Adams find Maligne Lake in 1908.
The history of the Bow Valley is built upon people like Sid Unwin, William Boyd Scarr, Robert Edwards and Frank Wooster, along with the rest of the soldiers killed from the Bow Valley killed during the First World War. And while some of them have not left a discernable legacy such as Unwin did, they have not been forgotten.
In his 1915 poem In Flanders Fields, Robert Service wrote:
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The memorials with their etched names – as Service points out – reminds us that it wasn’t so long ago that those soldiers lived and worked here in the Bow Valley. They would have felt Rocky Mountain sunrises and undoubtedly watched the mountains turn pink from a sunset’s glow. They would have loved and been loved. And now, many of those soldiers, killed during the war, do indeed lie in Flanders Fields, where the poppies grow.