October 24, 2016
Chronicle Journal (A3)
Thousands of men and women from Port Arthur, Fort William and the region served in the armed forces during the First World War. The poppy was adopted as a national symbol of remembrance in Port Arthur in 1921.This monthly column will share stories and photos about life here in Thunder Bay and overseas during World War One.
The first full unit raised in the Thunder Bay District for service overseas during the First World War was the 52nd (New Ontario) Overseas Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force. Mobilization began at the end of March 1915 and the 52nd sent recruiting detachments into the region as far away as Fort Francis and Dryden and drummed up 1,945 recruits. As a Northern Ontario unit the 52nd also recruited a significant number of Ojibway First Nations men into its ranks. In June and September the unit provided reinforcing drafts to the Canadian Corps overseas and continued to train at the Lakehead until leaving for Britain in November.
The 52nd arrived in England in December 1915 and went to Bramshott Camp for further training. Not until February 1916 did they embark for the continent landing in Le Harve and moving by rail went to Poperinghe, Belgium. Here they were part of the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade in the 3rd Canadian Division. On 1 March subunits began “inoculation” into trench warfare, before moving into the line for the first time.
In June the Battalion participated in the battle of Mount Sorrel, where the Lieutenant Colonel Hay was reported lost and presumed dead, his body was never found. This was followed in September by the Somme and the attack on Regina Trench. February 1917 saw the 52nd training and preparing for the Vimy Ridge offensive. The Battalion played an active role conducting large scale trench raids in the lead up to the attack on 9 April. These efforts left the unit drained and when the attack went forward, the 52nd played a supporting role as the 9th Brigade reserve. This was followed by the attack on Hill 70 in August 1917. Later in October the 52nd played a role at Passchendaele, during the attack on the Bellvue Spur. Here Captain C.P.J. O’Kelly won the Victoria Cross leading A Company. August 1918 the Battalion fought in the Battle of Amiens. This was followed a few days later by the attack on the Drocourt-Quéant Line and the crossing of the Canal du Nord. The unit then pushed past Cambrai seizing the Marcoing Line. In November the men from New Ontario participated in the assault on Valenciennes and the outskirts of Mons.
In terms of social makeup, about 80% were bachelors and the average age of the battalion was 27 years, but this dropped slightly to 25 as the war went on. Adding to the men from the region of British ancestry, who predominated, were Scandinavians, including Finns like Alfred Saxberg, Ukrainians, Americans and Italians among others. The vast majority was drawn from the towns of the region and except for the officers, they were a mixture of skilled tradesmen and unskilled labourers. The Northwestern Ontario character of the unit altered somewhat during the war as replacements from other parts of the country arrived. They included one of the few African Canadians allowed to serve, Nelson Harris, who was killed in action during September 1918. There were also 38 Japanese Canadians in their ranks; men like Yoichi Kamakura who won the Military Medal for his part in an attack at the end of June 1917.
The cost had been high 755 fatal casualties and over 2000 wounded. In total 4132 men passed though the Battalion and 380 decorations were awarded to the officers and men of the 52nd Battalion. Quite suitably the majority, 268 in all, went to other ranks. The 52nd returned home to the Lakehead in March 1919 for demobilization. During the course of the war the 52nd won 18 battle honours.
This article runs on the fourth Monday of each month. David Ratz is a member of the World War One Thunder Bay Centennial Project committee. Please visit www.tbayworldwarone.com for more information about this project or to contribute personal stories and photos.