"It has been close to 99 years since Marica French sat down in Govan Scotland to write a letter to my Grandfather, Murdock MacKeigan.
This letter is one of the few personal items Murdock kept in his diary, I have read it many times and I believed I knew William’s story. Like Murdock, William would have come from Cape Breton, he would be a big strong Cape Breton boy and out of a sense of Canadian patriotism as well as the lure of an adventure of a lifetime he jumped into the rush of volunteers as soon as war was declared. The western front was a very dangerous place, wounded in battle poor William died of his wounds in a hospital in France. Surrounded by his fellow countrymen William would be laid to rest in one of the many Canadian Cemeteries in France.
Well I couldn’t have been more wrong, William’s story was much more interesting than I could have ever imagined.
He was born in Perthshire Scotland on February 9, 1895, he listed his nationality as Scottish, his next of kin was his mother and she lived on High St. in Auchterarder, Scotland.
William’s permanent address was 1745 Judah St. San Francisco Ca, when he travelled to Victoria BC to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force on June 12, 1917, it was very likely the first time he had ever been in Canada.
And he wasn’t the big strapping Cape Breton boy I had imagined, he was 5’ 4”, almost 23 years old and listed his profession as a plasterer when he volunteered.
Volunteers didn’t enlist one at a time, they found confidence in numbers, classmates would arrive in big groups, brothers would sign up together and when he made the trip from San Francisco to Victoria BC to enlist William was no different. He made the trip with 7 other volunteers, all shared San Francisco as their home however that seemed to be all that they had in common. With a variety of ages and coming from many different backgrounds it is difficult to find much that would have brought them together.
Jack James a 29 year old Iron Worker was born in Toronto and he was the only Canadian born in the group. 26 year old Richard Kelly a ‘Steam Shift Monitor’ was born in London England as was 38 year old logger Alfred Frederick Hill. Henry Harris was 36 years old and he listed his profession as a ‘Brakesman in Railroad’, 35 year old William James Jones had been born in Surrey England and had already spent 12 years in the British Army. George Jowitt was a 27 year old tailor born in Blackburn England. Finally, 28 year old farmer William Edwin McLelland had the most exotic address for his next of kin, his sister lived in Dodge City Kansas and at 6’2” William stood out from the others in the group for the oddest reason, not one of the others was over 5’5” tall.
The decision for William and friends to enlist when they did is a bit of a mystery as well. In July of 1917 the Great War had been dragging on since July of 1914, they would know of the terrible gas attacks, huge losses all along the Western Front, already in Canada the numbers of volunteers had dropped off so dramatically Parliament was contemplating introducing conscription. And yet William and his friends bundled up for the trip to Canada and off they went to war. Of the eight who made the trip north seven would return home after the war and as far as the internet is concerned live out their lives without any further adventure. William was not so fortunate.
William did not meet his end in the field of battle as I assumed, in his records it is recorded with military precision
“At 2:00 on July 10th, 1918 he was engaged in loading a car of logs and whilst attempting to arrange a crooked one …it rolled upon him…injuring him severely…”
William was taken to No 46 French Hospital at Saint Dizier where he was treated for a crushed hip and internal injuries, this is where Murdock MacKeigan would have come to visit him. William passed away about one week later and was buried in a large communal grave beside the hospital.
In the early 1920’s the Imperial War Graves Commission began to repatriate Commonwealth war dead and in September 1918 William’s remains were exhumed and moved to Perreuse Chateau British Franco Cemetery about 60 km east of Paris. Unlike the larger Canadian Cemeteries at Vimy Ridge there are only 150 graves here, a collection of Commonwealth soldiers who’s only connection was to have died nearby. I think it is appropriate William ended his war surrounded by soldiers and air men from South Africa, India, Australia, England and Canada, as eclectic and interesting a group as the volunteers he began the war with in Victoria BC.
When William was re-buried at Perreuse it was the first time his grave was marked with a tombstone. When he enlisted to go war William’s nationality was Scottish however on his tombstone there was the Maple Leaf used on the graves of all Canadian War Dead and in all his military records William’s country was listed as Canada. William had now become a Canadian."
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