1919 – 1939: A Nation emerges

by David Shanahan

The First World War, or the Great War, as it was known, was a traumatic event in the history of Canada and Canadians. When the British Empire declared war on the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914, Canada was automatically at war too. As a Colony of the Empire, Canadian politicians had no power to do otherwise. By 1918, approximately 620,000 Canadians served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, including 425,000 who served overseas; more than 60,000 were killed and 172,000 wounded, an enormous number for a small nation.

The military role played by Canada, and other Colonies, during the Great War changed attitudes at home, and the Canadian Government joined with those of Australia, new Zealand and South Africa to demand a place at the table during the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles, which brought the war to an end. Canada also joined the new League of Nations as an independent country.

The idea of a Commonwealth, as distinct from an Empire and Colonies, had been suggested during the war, but it was in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which led to the establishment of the Irish Free State, that the term “British Commonwealth of Nations” was first used in an official capacity. The new Irish state was given the status of the Dominion of Canada under the Treaty.

Canada and the Irish Free State continued to work together in the coming years to solidify the structure and nature of the Commonwealth. In the Balfour Declaration at the 1926 Imperial Conference, Britain and its dominions agreed they were “equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations”. The term “Commonwealth” was officially adopted to describe the community.

This led to the Statute of Westminster in 1931, which established the new constitutional arrangements. The “British parliament could no longer make laws for the Dominions, other than with the request and consent of the government of that Dominion. Before then, the Dominions had legally been self-governing colonies of the United Kingdom. However, the statute had the effect of making them sovereign nations once they adopted it”.

This meant that the situation in 1939 was very different from what it had been in 1914. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain and France opted to declare war. Canada, exercising quite deliberately its newly-achieved status, delayed declaring war on Germany for a full week. For those nine days, Canada was officially neutral. There may not ever have been a doubt that Canada would join the war, although Prime Minister Mackenzie King and his cabinet were not expecting Canada to be as involved in the conflict as they eventually were. The Second World War would see a very different Canada, and its armed forces, than had struggled under British leadership in the Great War. Much had changed in the twenty years between 1919 and 1939.

November, 1941
March 13, 1941

February 20, 1941

Emergency War Classes for women at Kemptville School

In 1941, women in the area were encouraged to apply for special Emergency War Classes being offered by the Kemptville Board of Education. But, unlike many classes offered to women at the time, these were not in domestic subjects. The young women were being trained in the use of precision instruments and gun inspection procedures. These involved learning to use Vernier and Micrometer Calipers, capable of measuring to the 10,000ths of an inch. The women studied blueprints, Math and Physics, and were assigned to various locations across the country after graduation.

The classes took place in the Science lab at the Kemptville Composite School (later the High School), and were presented by two school staff members, Mr. Briggs and Mr. McKay, who had themselves received instruction at the War Arsenal during their Christmas vacation. The war was bringing many changes to the role of women in Kemptville.

On the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

by Michael Whittaker

Blood red tears on cold grey granite;
Poppies, hand-picked acts of remembrance
in symbolic cascades of thanks
from lapels and hat brims,
mark hopes of never again.
Now long past the recent end
what more can be said with meaning,
surpassing ceremonial shibboleths
still heartfelt by some,
yet stale benedictions to others
who never knew the quarrels.
Peace, the making and the keeping,
frames their memories,
but if they have learned anything,
they will never forget
the sacrifice and blood.

Spanish Flu pandemic

The end of the Great War came as a tremendous relief to peoples all over the world, but an even greater killer was arriving home to Canada with the demobbed soldiers. Within a year, at least 20 million people had died worldwide from the Spanish Flu pandemic, including an estimated 50,000 Canadians. It was first noted in September, 1918, in a Polish army camp in Europe, and it quickly spread among the other national armies and crossed the Atlantic with returning men. The speed with which it hit, and killed, caused widespread panic. In what is now North Grenville and Merrickville-Wolford, schools and churches remained closed for most of the period from October, 1918, to February and March of 1919.

People were encouraged to remain at home and not gather in public places unless absolutely necessary. But there was so much movement of people across the country as soldiers returned home, that the flu soon reached every province in the country. The virulent strain of influenza often led to pneumonia and death within days, sometimes within hours.

Doctors and nurses were in very short supply as it was, because of the war, which was still going on when the pandemic hit Ontario. Non-medical personnel volunteered to take care of the stricken in their homes, but often caught the infection themselves, or spread it within their own families when they returned home afterwards.

The illness seemed most powerful against young people between the ages of 20 and 40, though it didn’t spare the very young and very old also. The economic effects were felt in this area too. Coal was in very short supply through the Winter of 1918-19, because so many miners in the coal fields of Ontario were sick with the flu.

There is no definitive list of those who died in North Grenville and Merrickville-Wolford during the days of the Spanish Flu. In some cases, it was unclear whether death was a result of the flu, or other issues. In other cases, residents were away from home, often nursing family elsewhere, when they died.

Around 10 million soldiers died between 1914-1918. More than 20 million people died from the Spanish Flu Pandemic in 1918-1919.

Mr. and Mrs. Edward Percival have the sincere sympathy in the loss of their only son Charles Edward, a young man of 18 who died Sunday March 2nd of pneumonia after 10 days influenza. Mr. and Mrs. Percival and sister Miss Annie also contracted influenza. It is supposed that Mrs. Percival who would have been in Smiths Falls nursing her daughter Elizabeth and children through an attack of influenza contracted the malady shortly after her return home she was taken ill.

The Board of Health in North Gower has forbidden loitering or loafing in any public place and the entering of any shop, store or other public place without sufficient reason for doing so.

Andrew Kerr

We have to report the death of A. J. Kerr, 57, which took place at his residence on Clothier Street last Thursday morning after a brief illness from influenza which developed into pneumonia. In 1899, he purchased Kerr Hotel, a property at one time owned by his father and which he retained until his death, though for the past seven or eight years he had retired from active business. He had been a member of the fire brigade for 30 years and Chief of the Department for the past 15 years.


The influenza epidemic has brought deep sorrow to another of our Merrickville homes, in the death of John H Lee in a hospital in Ottawa on Wednesday 23rd. He was 25 years of age. He had been away from home working in Brockville and Ottawa for the past two years. He volunteered for harvest work in the West this fall, was excepted, worked in the West and was on his return journey to Ottawa when he was stricken with the disease. He was ill two days and the train before reaching Ottawa. The case grew worse, pneumonia set in and death claim to. It will be remembered that Mr. And Mrs. Lee lost a son a few months ago in the war, Pte. A Lee who was killed in action…

As there have been several new cases of influenza in the Village in the past week, the Board of Health has decided to have the schools remain closed all of next week. Neither will it be any services in any of the local churches.

The death of Mrs. Leslie Anderson occurred at her home in Kemptville last Thursday from premature childbirth. Mrs. Anderson had had an attack of influenza but had left her bed too soon to wait on her husband and five children who were also stricken by the dreaded malady and her devotion to her family caused her death. Mr. Anderson and children are progressing towards recovery under the care of Miss Seguin, a volunteer Red Cross nurse from Ottawa. Mr. Anderson wrote a letter to the newspaper to report a very unsettling event concerning the death of his wife.

Letter from Leslie Anderson, November 25th 1918:

… In conclusion, and to correct some of the rumours which have come to my ears, I wish to state that on the night preceding the death of my wife, when it became apparent that she required medical attention, the doctor, who was called twice on account of the urgency of the case, absolutely refused to turn out, pleading fatigue, although he had been in attendance from the origination of the disease. This left the case about two or three hours late in getting the attention it required. The doctor in question has not put in an appearance at the house since, although some of his patients were in a very serious condition.

Francis Pegahmagabow: the forgotten hero

by David Shanahan

When most of the Canadian soldiers who had served overseas during the First World War returned home in 1919, they might have expected to find “a land fit for heroes”, as they had been promised. They had fought the “War to end War”, and for this they had suffered so much.

But, instead, many returned to unemployment, death by influenza, or a life of pain and struggle as they dealt with the effects, physical and psychological, of what they had been through. Some were not even to enjoy home, as they were sent away again, to Vladivostok, to fight against the Bolsheviks. For many others, coming home would mean the loss of everything they had fought for: the fight to protect the rights of small nations didn’t extend to the nations to which they belonged. The thousands of indigenous people who had volunteered for service in WWI are the forgotten heroes. And pride of place in that sad band goes to Francis Pegahmagabow.

Francis signed up at the very start of World War I, in August, 1914. He is the most highly decorated indigenous soldier in Canadian history. He was awarded the Military Medal, not once, but three times and was seriously wounded during his time serving in the First World War. As a scout and sniper, he was credited with 378 kills, and he single-handedly captured 300 prisoners.

Along with every other man in uniform, he was granted the vote in federal elections in 1917, and returned to his home community of Wasauksing on Parry Island celebrated as a hero and a credit to his people. Then the reality of life in Canada for native people hit home. This hero had his right to vote stripped from him because he was an Indian. Indigenous people did not regain that right until the 1950’s. Although he was Chief of his community for many years, every attempt to improve the lives of his people was thwarted by Indian Agents who dictated every aspect of life on the Wasauksing Reserve. He, along with every other indigenous person in the country, was not allowed to send a letter of protest to the Government, they all had to go through the Agent.

Residents of Reserves were under the Indian Act, a piece of legislation that controlled their lives, refused them the right to hire a lawyer to represent them, refused the right even to leave the Reserve without written permission from the Agent. This was how Canada treated its decorated heroes.

The First World War was fought, it was said, to protect the rights of small nations, like Belgium. Britain (and therefore Canada) entered the war to protect the neutrality of that country. It is ironic, then, that the rights of small nations, First Nations, were so blatantly ignored and degraded, in spite of legal treaties with Britain and Canada. What was fought for then, what we remember every November 11, is that millions of people died to safeguard basic human and civil rights from being infringed upon by bigger and stronger nations.

Canada has been doing that very thing to many smaller nations within its own borders for generations. In spite of which, around 4,000 men like Francis Pegahmagabow, that’s around one-third of all indigenous men between the ages of 18 and 45, went to war and distinguished themselves in defending this country. This is something that we, as Canadians must honour, acknowledge, and do what we can to show our gratitude. We must educate ourselves and our children about the indigenous people of this country and their history. We must sort out truth from myth, and recognise the rights and status of the people who also died and served, and who were later reduced to children in the eyes of the law of Canada. Lest we forget.


Major Horace Hutchins

Horace Hutchins was born on January 28, 1868 in Kemptville, Ontario. His grandfather had arrived in Oxford-on-Rideau Township from Ireland around 1820 and the family had farmed in the area since then. Horace attended the Kemptville Union Public and High School on Oxford Street, and then became a farmer and businessman, an agent for Frost and Wood farm implements company. He was Reeve of Kemptville in 1912. On August 3, 1915, he enlisted with the 109th Canadian Infantry Battalion, a unit of the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force (CEF). He had served eight years with the 56th Regiment in Kemptville and had been Captain in the local militia company, the 56th Lisgar Rifles.

To get to the front, Major Hutchins accepted a reduction to the rank of Lieutenant. However, he was promoted to Captain and then back to the rank of Major in early 1916. While serving with the 190th Battalion, Horace was struck and killed on April 9, 1917, as he led his men across No Man’s Land during an attack on Vimy Ridge.

His wife, Mary Jane, died in October, 1918 of the Spanish Flu, one of the earliest victims of the pandemic that swept the world in 1918-1919. They had no children of their own, but had adopted a boy, Dewey Wellman, who was 19 when Horace was killed. He seems to have left before that time, however, as it was Horace’s brother who was identified as next-of-kin after Mary’s death the following year.

Pilot Officer William Lysle Buchanan

by Owen Fitz’Gerald

William Lysle Buchanan, fondly remembered by all that knew him as “Billie”, was born on December 6, 1919. He grew up on the family farm in the Kemptville area and attended both the SS #10 Mills School and Kemptville High School. Billie was well known for his sense of humour. A prime example of that was the fact that he had a pet skunk. He could be seen walking his skunk along the sidewalk on a leash or had it simply perched upon his shoulder. That was the ultimate of Scottish humour. It was rumored that the skunk died of a broken heart when Billie joined the Air Force.

In December 1940, one year after his graduation from the Kemptville Agricultural School, Billie enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force. He trained at Picton, St. Thomas, Malton and finally Brantford, where he earned his “wings.” Three weeks later, he was assigned to 418 Squadron and sent overseas, where he joined a Bomber Unit attached to the Royal Air Force.

Billie’s overseas duty was hectic. On August 19, 1942, his plane was shot down and forced into the sea during a Dieppe Raid bombing mission. The plane broke in two, leaving Billie wounded and trapped inside. He was rescued by a Sergeant Clarence G. Scott of Tisdale, Saskatchewan, who was also wounded during the crash. Sergeant Scott later received the Distinguished Flying Medal for this courageous act by His Majesty, the King, with Billie present as an invited guest to view the Investiture.

After several weeks in hospital, Billie was fit for duty and went on to participate in a number of aerial missions and sweeps over occupied territory. On a further mission to France during the night time hours of November 8, 1942, his plane went missing over enemy territory and he was presumed dead on November 11, 1942. Billie Buchanan is Remembered with Honour at the Poix-De-Picardie Churchyard, Somme, France and is commemorated on the former Bradwell Bay Royal Air Force Station Memorial in England; a bronze plaque and memorial tree placed along Veterans Way at the Ferguson Forest Centre; and the south shaft of the Kemptville Cenotaph located in front of the High School he attended.

David Taylor, RCAF

David Donald Taylor was born in Kemptville in 1920 and was a graduate of Kemptville High School, where he was a member of the football and basketball teams. He qualified as a wireless operator in Montreal and was posted to No. 4 Bombing and Gunnery School in Fingal, Ontario. His father was N. A. Taylor, who had served in France in World War 1, and went to England in 1940 to work in the Neurological Hospital of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corp.

David died within a year of arriving in Europe where he served as a wireless air gunner. David was married to Juanita Taylor, and was just 19 years old when he was killed on October 21, 1941.

Sergeant James Albert Davis

James Davis was born in Merrickville on March 20, 1920, son of Charles and Mabel Davis. He enlisted in the RCAF in December, 1940, and trained in Toronto, Halifax and other camps. He received his wings as Sergeant Pilot in September, 1941. James was killed in a crash of his Lysander on the aerodrome in Train, Scotland, on February 15, 1942.

W. J. Armstrong

Wilmer James Armstrong grew up in Merrickville after his father had become the United Church Minister there. After a short career in journalism in Toronto, he enlisted in the Lincoln and Welland Regiment and arrived in France just after D-Day, 1944. Through the campaigns in France, Belgium and Holland, Wilmer was wounded twice, in August and September of 1944, but recovered and returned to duty. He was killed on January 26, 1945 in Holland, aged 25. His widow, Dorothy, later donated a pulpit and communion table to the Merrickville United Church.

The Watt family of Merrickville

The story of the Watt family and their role in both World Wars is quite amazing. James and Eliza Watt had four sons, all of whom enlisted in the First World War. William Lloyd Watt enlisted in the Canadian Infantry, 44th Battalion, and was killed in France on June 3, 1917. His brother, Richard Norman, died in France just over two months later, on August 27, 1917. William was 24 years old and Richard was 27. Their two other brothers survived the war.

One of these, Clarence, re-enlisted during the Second World War, along with his three sons. Two of them, Norman Alexander and Alastair Clarence Watt, were killed while serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Flying Officer Norman Watt died on July 1, 1943, when his Spitfire was shot down over England. He was 21 years old.

Flying Officer Alastair Watt was killed on March 17, 1945, when his Lancaster was shot down over Germany, just weeks before the end of the war. He, too, was 21 when he died. His father and brother survived the war, although their brother, Corporal Leslie Watt, was badly wounded in France and returned to Canada with a permanent injury to his arm.

The sacrifices made by the Watt family of Merrickville are a stunning reminder of the sacrifices made by the people of Merrickville-Wolford in Canada’s wars of the Twentieth Century.

Norman Watt