The Fight­ing Red­fern Broth­ers

The Goderich Signal-Star - - Opinion -

Each name on the Goderich ceno­taph tells its own story of tragedy and loss. Per­haps, none more so than the Red­fern broth­ers of Goderich. They were the four sons of Thomas and El­iz­a­beth Red­fern who each fought well and nobly for their King and Coun­try. Un­for­tu­nately, not all of the Red­ferns were des­tined to sur­vive the Great War’s car­nage.

Af­ter the death of their mother, El­iz­a­beth Red­fern in 1902, the Red­fern men em­i­grated from their na­tive Portsmouth, Eng­land. At age 60, Thomas Red­fern Sr, em­i­grated with three of his sons to Canada. Red­fern Sr was a ship­wright who had worked in the Royal Naval ship­yards in Portsmouth. He was con­sid­ered a well­read in­di­vid­ual who led an ad­ven­tur­ous life hav­ing trav­elled broadly be­fore set­tling in Canada.

That pa­tri­otic and ad­ven­tur­ous spirit was in­stilled in his four sons who each served time in the pre-war British Ter­ri­to­rial Army. The Robert (25), Wil­liam (14) and Ge­orge (11) ar­rived in Goderich about 1904. An­other brother, Thomas (16), em­i­grated to Aus­tralia. The broth­ers were car­pen­ters by trade and used to hard phys­i­cal labour

Two days af­ter the Great War broke out in Au­gust 1914, Thomas Red­fern Jr, was the first Red­fern brother to join the colours on Au­gust 28, 1914 in Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia. He en­listed in an in­fantry bat­tal­ion of the Aus­tralian Im­pe­rial Force. In Oc­to­ber 1915, Ge­orge Red­fern, 25, was work­ing a ’lu­cra­tive’ job in Detroit when he re­turned to Wind­sor and joined the 2nd Cana­dian Pi­o­neer Bat­tal­ion. By March 1916, he was at the front in France. As a Sap­per (the engi­neer­ing equiv­a­lent of a pri­vate), Red­fern had the dan­ger­ous task of erect­ing trench works of­ten un­der en­emy fire.

Wil­liam (25), who still lived at his fa­ther’s Cam­bridge street house, en­listed in the Royal Cana­dian Engi­neers in Fe­bru­ary 1916. The last brother, Robert (34), left be­hind a young wife, Cather­ine, when he vol­un­teered in the 161st Huron Bat­tal­ion in March 1916.

When Wil­liam Red­fern ar­rived in France, on June 30, 1916, he was as­signed to the 3rd Cana­dian Tun­nelling Com­pany. A rel­a­tively new for­ma­tion, tun­nellers had the per­ilous job of tun­nelling un­der­ground in small con­fined spa­ces min­ing en­emy trenches. It was a dan­ger­ous job not for the claus­tro­pho­bic or faint heated. Wil­liam had a chance meet­ing with his brother Ge­orge shortly af­ter his ar­rival in France. It was to be their last meet­ing. On July 27, 1916, Sap­per Red­fern had just posted a let­ter home when he was called to duty. De­tails on what hap­pened next are lack­ing but it ap­pears that while on tun­nel­ing op­er­a­tions an en­emy counter mine ex­ploded killing Wil­liam Red­fern in­stantly.

Wil­liam Red­fern’s last let­ter ar­rived at his fa­ther’s house days be­fore the of­fi­cial tele­gram an­nounc­ing his death. The head­line in the Huron Sig­nal an­nounced that “Sap­per Wil­liam Red­ford Fills a He­roes Grave in France.” His com­pany com­man­der wrote his fa­ther that Wil­liam’s re­mains could not be re­cov­ered. The Of­fi­cial tele­gram hoped that the be­reaved fa­ther would find “con­so­la­tion know­ing that he did his duty fear­lessly and well and gave his life for the cause of lib­erty and the up­build­ing of the Em­pire.”

Robert Red­fern, the old­est brother, seems to have pos­sessed nat­u­ral lead­er­ship abil­i­ties. In June 1916, Robert Red­fern suc­cess­fully com­pleted the Non-Com­mis­sioned Of­fi­cers course and was pro­moted to Cor­po­ral. The fol­low­ing month, he qual­i­fied as a bay­o­net fight­ing and phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion in­struc­tor in the Huron bat­tal­ion and pro­moted to Sergeant. A pho­to­graph of him from 1916 shows a tough, phys­i­cally ro­bust man star­ing de­fi­antly at the cam­era.

On Oc­to­ber 30, 1916, when the Huron bat­tal­ion em­barked in Hal­i­fax on the S.S. La­p­land. Sgt Red­fern’s ac­count writ­ten for his wife is the only known ac­count of the cross­ing that sur­vives. As well as an ag­gres­sive leader, Sgt Red­fern’s di­ary dis­plays a sen­si­tive and lit­er­ate mind. He ended his ac­count dis­em­bark­ing in Eng­land and won­der­ing “when shall we em­bark again to see those we left be­hind?” On New Year’s Day 1917, Robert met his Aus­tralian brother, Thomas .They had not seen each other in 13 years and the oc­ca­sion de­manded a pho­to­graph that was printed in the Huron Sig­nal. Thomas was distin­guished by the dis­tinc­tive Aussie slouch hat. Mirac­u­lously, Thomas sur­vived the dis­as­trous Gal­lipoli cam­paign, the Somme and was des­tined to sur­vive the bat­tles to come. In May 1918, The Sig­nal re­ported that Thomas Red­fern had been ’slightly wounded“in ac­tion and in­valided to Eng­land. The pa­per also noted that had been al­ready been wounded ”two or three times.“

At 35, Sgt Red­fern could have safely sat out the war as an NCO in the Huron Bat­tal­ion’s Sig­nal Corp in the United King­dom but on March 7, 1918, an en­try in his ser­vice files notes that Sgt. Red­fern “at his own re­quest” re­verted to the rank of pri­vate so he could get to the front as part of a draft of Huron men des­tined for the 47th bat­tal­ion. The 47th bat­tal­ion that Red­fern joined was al­ready a bat­tle hard­ened unit. It was com­posed of tough­ened vet­er­ans who had sur­vived Vimy, Hill 70 and Pass­chen­daele. They were a fight­ing bat­tal­ion that ex­pected to be thrown into the line yet again for the great sum­mer of 1918 of­fen­sive.

On July 20, 1918, Red­fern suf­fered a gun­shot wound to his left shoul­der but was re­turned to ser­vice by Septem­ber. His bat­tal­ion took part in some of the blood­i­est bat­tles of what be­came known as The Hun­dred Days cam­paign that broke open the west­ern front and led to the Ar­mistice in Novem­ber.. Yet, Robert Red­fern was not to see that fi­nal vic­tory. On Septem­ber 28, 1918, at the Canal du Nord, Lance Cor­po­ral Red­fern was lead­ing an as­sault on a Ger­man trench sys­tem when he was hit in the head by en­emy ma­chine gun fire. With just weeks to

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