The Fighting Redfern Brothers
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