Family stalked by ‘Angel of Death and demon of fire’
Within three years, Annie McNicol lost her husband, three sons and four grandchildren, claimed by war, calamity and disease
CAMBRIDGE — The McNicol family surely had high hopes, leaving Scotland for faraway Ontario.
The family immigrated to Galt and Guelph by 1912, bringing three generations to start new lives. Two years later the First World War erupted.
Tailor Alexander McNicol settled his growing family in Guelph. When Canada went to war he volunteered to fight against Germany.
One month after reaching the Western Front, he attacked the enemy June 13, 1916, at Mount Sorrel in Belgium.
Troops attacked the enemy in the dark, on a rare nighttime assault, to recover ground lost to a German assault. McNicol was shot in both legs. His arm was fractured.
Sent to England, he survived one more week until his wounds became infected. He died June 21, 1916, at a hospital in London. He was 30.
Alexander was survived by his wife, Alice, and four young children. He never saw his infant daughter. After she was widowed, Alice moved her family to Galt (now Cambridge) to be closer to relatives.
Three months later, James McNicol crawled out of a trench at 6:24 a.m. to attack the German front line at the Somme battlefield in France. He was in the first wave of Canadian soldiers, aiming for the ruins of Courcelette.
James was Alexander’s brother. Before volunteering, he checked train cars for a living. He was a cheerful, single man who played in his battalion’s band.
At Courcelette, infantry comrades advanced under shrapnel and bullets. They inched forward on their bellies, using corpses as cover after the enemy caught them in the open in no man’s land.
James died there, killed in action Sept. 15, 1916. He was 22 and has no known grave.
The official telegram reached his Galt home three weeks later.
“I knew there was something wrong,” his mother, Annie Kay McNicol, said. She hadn’t received a letter from James in three weeks.
Annie became the mother of two sons killed in the Great War, three months apart.
Annie McNicol’s husband, Alexander, fell ill with cancer shortly after the war claimed their sons Alexander and James. The father of seven was a carpenter who helped lead his extended family to Canada.
Alexander was sick for three months. Then his heart failed suddenly. He died Feb. 19, 1917, at the age of 61.
Alice McNicol put her four children to bed in their brick cottage on Stanley Street in Galt. At 8:30 p.m. she left them alone in the house to visit her sister-in-law around the corner.
It was April 4, 1917. Alice had been widowed less than a year after her husband, Alexander, died of his war wounds in England.
By 9:30 p.m. the cottage was on fire. A neighbouring girl found her way into the smoke-filled kitchen.
“Kiddies, are you in there?” she called out to bedrooms. Nobody answered. Flames spread to the kitchen, forcing her out.
A passing soldier attempted another rescue, diving headfirst through a front window. The ceiling caved in. He was driven back and could do no more.
All four McNicol children burned to death. Alexander was six. Alice was four. David was two. Nellie was an infant.
Alice rushed back home when she heard. Bystanders restrained her from racing into the inferno. She was taken to hospital, overcome with shock.
An investigation revealed the cottage was a poorly built fire trap. Flames consumed it in minutes, then spread next door to another cottage also damaged. The fire was blamed on defective wiring or coal in the stove.
Firefighters found the charred remains of the older children in their beds. The baby’s bones were found in the ruined cellar beneath the bedroom.
“While we place no blame on the mother of the deceased, we strongly urge parents not to leave small children alone in their homes,” an inquest jury ruled.
Sharing one white coffin, the children were buried with their grandfather, Alexander, claimed by heart failure six weeks earlier.
The Kitchener News Record lamented “the nemesis which has seen to dog the footsteps of this family ...”
“Their mother had borne up well under the terrible strain of her war loss, and was bravely making a home for them in the little cottage purchased after her husband’s death, when the Angel of Death and the demon of fire claimed not only the little house but the family.”
By the fall of 1918 an influenza strain was striking down young and old, killing dozens in Galt and millions around the world.
The Spanish flu pandemic led panicked cities to close churches, schools, theatres and pool halls. Newspapers screamed that its sting was worse than German bullets.
David McNicol, 21, brother to Alexander and James and uncle to four McNicol children, fell ill with influenza and died Oct. 22, 1918, in Galt.
Annie Kay McNicol, 62, was already sick in hospital with influenza when her son David died. The Galt Daily reporter wrote that “the hand of sorrow has been heavily laid upon her.”
She died the next day, Oct. 23, 1918.
Today a fading, moss-covered tombstone in Cambridge’s Mount View Cemetery carries nine McNicol names. Beneath the names of four dead children it declares: “Thy will be done.”
On the left, Annie Kay McNicol with her surviving daughters Annie, Mary and Elizabeth. Annie Kay lost her husband, three sons and four grandkids before she died of influenza in 1918.
On the right, carpenter Alexander McNicol led his extended family to Ontario from Scotland just before the First World War. He would die of cancer a few years after emigrating.