At the sev­enth hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, Pte. Robert McCrae suc­cumbed to his ill­nesses in an English sea­side mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal.

FOUR HOURS LATER, THE HOS­TIL­I­TIES OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR CEASED. As Canada marks the cen­te­nary of the ar­mistice, re­porter Kevin Rol­la­son ex­plores the life of the last Man­i­to­ban to die in the WAR TO END ALL WARS

Winnipeg Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - KEVIN ROL­LA­SON

IN a mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal room in East­bourne, on the south­ern coast of Eng­land, a Man­i­toba sol­dier lies in a hos­pi­tal bed.

Alone, far from home and fam­ily, his lungs are filled with liq­uid and his breath­ing is laboured. His skin is blue and he is in pain.

He takes his last breath. A nurse records the date and the time of his death.

His bat­tle has ended but, for a few more hours, an­other con­flict is rag­ing.

It’s 7 a.m., Nov. 11, 1918. Just four hours be­fore the war that he came over­seas to fight — the Great War — will come to an end.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the sol­diers on both sides — who have bat­tled and bled through four mis­er­able years of muddy trenches and bit­ter cold — will lay down their weapons as the Ar­mistice takes ef­fect.

They will not move their lines any fur­ther.

And in all like­li­hood four hours ear­lier, 24-year-old Robert McCrae be­came the last Man­i­toba sol­dier to die in the First World War.


ED­MON­TON’S Lynn Gre­gory — McCrae’s great niece and the grand­daugh­ter of Nel­lie McCrae — ex­plains that fam­ily lore says they are re­lated to John McCrae, the author of In Flan­ders Fields. The records that would prove it were de­stroyed in a fire years ago.

Gre­gory doesn’t know any­thing about Robert McCrae.

“I don’t think I re­call my grand­mother or my mother ever talk­ing about him,” she says. “I know I did spend, as a young child, a lot of time with my grand­mother, but it was so long ago I don’t re­mem­ber if she said any­thing.”

Gre­gory’s daugh­ter, Bon­nie Pritchard, says she has been try­ing to find out more about all of her an­ces­tors — in­clud­ing Robert — and she’s hop­ing some­one out there can give her a hand. ●●●

IT wasn’t the first time a mem­ber of the McCrae fam­ily was in Bri­tain. They trace them­selves back to Cum­nock, a town in East Ayr­shire, Scot­land.

Wil­liam McCrae and Mary Hanna Frame — who would be­come his wife — were both born in Guelph, Ont., in 1852. When they were 18, they mar­ried at the com­mu­nity’s St. An­drew’s Church.

Just two years later, ac­cord­ing to the fam­ily his­tory, the cou­ple left Bruce County and joined a wagon train and headed west to Pales­tine. The com­mu­nity changed its name to Glad­stone in 1882, be­cause the vil­lagers ad­mired the prime min­is­ter of Bri­tain, Wil­liam Ewart Glad­stone.

Ac­cord­ing to the com­mu­nity his­tory book, Glad­stone Then and Now, 18711982, times were good for the first cou­ple of years, but in 1874, just when farm­ers be­lieved they were about to bring in “a good crop,” the skies sud­denly dark­ened in the mid­dle of the day. So many grasshop­pers de­scended they “lit­er­ally cov­ered the earth... our crop sim­ply went down their rav­en­ous maws. For those who had just set­tled among us the year be­fore, it meant a tough time, but they braced up.

“But the mil­lions of pests had laid their eggs be­fore de­part­ing and the sec­ond year of 1875 was, if any­thing, 10 times worse than the other.”

The book said many would have lost their farms if the fed­eral gov­ern­ment hadn’t given them seed to plant and taken over the mort­gages on their land for re­pay­ment.

The grasshop­pers came again the fol­low­ing year, but this time their stay was short and the crops suf­fered lit­tle dam­age.

The fam­ily went on to be­come suc­cess­ful farm­ers and in the next few years they ac­quired four quar­ter sec­tions of land in the area, two of which are now the west and south­west side of Glad­stone. By 1907, they had 34 cat­tle, 12 horses, two pigs and $220 in the bank. ●●●

ROBERT McCrae was born May 17,

1894 into a fam­ily that even­tu­ally had, in­clud­ing him, 11 chil­dren — six daugh­ters and five sons: Ge­orge, Wil­liam, John, Henry, Lizzie, Martha, Nel­lie, Bon­nie, Maudie and An­nie. Be­tween the 1901 cen­sus and the one in 1906 An­nie, who was the old­est child and whose last name was Boughton, was back liv­ing at home with her

18-month-old son Wil­liam Jr.

On June 2, 1907, the fam­ily’s pa­tri­arch, Wil­liam, died sud­denly. He was


His obit­u­ary, printed in the Glad­stone Age a few days later, called the death “a sur­prise” and went on to say he had re­turned two weeks ear­lier from a trip to British Columbia and had con­tracted a cold while work­ing on his farm. The obit went on to say the cold “set in, reach­ing his heart which proved fa­tal.”

He didn’t leave a will. When the value of the es­tate was added up, he was worth al­most $12,000.

With bills to be paid and the three boys at home just 14, 12 and nine, the North­ern Trust Com­pany sched­uled an auc­tion for the morn­ing of Nov. 13.

“The whole of the live and dead farm­ing stock, fur­ni­ture, etc., Com­pris­ing: 32 head cat­tle, 12 horses, pigs, Cap­i­tal as­sort­ment of agri­cul­tural im­ple­ments, har­ness, etc., etc.

“The whole will be found of an ex­ceed­ingly use­ful de­scrip­tion and of­fered for ab­so­lute sale.”

His widow Mary never re­mar­ried and, per­haps be­cause she learned her les­son when he died without a will, she wrote one for her­self in 1933. When she died in Glad­stone Dec. 15, 1941, the bulk of her $945 es­tate went to Nel­lie Reg­nier, her daugh­ter liv­ing in Del­mas, Sask. Daugh­ter El­iz­a­beth Bon­ney in Kel­wood got $1.

McCrae’s fam­ily to­day has no idea why the dif­fer­ence in be­quests.

The only other pub­lic record of the McCrae fam­ily in the years be­tween

1907 and 1916 is from 1910; a doc­u­ment shows that McCrae’s mother re­ceived a home­stead grant for a piece of prop­erty on the west side of Lake Man­i­toba, just north of Beckville Beach. ●●●

THERE’S a gap of sev­eral years in the pub­lic record of Robert McCrae, but by the time he de­cided to join the Cana­dian Over­seas Ex­pe­di­tion Force in Win­nipeg on March 4, 1916, he was a farmer in Roblin.

Ac­cord­ing to lo­cal records, McCrae was one of 99 sol­diers from the Roblin area who en­listed; 40 didn’t re­turn.

McCrae must not have told his mother his plans be­cause, with some es­tate doc­u­ments left over from when his fa­ther died, she got a lawyer to track him down a few months later at Camp Sewell, later called Camp Hughes, the First World War train­ing camp next to the present day CFB Shilo near Bran­don.

When McCrae the Roblin farmer signed up, be­com­ing 718793 on his At­tes­ta­tion Pa­per, he was just 21.

He was also sin­gle, noted he was Pres­by­te­rian, said he would agree to be vac­ci­nated and that he’d never served in the mil­i­tary be­fore. He stood five-foot-eight-and-a-half inches tall and had a fair com­plex­ion, blue eyes and dark hair. The only mark noted was a small scar across the first joint on the thumb of his right hand.

McCrae also an­swered in the af­fir­ma­tive when asked if he “un­der­stood the na­ture and terms of your en­gage­ment.”

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

IT could be a photo of any group of stu­dents, play­ing in the snow at what is now Cana­dian Men­non­ite Uni­ver­sity in Tuxedo. Taken in 1941, it shows 10 young men hors­ing around, mug­ging for the cam­era, not a care in the world.

That would soon change. Within a few years seven of them would be dead, killed while serv­ing their coun­try in the Sec­ond World War.

Un­like stu­dents at CMU to­day, they weren’t study­ing for peace­ful ca­reers as teach­ers, doc­tors, lawyers, mu­si­cians, aid work­ers, clergy or many other pro­fes­sions.

They were study­ing for war.

Nine of the young men in the photo had come to Win­nipeg from Aus­tralia to be­come wire­less air gun­ners at Wire­less School No. 3, part of the British Com­mon­wealth Air Train­ing Plan.

Through the BCATP, more than 130,000 per­son­nel from Great Bri­tain, Canada, Aus­tralia and New Zea­land stud­ied at 151 schools across Canada, in­clud­ing Win­nipeg, Bran­don, Portage la Prairie, Vir­den, Dauphin, Gimli, Car­berry and other places in the prov­ince.

From 1941-44, Wire­less School No. 3 — the oth­ers were in Mon­treal, Guelph and Cal­gary — oc­cu­pied what had been the Man­i­toba School for the Deaf.

Af­ter it was taken over by the mil­i­tary, the school grad­u­ated about 2,800 stu­dents to serve with the British, Cana­dian, Aus­tralian and New Zea­land air forces in the war against Ger­many.

A ros­ter from Dec. 1, 1942 shows 587 Cana­di­ans, 227 New Zealan­ders, 74 Aus­tralians and four stu­dents from Great Bri­tain at the school.

In ad­di­tion to their stud­ies, stu­dents par­tic­i­pated in sports — track and field, swim­ming, hockey, rugby and foot­ball— the school had a team called the Bombers.

They also pub­lished a mag­a­zine, called the W.A.G. Mag. An ar­ti­cle in the Au­gust 1943 is­sue makes fun of mil­i­tary pro­to­col and the strange lan­guage and ways of the air force — just like stu­dents to­day sat­i­rize the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

But an­other ar­ti­cle re­minded read­ers of the deadly se­ri­ous­ness of their train­ing. Prais­ing re­cruits from Aus­tralia and New Zea­land, it con­cludes by say­ing, “Hitler has no more for­mi­da­ble foes than... the boys from down un­der.”


Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from their 24-week wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tions course, stu­dents went on to other lo­ca­tions in Canada for four-week train­ing in gun­nery so they could op­er­ate the ma­chine guns that de­fended the bombers. Af­ter that, they were ready to ship out to the war.

Many of the grad­u­ates of the school served as air crew with Bomber Com­mand. With a ca­su­alty rate of just over 44 per cent, it was one of the most dan­ger­ous forms of ser­vice dur­ing the war.

Of the 120,000 who flew with Bomber Com­mand, 55,573 were killed, more than 8,000 were wounded and al­most 10,000 be­came pris­on­ers of war.

To put it an­other way, out of ev­ery 100 men who served as crew in the bombers, 44 were killed, eight were wounded and 10 were shot down and cap­tured.

The pic­ture of the young men play­ing in the snow is a dra­matic case in point.


Re­cur­ring themes in sto­ries about the train­ing in Win­nipeg were the win­ter weather — not sur­pris­ing for men from the south­ern hemi­sphere — and the hos­pi­tal­ity shown by Winnipeggers to young men far from home.

In an in­ter­view in 2003, Ken­neth Ward re­called his five months at the school as “very cold.”

“It was 105 de­grees when we left Aus­tralia and it was 60 below zero when we got to Win­nipeg,” he said. “There was three feet of snow ev­ery­where.”

Henry Gor­don of Mon­treal taught at Wire­less School No. 3. Like Ward, he ar­rived in win­ter “when it was 30 de­grees below zero.”

In Ted Bar­ris’s book Be­hind the Glory: Canada’s Role in the Al­lied Air War, Gor­don re­called get­ting off the train at Union Sta­tion on Main St. and then trav­el­ling “on what seemed like a coun­try road and ar­rived at one of these big old build­ings that had been an in­sti­tute for the blind. We slept on the floor that night.”

Writes Bar­ris: “If it was tough for a Que­be­cer to sur­vive Win­nipeg’s Fe­bru­ary weather, Gor­don had it easy com­pared to his stu­dents — a group of newly-ar­rived Aus­tralia and New Zea­land re­cruits, who left their coun­tries in sum­mer to come to win­try Canada.”

“Dur­ing those first days in Win­nipeg, they not only got their ra­dio the­ory but also scarves and boots.”

In the book Canada’s War Grooms and the Girls Who Stole Their Hearts, the story of Aus­tralian Bob Kel­low is told.

Kel­low ar­rived at Wire­less School No. 3 in 1941. While there, he vis­ited the home of Emily and John Smith, one of many lo­cals who opened their homes to young men from over­seas train­ing in Win­nipeg.

Fol­low­ing a bl­iz­zard, Bob of­fered to shovel the snow at the Smiths’ house. “To ev­ery­one’s as­ton­ish­ment, Bob cleared not only the side­walk, but also the front lawn.”

It wasn’t long “be­fore Bob learned to how to deal with Win­nipeg win­ters in a more ef­fi­cient man­ner.”

Kel­low went on to fly mis­sions in Europe, in­clud­ing with 617 Squadron, the fa­mous dam­busters. He was shot down in 1943, but evaded cap­ture and made it back to Eng­land.

He sur­vived the war and mar­ried the Smiths’ daugh­ter, Doreen, and they made their home in Win­nipeg.

In the March 1942 is­sue of the W.A.G. Mag, New Zealan­der H. Meha writes about his first Cana­dian Christ­mas. He notes the hos­pi­tal­ity of the Green­ing fam­ily, who in­vited him to their home for the hol­i­day.

“Though it is win­ter here, and sum­mer in New Zea­land; though your cus­toms and ours are some­what at vari­ance; though there be a dif­fer­ence in the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of a com­mon lan­guage; there is one bless­ing shared by both peo­ples... the spirit of Christ­mas is the same here as at home.”

He con­cludes: “Our ap­pre­ci­a­tion is due to Cana­di­ans as a whole and to the peo­ple of Win­nipeg in par­tic­u­lar... your homes have been open to us, your hos­pi­tal­ity equals if not sur­passes that of our own folks.

“We are in­deed grate­ful for all you have done for us — ex­tremely grate­ful, for you have made us one with your­selves.”


Af­ter the war, the cam­pus in Tuxedo be­came the Man­i­toba Nor­mal School, which trained teach­ers from 1946-65. It then re­verted to its orig­i­nal pur­pose as a school for the deaf from 1965-96, be­fore be­ing sold to CMU.

To­day, Wire­less School No. 3 is mostly for­got­ten. I didn’t know any­thing about it my­self un­til I worked at the uni­ver­sity from 2005 to 2009.

Twice dur­ing my time there old men came to the cam­pus, ask­ing if they could look around — they had stud­ied there a long time ago, they said.

It was great to spend a bit of time with them, wan­der­ing the halls and look­ing in on the class­rooms where they stud­ied, hear­ing their sto­ries of time spent in Win­nipeg so long ago.

This Re­mem­brance Day, Winnipeggers will be re­mem­ber­ing the many who fought, died and were wounded in this coun­try’s wars. They can also pause a mo­ment to re­mem­ber Wire­less School No. 3, and the many young men from dif­fer­ent coun­tries who stud­ied there — and those who never re­turned home.

For more in­for­ma­tion, visit the web­site of Bran­don’s Com­mon­wealth Air Train­ing Plan Mu­seum at http://www. air­mu­



Sol­diers climb out of trenches dur­ing the First World War. Trench war­fare was a muddy, bloody mis­er­able af­fair.


Robert McCrae was likely the last Man­i­to­ban to die in the First World War.


The Ad­vanced Dress­ing Sta­tion east of Ar­ras, France. Once treated, the wounded would be moved to a Ca­su­alty Clear­ing Sta­tion.



Robert McCrae’s name is on three ceno­taphs in Man­i­toba, in­clud­ing Glad­stone’s. McCrae, at age 21, was one of 99 sol­diers from the Roblin area who en­listed.



The ded­i­ca­tion of the Gald­stone ceno­taph was held on July 1, 1923.


Wil­liam McCrae (back row, left) with three of his daugh­ters and an uniden­ti­fied man.


Cana­dian Lt.-Col. John McCrae penned the fa­mous poem In Flan­ders Fields dur­ing the First World War.



Nine of the young men in this photo, taken in 1941, had come to Win­nipeg from Aus­tralia to be­come wire­less air gun­ners. Within a cou­ple of years, seven of them would be dead, killed while serv­ing their coun­try in the Sec­ond World War.


Wire­less School No. 3 dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

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