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
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.”
OFF TO WAR
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.
COLD TEMPERATURES, WARM MEMORIES
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.”
END OF SERVICE
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. airmuseum.ca/
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.