After emigrating to Canada from England as a teenager in 1906, Percy Argyle tried his hand at farming in Manitoba and Saskatchewan before making his way eastward, working in lumber camps and sawmills. Out of a job at the end of 1915, the 25-year-old was in Rainy River, Ont., when he met a fellow English immigrant, Kate Connor. He fell for her – only to enlist, weeks later. “Although Dad would have denied it, the Union Jack must have still meant something to him,” says his youngest son, Ray.
But so, apparently, did Ms. Connor. Private Argyle kept in touch with her, and before long she booked her own passage across the Atlantic, despite the threat of German submarines. “She must have been awful badly in love with me,” he would say to their children, years later.
By December of 1916, Pte. Argyle got leave to marry Ms. Connor, after which she moved in with his parents while he headed to the front with the 1st Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles. In a letter he wrote years later to his children, he recalled that, “It was cold and damp and mud up almost to your knees, shell holes full of water, a wounded man if he fell into one almost always drowned.”
Then, on April 9, 1917, he took part in the assault on Vimy Ridge.
Just before heading into battle, the sergeants came with a jug and poured each man a shot of rum. When the artillery fired at 5:45 a.m., Pte. Argyle would later remember, “It seemed as if the heavens opened with one huge crash, it became light as day, and after, only one thought, press on, get going.”
The men charged up the slope, following a creeping artillery barrage. Many German dugouts had survived the bombardment, and so the Canadians inched their way closer, tossing in mortar bombs. “Lots of Germans were buried alive this way,” recalled Pte. Argyle, who suffered wounds to his face and right hand, and was hospitalized.
By the time he returned to action, his unit had been sent to another of the muddiest, bloodiest battles of the war: Passchendaele – by now a vast bog of muck, barbed wire and enemy machine guns. The battalion was not initially involved in the fighting, but Pte. Argyle was nonetheless wounded in the legs by shrapnel from a can of mustard gas fired by the Germans. He spent the rest of the war in Britain training recruits in the use of bayonets.
“Dad was never again the man he was when he enlisted,” says his son Ray. “He’d lost his entrepreneurial edge, was impulsive, quick to temper – but never violent – and compliant in accepting authority.”
For the rest of his life, trickles of blood and bits of shrapnel would ooze from his shins.