He claimed that he was 17. But though he was tall for his age, Cecil Gillespie was still just a 16-year-old Toronto high-school student when he enlisted in April, 1916. His parents, David, a blacksmith, and Louella, a tea-shop owner, didn’t find out about his ruse until after their only son had left for Europe, in the same convoy that carried James and Edward Tyo. By Christmas, as part of the 78th Battalion, Private Gillespie was in the field, where, he later told his children, large rats would crawl over him as he tried to sleep at night.
At 5:30 a.m. on April 9, 1917, Pte. Gillespie and the other men of his battalion emerged from tunnels and dugouts and attacked the German lines at Vimy. Fighting bayonet to bayonet with a German, he plunged his weapon so deeply into the body of his foe that he had to fire his rifle in order to excise the blade.
Back in Canada, his mother was writing to prime minister Sir Robert Borden in an effort to get her son home. Ultimately, authorities checked the private’s birth certificate, and in October he was returned to England and discharged. A note in his record read: “Ineligible. Under Age. Discharged at the request of his parents.” He also had to reimburse $20 he had been overpaid.
He later became an accountant who shared little with his family about his wartime experiences. “He didn’t want to burden them,” says Eliane Labendz, of Toronto, who married Mr. Gillespie’s youngest son, Don. Or, perhaps, burden himself. He once told Don that he couldn’t help thinking that, in another time, another place, he and the young German he had killed could have been friends.