A Fistful of Heroic WWI Soldiers
By Rob Lennard
To commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the start of World War I “the Great War” which saw 48,885 mostly young Alberta men enlist, I am proud and honoured to share stories about a fistful of brave soldiers from around the Cowboy Trail. I like to think of them as “The Heroic Half-Dozen.”
While doing my research, I was fascinated to discover that Arthur Wheeler – surveyor, writer, and climber – received permission from the Geographic Board of Canada to name the peaks in and around the Kananaskis Lake region. It was 1916, at the height of the war, and instead of selecting names from the natural history of the vicinity, Wheeler took his inspiration from WWI warships, admirals, and French generals. Mt. Joffre, for example, was named after Joseph Joffre, the Marshal of France responsible for the French military during the war. Mt. Indefatigable received its name from the legendary HMS Indefatigable, the 44-gun eighteenth-century battleship that was the first vessel to be sunk during the June 1916 Battle of Jutland, Denmark – one of the greatest naval battles of all time.
It is a fitting tribute to Alberta’s World War I heroes that some of their province’s natural landmarks should recall the great conflict in which they fought. Though these soldiers were far from the familiar sights of the Cowboy Trail, their courage never failed.
War Declared! screamed newspaper headlines across the dominion. On August 5, 1914, Canada’s Governor General, declared war on Germany. It was less than nine years after Alberta had become the eighth Canadian province on September 1, 1905.
Lieutenant Colonel Russell Boyle
Lieutenant Colonel Boyle, a rancher from Crossfield, was a towering man as tough as they came. When the Battalion he commanded, the Fighting 10th, arrived in England by ship, he summoned his troops, removed his officer’s jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and shouted “there were four men on that boat who said they would like to punch the heck out of me. Now I invite you
four men, if you have the guts, to come up, and we’ll have it out right here and now!” No one stepped forward. Months later, he led the Fighting 10th into their first action at the Battle of Ypres.
Lieutenant Frederick Harvey
Lieutenant Harvey was a rancher from the Stand Off district, south of Lethbridge, who commanded a troop of Lord Strathcona’s Horse in an attack on the small German-occupied town of Guyencourt, France. The town was guarded by a German machine gun positioned in a trench and protected by three rows of menacing barbed wire. Lieutenant Harvey jumped from his saddle and sprinted directly at the machine gun, leaping over the barbed wire like a determined Olympic hurdler. He shot the machine gunner dead with his pistol before turning the machine gun on the remaining enemy soldiers who fled for their lives. The lieutenant was awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroics, the war’s highest honour. He was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre and the Military Cross for further heroic deeds he performed during the war. Years later, he became a Brigadier General and commanded the Alberta Military District.
Lance Corporal Henry “Ducky” Norwest
Lance Corporal Norwest, an Alberta-born Métis soldier with a French and Cree background, went from rodeo performer to one of the Allies’ top snipers in WWI, registering 115 kills. An expert at camouflage, he spent much of his three years with the Calgary-based 50th Battalion behind enemy lines, and he was
awarded the Military Medal and Bar for his bravery. Although he faced life and death situations much of the time, he felt uncomfortable talking to girls. His nickname “Ducky” came from the fact that he tried his utmost to avoid talking to them and tried to duck out of their way every chance he got!
WWI Flying Ace, Captain Freddie McCall
Captain Freddie McCall was Canada’s fifth-ranked flying ace. He shot down 37 planes and received numerous honours for doing so, including the Military Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the British War Medal with Oak Leaf. What the captain is most remembered for, however, took place after the war during Calgary’s 1919 Victory Stampede. He was flying with two young boys when his engine suddenly quit. With splitsecond timing, he landed his plane safely on top of the carousel – and everybody walked away uninjured!
Sergeant “Blondy” Booner
Sergeant Booner, a former southern Alberta taxi driver, had his leg shot by five machine gun bullets from the enemy during a major battle in France. He ended up in a flooded ditch for more than two days amongst the dead, coping with deadly nerve gas, waiting to be rescued. While on his way back to Canada to recover from his injuries, the ship he was on, the Hesperian, was torpedoed by a submarine and Blondy helped rescue women and children from drowning.
Private John G. Pattison
During the historic battle for Vimy Ridge, 42-year-old Private Pattison, father of 17-year-old Henry Pattison, who also served in the 50th Battalion, dodged from shell hole to shell hole before standing directly in front of a nest of German machine guns. He threw three grenades into it, killing all but five of the machine gunners before charging and killing the rest with his bayonet. His heroic efforts prevented many of his comrades from being shot, and he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery.