As a Canadian who moved to York a year and a half ago, it is always heart warming to find little links to home whilst abroad. These associations might come in the form of sourcing real Canadian maple syrup, or seeing the first snow fall. But perhaps the strongest connection I have found came unexpectedly whilst researching the individuals connected to the First World War medals in the York Museums Trust collection.
Amongst the various military medals, I surprisingly found myself in the company of two Canadians: Bertram Elgin Wildsmith (Private 54336 of the Canadian Infantry 18th Battalion, West Ontario Regiment, killed in action 1916) and James Maurice Keith (Private 17239 of the Canadian Infantry 7th Battalion, 1st BC Regiment, killed in action 1915).
I thought it only fitting then to share the story of James Maurice Keith, born in 1894 in Chilliwack, British Columbia.
As the eldest of six children of James Herrett (of New Brunswick, Canada) and Laura Alma Keith (of Ontario, Canada, nee Bonter), James Maurice attended school at Sumas, before enlisting in the local militia and working as a farmer.
As a member of the local militia, James Maurice was amongst the first to enlist for overseas service in September 1914, as part of the newly created 7th Battalion of the Canadian Infantry. He then travelled to Quebec, where he and 49 officers and 1082 other privates boarded the Virginian and arrived in England on October 14, 1914.
After further training in England, the battalion moved to France in February 1915. However, two months after arriving at the Western Front, and facing their first German attack at St. Julien, near Ypres, the Canadian infantry was pushed back, largely as a result poison gas and heavy shelling. In the midst of this, the Second Battle of Ypres, James Keith was killed in action on the 24th of April, 1915.
A memorial service was held for James Maurice at Atchelitz Hall, BC, on May 16, 1915. He was also commemorated on the Ypres Memorial in Belgium, on the Chilliwack War Memorial (unveiled in 1923), and a small panel that now resides in the Chilliwack Museum and Archives.
Even in the relatively small community of Chilliwack, B.C., war casualties were frequent and had a substantial impact. James Maurice was amongst three men of his class of only ten at school that were killed by 1916 (with Malcolm MacLeod and Louis James Barrett). On a larger scale, during the course of the First World War, 620,000 Canadians were mobilized, 67,000 were killed and 173, 000 were wounded.
There are more than a million casualties registered with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. These represent the involvement and losses of communities across the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and South Africa, to name but a few. The medals contained in the YMT collections provide the starting point to explore and honour the diverse experiences of the First World War.