Posts Tagged ‘Selkirk Manitoba’

In the late 1830s and early 1840s three young brothers attended school together in what would become, but wasn’t yet, the Canadian city of Winnipeg. They were pupils at the Red River Academy, the first school established in the Red River Settlement, an area of Manitoba where Lord Selkirk had established English and Scottish farmers. These settlers in the Red River area weren’t however the first people there. The indigenous peoples, mostly of the Cree and Ojibway tribes, had been there for a long time. There were also the Métis, people of mixed race – French/Indian or British/Indian – who mostly worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the fur trade. It was for the children of these people that the Red River Academy was started.

On land granted by Selkirk to his settlers for religious and educational purposes the Reverend John West of the Church of England founded in 1820 the church of St. John. This was located about two miles below the Forks on the west bank of the Red. The mission gave rise to the Red River Academy, later St. John’s College. It was established for the training of a native ministry and for the education of the sons of Hudson’s Bay Company employees.

Red River Academy

Red River Academy

The three brothers were called Thomas, John and William Bunn. They were the only children of the Métis, or ‘half-breed’, couple Dr John Bunn and Catherine Thomas, who at the time lived in the small Red River Settlement of St. Paul, known as Middlechurch. Catherine’s father was Welsh but her mother Sarah was a Cree Indian. Dr John Bunn’s father was English, but his mother Sarah McNab was a Scottish/Indian Métis.

All the boys’ family were or had been employees in one capacity or another of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Dr John Bunn was the first native-born doctor to practice medicine in the Red River Settlement.   His English-born father Thomas was employed as a writer by the Hudson’s Bay Company at the company’s York Factory (trading post) in Manitoba.

Young John was well cared for by his father and by his Scottish grandfather, John McNab, a surgeon and the chief factor at York Factory. Thanks to their generous assistance, he attended a good school in Edinburgh and then began to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. ‘In 1819, when he had only two years’ medical training, not enough to graduate, he was persuaded by McNab to accept a position as surgeon at Moose Factory. Upon reaching Moose Factory in September of that year, Bunn had grave misgivings about the wisdom of his grandfather’s decision in sending a not yet fully qualified doctor into the wilderness of Rupert’s Land. Uneasy as he was about his future, during the next five years Bunn gained considerable experience by serving the HBC as a surgeon at several posts as well as on the company’s ship, the Eddystone.’

York Factory 1812

York Factory 1812

John’s entry in the Canadian Dictionary of Biography continues:

With no real taste for a nomadic existence, Bunn in 1824 left the HBC service and moved to the Red River Settlement to begin a private medical practice. Here, in the vicinity of Middlechurch, he lived with his father who had retired two years earlier. Here too, on 23 July 1829, he married Catherine Thomas, the daughter of his father’s close friend Thomas Thomas, a former governor of the Northern Department. Because of his family connections and his professional status, Bunn was able to move easily in the influential circles of Red River society. A witty, good-natured, and vigorous man, with a dark complexion and a handsome bearing, Bunn the doctor was as popular with the HBC establishment as he was with the half-caste population of the settlement.

Feeling the need to upgrade his qualifications, Bunn again attended the University of Edinburgh during the 1831–32 academic session, and returned to Red River in 1832 not with a degree but as a licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons at Edinburgh. He was happy to come home to his wife Catherine who had cheered him with her affectionate letters while he was abroad. A little over a year after his return, on 3 Jan. 1834, came her death, and he never remarried. He and his three small boys… continued to live comfortably in his father’s household which was ably managed by his halfbreed stepmother Phoebe Sinclair Bunn.

Dr John Bunn

Dr John Bunn

With the lack of European women it was fairly common, in fact usual, for English and Scottish employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the remote west of British North America to take  native Indian wives, marriages often entered into via a native ritual and thus not recognised by the Church of England. The same was true, and for a much longer period, of the French fur trappers, voyageurs and traders.

There is much more to tell about this fascinating man, but our concern here is with his sons. When the three boys were pupils at the Red River Academy the headmaster was John Macallum who came to Red River in 1833 as a schoolteacher, working at £100 per annum at the academy. In 1836, having married one of his mixed-blood students, he became headmaster in 1838 and having initially leased the buildings from the HBC, which owned the property, he eventually purchased the school for £350 in 1841.

Under Macallum’s guidance it (the school) maintained a high level of excellence. During his tenure courses were offered in Greek, Latin, geography, Bible study, history, algebra, writing, and elocution.

It was later said that Macallum’s school ‘prepared a goodly number of postmasters, clerks and future chief traders and chief factors’ for the HBC and that he was a ‘conscientious and faithful worker”, but who ‘perhaps over-estimated the use of the rod’.

John Macallum

John Macallum

He was in fact ‘a strict disciplinarian, with a strong sense of morality’.  Despite his own marriage to a mixed blood girl, if Indian or mixed-blood mothers were not formally married he refused to allow them to visit their children at the school. One contemporary commented on this policy as being ‘fearfully cruel for the poor unfortunate mothers did not know that there was any distinction’. Macallum was also ‘an exponent of corporal punishment, he employed a rod more than three feet long’.

Such was the school life of the three Bunn brothers. Their mother would likely have not been allowed to visit them if she had lived; unfortunately she had died in 1834 when the boys were still very young.

The third and youngest brother, William, died in 1847, aged just fourteen. Thomas was the oldest son; he was born in St Paul in 1830 and was to go on to great things. Second son John, who was born in 1832, never achieved any fame, but it was one of his daughters who would marry into the family of the Bolton-born future Bishop of Qu’Appelle John Grisdale.

Thomas Bunn (third from left back row) with Louis Riel (meddle second row)

Thomas Bunn (third from left back row) with Louis Riel (middle second row)

Having left school Thomas Bunn first remained in St. Paul where he married Métis Isabella Clouston in 1854. Three children followed until Isabella’s untimely death only three years later. He then moved to the nearby St. Andrews where he married Rachel Harriot in 1859. Eventually he moved further up the Red River to St. Clements near Selkirk. He became a member of the Church of England and a freemason. ‘He was able, therefore, to have some influence in the Indian community and to enter English society in Red River. In January 1868 Bunn was appointed a member of the Council of Assiniboia and held this office until the council ceased to function in September 1870. On 17 Dec. 1869 he succeeded W. R. Smith as executive officer of the council with a salary of £100 per year.’

Here a little history is called for. It explains Thomas Bunn’s involvement in the ‘Red River Rebellion’, better said the Red River Resistance:

In 1869 Louis Riel had begun to organize resistance to the transfer of the North-West to the dominion of Canada without prearranged terms. Bunn was elected a representative from St Clements to the council of English and French parishes convened on 16 Nov. 1869 to draw up terms for entry. He hoped for a united front to negotiate these terms of union with Canada. Most English settlers, however, were disposed to think that Canada would be just, and if it were not, that Great Britain would ensure a fair settlement. Many English were willing to support Riel’s policy of union through negotiation, not so much because they thought negotiation was necessary, but because they hoped thus to preserve peace in the Red River Settlement. Bunn tried indeed to pursue an intermediate position, and the strains were sometimes great. By accepting Riel’s policy, Bunn, in a sense, made himself Riel’s English half-breed lieutenant, despite the fact that there was no bond between the men.

On 19 and 20 Jan. 1870, a mass open-air meeting was held to hear Donald Alexander Smith, commissioner of the Canadian government. Bunn was chairman of the discussion. It was decided that a convention should be held to prepare terms for negotiations with Canada, and that delegates should be elected. Bunn was one of those appointed to a committee to arrange the elections. He himself became a delegate from St Clements. From 27 January to 3 February, the convention prepared a second list of rights and approved the formation of a provisional government. Riel made Bunn secretary of state in the provisional government.

On 24 August the military forces of the crown under Colonel Garnet Joseph Wolseley reached Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg) and the provisional government was swept from power. Bunn survived its fall and may have been present at a meeting of the Council of Assiniboia which Wolseley revived in an attempt to settle the situation. Indeed, Bunn continued as usual in Red River society and set out to establish himself in the new order. As a man of some education and a fluent speaker with a judicious cast of mind, he decided to go into law. He was called to the bar of the new province of Manitoba in 1871, and was clerk to the First General Quarterly Court held in the new province on 16 May 1871. St Clements returned him as its first member to the provincial Legislative Assembly on 30 Dec. 1870. Thus Bunn’s career decidedly bridged the way from the old order to the new. His early death in 1875 cut short his passage into it.

During all this time that Thomas Bunn was becoming a prominent local politician and being involved in events that shaped the history of Canada, his brother John was pursuing a much more humdrum career as a ‘clerk’ with the Hudson’s Bay Company – exactly the sort of role that the Red River Academy had been founded to prepare such Métis children of the company’s employees for.

St Paul's Anglican Church

St Paul’s Anglican Church

But John didn’t enter the service of the HBC until 1867 when he was 35. What he did before that is unknown. All we know was that he married Jemima Clouston in St Paul in 1859 in his home settlement of St. Paul. Jemima was the sister of Isabella, John’s brother Thomas’ wife. Eight children were to follow, the first few born in St. Paul, the reminder at the various HBC trading posts John was posted to. Between 1867 and 1878, John was a HBC clerk in three factories or trading posts in the remote and wild west of the country: Lac Ste. Anne, Fort Victory and Bow Fort. In 1878 he retired back in the Red River Settlement and ‘died after a brief illness that year’. His wife Jemima was to live until 1888.

It is with his daughter Annie Bunn that we are concerned with here. Annie was born in 1866 in St. Paul in the Red River Settlement but, as we have seen, she spent most of her childhood living with her family in various remote HBC factories. In her 1885 ’Declaration concerning her claim to participate in any grant to Half Breeds living in the North West Territories’, she stated, ‘I lived with my parents in the north West Territories from 1867 to 1877’. I will return to this declaration later.

Following her father’s death, Annie continued to live in St Paul’s with her mother and siblings. In 1891 we find her living with her sister Isabell and brother William in the growing city of Winnipeg. It was probably in Winnipeg that Annie met her future husband Joseph Grisdale.

Bishop John Grisdale circa 1900

Bishop John Grisdale circa 1900

Here we have to leave the Métis world of the Red River Settlement and go back a little to the grim world of the Lancashire cotton mills in England. I have previously written three pieces about a Bolton cotton bleacher called John Grisdale who was first a missionary in India before coming to Manitoba in 1873, and who eventually was to become the Anglican Bishop of Qu’Appelle. (See here, here and here). During one of his many trips back to England in 1882/3 John discussed Canada with his brother Joseph, who was at that time a ‘railway clerk’ in Bolton. When John returned to Canada in 1883 his brother Joseph came with him. At first Joseph lived with his brother John in Winnipeg. In 1883 John was a canon of St. John’s Cathedral in Winnipeg and a Professor of Theology at St. John’s College (the successor to the Red River Academy). But in 1894 he had been appointed dean of Rupert’s Land. In 1891 we find Joseph living with his brother and his family in comfortable circumstances in Winnipeg. No doubt with his brother’s help Joseph was now a ‘Bank Manager’.

And so it was that in some way at some time bank manager Joseph Grisdale met and fell in love with Annie Bunn. They married in Winnipeg in 1893. We can only wonder if Dean Grisdale officiated at their wedding.

Private Percy John Grisdale (1896-1916)

Private Percy John Grisdale (1896-1916)

Initially the family stayed in Winnipeg and had two children there: Percy John Grisdale in 1896 and Eveleigh Grisdale in 1899. In the 1901 census Joseph and his family are still in Winnipeg and Joseph is said to be an ‘accountant’. But sometime prior to 1904 the family moved north up the Red River to Selkirk where two more children were born: twins Edwin and Roland in 1904. The family continued to live in Selkirk until sometime after 1911, Joseph still being a bank manager. But they soon moved on, to Calgary in Alberta. In the 1916 census we find the family living in Calgary with Joseph listed as a ‘bookkeeper’. Son Percy is listed too, but he is said to have been overseas. You can read his story here. Eventually, sometime after 1921, Joseph took his family to Vancouver, where he died in 1950. I don’t know where and when Annie Bunn Grisdale died.

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In the late 1830s and early 1840s three young brothers attended school together in what would become, but wasn’t yet, the Canadian city of Winnipeg. They were pupils at the Red River Academy, the first school established in the Red River Settlement, an area of Manitoba where Lord Selkirk had established English and Scottish farmers. These settlers in the Red River area weren’t however the first people there. The indigenous peoples, mostly of the Cree and Ojibway tribes, had been there for a long time. There were also the Métis, people of mixed race – French/Indian or British/Indian – who mostly worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the fur trade. It was for the children of these people that the Red River Academy was started.

On land granted by Selkirk to his settlers for religious and educational purposes the Reverend John West of the Church of England founded in 1820 the church of St. John. This was located about two miles below the Forks on the west bank of the Red. The mission gave rise to the Red River Academy, later St. John’s College. It was established for the training of a native ministry and for the education of the sons of Hudson’s Bay Company employees.

Red River Academy

Red River Academy

The three brothers were called Thomas, John and William Bunn. They were the only children of the Métis, or ‘half-breed’, couple Dr John Bunn and Catherine Thomas, who at the time lived in the small Red River Settlement of St. Paul, known as Middlechurch. Catherine’s father was Welsh but her mother Sarah was a Cree Indian. Dr John Bunn’s father was English, but his mother Sarah McNab was a Scottish/Indian Métis.

All the boys’ family were or had been employees in one capacity or another of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Dr John Bunn was the first native-born doctor to practice medicine in the Red River Settlement.   His English-born father Thomas was employed as a writer by the Hudson’s Bay Company at the company’s York Factory (trading post) in Manitoba.

Young John was well cared for by his father and by his Scottish grandfather, John McNab, a surgeon and the chief factor at York Factory. Thanks to their generous assistance, he attended a good school in Edinburgh and then began to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. ‘In 1819, when he had only two years’ medical training, not enough to graduate, he was persuaded by McNab to accept a position as surgeon at Moose Factory. Upon reaching Moose Factory in September of that year, Bunn had grave misgivings about the wisdom of his grandfather’s decision in sending a not yet fully qualified doctor into the wilderness of Rupert’s Land. Uneasy as he was about his future, during the next five years Bunn gained considerable experience by serving the HBC as a surgeon at several posts as well as on the company’s ship, the Eddystone.’

York Factory 1812

York Factory 1812

John’s entry in the Canadian Dictionary of Biography continues:

With no real taste for a nomadic existence, Bunn in 1824 left the HBC service and moved to the Red River Settlement to begin a private medical practice. Here, in the vicinity of Middlechurch, he lived with his father who had retired two years earlier. Here too, on 23 July 1829, he married Catherine Thomas, the daughter of his father’s close friend Thomas Thomas, a former governor of the Northern Department. Because of his family connections and his professional status, Bunn was able to move easily in the influential circles of Red River society. A witty, good-natured, and vigorous man, with a dark complexion and a handsome bearing, Bunn the doctor was as popular with the HBC establishment as he was with the half-caste population of the settlement.

Feeling the need to upgrade his qualifications, Bunn again attended the University of Edinburgh during the 1831–32 academic session, and returned to Red River in 1832 not with a degree but as a licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons at Edinburgh. He was happy to come home to his wife Catherine who had cheered him with her affectionate letters while he was abroad. A little over a year after his return, on 3 Jan. 1834, came her death, and he never remarried. He and his three small boys… continued to live comfortably in his father’s household which was ably managed by his halfbreed stepmother Phoebe Sinclair Bunn.

Dr John Bunn

Dr John Bunn

With the lack of European women it was fairly common, in fact usual, for English and Scottish employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the remote west of British North America to take  native Indian wives, marriages often entered into via a native ritual and thus not recognised by the Church of England. The same was true, and for a much longer period, of the French fur trappers, voyageurs and traders.

There is much more to tell about this fascinating man, but our concern here is with his sons. When the three boys were pupils at the Red River Academy the headmaster was John Macallum who came to Red River in 1833 as a schoolteacher, working at £100 per annum at the academy. In 1836, having married one of his mixed-blood students, he became headmaster in 1838 and having initially leased the buildings from the HBC, which owned the property, he eventually purchased the school for £350 in 1841.

Under Macallum’s guidance it (the school) maintained a high level of excellence. During his tenure courses were offered in Greek, Latin, geography, Bible study, history, algebra, writing, and elocution.

It was later said that Macallum’s school ‘prepared a goodly number of postmasters, clerks and future chief traders and chief factors’ for the HBC and that he was a ‘conscientious and faithful worker”, but who ‘perhaps over-estimated the use of the rod’.

John Macallum

John Macallum

He was in fact ‘a strict disciplinarian, with a strong sense of morality’.  Despite his own marriage to a mixed blood girl, if Indian or mixed-blood mothers were not formally married he refused to allow them to visit their children at the school. One contemporary commented on this policy as being ‘fearfully cruel for the poor unfortunate mothers did not know that there was any distinction’. Macallum was also ‘an exponent of corporal punishment, he employed a rod more than three feet long’.

Such was the school life of the three Bunn brothers. Their mother would likely have not been allowed to visit them if she had lived; unfortunately she had died in 1834 when the boys were still very young.

The third and youngest brother, William, died in 1847, aged just fourteen. Thomas was the oldest son; he was born in St Paul in 1830 and was to go on to great things. Second son John, who was born in 1832, never achieved any fame, but it was one of his daughters who would marry into the family of the Bolton-born future Bishop of Qu’Appelle John Grisdale.

Thomas Bunn (third from left back row) with Louis Riel (meddle second row)

Thomas Bunn (third from left back row) with Louis Riel (middle second row)

Having left school Thomas Bunn first remained in St. Paul where he married Métis Isabella Clouston in 1854. Three children followed until Isabella’s untimely death only three years later. He then moved to the nearby St. Andrews where he married Rachel Harriot in 1859. Eventually he moved further up the Red River to St. Clements near Selkirk. He became a member of the Church of England and a freemason. ‘He was able, therefore, to have some influence in the Indian community and to enter English society in Red River. In January 1868 Bunn was appointed a member of the Council of Assiniboia and held this office until the council ceased to function in September 1870. On 17 Dec. 1869 he succeeded W. R. Smith as executive officer of the council with a salary of £100 per year.’

Here a little history is called for. It explains Thomas Bunn’s involvement in the ‘Red River Rebellion’, better said the Red River Resistance:

In 1869 Louis Riel had begun to organize resistance to the transfer of the North-West to the dominion of Canada without prearranged terms. Bunn was elected a representative from St Clements to the council of English and French parishes convened on 16 Nov. 1869 to draw up terms for entry. He hoped for a united front to negotiate these terms of union with Canada. Most English settlers, however, were disposed to think that Canada would be just, and if it were not, that Great Britain would ensure a fair settlement. Many English were willing to support Riel’s policy of union through negotiation, not so much because they thought negotiation was necessary, but because they hoped thus to preserve peace in the Red River Settlement. Bunn tried indeed to pursue an intermediate position, and the strains were sometimes great. By accepting Riel’s policy, Bunn, in a sense, made himself Riel’s English half-breed lieutenant, despite the fact that there was no bond between the men.

On 19 and 20 Jan. 1870, a mass open-air meeting was held to hear Donald Alexander Smith, commissioner of the Canadian government. Bunn was chairman of the discussion. It was decided that a convention should be held to prepare terms for negotiations with Canada, and that delegates should be elected. Bunn was one of those appointed to a committee to arrange the elections. He himself became a delegate from St Clements. From 27 January to 3 February, the convention prepared a second list of rights and approved the formation of a provisional government. Riel made Bunn secretary of state in the provisional government.

On 24 August the military forces of the crown under Colonel Garnet Joseph Wolseley reached Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg) and the provisional government was swept from power. Bunn survived its fall and may have been present at a meeting of the Council of Assiniboia which Wolseley revived in an attempt to settle the situation. Indeed, Bunn continued as usual in Red River society and set out to establish himself in the new order. As a man of some education and a fluent speaker with a judicious cast of mind, he decided to go into law. He was called to the bar of the new province of Manitoba in 1871, and was clerk to the First General Quarterly Court held in the new province on 16 May 1871. St Clements returned him as its first member to the provincial Legislative Assembly on 30 Dec. 1870. Thus Bunn’s career decidedly bridged the way from the old order to the new. His early death in 1875 cut short his passage into it.

During all this time that Thomas Bunn was becoming a prominent local politician and being involved in events that shaped the history of Canada, his brother John was pursuing a much more humdrum career as a ‘clerk’ with the Hudson’s Bay Company – exactly the sort of role that the Red River Academy had been founded to prepare such Métis children of the company’s employees for.

St Paul's Anglican Church

St Paul’s Anglican Church

But John didn’t enter the service of the HBC until 1867 when he was 35. What he did before that is unknown. All we know was that he married Jemima Clouston in St Paul in 1859 in his home settlement of St. Paul. Jemima was the sister of Isabella, John’s brother Thomas’ wife. Eight children were to follow, the first few born in St. Paul, the reminder at the various HBC trading posts John was posted to. Between 1867 and 1878, John was a HBC clerk in three factories or trading posts in the remote and wild west of the country: Lac Ste. Anne, Fort Victory and Bow Fort. In 1878 he retired back in the Red River Settlement and ‘died after a brief illness that year’. His wife Jemima was to live until 1888.

It is with his daughter Annie Bunn that we are concerned with here. Annie was born in 1866 in St. Paul in the Red River Settlement but, as we have seen, she spent most of her childhood living with her family in various remote HBC factories. In her 1885 ’Declaration concerning her claim to participate in any grant to Half Breeds living in the North West Territories’, she stated, ‘I lived with my parents in the north West Territories from 1867 to 1877’. I will return to this declaration later.

Following her father’s death, Annie continued to live in St Paul’s with her mother and siblings. In 1891 we find her living with her sister Isabell and brother William in the growing city of Winnipeg. It was probably in Winnipeg that Annie met her future husband Joseph Grisdale.

Bishop John Grisdale circa 1900

Bishop John Grisdale circa 1900

Here we have to leave the Métis world of the Red River Settlement and go back a little to the grim world of the Lancashire cotton mills in England. I have previously written three pieces about a Bolton cotton bleacher called John Grisdale who was first a missionary in India before coming to Manitoba in 1873, and who eventually was to become the Anglican Bishop of Qu’Appelle. (See here, here and here). During one of his many trips back to England in 1882/3 John discussed Canada with his brother Joseph, who was at that time a ‘railway clerk’ in Bolton. When John returned to Canada in 1883 his brother Joseph came with him. At first Joseph lived with his brother John in Winnipeg. In 1883 John was a canon of St. John’s Cathedral in Winnipeg and a Professor of Theology at St. John’s College (the successor to the Red River Academy). But in 1894 he had been appointed dean of Rupert’s Land. In 1891 we find Joseph living with his brother and his family in comfortable circumstances in Winnipeg. No doubt with his brother’s help Joseph was now a ‘Bank Manager’.

And so it was that in some way at some time bank manager Joseph Grisdale met and fell in love with Annie Bunn. They married in Winnipeg in 1893. We can only wonder if Dean Grisdale officiated at their wedding.

Private Percy John Grisdale (1896-1916)

Private Percy John Grisdale (1896-1916)

Initially the family stayed in Winnipeg and had two children there: Percy John Grisdale in 1896 and Eveleigh Grisdale in 1899. In the 1901 census Joseph and his family are still in Winnipeg and Joseph is said to be an ‘accountant’. But sometime prior to 1904 the family moved north up the Red River to Selkirk where two more children were born: twins Edwin and Roland in 1904. The family continued to live in Selkirk until sometime after 1911, Joseph still being a bank manager. But they soon moved on, to Calgary in Alberta. In the 1916 census we find the family living in Calgary with Joseph listed as a ‘bookkeeper’. Son Percy is listed too, but he is said to have been overseas. You can read his story here. Eventually, sometime after 1921, Joseph took his family to Vancouver, where he died in 1950. I don’t know where and when Annie Bunn Grisdale died.

It was probably in March 1916 that a young former Manitoba University Arts’ student called Percy Grisdale boarded a troop train in Winnipeg for the journey across Canada to Halifax in Nova Scotia.  Percy had decided to abandon his studies and follow the call of ‘King and Country’. On 8 September 1915 he enlisted in the 61st (Winnipeg) Infantry Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Some training followed before the battalion was to make its trip to Europe and the horrors of the trenches in France. This is the story of one year in Percy’s life.

Manitoba University

Manitoba University

Percy John Grisdale was born in Winnipeg on 20 March 1896, the first of four children of English-born Joseph Grisdale and his Anglo-Métis wife Annie Bunn. Percy’s father Joseph was a bank manager in Selkirk, Manitoba. I will tell his family’s story at a later date. I know nothing about Percy’s early life, but he must have been a bright boy because in 1914 he was admitted to the Arts Faculty of Manitoba University. His parents were very likely proud of their son’s achievement – as I guess would have been his uncle, John Grisdale, the retired Bishop of Qu’Appelle.

Why Percy chose to abandon his studies and voluntarily join the Canadian Expeditionary Force we don’t know. We might today question, or better lament, the call of ‘King and Country’, knowing how, at least on the British side, the young soldiers were destined to be ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ in a completely unnecessary imperialistic war that had nothing to do with them. But thousands upon thousands of young men did in fact respond to this patriotic call, not just in the English-speaking world, but in Germany and France as well.

On his Attestation to join the Expeditionary Force in September 1915, Percy gave his height as 5ft. 8.5inches. He had brown hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion. He had a scar on his right knee.

Halifax Harbour in 1916

Halifax Harbour in 1916

Once the troop train carrying the 61st Battalion arrived in Halifax, the soldiers had to wait a while until their transport ship was ready. One report of a similar arrival reads: ‘As they waited their turn to board the vessel, the restless soldiers were marched around Halifax, given leave, and sometimes accommodated in local barracks.’

In fact the 61st’s troop ship was to be the magnificent RMS Olympic, the sister ship of the ill-fated RMS Titanic. It was to be the first of many voyages the Olympic was to make ferrying Canadian soldiers to the war and bringing back casualties.

RMS Olympic in prewar days

RMS Olympic in prewar days

Soldier Harold Allen wrote on a post card: ‘Have arrived here at last after some trip, this is a glorious boat the name of which you may know. We hope to sail soon along with several other Bn (battalions). This is a rotten town & it is raining like the devil.’

Much of what I will tell about this ship and its role as a Canadian troop ship during the war is taken from an excellent article by David R. Gray called Carrying Canadian Troops – the Story of RMS Olympic as a First World War Troopship, published by the Canadian War Museum. Gray writes:

As the Canadian commitment to supplying troops for her European war effort grew during the course of 1915, a consistently available means of transporting them was considered essential. Hence the Canadian Government requested from the British Admiralty the use of Olympic as a troop transport. The Admiralty responded favourably and in February 1916 assigned Olympic the job of ferrying Canadian troops across the Atlantic to Europe. As one of the largest and fastest ships afloat, she was perfect for the role. Olympic left Liverpool for Halifax, on the first of what would be many trips, on 22 March 1916, arriving six days later.

The RMS Olympic was: ‘The first of three similar sister-ships, that included the Titanic and the Britannic, the Olympic was built by Harland & Wolff in Belfast and launched as RMS Olympic in 1910, a year earlier than Titanic, with her maiden voyage taking place in 1911. As the newest and largest of the trans-Atlantic liners, Olympic was described with all the superlatives later applied to Titanic: “Ocean Greyhound,” “Finest Steamer Afloat,” “Largest vessel in the World,” and “Queen of the Ocean.” At 882 feet in overall length, with a gross registered tonnage of 45,324 tons and a total of nine decks.’

RMS Olympic as a troop ship

RMS Olympic as a troop ship

The Olympic had been refitted as a troop ship in 1915 and had already carried many troops to the Mediterranean and elsewhere. When she arrived in Halifax she was already camouflaged: ‘Painted grey, dark grey for the hull and a lighter grey for the superstructure.’ With 5,737 soldiers aboard, including the 61st (Winnipeg) Battalion and Private Percy Grisdale, the Olympic departed Halifax on 5 April 1916 bound for Liverpool. The ship’s captain was Sir Bertram Hayes. The departure was not without incident:

As the pilot who had guided Olympic out of the harbour was transferred by small boat from Olympic to the armed yacht HMCS Stadacona, the much smaller vessel had difficulty manoeuvring in the wind. As the two drifted together, Stadacona’s masthead caught and carried away two of Olympic’s lifeboats. Fortunately, damage to both vessels was minimal, and Stadacona was able to retrieve the two lifeboats.

Most of the many thousands of Canadian soldiers who were to travel to war on the Olympic were amazed at the ship and their accommodation. Private Gray, who made the same voyage later in the year, wrote:

… I’m pleased to say the good fortune, or special providence or whatever it is, which has followed me ever since joining the army was with me still. I have a lovely little stateroom with 3 beds in it and the men with me are all right… and we have lots of room, a nice mahogany wardrobe to hang our clothes and drawers for small things. Electric light switch at the bed side, mattress & pillows white sheet & blanket, a fan blowing fresh air through a ventilator under my bed and so on, everything lovely. After a stroll round the deck and she is a big one, I began to think of a bath, but all bathroom(s) were locked and no hot water, but where there’s a will there’s a way. I found a steward and a quarter did the rest. I got a cold salt water bath and got some clean clothes on and went to bed about 11 o’clock and in 5 minutes time I opened my eyes and it was 6 am next morning.

The soldiers had to enjoy such luxury, it wouldn’t last long.

Canadians at Bramshott Camp

Canadians at Bramshott Camp

When the Olympic arrived in Liverpool on 11 April, the 61st Battalion boarded trains for their camp in Bramshott, Hampshire. It was a place that was to be home to countless Canadian soldiers in both the First and Second World Wars. Another Canadian soldier, Kenneth Foster, who also arrived in England in 1916, describes part of the journey:

So…. we experienced our first train ride in England. And believe me — they sure could travel for the size of them. We arrived at our destination about 8 o’clock in the evening at the village of Hazelmere, in the county of Hampshire. It was raining hard when we got off the train. I remember only too well how we were stalled at the station for an hour or more, for there seemed to be some mis-understanding as to where the camp at Bramshott really was. Eventually we got away, and after a march of about two miles we arrived there, tired, wet and hungry; so after partaking of a little nourishment we all hit the floor, and although it was mighty hard we soon fell asleep.

On awakening the next morning I found the camp to be large, with hundreds of huts capable of housing from forty to fifty men—a regular war village with Post Office, stores, theatre, etc., like hundreds of others which were scattered all over different parts of the British Isles.

More Canadians at Bramshott Camp

More Canadians at Bramshott Camp

Training was rather desultory it seems and ‘consisted mostly of long route marches, plenty of drill, and the usual turn at guard.’ Like Foster, Percy Grisdale would probably have found some time to get out of camp. Foster had visited ‘several villages and towns in Hampshire; for instance, Grayshot, Godalming, Guilford and others, the names of which I have forgotten’.

During the First World War, the Canadian Army authorized the formation of 260 infantry battalions to serve in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Of these battalions, ‘only a small fraction…  ever reached France to serve on the front lines. The remaining battalions, most often upon arrival in England, were broken up and primarily absorbed into a reserve battalion.’ This is what happened to the 61st (Winnipeg) Battalion. On 7 July 1916, it was absorbed into the 11th Reserve Battalion which formed part of the Canadian Training Depot at Tidworth Barracks on Salisbury Plain.

It’s probable that Percy Grisdale was still with the 61st battalion when it was absorbed and moved to Tidworth. From there soldiers were quickly transferred individually or en masse to units serving in France. Percy was transferred to the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR), which had already seen action at Ypres and on the Somme.

Most likely Percy arrived as a reinforcement for the RCR in July or August 1916. Without seeing his full service record it’s impossible to know. Of course it is also possible that he had been transferred earlier as an ‘individual augmentee’, as had Private ‘Pete’ Thompson, also of the 61st, who had travelled to England with Grisdale on the Olympic and joined the RCR in early June 1916.

Royal Canadian Regiment Soldiers on the Somme

Royal Canadian Regiment Soldiers on the Somme

In either case, Percy would not have been with his new regiment during its first major battle of the war, the Battle of Mount Sorrel, which took place on 2 June in the Ypres salient in the Flanders region of Belgium.  With the arrival of spring in April 1916, the Germans had made new offensive attacks. Before the Battle of Mount Sorrel, the RCR was involved in skirmishes throughout the Mount Sorrel area but was mostly involved in trench line duty.

In 1917 an RCR officer who was there wrote:

Our first fight of any importance was the 3rd Battle of Ypres on the 2nd June 1916 when, after a four hours intensive bombardment from a large number of guns of all calibres, we were heavily attacked three times in succession by the Enemy. We repulsed all three attacks by our rifle and Machine Gun fire with heavy loss to the Enemy. Our losses were approximately 250 all ranks… After this battle we had to go back to a rearward area to refit and reorganize.

On June 6, 1916 the regiment was relieved by the 28th Battalion. On June 7, 1916 four mines that had been underneath the RCR’s position the previous day exploded and almost obliterated the entire 28th Battalion. It was probably not very long after this that Private Percy Grisdale joined his new brothers in arms.

Between June and August some extremely gallant trench raids and expeditions were carried out by the Regiment. One raid carried out was discovered by the enemy before starting, and came under the intense fire from rifles, bombs and machine guns at close quarters. In spite of this the party rushed forward and inflicted heavy losses upon the enemy, but every man except one was wounded. Two officers and some men came out into the open and worked for two hours under fire collecting and bringing in the wounded.

Canadian Soldiers on the Somme

Canadian Soldiers on the Somme

On September 8th the RCR, ‘owing to the high state of training and discipline… performed a very difficult feat on September 8th, when it came up from reserve and occupied a line just after dusk over absolutely strange ground, made unrecognisable by shell fire, and in so doing was obliged to change front twice. They occupied their position on time.’ And on September 16th ‘two companies went forward to attack an enemy trench over open ground, in full view of the enemy, in face of deadly rifle and machine gun fire, starting at a distance of over 800 yards and being practically wiped out when less than 50 yards from the enemy’s trench’.

We know that Percy Grisdale took part in all these engagements and had survived. But then, after a brief rest in the latter part of September, on October 8th the 7th Brigade, of which the RCR was a part, was ordered to attack Regina Trench, a well-defended German trench line on the Ancre Heights, 1.5 kilometres north east of the small village of Courcelette. The whole battle, which lasted more than a month, was to become known as the Battle of Ancre Heights.

A map of the Regina Trench

A map of the Regina Trench

The Staufen Riegel was a German trench along a ridge running from north-west of the village of Le Sars, south-west to Stuff Redoubt (Feste Staufen) close to the German fortifications at Thiepval on the Somme. It was the longest such trench on the German front during WW1. The Canadians called it Regina Trench after the town of Regina in Saskatchewan.  It had been repeatedly attacked for two months, without much success and with great causalities. It was briefly captured by the 5th Canadian Brigade on 1 October, and again on the 8th October by the 1st and 3rd Canadian Divisions – including the Royal Canadian Regiment. One historian of the Royal Canadian Regiment wrote this about its role in the attack of 8th October:

A, C, and D Companies were to lead the assault.  Although much uncut wire was encountered, they were able to drive swiftly to the trench were they proceeded to occupy the German lines.  Unknown to them, was the fact that the rest of the attacking battalions had not reached the trenches, leaving The RCR alone in the German Trenches.

The Regiment, unaware of their current circumstance, attempted to begin consolidation of their position.  Shortly the Germans began a counter-attack from three directions, and despite this, The Regiment continued to make gains in the trenches.  As the Germans had a great advantage in numbers, they began pushing back The Regiment.  The Regiment realized immediately that they had to withdraw promptly because of a high rate of casualties.  A covering force of 81 men allowed the remainder of The Regiment to withdraw as well as possible in the daylight.  As the covering force made their way back, they told horror stories of men buried in mud, and of several wounded men whom it had been impossible to rescue.  At night three strong work parties went out and after working for hours reported that no wounded man from The Regiment remained on the battlefield.

Private Percy John Grisdale (1896-1916)

Private Percy John Grisdale (1896-1916)

In fact the Canadian casualties had been horrific. The RCR lost ‘12 Officers and 277 other ranks’. ‘We were’, wrote a RCR officer, ‘the only regiment in the Division which got to their objective from which, however, we were eventually blown out, returning at 5.00 p.m. the same night with a trench strength of 81 by actual count. “A” Company having only 5 men left.’

When the regiment had arrived on the Somme it had 719 men in total. By the end of October 8th they had lost 648! One of those who died while attacking the Regina Trench on the 8th of October was former Manitoba University student Percy Grisdale.

One soldier, Charles Douie, who had fought at the Battle of Ancre Heights, wrote in The Weary Road in 1929:

… here above the Ancre lie many of the most gallant of my regiment, men who were my friends, men whose memory I shall revere to the end of time. Some of them were soldiers by profession; others had turned aside from their chosen avocations in obediences to a call which might not be denied… they have passed into silence. We hear their voices no more. Yet it must be that somewhere the music of those voices lingers…

Given Percy’s bishop uncle, perhaps this poem by Siegfried Sassoon, called They, might also be apt:

The Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
In a just cause: they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
New right to breed an honourable race,
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.’

‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.’
And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’

Percy Grisdale is buried in Vimy Memorial Cemetery, France.

Canadian War Memorial at Vimy

Canadian War Memorial at Vimy