Lest we forget

Penticton’s Otto Estabrooks fought at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.

On this — the most solemn occasion of the year — we pause to pay special tribute to 10 soldiers from throughout the Okanagan.

Some made the ultimate sacrifice 100 years ago, while others returned here after the First World War and did the best they could to return to normalcy.

Each Saturday, The Okanagan Weekend publishes a special feature called the Top 10, but today we remove that banner in respect to the hundreds who died or served and their families.

Instead, this is simply 10 stories we want you to remember as you prepare to honour Canada’s veterans on Sunday, Remembrance Day.

Each of these soldiers served Canada overseas in the First World War as — no doubt you are well aware — ended 100 years ago Sunday.

In closing, we say “thank you” to all of our nation’s servicemen and women, from all conflicts and all branches of our Armed Forces, who served at war and during peacetime.

John MacGregor

The most highly decorated soldier in the Canadian Army during the First World War was from an Okanagan regiment

But he lived so anonymously after the war that the provincial government had to take out newspaper ads to try to find him.

John MacGregor was a 25-year-old immigrant from Scotland working as a trapper in northern B.C. when the war started in 1914. He snowshoed several hundred kilometres to join the army at Prince Rupert.

MacGregor was eventually assigned to the Okanagan-based 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles, the predecessor of the BC Dragoons.

He won the Distinguished Service Medal at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and the Military Cross for a trench raid in January 1918. Later that year, at a battle near the French town of Cambrai, he singlehandedly took out a German machine gun nest.

“He ran forward in broad daylight, in the face of heavy fire from all directions, and—with rifle and bayonet singlehanded—put the enemy crews out of action, killing four and taking eight prisoners. His prompt action saved many casualties and enabled the advance to continue,” read MacGregor’s citation for the Victoria Cross, the highest medal for bravery awarded to soldiers from Britain or Commonwealth countries.

MacGregor survived the war and returned to B.C. In 1929, the Prince of Wales announced a gala dinner for all surviving Victoria Cross recipients in London.

By then, MacGregor’s whereabouts were unknown to the British Columbia government, so it took out ads asking if anyone knew where he was.

Someone who knew MacGregor told Victoria he was living in Lumby. Initially reluctant to attend the dinner in London, he was eventually persuaded to do as a tribute to his fallen comrades.

A decade later, MacGregor tried to enlist in the Second World War as a private so he could get into combat. But his status as a war hero prevented that, and he was assigned to command training camps instead.

His last military role was to oversee the Vernon Army Camp.

Charles Graham

A soldier from Kelowna, along with four of his comrades, managed to capture 80 German prisoners during the First World War.

For his bravery and heroism, Private Charles Creighton Graham received the Distinguished Conduct Medal, second highest to the Victoria Cross.

In France, Graham was wounded twice. The first time he was shot in the right knee, the second he was shot in the hand.

That second wound came in September 1918, after Graham and five others crawled along a drainage ditch to sneak into the German-held town of Blecourt.

Incredibly, the Canadians tricked 150 Germans into surrendering simply by telling them a larger group of Canadians was about to arrive in the town.

While being marched back to Canadian lines, many of the Germans realized they vastly outnumbered their captors, and that no reinforcements were in fact coming.

“The prisoners, who outnumbered their captors about 25 to one, seeing the weakness of the attacking force, began to dribble away,” Michel Gravel wrote in article on the daring episode published last month in Canada History.

Although dozens of Germans ran off, Graham and his mates still returned with 80 German PoWs.

Graham died in a veteran’s hospital in Vancouver on Oct. 23, 1966, at the age of 67.

Joseph Fitzpatrick

A Kelowna soldier who kept fighting after being badly wounded won the military’s second highest distinction.

But Joseph Howard Fitzpatrick did not live long after the war ended, dying in 1925 before his 30th birthday.

Fitzpatrick was one of the few men with an Okanagan connection ever awarded the Military Cross, the second highest distinction that can be given a soldier, after the Victoria Cross.

Fitzpatrick, whose family arrived in Kelowna in 1913 from Ontario, won the Military Cross in the fall of 1918 during the Battle of Cambrai in France.

“He led his platoon to the attack and formed a defensive flank, encountering a heavy enemy counter-attack in so doing,” his citation reads.

“In the attack on Sept. 30, 1918, after being badly wounded, he kept on and led his platoon to the attack, only going out when ordered by his superior officer.”

Fitzpatrick survived three years of trench fighting and returned to Kelowna in 1919, the year after the war ended. He never married and never had children.

Frederick Heather

On one terrible day in 1917, seven men from Kelowna were killed in the First World War.

All died at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, along with 3,684 other Canadian soldiers.

Like many of those men, Frederick Amblec Heather was actually born in England but had been living for many years in Canada. When the war started, they felt an immediate need to return to the Mother Country and join the battle.

Heather was a 26-year-old married man, working as a contractor in Kelowna. Since he had previous military experience, he went into the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles as an officer.

He stood five-foot-seven, had a chest that could expand to 37 inches, and was a parishioner of the Church of England, according to his enlistment records.

In the first few hours of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the 2nd CMR, a 687-strong unit made up primarily of men from the Okanagan, suffered 47 fatalities.

Heather died shortly after he scrambled out of the trenches, according to his official death notice: “Killed in Action. He was instantly killed by a high explosive shell immediately after leaving the trenches preparatory to the attack on Vimy Ridge.”

Heather was awarded both the Military Cross and the Military Medal.

Leon Gillard

Born in France, Leon Isodore Gillard returned there in 1916, at age 41, to fight in the First World War.

He wasn’t awarded any medals for his wartime service. But his life still merits recognition for both its extraordinariness of adventure, and ordinariness in that reflected a simple can-do attitude among men of his generation.

Gillard’s family was among the first settlers in Kelowna. They had left France when he was just 10, sailing around the tip of South America to get to California.

Arriving at Hope four days after the fabled Lequime pack train had left for the Okanagan, the Gillards walked through the mountains to catch up.

In Kelowna, Gillard learned English, and worked as a rancher and sawmiller.

In 1916, he was 42 years old, with three daughters and one son. He nevertheless volunteered for service and sailed back to France — the first time he’d returned to the country of his birth — that fall.

He survived the trenches and after his discharge in 1919, his doctor remarked on Gillard’s good health.

“Legs feel stiff after marching four miles, but can do five or six miles easily at his own pace,” his doctor wrote.

In a 1953 interview in The Kelowna Courier, when he was 80 and still farming, Gillard was described as “sharp-witted as a youngster with a merry twinkle in his eye.” Gillard boasted of once killing five grizzlies with nine shots.

Gillard died at a Vernon hospital July 14, 1965. He was 92.

Donald & Archibald Seaton

The town of Peachland is considered to have sustained the heaviest losses on a per capita basis of any community in Canada.

Only about 300 people lived in the town when the war broke out in 1914. Sixty men enlisted, and 17 of them were killed. In modern terms, that would be equivalent to about 2,000 Pentictonites or 7,500 Kelownians.

This month, as has been the case for the past five years, the names of Peachland’s First World War dead are shown on Remembrance Day banners attached to lightposts on Beach Avenue.

Among Peachland’s war dead were two brothers, Donald Alexander Seaton and Archibald Fleming Seaton.

Donald was 21 when he was killed in action in France on April 14, 1916. He had $4.54 on his body, which was added to his military pay and his mother in Peachland received a total of $163.04.

Archibald signed up on Nov. 29, 1916, a few days shy of his 19th birthday, the family says to avenge Donald.

But Archibald died of measles and diphtheria on March 4, 1918.

William Procter

The Okanagan’s last direct connection to the First World War ended with the passing of Vernon’s William (Duke) Procter, who died in December 2005 at the age of 106.

The passing of Duke, as he was known to all, of course made news because of his remarkable longevity. After he died, there were only three Canadians alive who had served in the First World War.

But Duke, born in a log cabin near Mabel Lake in 1899, was a colourful and engaging character, full of life. When he turned 100, for example, he celebrated the occasion by parachuting out of a plane.

At that age, he also enjoyed square dancing and gardening, and won a prize at 103 for being Vernon’s most improved bowler. At 105, Duke was still living on his own and cooking most of his own meals.

Duke was only 16 when he volunteered for service on March 1, 1916, and was sent overseas.

Once officers with the 172nd Rocky Mountain Rangers found out he was too young to have enlisted, he was tasked with falling trees to help build fortifications for battlefield trenches.

After the war, Procter worked as a farmer, rancher, businessman, minister, and road foreman, retiring in 1966.

He lived his whole life in the North Okanagan, except for his three years service in Europe during the First World War.

Procter never received any wartime medals. But he was feted with the Queen’s Jubilee Medal from the Ministry of Veterans Affairs in 2003 for his service during the First World War. He was lukewarm on receiving the honour.

“I wish that would have gone to people who deserve it more than me,” he said at the time. “The people who should have got the attention are dead and gone.”

At the time of Duke’s passing in 2005, the provincial flag at the legislature in Victoria was lowered to half mast.

Gordon Campbell, premier at the time, remarked on Duke’s wartime efforts cutting trees to build battlefield trenches for Canadian troops.

“It was, in a way, a uniquely British Columbian contribution to the war effort that suited a young man from a community like Mabel Lake,” Campbell said.

“It is men like William Procter that built this province, that preserved the freedom we all cherish, and that made us all proud to be British Columbians.”

Otto Estabrooks

Otto Estabrooks of Penticton joined the military in September of 1915. He was sent overseas after training in Vernon and other Canadian locations. Estabrooks fought at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele and was wounded twice during his service. He was initially in the 54th Kootenay Battalion but later transferred to the 2nd Eastern Ontario Battalion. He was awarded the Military Medal in 1917 at the battle of Hill 70 for repelling a German attack. He later earned a bar to his medal for conspicuous gallantry.

Estabrooks worked on the Arrow and Kootenay lakes as a master on the steamships Rossland and Bonnington. He continued his career on the water after he returned from overseas, and retired in Penticton, a much respected man.

Harold Kenyon

Three escapes from a German prisoner-of-war camp ended in failure for Harold Sydney Kenyon.

So he tried a fourth.

That time, he succeeded.

Kenyon, who lived in the South Okanagan, had a remarkable and heroic tale to tell about his experiences in the First World War.

He was taken prisoner along with 41 other Canadian troops by the Germans after a battle near the French town of St. Eloi on April 19, 1916.

His first escape from a PoW camp was that August, but he was recaptured after eight days. He escaped again in October and was free for four days.

He escaped again in early November and got within 10 miles of the Dutch border before being recaptured on Dec. 15, 1916.

His last, great escape began on March 12, 1917. He made it to Holland that time, and was back in England on April 1.

British War Office records state: “Private Kenyon, after three unsuccessful attempts to escape from Germany, evaded his guards and arrived in England on April 1st after many hard and trying experiences in prison camps.”

In later life, he worked as a builder and was a Penticton city councillor. He died in 1990, at age 95.

Holding

Mistreatment of their communities didn’t stop Indigenous people from volunteering for military service, Westbank First Nations Chief Roxanne Lindley says. 

A plaque with the names of 18 band members with military service was unveiled last year during Aboriginal Veterans Day at the WFN administration centre.

“Even with the oppression against our people, those who volunteered still regarded themselves as warriors,” Lindley says. 

“They chose to leave their families, their communities, their nations, to join the fight. We praise their courage and strength in fighting for freedom. ... Their service is part of our heritage.”

At least 4,000 Indigenous people served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War, the Department of Indian Affairs estimates. 

“Furthermore, an unknown number of Indigenous people from reserves near the Canada-U.S. border served with American Forces,” the DVA website states. 

The father of Lenora Holding, a WFN band member, was wounded in the First World War, but went on to also serve in the Second World War. 

“He lied to get into the first war. He was only 15. And he lied to get into the second war because he was too old,” Holding told Global Okanagan last year.

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