Harry George James

The villagers believed he had liberated them!” Witzke added with a chuckle that “he never mentioned what punishment he received” for going AWOL.

Every year the men gathered, their numbers dwindling, their bodies aging, but their spirits strong.

Members of the 4th Platoon, 19th Battalion, the veterans had faced the crucible of war and survived. Following the Armistice, they vowed to meet once a year in Toronto in reunion. They also bought a bottle of fine whisky, pledging that the last two men standing would split it.

Sgt. Harry George James did not get to partake of that bottle. He died too soon, in 1978, at the age of eighty-eight. But he did share decades of camaraderie with his fellow veterans, all the while raising a young daughter as a single parent.

“He and I were alone for eleven years and outside of going to work, he gave up almost all of his social life to being an only parent,” said his daughter Dorothy Witzke, herself now in her eighties.

James was born in England in 1890 but moved to Canada where, at the outbreak of the war, he worked as a butcher. Just five feet and four inches, he enlisted in Toronto on March 1915 at the age of twenty-five. Entering the 4th Platoon, he served primarily in France. Witzke said her father rarely spoke of war experience, unless it was to recount a humorous anecdote.

A favourite story of Witkze’s is the tale of how her father “liberated France.”

It was sometime near the end of the war. James and a pal from his platoon had gone on a short leave. They must have had a grand time, because they were late returning to the ranks. When they finally did return, their battalion was gone. Believing they knew the battalion’s ultimate destination, they hotfooted it to the small French village, only to be greeted wild cheering.

“The village people, seeing two Canadian soldiers marching in, excitedly welcomed them,” said Witzke. “They were surrounded by citizens offering food, drink and sleeping quarters. (The villagers believed my father) had liberated them!” Witzke added with a chuckle that “he never mentioned what punishment he received” for going AWOL. During his time in service, James was mentioned in official despatches for bravery and received an honorable discharge on November 11, 1918. He later would enjoy a career working for Eaton’s, and was active in veterans’ organizations.

“I imagine the war was re-fought many times over when at the Legion or reunions,” said Witzke.

Do you have an ancestor who served in the Great War? Submit their story and it could be included on this Great War Album website.