John “Jack” Notman Wemyss

He was determined to follow his brother into the army, so when he came before the recruiting officer in Winnipeg, he didn’t mention his disability.

John “Jack” Notman Wemyss enlisted on April 26, 1916 at age nineteen, just a month after his twenty-two-year-old brother, Robert Harrison Wemyss, joined. The brothers hailed from Neepawa, Manitoba, where their father was the town lawyer.

Jack didn’t think he would be accepted because he was blind in one eye. An accident with a BB-gun when he was age eleven cost him his right eye. He was determined to follow his older brother into the army though, so when he came before the recruiting officer in Winnipeg, he didn’t mention his disability. When it came time to take the eye test during his physical, he covered his blind right eye with his left hand and when the testing officer, Capt. Ross Mitchell, said, “Let’s check the other eye,” Jack covered his right eye with his right hand and his good eye came through with flying colours.

The brothers joined the 196th Battalion and believed that their Manitoba-raised unit would fight together. Upon reaching England, though, their unit was quickly broken up.

The green Canadians went into training at camps on Salisbury Plains, and on Jan. 2, 1917 one-eyed Pvt. Jack Wemyss found himself in the 19th Reserve Battalion. So did a young lieutenant named John Diefenbaker. They were destined to reach the trenches in France as reinforcements for units already serving on the front.

Both brothers served in the trenches in France—Jack became a bicycle despatch rider and was gassed. He survived the war but suffered from lung problems for the rest of his life, and died in 1955 of lung cancer.

Robert too survived, returning to law school in Winnipeg and then joining his father’s practice in Neepawa. His daughter Peggy Wemyss under the pen name Margaret Laurence and became one of Canada’s greatest novelists.

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