Matthew Humphrey Archer

Archer earned the Military Medal for continuing to operate his Lewis Gun after the rest of his crew was either injured or killed at Vimy Ridge.

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It’s the notice no parent ever wants to receive.

“Deeply regret to inform you…,” the telegram reads. “Sergt. Matthew Humphrey Archer infantry officially reported killed in action, August Seventeenth, nineteen-seventeen.”

This brusque note signaled the end of a life sacrificed for friends and comrades. Unspoken amid its sparse lines is the story of a young man who earned a Military Medal for bravery; a budding teacher from Ontario who only wanted—through his conduct on and off the field of battle—to do his mother proud.

Matthew Archer was born in Bradford Ontario in 1896. A farm boy, he dreamed of being a teacher. But with the coming of war, he set his education aside and enlisted in May 1916.

In April 1917, Archer took part in the Battle of "Vimy Ridge" Ridge as a member of the 4th Canadian Division, 11th Infantry Brigade. It’s there that he earned his Military Medal for continuing to operate his Lewis Gun after the rest of his crew was either injured or killed. He continued firing for 48 hours straight in the face of the enemy counterattack, scrounging the pockmarked muddy ground when possible for ammunition.

He quickly rose through the ranks to sergeant, and maintained a strong concern for the men he led. On August 17, 1917, he was making the rounds through the trenches near Lens, France, when an enemy shell directly struck his position, killing him instantly. In a letter home to his mother Jennie Mae, a Captain Aiken wrote “From the Colonel on down, we all feel his loss terribly. His actions on "Vimy Ridge" Ridge will long be talked about in this battalion.”

Archer’s brave conduct only tells part of the tale, though. In letters home, another side emerges: that of a strongly religious son who seeks to reassure his mother that, despite wartime’s many temptations, he would remain morally pure.

“Dear Mother, in one of your letters you showed a little anxiety that I should be a good boy,” he wrote in October 1916. “Mother, my one ambition is to come out of this war morally free and I’m sure if I remain in the present state of mind I shall return to you as good a boy as when I went away. I am well aware of the dangers to be faced in England in the way of temptations and drink and women but when I am faced with those temptations the memories of my mother and my Evelyn will keep me pure.”

He ends his letter by promising to look for the “silver lining” in the war. But tellingly, he later returns to add a postscript: “Seeing as I can’t see a silver lining, I will try to polish up the dark side, mother.”

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.