William James Martin

While repairing telephone wires during a bombardment at Lievin, he was instantly killed by a piece of an enemy high explosive shell.

William James Martin, or Uncle Willie to his family, was born in Honeywood, Ontario on November 7, 1881. He was the youngest son of James and Ann Martin, and brother to John, George and Sarah. John, being the eldest, took over the family farm in Honeywood so George and William found employment elsewhere. George, in 1908, travelled to the High Prairie, Alberta area and homesteaded (SW-14-74-17 & S1/2-13-74-17). George was married to Charlotte Hazel McLellan. He also became a teacher when the school was built in 1908 and taught there for 2 and a half years. They remained in the area until 1918 when they moved to Spruce Grove, Alberta where he taught school again, and then moved again later to Edmonton. George passed away in 1964 and his wife in 1975. William also homesteaded nearby and remained there until he enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1916.

Although William was not in active military service at the time of his enlistment, he had served 3 months (dates unknown) with the 36th Peel Regiment in Ontario. On March 14, 1916, William enlisted with the CEF in Edmonton. He was 34 years old. This is quite an advanced age for a person to enlist so one can only imagine why he chose to do so. He was not married so there were no family ties keeping him from joining the war effort. His service number was #812107 and he was assigned to the 138th Battalion (Edmonton, Alberta Battalion). The 138th Battalion began recruiting in Edmonton in late 1915. It had one commanding officer, Lieut.-Col. R. Belcher whose signature was on Willie’s Attestation Form. The 138th was an infantry battalion.

The Attestation Forms that he completed to enter military service provides little about his personal history but does provide some information about him. William stood 5’ 4” with blue eyes and brown hair. He listed his religion as Presbyterian. Finally, he named his father, James, as his next-of-kin which would become important later on.

On August 21, 1916, his battalion set sail for Europe from Halifax aboard the S.S. Olympic, a sister ship to the Titanic and Brittanic. Following Olympic's return to Britain at the beginning of the war, the White Star Line intended to lay her up in Belfast until the war was over, but in September 1915 she was requisitioned by the Admiralty to be used as a fast troop transport. Stripped of her peacetime fittings, and armed with 12-pounders and 4.7-inch guns, the newly-designated HMT (His Majesty's Transport) 2810 left Liverpool on 24 September 1915. From 1916 to 1917, Olympic was chartered by the Canadian Government to transport troops from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Britain. In 1917 she gained 6-inch guns and was painted with a "dazzle" camouflage scheme to make it more difficult for observers to estimate her speed and heading. After the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, Olympic transported thousands of U.S. troops to Britain. During the war, Olympic is reported to have carried up to 201,000 troops and other personnel and travelling about 184,000 miles. For her wartime service, she earned the nickname “Old Reliable”.

In the time period from November 14 to 18, 1916, William left for France to go into the field but it was not to be with the 138th Battalion. His battalion was broken up and the soldiers were “Taken on Strength” into other battalions already in the trenches in France. Taken on Strength refers to an active battalion taking reinforcements from other battalions that were not at the front to fill their ranks due to casualties. William now joined the 47th Battalion with 75 other men from the 138th Battalion. The 4th division, which the 47th Battalion was part of, had just completed the famous Somme offensive on November 11 and was in dire need of reinforcements. From Bramshott, England, William proceeded to France, through Portsmouth, on November 14, 1916. On November 15, he arrived at La Havre, in the Normandy region of France and on November 19 he left La Havre to join the 47th Battalion at the front. On November 21 he joined his new battalion on the front lines near Bouzincourt, France.

The 47th Battalion, including William, fought with distinction at the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

May 6 – “Enemy attempted determined counter-attack during the night, all of which were repulsed and heavy casualties inflicted. Our artillery active on organized shoot. Enemy artillery active. Rifle fire and sniping active. Situation in general appears unchanged. 47th Battalion pass into Brigade reserve”(10th B.).

This last entry in the war diaries coincides with the day that William was killed in action, May 6, 1917. The explanation from the diary was that the fighting was very heavy during an operation to capture German trenches. A file from the Circumstances of Death Registers states “While repairing telephone wires during a bombardment at Lievin, he was instantly killed by a piece of an enemy high explosive shell, which hit him in the right side above the hip.” Where it states “ORs killed 26” in the war diaries, it can be presumed that one of these is William. OR stands for Other Ranks of which he was one. Nicholson in “Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919” provides an explanation of what happened with the 47th battalion on the days of William’s death coinciding with the war diaries:

“Preparatory operations had already begun in the Canadian area. On the night of 5-6 May the 46th and 47th Battalions of the 10th Infantry Brigade successfully stormed a triangle of German trenches three-quarters of a mile northwest of La Coulotte: four nights later the 44th Battalion seized 300 yards of the front line and support trench of the "Vimy Ridge"-Lens line immediately south of the triangle. These operations, primarily designed to stir up German reserves so that routes forward would become known to the corps artillery, succeeded in their purpose. Repeated German counter-attacks were broken up by artillery and small-arms fire.”

Mary Irwin, William’s niece (John’s daughter), remembered the day that William left for Europe. She was young but remembers that the family was gathered and crying. She also recalled the day that the telegram arrived announcing William’s death. Again, the family, including Aunt Sarah, her parents and grandparents, gathered and were crying. Mary, 7 years old at the time, could not understand why the family was grieving but she felt she too should cry. She went behind a door and cried. Being only seven, it must have made a big impact on a young girl.

For his ultimate sacrifice in France, William earned two medals. The first was the Victory Medal. The medal was awarded to all ranks of the fighting forces, to civilians under contract, and others employed with military hospitals who actually served on the establishment of a unit in a theatre of war between 05 August 1914 and 11 November 1918 (inclusive). It was also awarded to members of the British Naval mission to Russia 1919 - 1920 and for mine clearance in the North Sea between 11 November 1918 and 30 November 1919. This medal was never issued alone and was always issued with the British War Medal. The second medal was the British War Medal. The medal was awarded to all ranks of Canadian overseas military forces who came from Canada between 05 August 1914 and 11 November 1918, or who had served in a theatre of war. The requirements for RAF personnel were the same as for the army. Naval personnel were required to have 28 days of mobilized service or to have lost their lives before this period of service was complete. Seamen of the Canadian Merchant Marine who served at sea not less than six months, and crews of Dominion Government Ships and the Canadian Mercantile Marine were also eligible.

These two medals would have been sent to William’s father. Medals were always forwarded to whoever was listed as next of kin on the Attestation Forms. In addition to the two medals, a Memorial Plaque (also called the “Dead Man’s Penny”) and scroll would have been issued to his next of kin. William’s mother would have also received the Cross of Sacrifice (also called the Memorial Cross or the Silver Cross). for their country during the war. At the time of writing, the whereabouts of these artifacts are unknown. Along with the medals, plaque and scroll, William’s father would have also received William’s belongings from France and the monies earned by him while in the military (a total of $225.62).

William is buried at La Chaudiere Military Cemetery near "Vimy Ridge", France. The cemetery is a short distance from the location of his death and also the "Vimy Ridge" Memorial.

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