|Date of Birth||November 29, 1893|
|Place of Birth||Kenora, Ontario|
|Next of Kin||Mrs. W.C. Cameron, mother, Kenora, Ontario|
|Trade / Calling||Student|
|Service Record||Link to Service Record|
|Force||Canadian Expeditionary Force|
|Enlisted / Conscripted||Enlisted|
|Place of Enlistment||Winnipeg, Manitoba|
|Age at Enlistment||21|
|Theatre of Service||Europe|
|Prisoner of War||No|
|Date of Death||March 24, 1959|
|Age at Death||65|
|Buried At||Lake of the Woods Cemetery, Kenora, Ontario|
Born at home in Rat Portage, Ontario on November 29, 1893, John Henesy Cameron was the second son of WG (Bill) and Hattie Louise Cameron. WG (Bill)Jr. was his older brother, born in 1991, and John was followed by brothers Ashmore, (who died in early childhood), Maxwell and Douglas, and sisters Sadie and Helen (Nell).
John was blessed with natural talents in athletics and art and his early years were marked by his presence on many Kenora hockey teams and rowing crews. When he was just 20 he played on the Winnipeg Victorias, a hockey team that had earlier won the Stanley Cup three times between 1896 and 1902 and the Allan Cup in 1911. While John’s team was not that successful it did play some exhibition games in the United States, notably in Philadelphia. He was educated in Rat Portage schools until his teen years, when he was sent to St. Andrews College in Aurora, Ontario.
In early 1915 Canada was struggling in the war effort, having just one division in Europe. It needed to raise fresh reinforcements for the war and for the first time focused its appeal in Manitoba. John, as did twenty other young men from Kenora, went to Winnipeg to enlist and on February 22 at the age of 22 he became Private #72125 in the first regiment formed in Manitoba, the 27th Canadian Infantry Battalion. He was a slim, fair-haired, blue eyed soldier, 5 ft 10 in. tall.
The regiment underwent basic army training in Manitoba that spring under the command of Col. Ketchen and as it prepared to embark for Europe, the 27th and 28th battalions in Winnipeg were combined with the 29th and 31st battalions from Vancouver and Calgary to form Canada’s 6th infantry brigade. On May 12th the men of the 27th boarded a Canadian Pacific Railway troop train to begin its journey to Europe. There was a brief stop in Kenora as the train took on water, giving families of the Kenora men an opportunity to say fond farewells. It was an historic moment for Kenora and the event was captured for history by the many photographs taken at the train station. On the 17th of May the regiment sailed from the Port of Quebec, bound for England aboard the SS Carpathia.
The regiment spent the summer in England and sailed to France on September 17th where it was held in reserve through the winter months. The Canadian troops were called to relieve British troops at St. Eloi, 5 km from Ypres, on April 3rd and were astonished to find they had little but mud-filled craters to take cover in. As the British forces were leaving they had blown a series of underground mines to destroy the German defenses and there were few fortified trenches and most of these were waist-deep in water.
There followed two weeks of hard, confused fighting. A series of German counter-attacks drove the Canadians out of the craters and the command lost track of troop locations. Most soldiers dug in under heavy fire and were unable to advise their commanders on the progress of the battle. An official report of operations submitted by Major-General REW Turner, commander of the 2nd Canadian Division noted ‘the hostile bombardment was heavy from the time of our arrival.’
His account reads: ‘At dawn on the morning of April 6th a very intense hostile bombardment opened on all our trenches and works on the Divisional front, causing great destruction to the defensive works and inflicting heavy casualties upon the garrisons. Our artillery immediately opened a heavy bombardment, and about the same time the enemy launched an infantry attack which reached craters Nos. 2 and 3. During the day of April 6th all rearward works were manned by the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade, and bombing attacks were launched against the lost craters. The attack against crater No. 2 by the 27th Canadian Battalion was unable to penetrate the hostile barrage. The attack against crater No. 3 by the 28th Canadian Battalion succeeded in reaching craters 5 and 6 but were unable to proceed further. A company of the 28th Battalion followed this bombing attack on the early morning of April 7th and relieved the bombers. They also made a start at digging in, in craters 4 and 5. These crater garrisons suffered heavy casualties and were relieved on the night of April 6th and 7th where they are still holding on. In the early morning of April 7th, the 27th Canadian Battalion was relieved by the 21st Canadian Battalion in the ‘F’ trenches and at 3:20 pm on the same day the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade was ordered to relieve the 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade.’
The Canadian forces suffered 1,373 casualties during the confused fighting at St. Eloi and John Cameron was one of these. The family account of his wounding has it that an artillery shell suddenly landed right by him and he was buried alive by the flying dirt until a later shell moved most of the dirt off him. Dazed and wounded he began to wander over the battlefield in the general direction of enemy lines when a couple of comrades were able to spirit him back to safety. That was Apr 7, 1916 and on April 17th John Henesy Cameron was admitted to unit #13 in the hospital at Boulogne. Although he remained in Europe for three more years he would not see duty on the front lines again. On April 21st he was diagnosed a victim of shell-shock and was assigned to ‘invalid’ status and transferred to the Canadian Casualty Assembly Centre in Folkestone on the coast of England. John spent the summer in hospitals and convalescent homes in England. (Canadian Convalescent Hospital at Bushey Park, Hampton Hill – May 22/16; Canadian Convalescent Hospital in Epsom – June 3/16).
Among other advice and treatments John received during his convalescence he remembers one antidote that worked. He was covered with boils from his injury and was advised to eat canned tomatoes. To his surprise and great relief the boils cleared up.
On August 30th he was assigned to a Canadian Army Reserve Battalion and was later posted to Company 51 of the Canadian Forestry Corps in England. He served with them behind the lines in France until February 1919. On May 23, 1919 he was transferred from the Forestry Corps to the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Canada, in Whitby Ontario.
John was discharged from the army in Toronto on May 27, 1919 and he returned directly to Kenora. The family anxiously received him home but it was soon apparent that John was a true casualty of the war. His war injury had left him a hollow man. Once a popular, outgoing raconteur, John had come home a retiring, introspective man. His father, WG Cameron Sr., then a successful wholesale grocer, wanted nothing but the best for his war veteran and sent him to Chicago for a commercial art course but John did not pursue it. For a time he was known as WG’s driver, since Mr. Cameron did not drive a car.
Mining was popular in the Lake of the Woods area in the 1920’s and on several occasions his dad grub-staked him on prospecting missions. This seemed to suit John well. He spent more and more time in lonely pursuits in the quiet, natural environment on the lake became very knowledgeable of it. Wikipedia describes Lake of the Woods as ‘the sixth largest freshwater lake located (at least partially) in the United States, after the five Great Lakes) and it has 105,000 km of shoreline.’ John’s brother Max, onetime president of the Ontario prospectors association, once said that if you brought John a rock sample from Lake of the Woods, he could tell you what part of the lake it came from.
It was not till he was 41 that John found the girl of his dreams, Florence (Babe) Kelly, and Babe was a perfect match for the man who had come home from the war. Babe was wonderful company – she loved to tell stories and she was good with anything John wanted. Having roamed the lake in his middle years, John found an opportunity to buy a fishery on Alexandria Island, an island near the American border. It was remote from Kenora but he and Babe took it on and netted fish and ran a trading post for loggers on Big Island, near Alexandria.
They ran the Alexandria Island operation for the next ten years then sold it and moved their belongings back to Kenora. John lived quietly in Kenora for the last five years of his life and he died of a heart attack on March 24th, 1959 at the age of 66. He is buried in Lake of the Woods Cemetery, Kenora.
By Carolyn Cameron
Photographs courtesy of the family
Group photograph of John with the 27th Battalion is from the commemorative book of the 27th Battalion, Military District No. 10, 1915
John’s grave marker was installed in the Lake of the Woods Cemetery in 2018 by the Last Post Fund.