Kenora Great War Project

 

Personal Details
Date of BirthAugust 6, 1892
Place of BirthStoneyford, Antrim
CountryIreland
Marital StatusSingle
Next of KinR.J. Lewis (father), Aghalee, Lurgan, Ireland
Trade / CallingDruggist
ReligionChurch of England
Service Details
Regimental Number865
Service Record Link to Service Record
Battalion8th Battalion
ForceCanadian Expeditionary Force
BranchCanadian Infantry
Enlisted / ConscriptedEnlisted
Place of EnlistmentValcartier, Quebec
Age at Enlistment22
Theatre of ServiceEurope
Prisoner of WarNo
Survived WarNo
Death Details
Date of Death25/04/1915
Age at Death22
Buried AtNo known grave; commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres

Lewis, William

Shortly after Britain declared war in August 1914 the Canadian government proposed raising an Expeditionary Force to send overseas. By late September a contingent of 32,000 volunteers had been assembled at the new military camp in Valcartier, Quebec. Two thirds of the men in this 1st Canadian Contingent were born in the British Isles including Corporal William Lewis, who was killed in April 1915 at the Battle of St. Julien.

William was the son of Robert Joseph Lewis and Sarah Jane Lindsay of County Antrim, Ireland. Robert and Sarah were married in 1887 and over the next 18 years they had eight children, five sons (John, William, Henry, Joseph and Harold) and three daughters (Bessie, Sadie and Isabel). They lived in Aghalee, a small village southwest of Belfast, where Robert was a farmer. William, their second oldest son, was born in August 1892. At the time of the 1911 Irish census he was 18 years old, working as a chemist’s assistant and living at home with his parents and four younger siblings. Not long after that William immigrated to Canada and in 1914 when the war started he was living in Kenora, Ontario and working as a druggist.

Britain declared war on 4 August 1914 and three days later mobilization orders were issued in Canada. Officers and volunteers were told to go to Valcartier, an area about 20 miles northwest of Quebec City that would become the site of a large military camp. William left Kenora by train on 23 August 1914, heading to Quebec along with about 40 other local volunteers. Thousands of people turned out at the Kenora station to cheer and support the men as they left. At Valcartier they underwent training, medical tests and inoculations. William’s medical exam on 8 September tells us he was 5’10” tall with blue eyes and light brown hair. He was found fit for service and on 22 September 1914 he enlisted with the 8th Canadian Infantry Battalion, a new unit made up of recruits from Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. In October the 8th Battalion embarked for England, leaving from Quebec City on the SS Franconia. They were part of a convoy of 32 transport ships protected by a Royal Navy escort because of the danger from German submarines. The convoy arrived safely in Plymouth, England on 14 October.

The 8th Battalion was sent to Salisbury Plain in southern England where they trained for several months. The men were billeted in tents and huts and due to the cold, wet winter weather many of them became sick with severe colds and pneumonia. They were given a period of leave for the holiday season and after another month of training the men were sent to France in February 1915 as part of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Canadian Division. The battalion spent several weeks in France, in the area between Hazebrouck and Armentières, where they had their first experience in trench warfare. On 14 March William was promoted to Corporal. In early April the battalion moved to the Ypres Salient in Belgium and on 19 April they were sent to the front trenches near Gravenstafel.

Chlorine gas was first used by the Germans on a large scale on 22 April 1915 at Gravenstafel Ridge and the 8th Battalion was hit by it during a second gas attack two days later. They suffered heavy casualties from the poison and in the fighting that followed – the Battle of St. Julien – when German infantry advanced behind the cloud of gas. From the War Diary of the 8th Battalion, 24-25 April 1915, Gravenstafel: ‘The trenches were all attacked at night, and all the men in the trenches except the reserves were weak from fumes –   in fact some men had already died from fumes.’

The Canadians held the line for three crucial days, at times engaging in hand to hand combat. They were relieved by British units on 25 April. William was killed in action on the last day, 25 April, one of 6,000 casualties suffered by the Canadians during the battle.

William’s final resting place is unknown. He is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium, which bears the names of more than 54,000 men who died in the Ypres Salient and have no known grave. He is also commemorated on the WW1 Roll of Honour for the 8th Battalion (Royal Winnipeg Rifles) and on page 24 of Canada’s First World War Book of Remembrance, displayed in the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

By Becky Johnson

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