|Date of Birth||December 18, 1889|
|Place of Birth||West Ham, London|
|Next of Kin||Miss Susie Sparks (sister), 130 Evening Road, Stoke Newington, London, England|
|Trade / Calling||Packer/porter at hotel|
|Religion||Church of England|
|Service Record||Link to Service Record|
|Force||Canadian Expeditionary Force|
|Enlisted / Conscripted||Enlisted|
|Place of Enlistment||Kenora, Ontario|
|Address at Enlistment||Kenora, Ontario|
|Date of Enlistment||May 25, 1915|
|Age at Enlistment||25|
|Theatre of Service||Europe|
|Prisoner of War||No|
|Date of Death||December 26, 1967|
|Age at Death||78|
Private Robert Henry Sparks enlisted with the 52nd Battalion in May 1915 and served in England, France and Belgium. He was wounded in 1916 at the Battle of Mount Sorrel and spent the rest of the war in the UK and Canada.
Robert was the son of Thomas George Sparks (Sparkes) and Eliza Mackler of West Ham, London, England. Thomas and Eliza were both born in Stepney, London and they were married in 1875. Thomas was a dockworker but jobs on the docks were not steady or permanent and he was sometimes out of work. At least five children were born between 1877 and 1888 and sadly they all died young except for one daughter, Martha. Robert Henry was born in West Ham in December 1889 and another son William Thomas followed in November 1891. The youngest daughter, Susanna, was born in 1895 and their father passed away about a year later. When the 1901 census was taken Eliza was working as a charwoman and Robert, William and Susanna were boarding with two different families. Eliza died a few years later. By 1911 Martha was married and the other three children were all working as servants.
William immigrated to Canada in 1913 and settled in the small town of Kenora in northwestern Ontario. The Tourist Hotel had opened in 1910 and he was hired there as a clerk. Robert joined him the following year, arriving on the SS Alaunia in May 1914 and also getting work at the hotel. The war started that August and both brothers enlisted in Kenora, William Thomas Sparks in December 1914 and Robert in May 1915. They were assigned to the 52nd Battalion, which was based in Port Arthur and recruited throughout northwestern Ontario. In June the Kenora volunteers were sent to Port Arthur to join the rest of the unit. William left for England in September as part of the 2nd Reinforcing Draft but Robert trained with the 52nd Battalion for two more months. They headed to the east coast in November, embarking from St. John, New Brunswick on 23 November aboard the SS California. After a few weeks in England the 52nd Battalion was sent to France on 20 February 1916. The men spent the first night in tents in a snowstorm before being moved to Belgium by train the next day. They became part of the new 3rd Canadian Division on 23 February.
In the first week of March the men went into the trenches for orientation and training and the battalion suffered its first combat fatality on the night of 11-12 March. Later that month the Canadian Corps took up positions in the south part of the Ypres Salient, between St. Eloi and Hooge, and the 52nd Battalion was moved into the area on 1 April. There were no major battles at the time but they suffered casualties from rifle, machine gun and artillery fire and from German snipers. They had several rotations in the front lines, including a long one from 23 May to 1 June when their positions were heavily shelled. From the War Diary of the 52nd Battalion, 31 May 1916, ‘Men becoming in critical condition owing to prolonged period under constant and heavy shell fire and relief very much needed. 8 day tour under these conditions very much too trying.’
The exhausted men were relieved on 1 June and went into reserve positions then on to the town of Poperinghe the next day, but their rest would be a very short one. The Battle of Mount Sorrel started on the morning of 2 June with an intense bombardment of the Canadian lines followed by the explosion of underground mines. After the barrage German infantry advanced and captured Mount Sorrel and nearby areas. A counter-attack was planned for early on 3 June and additional units were brought in, including all four companies of the 52nd Battalion. The men left Ypres around midnight and even before arriving at their positions in Sanctuary Wood, just after dawn on 3 June, they faced severe rifle and machine gun fire and a heavy artillery barrage. Robert was one of the casualties, suffering a gunshot or shell wound to his right foot on 2 June. He was evacuated to a hospital in France and from there to England.
Robert spent a month at a military hospital in Dartford, Kent and a further six weeks in a convalescent centre before being discharged to the Canadian Casualty Assembly Centre. Over the next year and a half he served with several different units in England including the 18th Reserve Battalion, the Manitoba Regiment Depot and the Canadian Arms Inspection and Repair Depot. On 27 January 1917 he married Emma Elizabeth Woollett in a Wesleyan Chapel in Wandsworth, London. One of the witnesses was his brother William, who was also in England recovering from wounds. Later that same year a son, Robert Jr., was born in Wandsworth. In February 1918 Robert was posted to the Canadian Casualty Depot and the following month he was invalided to Canada to be treated for general debility. In June he was admitted to Keefer Home, a small convalescent hospital in Port Arthur. He spent five months there and he was discharged from the army on 23 December 1918, listed as medically unfit for further service.
Robert’s wife and son had stayed in England and in December 1919 he returned there to join them. They made their home in Wandsworth and another son, Cyril, was born in 1925. Robert passed away on 26 December 1967, at age 78, in Worthing, Sussex, a seaside town in southern England. His wife died in Worthing in 1973.
Robert is commemorated in Kenora on the St. Alban’s Pro-Cathedral First World War Roll of Honour.
By Becky Johnson