|Date of Birth||June 1, 1890|
|Place of Birth||Tipton, Staffordshire|
|Next of Kin||Dr. George Underhill (father), Vallambrosa, St. John's Road, Ryde, Isle of Wight|
|Trade / Calling||Accountant|
|Religion||Church of England|
|Service Record||Link to Service Record|
|Force||Canadian Expeditionary Force|
|Enlisted / Conscripted||Enlisted|
|Place of Enlistment||Valcartier, Quebec|
|Address at Enlistment||Cranbrook, British Columbia|
|Date of Enlistment||25/09/1914|
|Age at Enlistment||24|
|Theatre of Service||Great Britain|
|Prisoner of War||No|
|Date of Death||02/03/1915|
|Age at Death||24|
|Buried At||Tidworth Military Cemetery, Wiltshire, England|
Shortly after Britain declared war on 4 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 Private Alfred Thomas Underhill, a bank employee from Cranbrook, BC.
Alfred was born on 1 June 1890 in Tipton, Staffordshire, England, a town in the Black Country region northwest of Birmingham. His parents, George Underhill and Elizabeth Thomas, were married in 1882 and they had at least eleven children but two of them died as infants. Alfred’s father was a doctor and surgeon and his family moved a lot. Over a thirty year period they lived in Staffordshire, Worcestershire, Bedfordshire, Lancashire and Middlesex. At the time of the 1911 census George and his wife were living in Bedfordshire with only two unmarried daughters still at home, and by 1914 they had moved to the Isle of Wight.
Alfred’s father was also born in Tipton and for several generations the Underhills had been doctors in that part of Staffordshire. Five of Alfred’s uncles were doctors as well as his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. In the 1890s two of his uncles immigrated to Canada, Reverend Harold John Underhill and Dr. Frederic Theodore Underhill. Dr. Underhill lived in Vancouver and Rev. Underhill served as the Anglican Rector in several different places in BC, including Vancouver. Between 1910 and 1920 most of Alfred’s brothers and sisters also immigrated to Canada and they lived in Ontario, Alberta and BC. It’s not clear when Alfred arrived but once he was in Canada he found employment with the Imperial Bank. According to the local newspaper he worked at the Kenora, Ontario branch around 1912 before being transferred out west. By 1914 he was employed as an accountant at the branch in Cranbrook, BC.
When war broke out Alfred, who’d been a member of the militia for three years, was quick to enlist. He inquired about recruiting in a letter to Captain Fife of Kenora’s 98th Regiment, but instead joined the first company of 100 men being formed in the Kootenay area of south central BC. A Lethbridge newspaper article dated Friday 14 August 1914 included the name of A. T. Underhill in a list of men heading to Valcartier, Quebec from Cranbrook. After arriving in Valcartier, where the contingent was being formed, Alfred passed his medical exam on 5 September and was assigned to the 12th Battalion, formerly the Quebec-based Royal Rifles of Canada. He signed his formal attestation paper on 25 September, less than a week before sailing with the contingent that departed in a convoy of 32 freighters and liners accompanied by eight naval escort ships. Alfred’s infantry battalion was aboard the SS Scotian along with a Canadian Field Hospital. The convoy arrived safely in England on 14 October.
Once in England the troops were sent to Salisbury Plain for a further 16 weeks of training. However, when Canada’s 1st Contingent left for France in early February, Alfred Underhill and the other men of the 12th Battalion didn’t go with them. The 12th and four other battalions were held back in England to form the Base Brigade and later the Canadian Training Depot. Alfred’s war ended a few weeks later, on 2 March 1915, when he suffered a fatal appendicitis attack in his barracks in Tidworth, Wiltshire. He was buried in the nearby Tidworth Military Cemetery. He’s commemorated on both the Cenotaph and the Wall of Honour in Cranbrook, BC.
Three of Alfred’s brothers – Cecil, Raphael and John – also served in the war and they all survived and returned to Canada. Another brother Peter was married in Hamilton, Ontario in June 1913 and died there ten months later of tuberculosis. Their mother Elizabeth immigrated to Canada in 1920, a widow by then, and she passed away in BC in 1947.
Two of Alfred’s cousins died in the war, sons of Dr. Frederic Underhill of Vancouver: Captain Reginald Underhill died in France in 1916 and his brother Lieutenant Charles Underhill died the same year in Belgium. A third brother Lieutenant James Underhill served in France and Belgium and survived the war. Alfred’s uncle Dr. Underhill was the first full-time medical health officer in Vancouver, a position he held for many years including during the 1918-19 Spanish flu epidemic. He died in Vancouver in 1936. His brother Rev. Underhill had passed away in Vancouver four years earlier.
By Bob Stewart & Becky Johnson