Kenora Great War Project


Personal Details
Date of BirthJune 24, 1873
Place of BirthStirling
Marital StatusMarried
Next of KinWife: Mary McLay, Keewatin, Ontario
Trade / CallingMillwright
Service Details
Regimental Number1038020
Service Record Link to Service Record
BattalionCompany 17, District 52
ForceCanadian Expeditionary Force
BranchCanadian Forestry Corps
Enlisted / ConscriptedEnlisted
Address at EnlistmentKeewatin, Ontario
Date of EnlistmentAugust 13, 1916
Age at Enlistment43
Theatre of ServiceGreat Britain
Prisoner of WarNo
Survived WarYes
Death Details
Date of DeathNovember 29, 1935
Age at Death62
Buried AtLake of the Woods Cemetery, Kenora, Ontario

McLay, James

James McLay was one of many Scottish immigrants to Canada and the Keewatin/Kenora area in the first decade of the last century.

James, a millwright, came to Keewatin, Ontario in June of 1904 when he was 31 and took a job at one of the local sawmills. In September of that year his wife Mary (Turnbull) joined him, bringing their three children with her – Margaret, Robert and Jane. The following year James’ sister Anne and her husband James Dempster also made the trip from Stirlingshire, Scotland to Keewatin. Both families lived on Government Road. Their widowed mother, Jeanie McLay joined them in 1906 and lived with the Dempster family. James McLay’s brother John McLay also made the trip to Canada in 1906 with his family, also settling in Keewatin.

When war broke out James was 41 and considered too old for the infantry battalions most of the young men were enlisting with. However, in 1916, with the war turning into a long one, a recruiting officer from the 238th (Forestry) battalion visited Kenora and James, along with a number of other older local men enlisted, many of them married like James. His nephew William Dempster, also married with children, was one of those to join him in enlisting with 238th, as did George Kennedy, a fellow millwright from Keewatin who enlisted at the same time James McLay did.

The 238th, which was being assembled and trained in Winnipeg, enlisted close 1,500 men from across Canada during July and August of 1916.

When James enlisted he noted on his military forms his family now included eight children. Four sons РRobert, 16, James, 12, David 4, and Andrew 1 year, six months; and four daughters Р Margaret, 18, Jane 13, Janet, 6, and Bella, 3. His wife Mary was also pregnant with their 10th child, Christine, when he enlisted.  Ontario death registry entries record a daughter, Anne, had drowned in the Winnipeg River in 1910 at age, 2.

The 238th Battalion was one of four battalions raised in Canada specifically for the Canadian Forestry Corp, which was created in late 1916 when the British government determined it made more sense to harvest timber and make lumber in England, Scotland and France rather than ship it from Canada and elsewhere.

The Canadian Forestry Corp would eventually number of 35,000 officers and men divided into 150 companies of several hundred each along with administrative units.

While the men primarily cut trees and built sawmills in England and Scotland to make the lumber needed for duck boards, dugouts, trench and tunnel shoring and buildings, a number of the companies were sent to France to produced lumber and were also used as labour units near the front lines when needed and to help evacuate wounded.

As an experienced millwright and sawmill worker James McLay would have been an ideal recruit for the Forestry Corp. He also had previous military training having served 4 and half years with the Argyles Own Highlanders as a young man. The Argyles Own were one of dozens of volunteer militia units that existed in England and Scotland prior to a major restructuring and merger the British Army’s reserve army battalions with volunteer infantry and yeomanry (calvary) and artillery units in 1907/1908.

The 238th sailed for England in September 1916, landing at Liverpool on Sept. 22. In November of 1916 James McLay was assigned to CFC Company 17, District 52, working in the Carlisle area of northwest England near the Scottish border. He would remain there for the balance of the war, earning promotion to sergeant.

His service record notes he had a single two week leave during his time in England, spanning Christmas through New Year’s of 1918.

James McLay returned to Canada in May of 1919, being demobilized at Port Arthur on May 19, 1919 and returned to his home and work in Keewatin. His mother Jeanie had passed away in absence, dying in June 5, 1918 at age 83.

The 1921 census lists the McLay family still on Government Road with James and Mary, along with children Robert, Jennie, Janet, David, Isabel, Andrew and Christine still at home. James gave his occupation as a carpenter, while Robert was working as a miller.

James McLay passed away Nov. 29, 1935 at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Kenora. His obituary, published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Dec. 4, 1935, noted he was a longtime resident of Keewatin and was survived by his wife and nine children. His grave marker was provided by Last Post Fund in 2018.

Mary (Turnbull) McLay passed away in 1970 at age 92 and is interred at the Lake of the Woods Cemetery.

by Bob Stewart

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