|Date of Birth||December 25, 1885|
|Place of Birth||Toronto, Ontario|
|Next of Kin||Wife - Annie Figsby|
|Trade / Calling||Locomotive Fireman|
|Religion||Church of England|
|Service Record||Link to Service Record|
|Force||Canadian Expeditionary Force|
|Enlisted / Conscripted||Enlisted|
|Address at Enlistment||#9 7th Ave South, Kenora, Ontario|
|Date of Enlistment||August 9, 1914|
|Age at Enlistment||28|
|Theatre of Service||Europe|
|Prisoner of War||No|
|Decorations and Medals||Military Medal|
|Date of Death||19451101|
|Age at Death||60|
|Buried At||Brookside Cemetery, Winnipeg, Manitoba|
William Henry Figsby was one of the men to answer the first call for volunteers when the Great War began in August 1914. Along with 43 other Kenora and Keewatin men, Figsby stepped forward when the local militia unit, the 98th Regiment, was given a directive to raise a local group of men for the war effort from its own ranks and local volunteers with previous military experience.
Figsby was one of the latter, having served in the Second Boer War 1899-1902.
Born in Toronto, Ontario on Dec. 25, 1885, William Figsby was one of three children of Henry and Lizzie Figsby. The 1891 census lists the family, which included daughters Lottie, age 15 and Ida, age 10, as living in York where Henry senior worked as a teamster.
William made his way to South Africa as teenager at the age of 16 in 1901 and enlisted as a trooper with the South African Light Horse, one of several mounted units raised in South Africa by the British Army from local South Africans of British decent or men from its colonies who’d made their way to the colony. The 600 strong South Africa Light Horse included a number of notables on its muster roll. Future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a Lieutenant with the unit and Lt. Colonel Julian Byng, who would be the first commander of the Canadian Corp in the Great War and was named Canada’s governor general after the war, was the unit’s commanding officer from when it was formed in 1899 until the end of the Boer War in 1902.
Figsby, who was with the South African Light Horse for less than a year, earned the Queen’s South Africa Medal for his service along with bars for service in 1901, 1902 and service in the Transvaal and Orange Free State. The unit’s medal roster recorded he’d originally enlisted under the name of W.H. Standish. He returned to Canada in August 1902 aboard the steam ship Pretoria in company with a group of returning soldiers who’d served with various British Army units during the war.
In 1908 Figsby applied for a Canadian government western land grant authorized that year for Canadian and other British Empire soldiers who’d served in South Africa. Although it is unlikely he actually took possession of the 320-acres of land on offer as most took either the $160 in government script as an option, or applied for the land grant on behalf of a proxy buyer in a private sale. By 1909 Figsby was in Winnipeg working as a fireman with the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. In September of 1913 he married Annie Josephine McSorley in Winnipeg. He was working for the railroad in Kenora as a locomotive fireman when the Great War began.
War had been declared Aug. 5 and recruiting in Kenora officially began Aug. 9. Within two weeks the local allotment of 24 men with one officer had been doubled with initial enlistment and training beginning in Kenora on Aug. 14. On Aug. 23, 44 local men boarded one of the trains at the Kenora CP Rail station taking western Canadian reservists and volunteers east to Valcartier, Quebec, where Canada’s 1st Contingent of 30,000 men was being gathered and trained. In Valcartier the men signed attestation forms for overseas duty, and along with most of the Kenora/Keewatin men, Figsby was assigned to the Winnipeg-based Royal Winnipeg Rifles, known as the Little Black Devils and designated the 8th Battalion CEF for service overseas in the war.
The men shipped to England on Oct. 3 and after further training, crossed the English Channel to France in mid-February 1915 and joined the war.
For Figsby, the static infantry ground war in France and Belgium was no doubt a totally different experience from the fast moving, mounted campaigning he’d done as youth in South Africa. However, he proved to be a good solider, earning promotion to corporal then sergeant and in 1916 was awarded the Military Medal.
The medal citation reads: ‘For good service and devotion to duty, especially at Givenchy (a major battle for the 8th Battalion the previous June 18/19) and at all other times when called upon.’
Figsby was injured on June 26, 1915 when he was struck by timbers from a dugout that was hit by shellfire. According to a letter home to the Kenora Miner and News from Sgt. Frank Iriam, published July 17, 1915, Figsby was one about dozen men injured that day including several from Kenora. Figsby suffered a broken rib and shock according to Iriam’s letter.
Despite his medal for bravery in the field and his promotion as a non-commissioned officer the war took a toll on William Figsby. He was treated twice for neurasthenia (essentially nervous system exhaustion from the stress and physical toll of battle) and suffered from alopecia (total loss of hair).
William Figsby’s war ended in the fall of 1916 during the closing days of the Battle of Somme when he was admitted to hospital a second time for neurasthenia, this time complicated by influenza. After five days in a field hospital in France he was transferred to England where he spent another nine weeks in hospital.
A medical board determined his disabilities, which also included rheumatism and psoriasis, were entirely due to his service – stress of the campaign and shell shock are listed as causes on his medical file – and while some would disappear over time, others were permanent according to the medical review board.
‘His conditions are the result of service. On account of his disabilities he should not be re-enlisted,’ reads Figsby’s file.
He returned home to Canada in the spring of 1917 aboard the Olympic with a large group of other wounded soldiers. Arriving in Halifax on April 20, 1917, he returned home to Winnipeg where his wife and son Kenneth had moved to after he enlisted in Kenora. He was officially discharged from service effective July 31, 1917.
Figsby returned to work with CP Rail, becoming a locomotive engineer. He and Annie had four more children – a son Henry and daughters Eileen, Patricia and Lorraine. Both Kenneth and Henry followed in their father’s footsteps and worked for the CPR.
William Henry Figsby passed away Nov. 1, 1945 in Winnipeg and is buried at Brookside Cemetery (unmarked grave). His obituary notice in the Winnipeg Free Press the following day made mention of his war service and involvement with the Brotherhood of Railway Engineers, the Amputations Association and the Army, Navy Veterans Association.
by Bob Stewart