|Date of Birth||November 5, 1884|
|Place of Birth||Brora, Sutherlandshire|
|Next of Kin||John McRae (father), Gordonbush, Brora, Sutherlandshire, Scotland|
|Trade / Calling||Gardener|
|Religion||Church of England|
|Service Record||Link to Service Record|
|Force||Canadian Expeditionary Force|
|Enlisted / Conscripted||Enlisted|
|Place of Enlistment||Valcartier, Quebec|
|Date of Enlistment||September 23, 1914|
|Age at Enlistment||29|
|Theatre of Service||Europe|
|Prisoner of War||No|
|Date of Death||August 11, 1915|
|Age at Death||30|
|Buried At||Clyne New Cemetery, Brora, Scotland|
|Plot||F. 719 (South-East part).|
Private Alexander McRae enlisted with the 1st Canadian Contingent shortly after the war started and by April 1915 he was in the trenches in Belgium. He was wounded twice in the next three months, the second time seriously, and he died in a hospital in Edinburgh in August 1915.
Alex grew up in Brora, Scotland, a small fishing village in the Scottish Highlands northeast of Inverness. His parents were John McRae, a gardener, and Margaret Munro. Alex was born in Brora on 5 November 1884 and he had at least two brothers, John and James, and one sister, Margaret. In 1912 when he was 27 years old Alex immigrated to Canada, arriving in St. John, New Brunswick in March on the Cassandra, his occupation listed as gardener and his destination Winona, Ontario (now part of Hamilton). By the time the war started he was living in the small town of Kenora in northwestern Ontario.
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. Alex left Kenora on 23 August 1914, along with about 40 other volunteers including his good friend Frank Iriam. The local newspaper said thousands of people turned out to support the men who were leaving. With a local band playing and the crowd singing and cheering the recruits boarded a special troop train heading east. At Valcartier they underwent training, medical tests and inoculations and Alex’s medical exam on 27 August tells us he was 5’5″ with black and grey hair and grey eyes. He was found fit for service and on 23 September he enlisted in the 8th Battalion, a new unit made up of recruits from Winnipeg and northwestern Ontario. The battalion embarked for England in early October, leaving from Quebec City on the SS Franconia. They were part of a convoy of 32 transport ships protected by a Royal Navy escort due to 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 Alex invited his friend Frank Iriam to spend the time at the McRae home in the Scottish Highlands. They went by train to Edinburgh then north to Inverness and on to Brora. The last eight miles were by pony cart. Alex’s father was working as a gardener and caretaker at a hunting lodge at the time, and his brother was helping out there too. In his memoirs Frank said they spent their time visiting family and friends, being entertained with piping and dancing, and hunting deer on the hills around the lodge.
After their leave the men trained in England for another month and in February the 8th Battalion was sent to France. By April they were in the trenches in Belgium near Gravenstafel. Chlorine gas was first used by the Germans on a large scale on 22 April 1915 at Gravenstafel Ridge and the Canadian units were hit by it two days later. 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.’ They suffered heavy casualties in the gas attack, which was the start of the Battle of St. Julien (24 April-4 May 1915). Alex was wounded in the shoulder on the first day of the battle, 24 April, and he spent the next six weeks in hospitals in Versailles and Le Havre.
After recovering from his injuries Alex rejoined his unit in June and just a short time later he was wounded again, this time much more seriously. He was in the trenches near Givenchy at the time, at a place called the Duck’s Bill, and he suffered multiple injuries to his arms, legs and eye when a German shell exploded near him. From the War Diary of the 8th Battalion, 21 June 1915, ‘The Germans shelled the Duck’s Bill very heavily in the morning blowing the parapet down badly Killing 7 men and wounding 6.‘ Alex was evacuated to a hospital in Rouen and from there to the UK, where he was treated at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, Scotland. Alex lost one of his eyes and the use of his left hand but he was recovering well until he suddenly developed basal meningitis. He died at the Royal Infirmary early in the morning on 11 August 1915.
Alex’s family had his body returned home and he is buried in Clyne New Cemetery in Brora, Scotland. From the Commonwealth War Graves Register: ‘Cross erected & a permanent Memorial created by deceased’s father, with the late Pte. McRae’s name inscribed thereon.‘
Alex is commemorated on the Kenora Cenotaph and the Kenora Legion War Memorial. He is also commemorated in Brora on the Clyne War Memorial and the Clyne Parish Church War Memorial.
By Becky Johnson
Photo at the top is the Kenora Legion War Memorial.