|Date of Birth||October 9, 1896|
|Place of Birth||Kenora, Ontario|
|Next of Kin||Patrick & Sarah O'Connor (father & mother), Rainy River, Ontario|
|Trade / Calling||Labourer|
|Service Record||Link to Service Record|
|Force||Canadian Expeditionary Force|
|Enlisted / Conscripted||Enlisted|
|Place of Enlistment||Selkirk, Manitoba|
|Address at Enlistment||Tyndall, Manitoba|
|Date of Enlistment||January 11, 1916|
|Age at Enlistment||19|
|Theatre of Service||Europe|
|Prisoner of War||No|
|Date of Death||August 15-16, 1917|
|Age at Death||20|
|Buried At||No known grave; commemorated on the Vimy Memorial in France|
Private John O’Connor joined the 108th Battalion in January 1916 and arrived in France a year later. He was killed in action in August 1917 at the Battle of Hill 70.
John was the oldest son of Patrick O’Connor and Sarah Jane McPherson of Rainy River, Ontario. Sarah grew up at Sabaskosing on Lake of the Woods in northwestern Ontario. Her father and both grandfathers had worked in the fur trade for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Patrick was from Ireland and he worked on the lake as a fisherman, lighthouse keeper and farmer. He and Sarah were married in 1896 and they had ten children: John, Thomas, Luke, Mary, Patrick, twins Bridgette and Catherine, Marguerite, Annie and Francis. When the 1901 census was taken they were living on Lake of the Woods, probably as Sabaskosing. By 1911 they were in Spohn Township in the District of Rainy River, where Patrick was farming.
John enlisted on 11 January 1916 in Selkirk, Manitoba. He was living in the nearby village of Tyndall at the time and working as a labourer. His attestation says he was born on 9 October 1895 in Kenora (called Rat Portage at the time) but John was born in 1896 and he was 19 when he signed up. He joined the 108th (Selkirk) Battalion, which had been organized in December and was being recruited in Manitoba. His uncle by marriage, John George Cook, joined the same unit two months later. In May the battalion was sent to train at Camp Hughes, just east of Brandon. From the Brandon Daily Sun, 26 May 1916, ‘108th First to Arrive Camp Hughes – The 108th Battalion have the distinction of being the first to arrive at Camp Hughes this season. This Battalion has been over strength for some time and a number were weeded out, so at present they comprise a splendid lot of men.’
After training over the summer the 108th was sent to England that fall, embarking from Halifax on 19 September 1916 on the SS Olympic. John spent the first two weeks of November in Bramshott Military Hospital, due to inflammation in his knee, and in January 1917 he was transferred to the 14th Reserve Battalion.
After another two months of training John was attached to the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) and sent to France. He spent several weeks at the base depot and with an entrenching battalion before joining his new unit in the field. The Canadian Corps had just been through the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the 16th Battalion suffered about 330 casualties on the first day of the assault. John joined them towards the end of April in a small draft of reinforcements. Over the summer the men trained, repaired trenches and dugouts, formed work parties and had their share of rotations in the front lines.
In July 1917 the Canadians were ordered to capture the town of Lens in France. General Currie instead supported a plan to take the high ground to the north of Lens and the troops began training for what would be the Battle of Hill 70 (15-25 August 1917). In mid-July the 16th Battalion moved to Mazingarbe, 10 km northwest of Lens, and on 3 August they had a three day rotation in the front trenches. On the night of 13 August two companies moved into position for the assault on Hill 70 and they were joined by the other two companies the following day. Zero hour was set for 4:25 am on 15 August. From the War Diary of the 16th Battalion, ‘At Zero hour the whole Battalion leaped out of the trenches led by its Pipers.’
The 16th Battalion had the 7th Battalion on their right and the 13th on their left and the units advanced up the hill against formidable defences – deep trenches, thick barbed wire, concrete pill boxes and entrenched machine guns. The Germans made heavy use of high explosives and their new mustard gas shells. It was a hot day and the troops were encumbered with gas masks and weighed down with their full uniforms and equipment. The 16th reached and held their objectives and the following day they faced heavy shelling by the Germans. There was also a shortage of water and the men suffered in the heat. The battalion was relieved early in the morning on 17 August and in two days of fighting they suffered 250 casualties. John was one of the casualties, reported as missing and later as killed in action on 15-16 August.
From the Circumstances of Death record for John: Previously reported Missing, now Killed in Action 15/16-8-17, Attack at Hill 70, Lens.
John’s body was not recovered and his final resting place is unknown. He’s commemorated on the Vimy Memorial, which bears the names of over 11,000 Canadians who died in France and have no known grave. He is also commemorated on the War Memorials in Rainy River, Ontario and Tyndall, Manitoba.
John’s brother Thomas O’Connor enlisted in March 1916 and served in France with the 24th Battalion. He survived the war and returned to Canada in May 1919. He was married in 1928 and he died in a car accident in Rainy River in January 1932, at age 33.
By Becky Johnson (2xgreat-niece of Sarah O’Connor née McPherson)
Photo at the top is the Vimy Memorial in France.