Kenora Great War Project


Personal Details
Date of BirthSeptember 1, 1894
Place of BirthMaybole, Ayrshire
Marital StatusSingle
Next of KinJames Ramsay, father, Maybole, Ayrshire, Scotland
Trade / CallingMiller
Service Details
Regimental Number439091
Service Record Link to Service Record
Battalion4th Canadian Mounted Rifles
ForceCanadian Expeditionary Force
BranchCanadian Infantry
Enlisted / ConscriptedEnlisted
Date of EnlistmentFebruary 3, 1915
Age at Enlistment20
Theatre of ServiceEurope
Prisoner of WarYes
Survived WarYes
Death Details
Date of DeathSeptember 24, 1986
Age at Death92

Ramsay, Alexander Kelly

Alexander Kelly Ramsay was born on 1 September 1894 in Maybole, Ayrshire in Scotland. His father James Ramsay, a shoemaker, was from Kirkmichael, Ayr, while his mother Margaret Kelly was from Maybole where the couple had married on 14 June 1889. Alex had two older siblings, Joanna (1890) and William (1892) and younger sisters Agnes (1897) and Margaret. Sadly his mother died in September of 1900 of tuberculosis and by the time of 1901 Scotland census his father had hired a housekeeper, 56 year old Mary Comrie, to live with the family. Later that year James married Mary McEwan and together the couple had three children, James, George, and Mary (May). Alex was found working as a ploughman and living on the Thomas Tennant farm in the Maybole area for the 1911 Scotland census.

Alex Ramsay, a labourer, was found on the passenger list of the Letitia that left Glasgow for Montreal on 7 June 1913. He settled in Keewatin in northwestern Ontario where he found work at the local flour mill as a miller. Alex’s mother’s brother Alexander Kelly and wife Nellie were already living in Keewatin at the time.

Alex signed his attestation paper in Kenora on 3 February 1915 giving his father back in Maybole as next of kin and occupation as miller. Organized in March of 1915 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel AW Hay with recruitment in Port Arthur, Kenora, Fort Frances, Fort William and Dryden, the 52nd Battalion was mobilized at Port Arthur. Along with a number of other fellows from Kenora and Keewatin Private Alexander Kelly Ramsay embarked from Montreal aboard the Missanabie with the 2nd Reinforcing Draft of the 52nd Battalion on 4 September 1915.

Once in England Alex was taken on strength with the No 1 Company of the 12th Reserve Battalion at Shorncliffe. In January of 1916 he was on command as employed with the Canadian Engineers Training Depot and later in the month transferred to the Third Divisional Signals Company and attached for duty to the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles. On May 1st he joined the unit in the field. Just a short time later, on June 2nd, at Ypres, Alex was reported as missing in action. In late June his family received their first cable reporting him missing followed by another one in early July unofficially reporting him as prisoner of war at Dulmen. By September Alex had been transferred to the prisoner of war camp at Wahn, and then on to Limburg in May of 1917 where he was to stay until the end of the war. Alex was repatriated to England in early December 1918 and embarked for Canada aboard the Minnekahda on 19 March 1919.

Some recollections from Alex as told to his daughter Margaret:

Shortly after he was captured, the prisoners were being marched to a camp. It had been quite sometime since Dad had had anything to eat. At some point along the way the German guards were handed out packages of sandwiches. As one Guard opened his package he caught Dad’s eye and after a few strides further he handed Dad the other half of his sandwich.
My mother’s father owned and operated a bakery and mother was able to send Dad packages of bread through the Red Cross. It was always moldy when it arrived but they ate it anyway! I wondered when Penicillin became available, if the mold had helped to keep him healthy!
Dad’s best buddy in those grim days was from Saskatoon (wish I could remember his name). His buddy had managed to hang onto an Anglican Prayer Book and so my father started up Church services using that prayer book. Quite a feat for a Presbyterian I think. The Germans called him Padre.
During his POW time my father managed to escape twice, but despite his excellent German language skills he was caught both times and put into solitary confinement, with only meager bread and water for sustenance. However he and his buddies had a plan that whenever anyone was in isolation the other prisoners would share by stashing some of their own food in the rafters of the privy.
The prisoners were put to work building a bridge. It seems that the supply of shovels was constantly diminishing, as they would fall into the river or disappear into the fresh cement! One day Dad was given a trowel and told to spend the day on his knees trawling the cement. He was told that it was important to get it very smooth (sounded to me like ‘Shoony plain’ in German). Well when the guard returned hours later it was very smooth indeed! But only about 2′ square! The guard said he must have been a Barber in civilian life, because he sure didn’t know anything about hard work!
My father suffered from terrible nightmares, obviously Post Traumatic Stress.
I’ve mentioned before that Dad spoke fluent German, after he settled in Hamilton he went to night school and got his High School Diploma. He also learned Esperanto. We had a little card in  our Parlour window with a green star on it. This showed anyone interested that someone living there could speak this universal language.

After the war Alex returned to Keewatin and his job at the flour mill. Although they were both listed as living in Keewatin at the time, on 1 September 1920, in Simcoe, Ontario, Alex married Agnes Mason Fairlie. The daughter of Hugh and Jean (née Hunter) Fairlie, Agnes was born in 1896 in Maybole. She had arrived in Canada aboard the Saturnia on 15 August 1920, destination given as Keewatin and Alex. The witnesses to the marriage were both Hunters, perhaps relatives of Agnes’ mother.

The couple was found living on Bay Street in Keewatin for the 1921 Canada census with Alex working as a caretaker. Later that year they gave birth to daughter Jean Hunter Ramsey. It appears that the Ramsays did not stay in Keewatin as Agnes and Jean were found on an Oceans Arrival form of September 1923, returning to their home in Hamilton from a visit to Agnes’ parents in Scotland. A later border crossing record of 1951 for Jean stated that her father Alexander was living in Aldershot, Ontario. His name appeared a number of times in the Aldershot Tweedsmuir newspaper and he was treasurer as late as 1966. Alex and Agnes gave birth to another daughter, Margaret. Agnes died in 1968 and in 1970 Alex married Mary Emma Carolyn Lankin. Sadly Mary died as a result of a car crash and in 1973 he married Mary Ann (Molly) Bates Ramsay, widow of his half brother James. Molly had two children, James and Rosemary. She died on 28 July 2004.

Alex died on 24 September 1986 in the Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington, Ontario. From the Burlington Post, 1 October 1986: ‘Alex Ramsay a nonagregarian whose interests ranged from directing choirs to visiting the disabled died last Wednesday at Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital  at the age of 93. A native of Maybole, Ayrshire, Scotland, Mr Ramsay served in World War I and was a prisoner of war in Engers, Germany for two and a half years. While he was a prisoner of war he studied German and became fluent in the language. When he came to Canada he worked at Hamilton Post Office and retired as Supervisor of city delivery in 1959. Before he retired though he was assigned to Burlington help get the postal station here organized. Mr Ramsay moved to Burlington in 1948 and was very active in Aldershot Presbyterian Church. During his retirement he also visited disabled residents of Carey House regularly and was still walking three miles a day up until last spring when he became ill. He also helped direct the local senior citizens choir. In 1983 the Rotary Club of Burlington Lakeshore honored him Mr Ramsay for his efforts by naming him their Man of the Year. Mr Ramsay is survived by his wife Mary Ann Bates, daughter Mrs Jean Colburn of Gaithersburg, Maryland and son-in-law Brian Holliday of Emo, Ontario, son James and daughter-in-law Lucille of Hamilton, daughter Rosemary and son-in-law David Dickey of Grimsby as well as many grandchildren and great grandchildren. He was predeceased by wives Nessie (Agnes) Fairlie and Mary Lankin. A memorial service was held last Saturday at Aldershot Presbyterian Church where Mr Ramsay served as an Elder. Cremation followed.’

In August of 1919 the town of Keewatin held a demonstration where those who had served during the war were presented with medals and badges by the mayor, with Alex’s name on the list. He is commemorated for his service during the war on the Lake of the Woods Milling Company plaque, the Municipality of Keewatin for King and Country plaque, and the Town of Keewatin Roll of Honour plaque.

Click here for, a remembrance website honouring the memory of all who served with the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles in WW1.

by Judy Stockham and Alex’s daughter Margaret Holliday

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photographs: courtesy of Margaret Holliday
obituary transcription: courtesy of Debbie Dunn
pages from service record: Library and Archives Canada
prisoner of war pages: International Committee of the Red Cross Prisoners of the First World War Records

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