Kenora Great War Project


Personal Details
Date of BirthApril 10, 1889
Place of BirthPirnmill, Arran
Marital StatusSingle
Next of KinDuncan Robertson (father), Pirnmill, Arran, Scotland
Trade / CallingBoat builder
Service Details
Regimental Number98
Service Record Link to Service Record
Battalion8th Battalion
ForceCanadian Expeditionary Force
BranchCanadian Infantry
Enlisted / ConscriptedEnlisted
Place of EnlistmentValcartier, Quebec
Date of EnlistmentSeptember 23, 1914
Age at Enlistment25
Theatre of ServiceEurope
Prisoner of WarNo
Survived WarNo
Death Details
Date of DeathApril 25, 1915
Age at Death26
Buried AtNo known grave; commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres

Robertson, Duncan

Shortly after Britain declared war on 4 August 1914 the Canadian government proposed   raising an Expeditionary Force to send overseas. By late September a contingent of 32,000 volunteers had been assembled at the new military camp in Valcartier, Quebec. Two thirds of the men in this 1st Canadian Contingent were born in the British Isles including Private Duncan Robertson.

Duncan grew up on the isle of Arran in western Scotland. He was born in the village of Pirnmill on the northwest coast of Arran in April 1889, the oldest child of Duncan and Mary Robertson. Duncan (Sr.) was a fisherman and he and Mary had at least five other children, two sons (Neil and Ronald) and three daughters (Mary, Margaret and Jean). Duncan (Jr.) immigrated to Canada as a young man, probably in 1911, and he settled in the town of Kenora in northwestern Ontario. Before leaving Scotland he had served for two years with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Duncan was a carpenter by trade and in the summer of 1914, when the war started, he was working as a boat builder in Minaki, a small community north of Kenora.

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. Duncan left Kenora on 23 August 1914, along with about 40 other volunteers including his good friend Frank Iriam. The local newspaper reported that thousands of people turned out to support the men and to see them off at the station, where they boarded a special troop train heading east. At Valcartier they underwent training, medical tests and inoculations and Duncan’s medical exam on 27 August tells us he was almost 5’6″ with dark hair and hazel eyes. He was found fit for service and on 23 September along with several other Kenora lads he enlisted in the 8th Battalion, a new unit made up of recruits from Winnipeg and northwestern Ontario. The battalion embarked for England in 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 because of 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 Duncan would have had time to visit his family in Scotland. About a month later, in February 1915, the 8th Battalion was sent to France and by the middle of April the men were in the trenches in Belgium.

Chlorine gas was first used by the Germans on a large scale on 22 April 1915 at Gravenstafel Ridge and the Canadians were hit by it two days later, the start of the Battle of St. Julien (24 April-4 May 1915). The 8th battalion suffered heavy casualties from the chlorine and in the fighting that followed as German infantry advanced behind the cloud of gas. Duncan was put in charge of one of his unit’s Colt machine guns and on the second day of the battle, 25 April, he was killed by an artillery shell. Frank Iriam, in his memoirs, said he last saw Duncan returning with some parts for the gun after it broke down. A short time later he could hear the Colt back in action and not long after that the Germans bombed the machine gun, putting it out of action. Another Kenora lad who was with the 8th wrote in a letter, ‘One of our boys that was killed was on the Machine Gun and was blown completely away by a shell.’

Duncan’s final resting place in unknown. He is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium, which bears the names of more than 54,000 men who died in the Ypres Salient and have no known grave. He is also commemorated on the Cenotaph in Kenora, the Kenora Legion War Memorial and the WW1 Roll of Honour for the 8th Battalion (Royal Winnipeg Rifles).

By Becky Johnson

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