Kenora Great War Project


Personal Details
Date of BirthAugust 4, 1894
Place of BirthKenora, Ontario
Marital StatusSingle
Next of KinBertha Louisa Robertson (mother), Vancouver, British Columbia
Trade / CallingMotor Driver
ReligionChurch of England
Service Details
Regimental Number76147
Service Record Link to Service Record
Battalion16th Battalion
ForceCanadian Expeditionary Force
BranchCanadian Infantry
Enlisted / ConscriptedEnlisted
Place of EnlistmentVancouver, British Columbia
Date of EnlistmentNovember 9, 1914
Age at Enlistment20
Theatre of ServiceEurope
Prisoner of WarNo
Survived WarNo
Death Details
Date of DeathOctober 9, 1916
Age at Death22
Buried AtNo known grave; commemorated on the Vimy Memorial in France

Robertson, James McLaren

Private James McLaren Robertson enlisted in November 1914 and served overseas with the 16th Battalion. He was missing and presumed killed in October 1916 at the Battle of the Somme.

James was the son of William Robertson and Bertha Louisa Thompson of Vancouver, British Columbia. William was born in Cupar, County of Fife, Scotland and Bertha in Lancashire, England. They were married in Lancashire in 1884 and their daughter Mildred was born there in 1885, the first of at least 13 children. When Mildred was still an infant William and Bertha immigrated to Canada and settled in the North-West Territories, in what would become the province of Saskatchewan. Two children were born there, Eleanora (1886) and John (1888). Their next daughter Edith was born in Syracuse, New York in 1889. After that the family lived in Winnipeg, Manitoba for a couple of years where they had two more girls, Bertha (1891), who died at age 5 months, and Marion (1892).

From Winnipeg the Robertsons moved to Rat Portage (later renamed Kenora) in northwestern Ontario where seven children were added to the family: Edmund (1893), James (4 August 1894), Mary (1895), Stuart (1897), Alan (1899), Olive (1900) and Malcolm (1902). They lost two sons while they were living in Rat Portage, Edmund as an infant and Alan at age four. They are both buried in Lake of the Woods Cemetery. Lumbering was a major industry in northwestern Ontario and William worked as a bookkeeper and accountant for a local lumber company. Around 1909 the family moved once again, this time to Vancouver where William worked for the Rat Portage Lumber Company. The company had purchased some mills in British Columbia and William was one of several employees who relocated there from Kenora.

The war started in August 1914 and James and his brother Stuart both enlisted that fall. Stuart signed up in September 1914, at age 17, and he left for England in October with the first Canadian contingent. James enlisted in Vancouver on 9 November 1914 and joined the 29th Battalion. He was 20 years old and working as a motor driver at the time. The 29th was organized and recruited in Vancouver and after training in Canada for six months the volunteers were sent to England, embarking from Montreal on 20 May 1915 on the SS Missanabie. The men trained in England for another four months and they left for France on 17 September, disembarking at Boulogne the following day. The 29th Battalion was part of the 6th Brigade in the newly-organized 2nd Canadian Division and together with the 1st Division they formed the Canadian Corps. They spent the fall and winter in the Ypres Salient in Belgium. In November James became ill with bronchitis and he recovered for a week in a field ambulance and at a divisional rest centre.

In March 1916 James asked to be transferred to the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish), his brother Stuart’s unit, and he joined them in the field two weeks later. That spring the Canadians were holding part of the front line in the Ypres Salient, between St. Eloi and Hooge. In the middle of May the 16th Battalion had an eight day rotation in the front trenches, opposite Hill 60, and the Battle of Mount Sorrel started on the morning of 2 June. German artillery destroyed trenches and equipment and some companies were almost wiped out by the explosion of underground mines. After the bombardment German infantry advanced and captured Mount Sorrel and nearby areas. A counter-attack was planned for 3 June and additional units were brought in. The 16th Battalion arrived very early that morning but they didn’t take part in the counter-attack and instead were put to work digging a new front line. On 9 June James was admitted to hospital for a week for an unspecified illness. His battalion took part in the final operation on 13 June, when most of the areas lost to the Germans were recaptured. The battle ended with little change to the front line but it cost the Canadian Corps over 8,000 casualties.

The Somme Offensive started on 1 July 1916 and beginning in late August the Canadian Corps left the Ypres Salient and moved to the Somme area in France. They were involved in several operations over the next few weeks and the final objective was the capture of Regina Trench. An attempt on 1 October failed and a week later, after heavy rains stopped, a second attempt was planned. The 16th Battalion was brought in from the town of Albert on 7 October and they took part in the assault the following morning. During their advance the battalion ran into problems with uncut barbed wire and counter-attacks by the Germans. The men were forced to withdraw to their starting position, leaving behind the wounded. Among the battalion’s losses were about 50 men who were missing in action and presumed to have died, including James.

From the Circumstances of Death record for James: Previously reported missing, now for official purposes presumed to have died on or since 9 October 1916. Location of unit at time of casualty: Attack North East of Courcelette.

James’ final resting place is unknown. He is commemorated on the Kenora Cenotaph, the Kenora Legion War Memorial and the Vimy Memorial in France. The Vimy Memorial bears the names of over 11,000 Canadian soldiers who died in France and have no known grave. He is also commemorated on page 155 of Canada’s First World War Book of Remembrance, on display in the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

James’ brother Stuart Robertson survived the war and returned to Canada in May 1919. Their father William Robertson also enlisted, signing up in July 1916 at the age of 52. He served in France with the Canadian Forestry Corps and returned to Canada in December 1917. James’ mother Bertha passed away in 1921 and his father died in Vancouver in 1954, shortly after his 91st birthday. William, Bertha and Stuart (1897-1967) are interred at Ocean View Burial Park in Burnaby, British Columbia.

By Becky Johnson

Photo at the top is the Kenora Legion War Memorial.

Robertson-James-90 Kenora-Cenotaph-plaque-image

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