Kenora Great War Project


Personal Details
Date of BirthNovember 23, 1891
Place of BirthWest Ham, London
Marital StatusSingle
Next of KinRobert Henry Sparks (brother), Tourist Hotel, Kenora, Ontario
Trade / CallingHotel Clerk
ReligionChurch of England
Service Details
Regimental Number439025
Service RecordLink to Service Record
Battalion52nd Battalion
ForceCanadian Expeditionary Force
BranchCanadian Infantry
Enlisted / ConscriptedEnlisted
Place of EnlistmentKenora, Ontario
Address at EnlistmentKenora, Ontario
Date of EnlistmentDecember 19, 1914
Age at Enlistment23
Theatre of ServiceEurope
Prisoner of WarNo
Survived WarYes
Death Details
Date of DeathOctober 26, 1961
Age at Death69
Buried AtRiverside Cemetery, Thunder Bay, Ontario

Sparks, William Thomas

Corporal William Thomas Sparks enlisted in December 1914 and served in England, France and Belgium. He was wounded at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and he spent over a year recovering in hospitals and convalescent centres.

William was the son of Thomas George Sparks (Sparkes) and Eliza Mackler of West Ham, London, England. Thomas and Eliza were both born in Stepney, London and they were married in 1875. Thomas was a dockworker but jobs on the docks were not steady or permanent and he was sometimes out of work. At least five children were born between 1877 and 1888 and sadly they all died young except for one daughter, Martha. A son Robert Henry was born in West Ham in December 1889 and William Thomas followed in November 1891. The youngest daughter, Susanna, was born in 1895 and their father passed away about a year later. When the 1901 census was taken Eliza was working as a charwoman and Robert, William and Susanna were boarding with two different families. Eliza died a few years later. By 1911 Martha was married and the other three children were all working as servants.

William immigrated to Canada in 1913, when he was 21, and he settled in the town of Kenora in northwestern Ontario. The Tourist Hotel had opened in 1910 and he found work there as a clerk. His brother Robert immigrated in May 1914 and joined him in Kenora, also getting hired at the hotel. The war started that August and William enlisted four months later, in December 1914, when volunteers were being recruited for a third overseas contingent. The men trained in Kenora over the winter and they were assigned to the new 52nd Battalion when it was organized in March 1915. The battalion was based in Port Arthur and the Kenora recruits were sent there in June to join the rest of the unit. William’s brother Robert Henry Sparks had enlisted in May and he was with them when they left for Port Arthur. While they were training the 1st Canadian Division was fighting in France and Belgium and men were needed to replace casualties in the front line combat units. Battalions in Canada were asked to send reinforcements. William was sent to England with the 2nd Reinforcing Draft in September 1915, one of 250 men from the 52nd Battalion. They embarked from Montreal on 4 September on the SS Missanabie and arrived in the UK nine days later.

In England William was transferred to the 12th Reserve Battalion for a few more months of training. On 2 November 1915 he was married in Bulwell, Nottingham to 22-year-old Mabel Elsie Straw, the oldest daughter of Charles Straw, a coal miner, and his wife Martha. Later that month William was promoted to Lance Corporal and on 19 January 1916 he was drafted to the 27th (City of Winnipeg) Battalion and sent to France. He joined his new unit in the field a few days later. The Canadians didn’t have any major operations that winter but they were holding a section of the front line in Belgium and the units had regular rotations in the trenches.

The 52nd Battalion arrived in France in February 1916, as part of the new 3rd Canadian Division, and they joined the Canadian Corps in Belgium in early April. William’s brother Robert was with them and in mid-May William was transferred from the 27th to the 52nd Battalion, most likely by his own request. A week later on 23 May they started a long rotation in the front lines. From the War Diary of the 52nd Battalion, 31 May 1916, ‘Men becoming in critical condition owing to prolonged period under constant and heavy shell fire and relief very much needed. 8 day tour under these conditions very much too trying.’

The exhausted men were relieved on 1 June and went into reserve positions then on to the town of Poperinghe the next day, but their rest would be a very short one. The Battle of Mount Sorrel started on the morning of 2 June with an intense bombardment of the Canadian lines followed by the explosion of underground mines. After the barrage German infantry advanced and captured Mount Sorrel and nearby areas. A counter-attack was planned for 3 June and additional units were brought in, including all four companies of the 52nd Battalion. The men left Ypres around midnight and even before arriving at their positions in Sanctuary Wood, just after dawn on 3 June, they faced severe rifle and machine gun fire and a heavy artillery barrage. During their three days in the front trenches they endured cold, wet weather, a shortage of food and water, and constant shelling by the Germans. Robert was wounded and evacuated to England, where he spent the rest of the war. The battalion had another five day rotation at the front before being relieved late on 13 June, the final day of the battle.

William stayed with the 52nd Battalion and he was promoted to Corporal on 1 July 1916. The Somme Offensive began that same day and the Canadians were moved to the Somme area starting in late August. In less than three months there they would suffer 24,000 casualties. The 52nd Battalion arrived in early September and on 16 September they took part in an attack near the village of Courcelette. During the advance the men faced heavy machine gun and rifle fire and the battalion suffered over 200 casualties. They were relieved on 18 September and had one more rotation in the front line before moving to billets near the town of Albert. Early October was spent in reserve and support positions where heavy rains had turned the ground and trenches into a muddy morass. On the night of 5-6 October the battalion moved into the front line to prepare for a major assault and during the move twelve men were wounded. William was one of the casualties, struck in the knee by shell fragments and suffering a fractured knee cap.

William was sent to Rouen on the coast of France and evacuated from there to England, where he spent over a year at several hospitals and convalescent centres. In December 1917 he was invalided to Canada and admitted to the Manitoba Military Convalescent Hospital in Winnipeg. After a further two months of treatment he was discharged from service on 15 March 1918 with his intended address listed as Port Arthur, Ontario.

William’s first child, daughter Beatrice Elsie, was born in Nottingham in 1916. In 1919 his wife and daughter joined him in Canada and the family settled in Port Arthur. Their son Lawrence was born there in 1921. William became a member of the Canadian Legion as well as several lodges. He worked for the Board of Grain Commissioners for 35 years, retiring in 1956. He passed away in Port Arthur on 26 October 1961, at age 69, survived by his wife Mabel, son Lawrence, and daughter Mrs. Don (Elsie) Hassall. Mabel died in 1968. During the Second World War Lawrence served as an Able Seaman with the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and he passed away in 1999. William, Mabel and Lawrence are all buried in Riverside Cemetery in Thunder Bay.

William’s brother Robert also married during the war and he decided to live in England again. He passed away in Worthing, Sussex in 1967. Their sister Susanna immigrated to Canada with her employer in 1920 and she lived in Regina and Port Arthur. Around 1934 she married Dillwyn Bassett, an immigrant from Wales, and they took up farming near Dauphin, Manitoba. Susanna moved to Brandon in 1978 and passed away there in 1980. She’s buried in Riverside Cemetery in Dauphin.

William is commemorated in Kenora on the St. Alban’s Pro-Cathedral First World War Roll of Honour.

By Becky Johnson

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