Lance Corporal Thomas Knowles (right) and Sergeant Alec Jack of the 54th Kootenay Battalion. Both men survived the war, becoming officers in the process. They returned to Hedley and were a key part of the Cenotaph Committee in August 1919. (Copyright Knowles Family/ Hedley Museum; photo colourized by Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)

Lance Corporal Thomas Knowles (right) and Sergeant Alec Jack of the 54th Kootenay Battalion. Both men survived the war, becoming officers in the process. They returned to Hedley and were a key part of the Cenotaph Committee in August 1919. (Copyright Knowles Family/ Hedley Museum; photo colourized by Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)

Historian brings colour to the lives of Similkameen men on the battlefield

The Hedley Boys – A Small Town’s Big Part in The Great War

More than a century after the end of the First World War, and a decade after the death of its last veteran, historian Andy English has given colour to a small B.C. town’s black-and-white contribution to that effort.

They are known as “The Hedley Boys” – 58 men between the ages of 17 and 56 – from a community of 400.

Thirteen of them died, in France, Germany and England, between 1914 and 1918. The Hedley Boys suffered twice the number of casualties, for their numbers, experienced by the rest of the nation.

That’s because approximately half of them were machine gunners. Privately, they called it “the suicide club,” as gun emplacements were critical targets for German artillery.

English explained men from Hedley – most of whom were gold miners or stamp mill operators – were selected for that duty because they were generally fit, with strong, large hands used to handling heavy, moving equipment.

Just about all the Hedley boys were volunteers. Many were British immigrants, and at least one was Indigenous.

Seventeen enlisted to fight on a single day, following a program of rousing speeches, dancing, and imbibing at a Hedley Opera House gala in August 1915.

“You can see from their service numbers, they stood side by side,” English said.

English moved to Hedley in 2005, from his home in the United Kingdom. A jack-of-all-trades with a history degree, he was drawn quickly into the museum society.

In 2012, during a Remembrance Day ceremony, he was struck by the cenotaph’s poor condition, and especially that the names on the monument were illegible.

He learned Hedley’s war memorial is one of the earliest – and possibly the first ­– in Canada, built in the fall of 1919.

“At first I just wanted to clarify these men’s names, just find out who these men were, and find out about them, and see if I could find photographs.”

Then followed seven years of research, initially with the help of another museum volunteer, Jennifer Douglas.

The pair combed military service records and museum archives and looked up Commonwealth war graves.

“It’s important to keep these stories alive,” said English.

“And, the thing with these men, well, they are not my relatives. But they are somebody’s relatives.”

English read every edition of the Hedley Gazette, published between 1905 and 1917. He eventually travelled back to England and studied church documents and looked for gravestones.

Recently English wrote, narrated, and published nine podcasts dedicated to the stories of the men who died, and those who returned: The Hedley Boys, A Small Town’s Big Part In The Great War.

In it, he shares details from the frontlines.

On June 2, 1915, The Gazette published a letter from Bob McCurdy to his father, who lived in Keremeos.

McCurdy fought alongside The Hedley Boys. The letter is remarkable for its battlefield description, which somehow slipped past the censors following the battle of Festubert, the first occasion Canadians saw action.

“Dear Dad

Just a few lines as I am now not too bad. I have lost my right eye, and I have a few more small wounds, but not too bad. I can see fairly well with my left eye, and have the use of my hands and feet. And my cheekbone, which was shattered a bit, is nearly well so that I can eat without much pain…One thing that always eases my mind is the fact that we won the position we went after, though the cost was pretty heavy…When I came to my senses there were two braves on top of me. I did not know them. One of them was dead and the other, what was left of him, was dying. So I got out from under them and carried out the best I could over the dead and dying, which were about in the hundreds.”

McCurdy died in 1919, at the Hedley hospital.

According to English, several of the Hedley boys who survived actual battle died of combat wounds, both physical and mental, soon after they returned home. At least two lives ended in a psychiatric facility in Vancouver, which treated what was then called shell-shock.

“They just weren’t the same men,” he said.

While English can expand on the stories of each of the Hedley boys – without ever glancing at a notebook – one character stands out to him as exceptional.

Martin Joseph Meher was commonly known as “Yorkie.”

“His first 45 years were spent being one of the town miscreants. He appears in the paper from very early on, 1906, and almost always for being in trouble. Basically, he is one of the town drunks. Then in August 1915 his whole life changes.”

Yorkie was one of Hedley’s early volunteers and he lied his way into the army, claiming to be younger than he was in order to get to the frontlines.

“There were much disbelief and amusement about it, but he goes, and he sobers up,” said English.

He was discharged with serious wounds to his face and leg.

However, he lived well into the 1940s where he spent time gold prospecting in the mountains of Hedley, employing smuggled dynamite, and living contentedly with his wife Amy.

An especially poignant episode of English’s podcast series describes the fighting at Vimy Ridge in the spring of 1917.

The assault, led by Canadian forces, was a turning point in the war. The country’s dead was 3,598, including Hedley’s Bobby Robertson and Arthur Martin.

Alec Jack, one of two Hedley boys to reach an officer’s rank, distinguished himself.

“Jack is the guy who survives and is one of the heroes of the April 9, Vimy Ridge battle,” said English.

“He was the most junior officer in the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge and he took over command of two shattered battalions. He got them dug in and they held what ground they had.”

Jack was the first Canadian to stand on the ridge, and survey the land that had been taken. He beat a hasty retreat after his companion was shot and killed by a German sniper.

The Hedley Boys is not only a story of soldiers. Throughout his podcasts, English deftly sets the fates of local men in contrast to life in the village, as it was more than a hundred years ago.

In 2020, Hedley is an unincorporated town alongside Highway 3 between Princeton and Keremeos, comprised of approximately 169 small wood-framed homes and served by one country store.

But it had its glory days.

In the late 1890s, gold was discovered in the mountains surrounding Hedley.

Then, it was the largest hard rock gold discovery in North America.

There was no gold rush, though.

The claims were snapped up by a U.S. based conglomerate, headed by the Rockefeller family.

A mining town was birthed that included six hotels, a bank, numerous retail businesses and a first-class golf course.

There was plenty of money, and the villagers gave generously to the war effort. Early in the conflict, they raised $3,000 with the idea of buying a machine gun and shipping it overseas. When they learned they’d be unable to make such a purchase privately, that became the seed money for a robust patriotic fund.

Christmas hampers, cash and other gifts were sent to the boys, and their families at home were supported.

At the war’s end, the last $900 of the fund was used to build the memorial which first intrigued English.

Because of his research, two names were added to the monument, and $24,000 was raised to restore the cenotaph which was rededicated in 2017.

“It’s just nice to know that a man who fell on the battlefield is remembered, somewhere.”

You can listen to the Andy English’s podcast series: The Hedley Boys, A Small Town’s Big Part in The Great War at https://hedleyboys.com/

To report a typo, email:
publisher@similkameenspotlight.com
.



andrea.demeer@similkameenspotlight.com

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Ebenezer Vans was the first of the group of men in the 54th Battalion to die. He succumbed to Typhus, while in England. The Hedley men, organized by Alec Jack, purchased a headstone. (Andy English photo)

Ebenezer Vans was the first of the group of men in the 54th Battalion to die. He succumbed to Typhus, while in England. The Hedley men, organized by Alec Jack, purchased a headstone. (Andy English photo)

The Hedley war memorial is one of the oldest, and perhaps the first, erected in Canada. Due to historian Andy English’s research and efforts, it was restored in 2017. 
(Andy English photo)

The Hedley war memorial is one of the oldest, and perhaps the first, erected in Canada. Due to historian Andy English’s research and efforts, it was restored in 2017. (Andy English photo)

Historian Andy English researched ‘The Hedley Boys’ for seven years, and has created a series of podcasts to share their stories. You can listen at https://hedleyboys.com/. (Contributed)

Historian Andy English researched ‘The Hedley Boys’ for seven years, and has created a series of podcasts to share their stories. You can listen at https://hedleyboys.com/. (Contributed)

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