From Inkerman House toddler to Victoria Cross mother: Bertha Gray Peters

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“I wish you could have known Dally,“ my mother, Dee Dee, said to me hundreds of times over the years.

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Bertha with pet dog in Victoria, British Columbia, circa 1905.  Family ciollecgtion.

Also: “Dally was so smart!“, “Dally was interested in everything“, and “Dally would have known the answer to that question“.

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Bertha`s father, Col. John Hamilton Gray, who was host and chairman of the historic Charlottetown Conference of 1864, is featured in this sculpture in downtown Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.  Sam McBride photo.

Dally was the nickname used by Dee Dee and her siblings for their maternal grandmother, Roberta Hamilton Susan Gray Peters, who lived with her daughter Helen Dewdney`s family in southeastern British Columbia from 1916 until her death three decades later at age 84.  Her sisters in the Gray family called her Bertie, and she was known in the community as Bertha, which is how I choose to refer to her.  No one in the family recalled the origin of the nickname Dally.

As a boy, I found my mother`s lavish praise of her grandmother somewhat annoying.  My thinking was: she died five years before I was born – why talk so much about someone I am never going to meet?

In recent years, however, my research into the life of her son, Victoria Cross recipient Frederic Thornton “Fritz“ Peters, has given me insight into why Bertha was so memorable to Dee Dee, as well as other family members and friends.  I was impressed that one person`s life could span so much of Canada`s history, and that her spirit and sense of humour held up despite experiencing a stream of disappointment and tragedy during her years as a mother and widow.

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The Gray family residence known as Inkerman House, where two-year-old Bertha was introduced to the Fathers of Confederation who were invited to Inkerman by Col. Gray to an after-dinner party on Saturday, Sept. 3, 1864.  Family collection

At age two in September 1864, Bertha was brought forward and introduced to the Fathers of Confederation her father brought home to the Gray estate known as Inkerman House from the Charlottetown Conference for an after-dinner party.   Eighty years later, in February 1944, she received, as her late son Fritz`s next-of-kin, the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross medal from a delegation of American officers and brass band representing President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower.

Bertha was the youngest of five daughters of Col. John Hamilton Gray and Susan Ellen Bartley Pennefather.  Sister Mary Stukeley Hamilton Gray was three years older, and the other three sisters were much older.   The eldest sister, Harriet Worrell Gray, 19 years her senior, was out of the house before Bertha was born, as the parents sent her as a teen-ager to England to live with, and care for, her aging Pennefather grandparents.   Sisters Margaret Pennefather Stukeley Gray and Florence Hope Gibson Gray were, respectively, 16 and 14 years older than Bertha.

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Painting of Bertha`s mother Susan Bartley Pennefather at age 17, shortly before her marriage to Col. Gray.  Family collection.

After Susan`s death in 1866, Margaret assumed the “mother“ role for her younger sisters.  Florence took over in 1869 after Margaret left home to marry shipbuilder Artemus Lord.  A couple of weeks after Margaret`s wedding, the widower Col. Gray married Sarah Caroline Cambridge, and they would have three children, of whom only Arthur Cavendish Hamilton Gray survived to adulthood.

In addition to tutoring their little sisters, Margaret and Florence did their best to shield them from angry outbursts of their stern father, whose career as a British Dragoon Guards cavalry officer left him obsessed with discipline and punctuality.

In a family of ardent readers, Bertha stood out as the most voracious reader of them all.  In addition to the large family collection of novels, poetry and history, Bertha`s thirst for knowledge led her to read through dictionaries and encyclopedias.   In later years, her wide-ranging knowledge helped Bertha win cash prizes as a solver of difficult crossword puzzles in contests sponsored by newspapers.

Bounding with energy, young Bertha was always up for outings, and encouraged her sisters to organize social events that included her.  Regarding her father with a mix of fear and admiration, she enjoyed participating in discussion of current events and politics at the dinner table.  As descendants of United Empire Loyalists, the Grays were wary of the United States of America, which was slowly recovering from its Civil War in Bertha’s girlhood.   The Grays saw no conflict in being strongly pro-British Empire and at the same time proud Canadians.  Throughout her life, Bertha introduced herself to new acquaintances as a “Daughter of Confederation”,  since her father was a Father of Confederation.

Painting of Margaret Carr Bartley c. 1830, around the time of her marriage to Major Sir John Lysaght Pennefather

Painting of Margaret Carr Bartley c. 1830, around the time of her marriage to Major Sir John Lysaght Pennefather.  Family collection.

A common topic of sister talk among the Grays was the mystery of their grandfather Bartley`s family.  Their mother Susan was born in Jamaica in about 1825, the only child of Margaret Carr and Lieut. William Bartley of the 22nd regiment of the British Army.  As was common for soldiers stationed abroad in that era, Bartley became ill and died in Jamaica.   His commanding officer, Major Sir John Lysaght Pennefather of Anglo-Irish aristocracy, took charge of looking after the widow and baby.  He later married Margaret, who gained the title of Lady Pennefather.  Her new husband insisted on being recognized as Susan`s father.  Communication with the Bartley relations ceased, and Susan did not learn of her real father until told just before her marriage to John Hamilton Gray.

Bertha and her sisters speculated about titles and inheritances they could have missed out on because of the loss of contact with the Bartleys.  This led Florence to take on the role of family historian.  Bertha`s handwritten copies of Florence`s inquiry letters and replies exist today in the Peters Family Papers.

Florence left home in 1876 to marry mining executive Henry Skeffington Poole, settling first in Stellarton, Nova Scotia and after 1900 in Guildford, England.

By 1880 both Pennefather grandparents had died.  Released from caregiver duties,  Harriet married Rev. Henry Pelham Stokes in London later that year.

The Gray family was comfortable financially but not wealthy.  Years later, she told her daughter Helen that as a young girl she envied Frederick Peters and his brothers at Sidmount House because each boy was treated to his favorite dessert on festive occasions, while she was never presented with a choice.

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Bertha`s husband Frederick Peters with daughter Mary Helen Peters, their first child, born August 31, 1887 in Charlottetown.  Family collection.

All seats of St. Paul`s Church in Charlottetown were filled on October 19, 1886 for the marriage of Bertha Gray and Fred Peters.  The Examiner reported the union of “one of Charlottetown`s most popular and rising young barristers to one of Charlottetown`s finest daughters.“  Following the ceremony, the bride and groom left for a three-month honeymoon in England before settling in their Westwood home purchased from the Hon. Daniel Davies.   In future years, Bertha`s fondness for England continued, as she took every opportunity to travel there for extended stays, particularly in London, in her mind the Centre of the Universe.

The last Gray sister to wed was Mary, who in June 1888 married Montreal lawyer William Abbott, son of future prime minister Sir John Joseph Caldwell Abbott.  Actor Christopher Plummer is a grandson of William`s brother Arthur Abbott.

August 1887 saw the birth of Mary Helen Peters, first child of Fred and Bertha.  She would always be known by her middle name Helen.  The first son, Frederic Thornton Peters, born in 1889, gained the nickname “Fritz“ because of his great interest in toy soldiers and armies.  John Francklyn “Jack“ Peters was born in October 1892, and then the fraternal twins Gerald Hamilton “Jelly“ Peters and Noel Quintan Peters were born on November 8, 1894 – exactly 48 years before the action in Algeria where their brother Fritz would earn the Victoria Cross.  In 1899, after the family moved across the country to Oak Bay on Vancouver Island, another daughter, Violet Avis Peters, was born.

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Children Helen, Gerald (holding cat) and Noel in Victoria, circa 1905

Fred Peters worked in a law partnership with his brother Arthur Peters and Ernest Ings.  He gained a seat in the provincial legislature in 1890, and within a year became leader of the Liberal Party, and then premier and attorney-general.   Despite political success, the family was experiencing financial woes, as the Cunard inheritance received by Fred’s mother Mary Cunard had run its course.   Fred desperately wanted to improve his finances, as he and Bertha expected to continue to live to a style to which they had become accustomed.

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Son Frederic Thornton Peters, known to family and friends as Fritz, in 1901 in Bedford, England.

Bertha came to her marriage with high expectations, and was not pleased to hear of money problems.  Her demands that the children be educated at private schools in England were likely a factor in her husband abruptly resigning as premier in mid-term in October 1897 so as to earn higher income in far-off Victoria, B.C.

In raising the children, Bertha was the strict parent, emphasizing discipline and the importance of living up to the traditions of the family and the British Empire, while Fred was an affectionate, sentimental  father who read stories to his children and tucked them into bed at night.  She saw no need to treat her children equally, choosing Gerald as her favourite and Noel, who had a moderate mental disability, as her least favourite.

Early in the First World War she decided to travel to England on her own to be close to her sons in military overseas service, particularly Gerald, who was her best friend and soulmate as well as favoured son.   By the time she arrived in July 1915, Private Jack Peters had died four months earlier in the Second Battle of Ypres, but was listed as missing and believed to be a prisoner of war.   In late May 1916, while staying at a rented  cottage near Dover where she hosted Lieut. Gerald Peters on his leaves, word came from Germany via the Red Cross that Jack was definitely not a P.O.W., so was assumed to have died in action 13 months earlier.  Just a couple of weeks later she learned that Gerald was missing following a June 3, 1916 counterattack at Mount Sorrel, also in the Ypres Salient.   Four weeks later his death was confirmed.

Lieutenant Gerald Hamilton Peters, spring 1916

Lieutenant Gerald Hamilton Peters, spring 1916

Engulfed by despair over Gerald’s death, Bertha went to stay at her sister Florence Poole’s home in Guildford before returning to Canada.   As was common at the time, Florence indulged in spiritualism as a means to contact dead loved ones in the afterlife.  Bertha began participating in séances as a way to contact Gerald, which infuriated her son Fritz who saw her spiritualism and excessive grieving over Gerald as signs of weakness at a time when maximum strength was needed to defeat the enemy.

Returning to British Columbia in November 1916, Bertha couldn’t bear to return to the family home in Prince Rupert because it was full of memories of Gerald and Jack, so instead went to live with her daughter Hel en Dewdney’s family in the mining town of New Denver in the mountainous West Kootenay region of southeastern B.C., while husband Fred continued alone in the isolated port of Prince Rupert serving as city solicitor and city clerk.  After Fred’s death in 1919, she lived permanently with the Dewdneys.

The last time she saw her Fritz was in July 1919 when he came back from England to organize his father’s funeral in Victoria, B.C.   She and Helen had only indirect contact with Fritz until receiving a letter from him in March 1942.

As a widow in her fifties, Bertha tried to earn income by writing novels and short stories, but all were rejected by publishers.    Using recipes and cooking skills from her P.E.I. heritage, Bertha often cooked for the Dewdney family, who generally enjoyed her meals but were on edge because, as a perfectionist, she would erupt in anger if something went wrong with the dinner.

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Bertha, circa 1905

In a family of bridge aficionados, Bertha stood out as the best player, constantly striving to improve.     She rated each community in the Kootenay region by the quality of their bridge players.

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Bertha, circa 1910. Family collection.

Bertha was in good health until a fall down stairs in about 1935 left her a bedridden invalid.   As the only child left in the house after her siblings left for marriage and university, Dee Dee became Bertha’s caregiver and audience for her stories and ideas about history and politics.  Her chores included daily trips to the Nelson library to borrow or return books requested by her grandmother.

After Fritz’s death in an air crash on November 13, 1942, Bertha wrote a flurry of letters to England to find out more about the action in Algeria on November 8th for which Fritz would receive the Victoria Cross and U.S. Distinguished Service Cross.  Separately, she asked Fritz’s friends to fill her in on Fritz’s life between the wars.

She was thrilled to hear from the British Admiralty office that Fritz would receive the Victoria Cross, but later was flabbergasted that the Americans went all out in honouring her with a full presentation ceremony for their DSC medal, while Britain just sent the VC medal to her in the mail.

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Bertha after suffering a crippling fall down stairs at the Dewdney home in Nelson, B.C. in about 1935. Family collection.

Passing away July 30, 1946, Bertha was the last surviving daughter of Col. Gray.  Harriet died in London in 1882, Florence in Guildford in 1923, and Mary in Montreal in 1936.  Margaret, the only daughter to remain in P.E.I., was in excellent health until her death at age 96 in Charlottetown on December 31, 1941.

Inspired by her grandmother Bertha/Dally, Dee Dee became a professional librarian, and was an enthusiastic monarchist and anglophile.  Travelling to England in 1953 for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, she often mentioned in letters home that she wished her grandmother was alive to share the experience.

Today, when people ask me why I buy so many books on England and the monarchy, I lay the blame on my great-grandmother Bertha/Dally!

Sources:

The family history writings of Florence Gray Poole and Helen Peters Dewdney, and letters received by Bertha Gray Peters, in the Peters Family Papers; various newspaper accounts; One Woman’s Charlottetown:  Diaries of Margaret Gray Lord 1863, 1876, 1890; census, vital statistics and ship records; and the author’s recollection of family discussions.

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100 Years Since the Battle of Dogger Bank where Fritz Peters Earned His First Award for Valour

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by Sam McBride Frederic Thornton “Fritz“ Peters received his first medal for valour in the Battle of Dogger Bank exactly 100 years ago on January 24, 1915.   It was the Distinguished Service Order, second in rank only to the Victoria Cross, which he would earn 27 years later for an attack on a heavily-fortified port in Algeria.   However, several men who witnessed his heroism at Dogger Bank felt he really deserved the Victoria Cross for that action rather just the DSO.

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Fritz Peters as a newly-commissioned officer in 1912

German warships had been shelling the eastern coast of Britain, hoping to draw out British warships so they could be attacked by u-boats.  The conflict led to a chase in the North Sea at Dogger Bank above Denmark, about half way between Britain and Germany.  It was the war’s first significant battle between British and German warships in the North Sea. Lt. Fritz Peters, 25, was first officer of the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Meteor under Captain Meade.   The speedy Meteor was setting up to torpedo the slower, but much larger, German cruiser Bluecher when it was hit by one of the last rounds from the cruiser before it sank – an 8.2-inch shell that caused extensive damage to Meteor’s engine room.  With incredible calm and coolness, Lieut. Fritz Peters rushed to the engine room – a scary place of fire, scalding water and boiler explosions when damaged in battle – and made it safe.  In the face of  leaking oil in the engine room threatening to explode, he was credited with saving the lives of two ratings and perhaps many more on board if there was an explosion or bursting of the boilers.  Another report said he also pushed an unexploded shell overboard.

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DSO medal

For these actions, Fritz was the first Canadian in the Great War to receive the DSO medal, second in rank only to the Victoria Cross as a British honour for bravery in battle.  It was the highest honour bestowed in the aftermath of the Dogger Bank conflict.  He initially received a Mention in Dispatches for the heroism, and then on March 3, 1915 King George the Fifth presented him with the DSO medal. Writing from the Ypres front to his brother Gerald in Montreal on March 11, 1915, Private Jack Peters said:  “I suppose you know about Fritz winning the D.S.O. and being mentioned in dispatches.  Won’t Father and Mother be tickled to death!  I dare say he is quite satisfied, but I should think that it certainly should help his promotion a lot.“  Gerald wrote to his mother Bertha in B.C.: “How proud you must be about Fritz.  I got your letter and Aunt Florence’s on the same day telling me of it.“ The one person Bertha did not hear from regarding the DSO was Fritz himself.  He detested boastfulness and self-promotion, and never raised the topic of the DSO unless asked.

In early 1918, Peters received the Distinguished Service Cross for heroic anti-U-boat action, and then 22 years later, in 1940 in the Second World War, he earned a bar to his DSC for sinking two U-boats.   For anyone else, this would have been an extraordinary record, but there was more to come for Fritz Peters.    At age 53 he earned the Victoria Cross for leading the attack on Oran Harbour in the Allied invasion of North Africa at 3 am on Nov. 8, 1942.   For the same action, American General Eisenhower awarded him the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross which, for non-Americans, was the equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor as the highest award for valour against enemy forces. There is video on You Tube of the Battle of Dogger Bank , including footage of the Bluecher sinking. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2tQgvmE8s8

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Prince Rupert newspaper report

front of 1914 Christmas card

front of 1914 Christmas card

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Citation for DSO in Royal Navy records

How Canadian was Frederic Thornton Peters?

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by Sam McBride

F.T. “Fritz“ Peters is excluded from some lists of Canadian Victoria Cross heroes because 1) he spent his adult years based in either Gold Coast colony in West Africa, or England; 2) he served in the Royal Navy and with the British Secret Intelligence Service; or at sea with the Royal Navy; and 3) he rarely mentioned Canada as his nation of birth and boyhood.

A long-time friend and naval colleague, Commander David Joel, wrote in unpublished memoirs that he had heard that Peters returned to Canada for a time in the inter-war period, but he had no details.

The last record of Fritz in Canada was his father Frederick Peters` funeral in Victoria, British Columbia in August 1919, which Fritz organized and attended. His mother Bertha Gray Peters later wrote that her son Fritz would have joined the Royal Canadian Navy if there was one, but when Fritz enlisted at age 15 in 1905 the only navy to sign up with was the Royal Navy, which had a large profile in the Victoria region where Fritz resided due to its Pacific Station base in Esquimalt. The Royal Canadian Navy was still five years away from existence.
The latest publicly available censuses Fritz is on are the 1901 and 1911 censuses. Interestingly, he and his family are included in both the Canada census and the England census for 1901, when the family continued to be based in Oak Bay, B.C. but spent considerable time at Bertha`s stepmother Sarah Caroline Cambridge Gray`s community of Bedford north of London, where the children attended private school. Fritz was also counted twice in 1911, as his family included him as a resident of Esquimalt where they lived, and, as a sub-lieutenant on HMS Otter, Fritz was also included in the 1911 England census. He listed his nationality as Canadian, with “British subject“ in parentheses. Fritz listed his ethnic background as Scottish, as did all of his siblings except elder sister Helen, who said she was of English heritage.

Fritz`s Canadian origins are clearly stated in his Royal Navy file, and his best friends Swain Saxton, Cromwell Varley and David Joel were aware that he was Canadian. While it is true that Fritz did not mention being Canadian in his dealings with Americans in the Second World War, but tended to keep his personal life and background to himself as a matter of principle, and in sync with the top secret work he was involved in. Fritz`s letters home show that he detested self-promotion. Even if he were not involved in secret projects, he would not be showing off a c.v. or talking about his achievements because he thought such bragging was unseemly.

It is true that Fritz would have travelled on a British passport, because there were no Canadian passports until 1949 – seven years after his death. It is only in recent years that the concept of all Canadians being British subjects has faded away.

There are two other measures in which Fritz`s Canadianness stands out. Firstly, his ancestry goes back to an original proprietor of P.E.I., and three of his four grandparents (Peters, Gray and Cunard) were direct descendants of United Empire Loyalists who came to the Canadian Maritimes after the American Revolutionary War. If Canadian roots could be measured in loyalty and length of residence, Fritz was about as Canadian as you could get.

Secondly, Fritz deserves recognition as a Canadian because two of his brothers, Private John Francklyn Peters and Lieut. Gerald Hamilton Peters, died early in the First World War fighting with the 7th British Columbia Battalion. Another brother, Noel Quintan Peters, served with the Canadian Forestry Corps.

And Fritz was always proud to be a grandson of a Father of Confederation, Col. John Hamilton Gray. Fritz’s letters show that he spent time in London researching his grandfather and other Fathers of Confederation.

Also, the name of Fritz Peters is not found in British lists of Victoria Cross recipients from England, so if he is also not on Canadian lists he is overlooked in the overall picture.

If you talk to people in Charlottetown, they will tell you they are proud of him as a Canadian hero, particularly as he is the only P.E.I.-born recipient of the Victoria Cross.

So the answer is that yes, Fritz Peters was most definitely a Canadian!

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Exploring Fritz Peters Sites in Charlottetown

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church collageprovince house collage
Capt. Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters, VC, DSO, DSC and bar, DSC (U.S.), RN was born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island on Sept. 17, 1889.

He lived in Charlottetown until moving at age eight with his family to Victoria, British Columbia in late spring of 1898. Many of the houses, churches and government buildings of his era are still going strong today.

At top are are images of St. Peters (Anglican) Church, where the Peters family worshipped, and Fritz attended school classes. The collage includes a black and white photo taken in about 1920 of the First World War memorial plaque in the church that includes the names of Fritz’s brothers John Francklyn Peters and Gerald Hamilton Peters, as well as his cousin Arthur Gordon Peters. A photo to its right taken last week shows the additional plaque below which has names of Island men who lost their lives in World War Two, including Fritz Peters.

The photo collage below shows Province House at the time of the Charlottetown Conference in September 1864, including Fritz’s maternal grandfather, Col. John Hamilton Gray, who is the bearded man in the middle, holding a scroll in one hand. Other photos are of Province House today, along with a very impressive war memorial.

Memorable descriptions of Frederic Thornton “Fritz“ Peters

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“His courage was massive, like his shoulders.” – United Press war correspondent Leo Disher

“He was strikingly calm, almost annoyingly so”. – Leo Disher

“Completely without fear, dedicated to duty or his own interpretation of it, and tough as old rope.” – Commander David Joel, RN

“His determination, his courage, his unquenchable gaiety” – British war correspondent A.D. Divine

“(Oran) was a desperate adventure against appalling odds and it was only Fritz’s grim determination and heroism against these odds which enabled the Walney to be berthed alongside the jetty“. – Commander Cromwell Varley, DSO

“Danger never had any bearing for him, and engaging the enemy was the one thing he lived for.“ – Rear Admiral Frederick Dalrymple-Hamilton

“This Oran business was Peters all over. A first-class man.” – Admiral A.M. Peters (no relation)

“He had faraway naval eyes and a gentle smile of great charm… Our trainees came to adore him“. – Kim Philby, who served under Peters in 1940 in a British Secret Intelligence Service spy school.

“A typical Elizabethan gentleman adventurer.” – Paymaster-commander S.W. Saxton, RN

“His courage was of a caliber which realized danger even if fear was unknown to him. – S.W. Saxton

“Where duty lay, so was his set purpose, and no sacrifice was too great to carry out that duty to its end.” – S.W. Saxton

“I have not yet met anyone who did not love him or admire him.“ – S.W. Saxon

“I propose that the bravest Canadian may well have been Frederic Thornton Peters, RN”. – Commander (ret.) F.J. Blatherwick

Memorable Quotes of Frederic Thornton Peters

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Capt. Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters wasn’t just a man of action. As evidenced in his letters home and in the quotes below, he was well-read, knowledgeable of history, articulate and had a wry sense of humour.

“ It is not given to every man to be so fortunate as to fight for his country.”
– September 1914

“I have a deep and I hope true love of Canada and perhaps some small idea of its future greatness and an undying firm belief in the absolute need of unity in the Empire.”
– 1916

“I pray God I fall in the same manner with my face to the enemy.”
– 1916, after the death in battle of his brother Gerald.

“A death in action — surely if we are judged for the vast eternity by this brief mortal span — must be something.”
– 1916

“There is only one thing — the King and Empire.”
– 1916

“Death is nothing compared to dishonour.”
– 1917

“Forget all you saw or heard in the last war. This is hell, but I still have my sword sharpened.”
– after the Battle of Narvik, 1940

“I am probably going to be killed, but it’s worth it.”
– October 1942

“This is my meat. I don’t feel my best until I smell the smoke of battle.”
– steaming towards Oran, Algeria. November 7, 1942