I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
According to the Canadian War Museum, “Close to 4,000 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force were of Aboriginal descent, an astonishing number given the limited civil rights accorded Canada’s First Peoples in the early twentieth century.”
One of these recruits was Francis Pegahmagabow, a man who turned out to have an exceptional talent as a sniper.
First Nations soldiers faced difficulties not associated with the danger of being in a war zone. There was an ever-present racial prejudice against them, although this lessened as the war dragged on. Also, many did not speak English, the almost universal language of command in the Canadian forces.
The Canadian War Museum adds that “At least 50 [First Nations soldiers] were decorated for bravery on the battlefield. Many acquired near-legendary status as scouts and snipers, drawing on pre-war hunting skills and wilderness experience.”
One of these was Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow of the Shawanaga First Nation Reserve, 35 km north of Parry Sound, Ontario. It was here in 1891 that Francis Pegahmagabow was born. He became an orphan at an early age and was raised by the Anishinaabe Ojibway community on the reserve.
As he grew up, he learned the bush craft of tracking, camouflage, and shooting while hunting game, skills that he put to use on the Western Front.
Rush to the Colours
As soon as war was declared Peggy, as he was known to his comrades, volunteered and joined the 23rd Regiment (Northern Pioneers).
Within six months of enlisting he was in France with the 1st Canadian Division and in action a few weeks later at the Second Battle of Ypres (April 21–May 25, 1915). This was the first occasion on which the Germans unleashed poisonous chlorine gas, which drove combined French and Algerian troops from the battlefield.
The Canadian Division plugged the gap and the Canadian War Museum comments that the “trial-by-fire at Ypres earned the Canadians a reputation as tough and dependable troops, but they had paid a high price: some 6,000 casualties ...”
During the fighting, officers noticed Peggy’s exceptional skill with a rifle and as a scout.
Dangerous Great War Assignments
Francis Pegahmagabow’s talents led to some hazardous jobs, such as sniping, message running, and scouting.
Sniping involved crawling out into No Man’s Land and finding a place, such as a shell hole, for concealment. Sometimes, snipers used elaborate camouflage, such as building fake trees or finding animal carcasses to hide behind.
The sniper would then wait patiently until a target came into view.
There is great danger involved; if the sniper can see his target then he can also be seen by the target and his comrades. Peggy had a superior talent for shooting and then, seemingly, vanishing.
The Aboriginal Multi-Media Association (AMMA) notes that “Although no official record of kills by snipers was kept, he (Peggy) has been called the most successful Allied sniper of the war, credited with killing dozens of German soldiers.”
However, it’s widely quoted that Francis Pegahmagabow killed 378 enemy soldiers and captured 300 more.
Being sent out on scouting missions was another very dangerous job. It meant prowling around in the dark in the ground between Allied and German trenches to gather intelligence about the enemy. Sometimes, teams of scouts would jump into an enemy trench and drag an occupant back to Allied lines for interrogation.
Peggy also acted as a messenger, a role that involved crossing the obstacle course of shell holes, tangles of barbed wire, and the corpses of men and horses during the heat of battle.
Francis Pegahmagabow fought throughout the war and lived to tell the tale.
The odds were that because of the perilous nature of his tasks Peggy would not live long. But, he defied the odds and came out of the war alive and with a single leg wound.
He collected a number of decorations; he was awarded the Military Medal three times.
The commendation for one of these medals reads: “For continuous service as a messenger from February 14th 1915 to February 1916. He carried messages with great bravery and success during the whole of the actions at Ypres, Festubert, and Givenchy. In all his work he has consistently shown a disregard for danger and his faithfulness to duty is highly commendable.”
Joseph Boyden based his 2005 novel, Three Day Road, on the life of Francis Pegahmagabow. He has suggested Peggy would have been awarded higher-ranking medals such as the Victoria Cross or the Distinguished Conduct Medal had he not been a First Nations soldier.
Fight for Native Rights
Peggy returned home in 1919 to find his country’s attitude towards Native People had not changed. As AMMA notes “When he’d fought for King and country he’d been treated as an equal, but once the war was over, he faced the same discrimination and limits to his rights he had before the war.”
This is confirmed by the Canadian War Museum: “Many First Peoples soldiers returned from the war hoping that their sacrifice and achievements on the battlefield would lead to greater recognition and improved living conditions at home. Federal policy extended many post-war benefits to Aboriginal veterans, but not as many as those accorded non-aboriginals.”
So Francis Pegahmagabow took up the battle for Native rights. He became chief of the Parry Sound Band and later served four terms as Supreme Chief of the Native Independent Government, one of the country’s early Aboriginal political organizations.
Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow died in 1952 at the age of 63. His people are still struggling for an equal place in Canadian society.
- Henry Louis Norwest was a Métis of French and Cree ancestry from Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, and also a skilled sniper. Veterans Affairs Canada notes that “In his nearly three years of service with the 50th Canadian Infantry Battalion, the lance-corporal achieved a sniping record of 115 fatal shots.” He was adept at camouflage and could lie still for hours waiting for an enemy soldier to come into his view. But, three months before the end of the war Henry Norwest’s luck ran out. On August 18, 1918, he was trying to deal with a nest of German snipers when one of them shot him, killing him instantly.
- One sniper tactic was to fly a kite in the air with writing on it. Anyone who raised his head to get a better look was shot.
- Master Corporal Arron Perry of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry was deployed to Afghanistan. In 2002, he took aim at a Taliban insurgent who was 2,300 metres away. The shot was fatal “… setting the world record for the longest confirmed kill shot in military history” (Maclean’s magazine). A few days later, Corporal Rob Furlong shot and killed another insurgent from a distance of 2,430 metres. However, in May 2017, an unidentified sniper with Canada’s elite Joint Task Force 2 killed an Islamic State fighter in Iraq from 3,540 metres. According to the BBC, “It took the bullet almost 10 seconds to hit its target …” The Washington Post has written that “… Canada boasts some of the best snipers of any military …”
- “Aboriginal Soldiers Among Canada’s Top Snipers in First World War.” Nelson Wyatt, Canadian Press, March 25, 2017.
- “Frances Pegahmagabow: Most Decorated Aboriginal Soldier also Did Battle at Home.” Wind Speaker, June 15, 2017.
- “First Nations Soldiers.” Canadian War Museum, undated.
- “A Peaceful Man.” Veterans Affairs Canada, November 21, 2016.
- “Sharpshooter: Henry Louis Norwest.” Veterans Affairs Canada, November 10, 2014.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor