In the beginning it was like going to summer camp or heading off on a road trip with pals. If you didn’t go, you would miss a free trip back home to the old country where you could visit your grandparents and the friends you left behind. The war wouldn’t last long, the young recruits thought, and what an adventure it would be!
Colin Muir, a young man born in Scotland and living in Chilliwack, BC in 1916, was among the dozens of local boys who answered the call to defend the Empire. Eager to do his part, he was already serving in the local militia when he enlisted. He marched in the local drill hall on Princess Avenue, saluted officers who had suppressed the North West Rebellion of 1885 and practiced “musketry” skills. Could Colin have conceived the horror that thrust him toward Passchendaele Ridge in Belgium twenty months later?
Colin was born December 20, 1897 and grew up in Busby, a district near Glasgow. He became the eldest child of Colin Muir and Elizabeth Frame when his older sister Helen died of tuberculosis at the age of ten in 1907. His brother, John Frame Muir (known as Jack), a year and a half younger than Colin, was our grandfather. Another brother followed: Robert Allan Muir (Uncle Bob); and two sisters Elizabeth Allan Muir (Auntie Beth) and Margaret Frame Muir (Auntie Marg).
Colin Muir Senior worked as a groundskeeper, gardener and nurseryman. The Muir children attended school but at age thirteen Colin was already a novice office boy when the family moved to Canada. The home life of the Muirs might have been comfortable in their Wakefield Terrace row house, evidenced by the telephone line they had installed in 1909. In 1911, however, Colin Senior made his way alone to the Fraser Valley near Vancouver. The rest of the family followed a year later sailing on the ship Cassandra from Glasgow to Montreal in September, 1912.
After crossing the country by rail, the Muirs settled in East Chilliwack on a farm near the corner of Upper Prairie and Prairie Central Roads. Colin Muir Senior had been hired as the foreman of a greenhouse nursery operation just starting up there in 1912. By 1914, Colin Muir Junior was working as a clerk at Merchants’ Bank in downtown Chilliwack and playing “soccer football” on Saturday afternoons with the Bankers’ team.
In early 1914, war was not yet on the horizon, but militia activities were popular past-times. Chilliwack’s militia, a company of the 104th (Westminster) Regiment, had formed in 1912. Its members met regularly in the local drill hall. Patriotism, friendly rivalry and good fun drew men from Chilliwack and surrounding Fraser Valley communities.
For a few years before the war, the 104th militia had gathered for two weeks each summer in Vernon. There were drills, skills and marching, of course, but there were also baseball and lacrosse games, shooting competitions, races, tug o’ war and a brass band. All the lads travelled there together by train, slept in tents, and were fed by local ladies’ club volunteers. The Vernon camp had been the highlight of summers for many young men in Chilliwack, and for the remainder of the year their camaraderie was sustained by regular meetings and monthly dances.
When war broke out August 4, 1914, it took many people in Chilliwack by surprise. Not much had been written in The Chilliwack Progress about the imminent prospect of war until late July. Although the crisis in Europe following the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne was covered by the Vancouver newspapers, the potential for local repercussions did not immediately dawn on most British Columbians. Yet the call for soldiers was quickly met by men of the Fraser Valley once war was declared by Britain, particularly by those already serving in the militia.
Colin waited impatiently to enlist. So did some other young Fraser Valley men: Trueman Hamilton, a farmer’s son living in Rosedale, and Orville Boucher, a musical high school student from Chilliwack. In the meantime, they all joined the 104th Regiment and drilled with the militia. The official age of enlistment in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was eighteen, although many young men fibbed about their age and joined up early, such as Cheam farmer’s son, sixteen year old George Hastings and John Parton (‘Jack’) a seventeen year old delivery boy from Abbotsford.
Colin turned eighteen in December, 1915. But the eager soldier had a problem he could not easily hide–he was short. Weighing 130 pounds, with a chest of 32 inches, Colin had not yet grown to a man’s size. The minimum height for a soldier was 5′ 4″. Finally, in early March, Colin stood as tall as he could and the examining doctor measured him at 5′ 4″ and 1/4″. He was in.
Colin completed his enlistment document, the Attestation Paper, on April 3, 1916, and declared his Oath of loyalty to King George V on a Bible. He had left his employment with the Merchants’ Bank by the time of enlistment. Declared fit to serve, he and other Fraser Valley men transferred from the militia and took the train to New Westminster to report to the 131st Westminster Battalion. Colin became an infantry Private in the 6th Platoon and was given the service number 790858.
For several weeks the boys were billeted at Queen’s Park, New Westminster, and training began for one thousand new recruits. Everyone hoped the 131st Battalion would be sent overseas to fight together, because it consisted mostly of men from the Fraser Valley and New Westminster.
In June, the recruits were sent to Vernon Camp, joining other British Columbia battalions. Five thousand men drilled and trained, practicing the use of rifles, bayoneting, bombing with grenades, signalling and stretcher-bearing in the hills outside the town. Mock battles were staged between battalions.
In July, farmers’ sons Colin, Trueman, Orville and George were given leave to return home for a few weeks to help their families with haying and harvesting.
In that summer of 1916, the news from Europe was discouraging and the casualty lists were lengthy, particularly while the battles of Mount Sorrel and the Somme raged. Familiar names were appearing on the lists published in the local newspapers and Chilliwack’s families were grieving the loss of many young men who had signed up in 1914 and 1915. Voluntary enlistment plummeted. If the new recruits already training in Vernon Camp had second thoughts about their own enlistment, it was too late. In early October the rumours of the 131st Battalion’s imminent departure for England proved true, and Colin said a final goodbye to his family.
The battalion left Vernon on the CPR train on October 24, stopping in Ottawa for a few brief hours to be inspected by the Governor General the Duke of Connaught, Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden and the Minister of Militia and Defence Sir Sam Hughes. Finally the soldiers arrived in Halifax and immediately boarded the former Cunard cruise ship Caronia on October 31. One of Colin’s shipmates wrote to the Chilliwack Progress:
The journey across the water was without incident and enjoyed by all except for the first three days when the majority on board were leaning over the ship’s side endeavouring to see the bottom of the sea.
The Caronia arrived safely in Liverpool on November 11, 1916. Colin was sent to a military camp at Shorncliffe on the coast of Kent, only twenty miles across the English Channel from France. Every day the explosions of the guns on the western front, only sixty miles away, were quite audible in the towns along the coast of England. Half the battalion was given six days of leave in Britain, and the other half took leave when the first group returned. Many visited old friends in Scotland and England, others used the opportunity to see the sights of London.
Colin might not have had a chance to take leave, for shortly after his arrival at Shorncliffe he and Trueman Hamilton found themselves in an isolation unit in hospital in nearby Folkestone. They had measles. For a few days Colin’s temperature hovered around 102 degrees before it returned to normal. He spent his nineteenth birthday in hospital, but was finally discharged on December 27, 1916.
To the immense disappointment of the 131st Westminster Battalion, it was broken up and the men were sent in groups to reinforce other Canadian battalions. Bigger, older and stronger men were sent into combat. Trueman Hamilton was chosen by the 29th Battalion, another BC regiment, and left immediately for France. George Hastings’ true age and a chronic health condition were discovered and he was sent home to Canada. Colin Muir, Orville Boucher and Jack Parton were held back from active service, probably because of their youth or size, and reassigned to the 1st Canadian Reserve Battalion on Dibgate Plain in England. The first training they received there was a lecture on the perils of venereal disease.
In April, reinforcements were needed desperately by the 7th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) following the Canadians’ victory capturing Vimy Ridge and a subsequent battle at Arleux. After pressing forward in these battles which began at Easter, the battalion was relieved to rest, repair and reinforce in May. By this time Colin Muir had been in England training with the 1st Canadian Reserve Battalion for a few months. On April 21, 1917 Colin and Orville were reassigned to the 7th Battalion at Seaford in England in preparation for the move to France. (Today the 7th Battalion is perpetuated by the British Columbia Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own) based at the Beatty Street Armoury in Vancouver).
Colin wrote his will by hand, naming his mother as beneficiary, and then was sent to the Canadian Base Depot at Le Havre in France. He and dozens more reinforcements caught up with the main battalion in the field in early May at Maisnil-les-Ruitz. Colin’s war had finally begun.
He was assigned to No. 2 Company. Within a week his Company was battling a determined opponent…on the baseball diamond.
What better way to lift the spirits of those who had lost comrades at Vimy and Arleux and build camaraderie between experienced soldiers and the newly arrived reinforcements than a battalion baseball tournament? Colin, active in sports at home, no doubt was enthusiastic about No. 2 Company’s participation in the first game against Detail. There is no record of the outcome of the series of games that was held every afternoon for a week. However, on the heels of the cold snap at Easter that had plagued the Vimy assault, spring had finally arrived and the weather was glorious. An order was issued to all companies in the 7th Battalion expressly forbidding the soldiers from cutting off their trousers to make shorts. Curfew was extended to 9:00 PM. On July 1, 1917 the entire Canadian Corps launched three salvos with their heaviest guns at noon to commemorate Dominion Day.
June and July passed. The battalion marched between Thelus, St. Eloi, Neuville St. Vaast and Les Brebis. Colin and his fellow infantrymen worked filling sandbags, repairing roads, trenches and transporting supplies. They constructed barbed wire defences in front of the trenches at night. His battalion rotated with others and was increasingly exposed to shells and snipers at the front. Aerial dogfights were thrilling entertainment, but fire from the skies was a real threat to those on the ground. The night of July 23 was a bad one. With nonchalance, the war diarist reported: The enemy became somewhat excited and threw over a great number of pineapples.
In late July, the soldiers were training with increasing intensity and practicing on fields at Houchin for a big offensive to come. A scaled-down model landscape made of moulded plasticine was used to plan the attack. Unofficial photographs were strictly forbidden, and some soldiers were jailed for sending uncensored mail through the French postal system in direct violation of orders.
On August 15th, in the Loos sector, the 7th Battalion was in the thick of the assault of Hill 70, just outside the city of Lens. It was the most intense battle that Colin had seen yet. Lens was in enemy hands, and the capture of Hill 70 was a strategic objective that would allow the Allies to rain artillery down upon the Germans holed up in the city. More importantly, the attack would prevent the Germans from moving troops north to reinforce the Ypres sector in Flanders, where a fresh offensive, the Third Battle of Ypres (‘Passchendaele’) had been launched by the Allies on July 31, 1917. The Germans did not relinquish their hold on Hill 70 without strong resistance, using massive shelling, insidious mustard gas and aerial bombardment.
Hill 70 was captured by the Canadians in ferocious fighting. Many on both sides were slain in hand to hand combat with bayonets and pistols. Ultimately the Germans could not withstand the relentless intensity of the well-coordinated Canadian barrage upon Hill 70, although Lens itself did not fall and remained in enemy hands. Chilliwack boys Trueman Hamilton and Orville Boucher were killed as their battalions pressed forward. Colin Muir survived the battle physically unscathed. After the battle, young Jack Parton finally was sent to the 7th Battalion as a reinforcement from England.
Following sunny summer days in May, June and July, rain began to fall and did not let up throughout August. To the north-east, in the Ypres sector, much of Flanders had been reclaimed from the sea through an intricate system of ditches and canals constructed by Belgian farmers. Years of shelling had destroyed these channels, and with the onset of rain the terrain had become a quagmire. Trenches could not be dug without flooding immediately with the ooze.
In this area, the Germans had built impenetrable pill boxes–low, concrete structures in which infantry soldiers barricaded themselves behind entangled nests of barbed wire. They were well-fortified and their artillery strategically placed. By October, exhausted British, Australian and New Zealand troops could push no more in their ‘bite and hold’ offensive and had suffered 200,000 casualties.
The Canadian Corps, led by Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie, moved north by train in October and entered the fray at the Battle of Ypres.
Rain continued to saturate the battlefields. The swamp was several feet deep in places and swallowed major artillery guns and infantry men alike, many of whom drowned in the sucking mud while unconscious or incapacitated although their injuries might have been treatable. Corpses and assorted body parts in various states of putrefaction had lain in the muck since August. The stench of decay carried for miles. Wooden plank paths were hastily built to cross this horrific terrain.
The objective of the Canadian Corps was the capture of Passchendaele Ridge, which had eluded the Australian forces despite a valiant effort. The ridge was barely a hill, but it overlooked the Allied-held Ypres Salient, German-held rail lines and the Belgian North Sea coast. Taking Passchendaele Ridge would destroy the Germans’ artillery advantage and set the Allies up for a continuation of their advance in the spring of 1918 to overrun German supply lines and the German U-boat stations (an offensive that never took place).
Four strategic attacks to take Passchendaele Ridge were planned by Currie and rehearsed by his battalions. The 7th Battalion was scheduled to participate in the final day of battle that would culminate in the taking of the Ridge. In preparation, Colin’s company moved into tents at St. Jean near Ypres, ready to follow other battalions that had attacked in the preceding assault stages beginning October 26. These assaults were costly but successful. Now it was Colin’s turn to meet the enemy.
Number 2 Company moved to a position in front of the remnants of a village, Mosselmark, and dug in to await zero hour at 6:05 AM November 10th.
The morning dawned grey and cold, and torrential rain was falling. The final push to secure Passchendaele Ridge got underway with a massive rolling barrage. The enemy’s artillery reciprocated and many casualties were sustained. Within two hours the Ridge was in the hands of the Canadians. But the battle was not over. The enemy continued to counter attack the Canadians with a bombardment of mortars, their impact only slightly lessened by the thick mud that deadened the explosions. Planes harassed the Canadians from overhead. In the fog of war, Canadian artillery fire fell short into their own forward lines later in the day. By nightfall, however, there was no question that the Canadians controlled Passchendaele Ridge. The cost was high. Nearly 16,000 Canadian soldiers were injured or lost their lives in the offensive over the course of two weeks.
Sometime during that dreadful day, Colin Muir was hit by the shrapnel of an exploding shell. He lived only a short time after, his body torn apart. His comrade Jack Parton died nearby.
In Chilliwack, Colin and Elizabeth Muir and their children Jack, Bob, Beth and Margaret received the news of Colin’s demise with agonized sorrow. Somehow they learned of the brutality of his death which only made their loss harder to bear.
Colin was buried at Waterloo Canadian Cemetery, and his grave was marked later for relocation to Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world, nine kilometres northeast of Ieper in Belgium. But the remains of his body were unidentifiable and lost in the relocation. Colin’s name is engraved on Special Memorial 71 at Tyne Cot, and his grave marker reads: Believed to Be Buried in This Cemetery.
Colin Muir’s name is also engraved on the cenotaph in Chilliwack, and a short biography appears in the online War Memorial of the Chilliwack Museum and Archives. He is also remembered at the Canadian Legion’s cenotaph in the cemetery on Little Mountain in Chilliwack.
In Vancouver, the 7th Battalion is honoured in Christ Church Cathedral where a bronze memorial was unveiled 13 years to the day after the death of Private Colin Muir. Another plaque is located in the BC Legislature in Victoria. In Ieper, Belgium, a memorial is dedicated to the 7th Battalion in St. George’s church.
Colin was eligible for the British War Medal, the Victory Medal, the Memorial Cross, and the Memorial Plaque and Scroll at the end of the war, but the whereabouts of these is unknown.
Colin’s father chose this simple inscription to be chiseled at the base of his son’s grave marker at Tyne Cot cemetery:
He Died For Us