By Jenn Watt
Private Benjamin Charles Bird born in Haliburton to John and Hannah Bird was 34 when he enlisted in the army in 1915. By that time he was living in Alberta and listed his trade as mechanic. Records show that he was five-foot-nine 140 pounds and healthy when he signed the attestation that he was willing to serve in the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force and that he would bear allegiance to King George in doing so.
He was sent to France where he fought with the 49th Battalion. He died less than two years after he signed his attestation papers on Sept. 15 or 16 1916 near Courcelette France during the Battle of the Somme.
A newsletter from the Loyal Edmonton Regiment Military Museum tells the story of the battalion’s offensive in France. On Sept. 15 the second Canadian division captured Courcelette with shelling continuing through the night. The next day bombing and blocking parties were sent forward the story says.
“Enemy troops were driven from their main trench and ‘blocks’ established in a former enemy communication trench to hinder raiding parties” it reads.
“Shortly before 5 a.m. on Sept. 16 the Battalion Headquarters then in a former German dugout was destroyed by an exploding shell. All the staff Griesbach’s officers became casualties and most of the unit files and records were lost.”
Maps and other paperwork were also destroyed.
“Throughout the day Sept. 16 the enemy artillery fire was heavy as was their machine gun and rifle fire. Casualties mounted particularly amongst the 49th Battalion officers” the story reads.
“The Battalion suffered a 37 per cent wastage rate in two horrible days” with 43 killed 191 wounded 19 missing.
Bird was killed in action and his body was not recovered. His name was inscribed on the Vimy Memorial which the Commonwealth War Graves Commission says “commemorates more than 11000 men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force killed during the First World War in France and who have no known grave. Many of them died in the Battle of Vimy Ridge.”
An article in the June 18 1924 edition of the Calgary Herald discovered by local historian Adele Espina addresses a poem written by Bird which was published under an imposter’s name. The story also notes that Bird died at the Battle of the Somme.
The poem is called “Where the Great Peace River Flows” and was written by Bird in the trenches.
There’s a river that is flowing
up toward the northern sea
‘Tis not famed in song or story
yet it has a charm for me;
It called me from the southland
where the cherry blossom grows
And I settled down contented
where the Great Peace River flows.
Where the Great Peace River’ flowing
Where the pretty bluebell grows
Where the prairies are a-glowing
With the beauty of a rose;
Where the sun is always shining
No one sits down there repining
Each day has a silver lining
Where the Great Peace River flows.
I’ve a little moss-chinked cabin just
beyond the northern shore
Where I hope to live my lifetime out
when this cruel war is o’er;
May life deal kindly with me and all
the troubles and the woes
Be to me a fleeting memory where
the Great Peace River flows.
We have come from every nation they
have sent the very best
To uphold the flag of Britain in the
grand and glorious west;
And no foeman’s feet shall trample on
our pretty prairie rose
It’s the emblem of our country where
the Great Peace River flows.
When I get the final summons to the
Courthouse in the skies
From the Judge of all the Nations
may He deem it no surprise
If I ask him just one favour – He may
grant it – no one knows;
“Send me back to fair Alberta where
the Great Peace River flows.”
Espina says from her research Bird was living in West Guilford in 1901 and working as a labourer. By 1911 he was in Nipissing working as a prospector on a mining claim. His siblings included Frances Sarah Hannah James Mary and Archie.
Bird’s service file states he was unmarried when he enlisted.
Editor’s note: Thank you to Adele Espina for her invaluable research on Benjamin Bird.
On Tuesday Oct. 29 Haliburton’s North Entrance Masonic Lodge opened its doors to the public for the first time to pay homage to Benjamin Bird with an empty chair ceremony.
Bird became a Mason in 1907 according to research done by Murray French.
Roger Hillier the empty chair ceremony director said that the ceremony dates back to the American Civil War and was used to remember those who died in conflict.
The ceremony included passages read by members of the lodge as well as Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts. St. George’s Choir trumpeter Hugh Taylor and bagpiper Reid Torrey provided musical interludes.
An empty chair adorned with a white apron symbolizing innocence and freemasonry was placed on the chair and as the ceremony progressed attendees made their way to the front of the room to place poppy pins and cedar branches. The evergreen is a symbol of immortality.
“It was very lovely how it was put together. Everything was lovely” said Doreen Cowen who attended the ceremony with other members of the Bird family. Cowen’s father was first cousins with Benjamin Bird.
Masonic records include Bird’s activities with the organization but also reflect his charitable nature.
“It was recorded on Jan. 28 1910 he donated the sum of $3 to the Hospital for Sick Children’s Fund” the research document reads. “It doesn’t sound like that much but if you consider a loaf of bread at that time cost three to four cents well you do the math.”
Hillier said the empty chair ceremony may be performed at other lodges in the future honouring Masons who did not return from war.
*See County Life on Thursday Nov. 7 for photos of Benjamin Bird’s family at the empty chair ceremony.