The Battle of Flers Courcelette 15 – 22 September, Canadian wounded being taken to a Dressing Station on a horse-drawn light railway ©
On Remembrance Day, I often think about my great uncle, David McIntosh. He died with the Canadian infantry in France in 1916 at the age of 23. I call him our family’s Unknown Soldier.
About twenty years ago when I visited my mother in Scotland, she gave me a large bronze medallion. “This is all we have of David McIntosh,” she said. “He went to Canada and was killed in the First World War.” I had never heard of him before, and that was all she knew. The medallion was known formally as the Memorial Death Plaque and informally as the “Dead Man’s Penny” or “Widow’s Penny.” It is almost five inches in diameter and is inscribed with David’s name and the legend “He died for freedom and honour.” It was designed as a memento of servicemen killed in the war and was sent by King George V to the next-of-kin. I looked at the plaque from time to time and wondered about the man it commemorated. I decided to find out more about him as one way I could honour him and the sacrifice he made. Finding out the facts of his short life was relatively easy. Getting to know anything about the man was another story.
David McIntosh was born in Scotland in 1893 where his parents ran the Queensferry Arms Hotel, outside Edinburgh. He was part of a big family which, by all accounts, was highly dysfunctional. This may explain why he left for Canada at the first opportunity, two months after his seventeenth birthday in 1910. He appeared to be close to his sister Elizabeth, my grandmother, who I came to know well. Unfortunately her way of dealing with tragedy was to refuse to acknowledge it. I have no recollection of her mentioning David to me. There are no letters, no photos. Only the bronze plaque.
David sailed from Glasgow to Montreal in late July 1910 with $25 in his pocket. His final destination was Stratford, Ontario where he had been hired as an apprentice by the Grand Trunk Railway. He worked for Grand Trunk until 1914 when he enlisted in the Canadian army. He was described as a machinist, 5 feet 71/2 inches tall with a fair complexion, grey eyes and dark hair. He was assigned to the 18th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. By the time he got to France in 1915, he was a lance-corporal in the 18th Battalion’s Company D. Later that year he was promoted to corporal and, in June 1916, to sergeant.
Canadian troops weren’t involved in the disastrous first offensive of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. But David’s battalion took part in the second major offensive, the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, which began on September 15. Company D went “over the top” at 6:20 a.m. I couldn’t find any reports from Company D that day, but at 9:49 a.m., a report to the battalion’s commanding officer from Company C in the same sector said “… Officers nil, and N.C.O.’s scarce.” Somewhere, somehow in the mud, madness and confusion of the battle, David was killed. His military records end with a laconic “Killed in Action.” If the exact location of his death was known, it wasn’t recorded.
So today, I’m stumped. Nothing remains of David except the “Dead Man’s Penny” and his name inscribed on the Vimy memorial in France. One day I’ll go to Stratford to see the houses where he boarded, and I also want to see if I can dig up some additional records in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. But I’m not optimistic. So many died in the senseless slaughter that it’s unlikely anything but the briefest records exist for one individual. I suspect David McIntosh will always be my family’s Unknown Soldier.
(John Watkinson is retired and lives in Peterborough. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)