Sgt. William J. Dempster

William John Dempster was born in Gananoque 13 December 1882, the son of William and Mary (nee Daly, of Chelsea, W Michigan). Before the war, he worked as a barber and married Alice Finch of Gananoque. One daughter predeceased him, and his daughter Margaret was born soon after he went overseas. William enlisted 12 November 1914 at age 31 and served in the infantry, 21st Battalion (Eastern Ontario Regiment).

Private Dempster arrived in France in September 1915 and fought at the St Eloi Craters in April 1916. He received a gunshot wound in the leg 13 June 1916 during the final days of fighting at Mount Sorrel and spent over a month in hospital. He then moved with his unit to the Somme where he was promoted to sergeant less than a week before his death. Promotions often occurred quickly because of the high casualty rate amongst those who led the infantry platoons into battle, the sergeants and junior officers. Of the fewer than 700 men in Sergeant Dempster's unit who began the attack early on 15 September, within a few hours 405 had been killed or wounded.

Sgt WJ Dempster

Sergeant William Dempster's brother Hugh wrote their mother on 17 September 1916:

"Dear Mother-

Just a line to let you know that I am fine and dandy, but have some very bad news for news for you. Willie got hit by a shell, and I heard of it, so went to see him on the 17th, and it was quite true, for he had died and was buried, so I went to where he was buried and got his kit bag and saw him, and, dear mother, he died with a smile on his face. He was a hero and a soldier. What few of his platoon were left told me that he was the best sergeant they ever had, and was leading his men like a soldier should do. I don't forget, mother, that it is very hard for you at home. I saw Willie on the evening of the 10th, and was with him a long time. They went in the trenches on the llth.

Well, mother, I don't know how poor Alice takes it, for it was very hard for me to see my own brother dead on the battlefield of the Somme, but better than all, his old chum told me that very few soldiers could handle a rifle and a bayonet like he could. His poor chum feels very bad for they were always together. It is pretty hard when it comes to one of our own, too, but before the battle was over, there were thousands of dead lying on the battlefield. I can see them every day by the hundreds. Well, dear mother, I hope you won't take it too hard, or the rest of the family and poor Alice, for I had something to take when I saw him. I tell you, mother, he was fighting for his King and Country, and for dear old Canada, he was fighting to protect wives, mothers, fathers and children from the rule of those Infernal Germans.

I know it will be a consolation to you to know that Willie lived a good life. He went to church every time he could and told me he went to Communion, so I am sure that anyone who dies a hero, not a coward, their place is right in heaven, for you know the Lord hates a coward. He was with his men till they nearly got the third line of German trenches; they had taken two lines, the first and second, and captured several hundred prisoners.

Well, dear mother, I got his barber clippers, comb, pipe, belt, one of his crucifixes, cap, badge, two little buttons, hat, shoulder badge, and numbers, housewife, needles, thread, some of his instruction books, two little wallets, and a few little bronzed leaves that he had got from some church that was shelled to pieces, and I will send them to you, so you can give them to Alice; give all of them some little thing. His chum told me the priest was there. I haven't seen the priest yet, but am going to.

The Battalion lost nearly all the officers they had. Well, dear mother, I will close for this time, hoping to hear from you soon. I remain, your son,"


The fighting from 15 to 22 September forced the Germans back almost a kilometre, a major achievement by Great War standards, but at the cost of 7,230 Canadians killed or wounded. The centre of the attack now is marked by a memorial made of Canadian granite located near the village of Courcelette.

Sergeant Dempster is commemorated on Page 76 of the First World War Book of Remembrance but has no known grave. His name is inscribed on the VIMY MEMORIAL along with the names of 12 other Gananoque men who died in France but whose bodies were never recovered or identified.

Dedicated on behalf of his widow, Alice and her husband, Fred Nelson Jr., who served his country from 1914-1918. His sacrifice is also remembered by the congregation of St John's Roman Catholic Church.

Taken from the "Gananoque Remembers (A tribute to the men who gave their lives for our freedom)" by Geraldine Chase and Bill Beswetherick

Text reproduced with permission
Images supplied by Al Lloyd

From his service file

Dec 13, 1882

Born in Gananoque, Ontario to William and Mary (nee Daly) Dempster


Nov 12, 1914

Attested into the 21st Battalion CEF in Kingston, Ontario

Ø  Number 59253 (temporary number 172)

Ø  Next of kin given as William Allan Dempster, Charles St., Gananoque, Ontario

o   This was later changed to Alice Dempster, wife, Charles St., Gananoque, Ontario

o   There is note to also notify Miss N.E. Dempster, Casualty Department, Militia and Defence

Ø  Previous occupation given as Barber

Ø  No previous military experience given

Ø  Religion given as Presbyterian

Ø  Posted to “B” Company

o   This was later reorganized into “A” Company

The battalion trained in the Kingston area through the winter with headquarters in the Kingston Armouries


May 6, 1915

Embarked the RMS Metagama in Montreal, Quebec


May 15, 1915

Disembarked in Devonport, England and the battalion proceeded to the West Sandling Camp, near Hythe, Kent to continue training


Jun 13, 1915

Forfeited 1 day’s pay for being absent


Sep 3, 1915

Appointed to the rank of Lance Corporal to replace Cpl Williams


Sep 13, 1915

Promoted to the rank of Corporal


Sep 14, 1915

Embarked the St. Seiriol in Folkestone



Sep 15, 1915

Disembarked in Boulogne, France and the battalion proceeded to St. Omer


Nov 8, 1915

Proceeded on course at the Bombing School


Nov 14, 1915

Rejoined the battalion from course


May 29, 1916

While the battalion was resting in the “A” Camp near Dikkebus (Dickebusch), Belgium, Private Dempster was sent out on a work party and received a bullet wound to his left leg and was evacuated to the No. 4 CFA (Canadian Field Ambulance) for first aid


Jun 2, 1916

Transferred to the No. 5 Canadian Field Ambulance and admitted to the No. 2 Divisional Rest Station there to recover from his wound


Jun 14, 1916

Transferred to the No. 12 CCS (Casualty Clearing Station) for further treatment


Jun 26, 1916

Discharged from hospital care and rejoined the battalion in the No. 33 to 38 trenches on the Ypres Salient near Verbrande Molen, Belgium


Jul 20, 1916

Appointed to the rank of Lance Sergeant to replace L/Sgt McKibbon 59731, who had been invalided to England


Aug 11, 1916

Promoted to the rank of Sergeant to replace Sgt WJ Stinson,  59923, who had been invalided to England


Sep 15, 1916

The 21st Battalion was assigned the objective of capturing the strongly defended German Headquarters in the sugar factory south of Courcelette, France as their part in the battle of the Somme.  At 6:25 am, following a short artillery barrage, the men went over the top, jumping out of their trenches east of Pozieres to begin their attack.  Sergeant William John Dempster was instantly killed as he was climbing out of his trench by a burst of enemy artillery.  He was later buried by his comrades in the field near where he fell. 





When the war ended, his identifiable remains could not be located and his name is now etched on the walls of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, Vimy Ridge, France for those killed during the war in France and have no known grave.


Following the war, the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal, Plaque (Dead Man’s Penny), Scroll and Memorial Cross were sent to his widow, Mrs. Alice Dempster, Charles St., Gananoque, Ontario

A second Memorial Cross was sent to his mother, Mrs. Mary Dempster, at the same address


William John Dempster is honoured on the war memorial in Gananoque, Ontario





For the 7 nights leading up to November 11, 2010, the names of all Canadian soldiers were projected onto the Belgian War Memorial in Ypres.  At the same time, the same names were being broadcast via the internet to schools across Belgium and Canada.  The image above shows the opening ceremonies at the Belgian War Memorial on November 4, 2010. 

Below on the left is the name of William Dempster being projected on that wall.  Below right shows the name being broadcast to the schools.  Each name appeared for 25 seconds and each night 9,700 names were shown.



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