|Private Neill is honoured on the Ingersoll, Ontario War Memorial
| Private William Neill, and his brother, James, are honoured in their
hometown of Mochrum, Scotland, both in the Mochrum Parish Church on a plaque and on the
War Memorial in Port William.
I would like to thank Ken Morrison and the Scottish War Memorials Project for the photos below and for their kind permission to post them here.
Private William Neill, and his brother, James, are also remembered on a family grave marker in the Mochrum Parish Cemetery
Late last year I was asked by a student for information and assistance with a school assignment regarding a 21st Battalion soldier. I provided what I had and asked that he send along a copy of the finished project for my files. He sent that along to me, along with permission to reproduce it, and a note that he received a mark of 98.5 percent. The entire paper is below.
In Loving Memory of
Killed in Action – November 3/4, 1917
Lest We Forget
Social Studies 11-5
December 13th, 2014
At the start of the 20th century, the world was undergoing a time of turmoil. Europe was entering a dark stage. Tensions arose among nations throughout Europe. Conflicts surfaced, and all signs pointed towards a war brewing in Europe. At the time, war was the only practical solution to the problems arising. People felt that fighting and killing each other was the only way to fix things. With one event leading to the next, the domino effect started a war, dragging with it the entirety of Europe. Millions flocked to fight in the Great War. It was the start of a terrifying four year era known as World War One. During this time, millions of lives perished in their sacrifice for their country. Among the losses was Mr. William Neill, a Scottish man who fought and died in the war for Canada. Mr. Neill gave his life to help the British win the war and to try and put a stop to the Great War. His sacrifice was an act of bravery and loyalty, and he will never be forgotten.
William Neill was born on October 24, 1885 to Janet and William Neill, Esq. in Mochrum, Wigtownshire, Scotland.[i] Mr. Neill was the middle child in a family of five. He grew up with his parents and his two brothers in Scotland. Mr. Neill’s two siblings were James Vance Neill, his older brother by seven years, and Andrew Cloakie Neill who was five years younger.[ii] The three brothers had a fun childhood at home in Scotland. Being typical boys, they loved to play and they were very active. When they weren’t at school, they were often playing soccer, rugby, field hockey, and even golf. Growing up right by the Irish Sea, the three boys enjoyed spending their time swimming, playing water polo, and horsing around in the water. They also enjoyed spending quality man-to-man time fishing with their father. Being raised as a devout Presbyterian, the three brothers went to church every Sunday to gain the wisdom of the Presbyterian Church.[iii] While he had a great time in Scotland during his youth years, Mr. William Neill ended up leaving his country to find a better place to live. During this time in Scotland, many Scots were migrating to North America and Australia to escape the rural farming lifestyle.[iv] This was because farmers were extremely poor and had almost no say in their country.[v] Canada on the contrary was a popular place to immigrate to at this time and was welcoming of British immigrants.[vi] Living in Canada gave people hope of owning more land and money, and many saw Canada as a land of opportunity.[vii] In hopes of escaping the low class farming lifestyle in Scotland, William Neill made the decision to immigrate to the Western world and settle in Canada.
On May 30, 1908, William followed his older brother James’ footsteps by leaving his parents and younger brother Andrew in Scotland for Canada.[viii] Mr. Neill boarded the SS Ionian in Glasgow, Scotland and set off on his journey across the Atlantic.[ix] After 10 days, he arrived in Canada and landed in Quebec City, Quebec.[x] From there, Mr. Neill proceeded to Ingersoll, Ontario where his brother James had started a family.[xi] Mr. Neill lived on King Hiram Street in Ingersoll with James and his wife Edith for over seven years.[xii] During his time in Canada, William became a carpenter and spent his days crafting and building a variety of things out of wood such as houses, buildings, bridges and more.[xiii] Had he stayed in Scotland, Mr. Neill would have continued the family business by being a farmer.[xiv] Living in Canada gave Mr. Neill the opportunity to live a more lavish and happy lifestyle as he received better working conditions and wages in Canada as opposed to in Scotland.[xv] A lot of the money he made was sent back home to Scotland to help provide for his parents and younger brother Andrew. Being a single man, Mr. Neill did not have many responsibilities outside of work hours.[xvi] Thus, when he wasn’t hard at work, William was enjoying the Canadian lifestyle and immersing himself in the unique culture of Canadians. Mr. Neill learned how to ice skate and he enjoyed playing ice hockey with his new Canadian friends. He figured ice hockey was pretty similar to field hockey which he had experience playing in Scotland, but was a much more entertaining version. Coming from a small farming village like Mochrum to a larger city like Ingersoll was a big change for Mr. Neill, but he loved being able to attend big social gatherings and going to the bar to meet new people, all of which he wasn’t able to do back home in rural Scotland. All in all, life in Canada was much different for William than life back home in Scotland, but Mr. Neill embraced the change and lived his life to the fullest during these years in Ingersoll.
On a more worldwide scale, tension was growing between countries due to nationalism, militarism and imperialism within countries in Europe.[xvii] To make things worse, Austria-Hungary and Serbia were undergoing a conflict that peaked when Serbian terrorists assassinated Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand.[xviii] Austria-Hungary became extremely angry and declared war on Serbia, which caused Germany to then join the war on the side of Austria-Hungary.[xix] Germany then invaded Belgium as part of its plan to conquer France which irritated Britain.[xx] Thus, on August 4th, 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany.[xxi] This chain reaction pulled most of Europe into war with the British, French and Russians fighting against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians.[xxii] Britain’s declaration of war on Germany meant that Canada automatically entered the war against Germany.[xxiii] When news reached Canadians that Canada was going to war, people were overjoyed.[xxiv] Many people thought this would be an exciting twist to their boring daily lives, and most thought the war would be over by Christmas.[xxv] For the most part, Canadians supported the decision to go to war, but Mr. Neill hesitated. He was just getting used to the daily life of being a Canadian and he found he very much enjoyed it. He did not want to give it all up and risk his life for a war that would supposedly end in a few months. At the time, the war did not seem very important, and he felt that since there was a large abundance of volunteer enlistments, his contribution to the war effort was not necessary. Time proved that Mr. Neill was very wrong. As World War One continued, millions of lives perished with no signs of either side letting up. What was once viewed as a gentlemanly and exciting war was quickly replaced with the harsh realities of trench warfare.[xxvi] Canada slowly began losing more and more soldiers and desperately needed volunteers to fight for the war effort.[xxvii] While the romanticism of war became exposed as false, Mr. William Neill began to feel more and more obliged to enlist in the army as the war dragged on. He felt a sense of patriotism to Britain, and he ultimately decided it was the right choice to give back to the two countries, Scotland and Canada, that had given him everything he had known by serving in the Great War. It took a year and a half for William to finally realize this, but Mr. William Neill decided it was time for him to go to war.
On January 15th, 1916, just a few months after his 30th birthday, Mr. William Neill attested into the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force (CEF) in his hometown of Ingersoll, Ontario.[xxviii] Upon signing the attestation papers, Mr. Neill hereby agreed to serve in World War One on the side of the Triple Entente. On the day of his attestation, William underwent a medical examination by a medical officer in Ingersoll.[xxix] The medical officer discovered that Mr. Neill had a case of varicose veins on his left forearm, which posed as a possible threat to his service in the war, but it was later deemed as not sufficient enough of a reason to cause rejection.[xxx] Mr. Neill passed a variety of tests and was cleared fit for service in the CEF.[xxxi] Thus, Mr. William Neill was officially attested into the CEF. William joined the 168th Battalion CEF upon his enlistment and was issued his regimental number of 675225, which was a unique number that soldiers were issued for identification purposes during World War One.[xxxii] Mr. Neill was also given the rank of a Private (Pte.).[xxxiii] From this day on, Mr. William Neill would be known as Pte. William Neill for the rest of his army career. After the day he enlisted for war, his life would never be the same. Pte. Neill began his army career by training for the war. Mr. Neill completed his basic training at Valcartier Training Camp in Valcartier, Quebec.[xxxiv] Valcartier was Canada’s main training base for the CEF during World War One.[xxxv] At Valcartier, William received basic military training, such as learning about how all his equipment worked and how to use and handle weapons safely.[xxxvi] He learned about individual and unit discipline, which included following commands and marching. He also had to undergo physical training to keep his body in best shape for the war.[xxxvii] Having no previous militia experience, Valcartier taught Mr. Neill all the basic things a soldier needed to know about surviving in a war. He was now ready to go overseas.
On October 30th, 1916, after over 8 months of training with his battalion at Valcartier, Mr. William Neill went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, a frequent final destination for Canadian soldiers.[xxxviii] Here, Mr. Neill embarked on the SS Lapland and sailed to Europe to fight in the war.[xxxix] After 12 days, Mr. Neill arrived in Europe at Liverpool, England and immediately traveled across England to continue his training at West Sandling Army Camp in Kent, England.[xl] Training in England was different from the basic training he had received at Valcartier. The basic training that Valcartier had supplied the Canadian soldiers was not enough to prepare them for the harsh rigours of trench warfare.[xli] At West Sandling, soldiers received more intensive training. Soldiers learned about war tactics as well as offensive and defensive strategies, and received more extensive first aid training.[xlii] Soldiers also learned about individual and unit discipline, which included following commands and marching.[xliii] After a mere month spent overseas, Pte. Neill bid farewell to the regiment he had spent almost a year with when he was taken on strength by the 39th Reserve Battalion CEF.[xliv] After only another month of advanced training at West Sandling, Pte. Neill switched regiments again on January 4th, 1917, when his 39th Res. Battalion disbanded and became absorbed into the 6th Reserve Battalion CEF.[xlv] He and his newly merged battalion proceeded to the Shorncliffe Army Camp also in Kent, England where they continued training for the front lines.[xlvi] By this time, Mr. Neill was tired of all the training he was receiving and craved a taste of the Western front so that he could truly contribute to the British cause. Therefore, Pte. Neill decided to transfer out of the 6th Res. Battalion into an active battalion. He would finally be going to the frontlines, uncovering for himself the truth of World War One.
On March 20th, 1917, Pte. William Neill was taken on strength by the 21st Battalion CEF.[xlvii] Mr. Neill immediately traveled to the Canadian Base Depot at Rouelles Camp in Havre, France where the battalion was currently stationed.[xlviii] Upon entering the 21st Battalion, Mr. Neill was reunited with his older brother James, who happened to be another private in the battalion.[xlix] The two brothers were overjoyed when they saw each other for the first time since William enlisted into the army a year ago. They caught each other up to speed with the events of the past year and they each talked about what life in the war had been like for them. James also informed William that their younger brother, Andrew had enlisted into the Royal Scots and was currently fighting at the frontlines in France.[l] They both agreed that out of the three Neill brothers, Andrew was contributing the most to the war effort. James and William hoped that they could soon be doing the same as their younger brother by defending the British flag in war. Life in the 21st Battalion was much different than William’s previous experiences in reserve battalions. Mr. Neill received more highly specialized training and most of the training was on the fly as the battalion was constantly on the move. Fighting for an active battalion also meant that Pte. Neill finally got to go into the trenches at the front lines. Here, Pte. Neill finally experienced the truth of World War One. Pte. Neill stayed in the trenches all day and night with his battalion for days at a time and were either completing daily chores or fighting the war.[li] They were constantly on alert and did not get much time to themselves. One advantage Mr. Neill had over the other soldiers was his short height. Being a mere 5 foot 5 and a half, Mr. Neill was not forced to crouch down at all times in the trenches to avoid enemy gunfire, which made life easier on his knees and thighs as well as helping his endurance.[lii] It also made him a smaller target for the Germans to hit. The trenches were not a fun place to be either. Trenches were extremely dirty and smelly, and full of bacteria and disease.[liii] Millions of rats and lice infested the trenches.[liv] It was remarkable that William never got sick during his service in the trenches.[lv] All the horrible stories he had heard about trench warfare were proven to be true. Trench warfare was no joke – it was a horrifying experience that scarred him for life. Whenever he became unhappy, William reminded himself all the reasons why he was fighting for the war. He wasn’t just fighting for his personal gain – he was fighting for the safety of Europe. When the soldiers weren’t fighting in the war, they enjoyed talking about life back at home in Canada. There were soldiers of all races originating from all across Canada in his battalion. This allowed William to learn about the differences between Canadians from different areas. It wasn’t until William served in the war when he finally saw for himself just how multicultural Canada truly was. Canada was a land of all peoples. In their free time, soldiers also enjoyed playing card games such as poker and blackjack, and often wrote letters home to reassure their families back home in Canada of their safety.[lvi] In short, life in the trenches was a very traumatic experience for Mr. William Neill, but he strove on in order to protect the British flag in war.
Over the course of the next five months, Mr. Neill endured the tough life in the trenches. During this time, lots had happened in his personal life. Mr. Neill lost his two brothers to the Great War, leaving him as the only Neill brother remaining.[lvii] Since his enlistment, William had been making $1.10 a day for the past year and a half which by this time had amounted to almost $330, but it suddenly did not seem like enough to sustain his parents.[lviii] Money was just a small part of William’s problems however. His first priority at this time was to contribute to the war effort and help win this war. He could deal with his money problems after the war. Thus, Pte. Neill continued to fight on. Over the last five months, Mr. Neill got a full taste of World War One, fighting in a variety of battles including the Battles of Arras, Hill 70, and most famously Vimy Ridge before leaving France to fight in Belgium at the Third Battle of Ypres.[lix] On the night of November 3rd, 1917 heading into the early morning of the next day, the 21st Battalion relieved the 72nd Battalion CEF and moved into the Western Front lines.[lx] This was at the peak of the Second Battle of Passchendaele, part of the ongoing Third Battle of Ypres.[lxi] During this night, the Germans made a determined attack on the 21st Battalion and entered the battalion’s trenches northeast of Crest Farm, but were forcefully ejected by the battalion members.[lxii] It was a tough fight, but Pte. Neill survived this ordeal unscathed and lived to see the Germans being pushed out of their trenches.[lxiii] However, many of his mates did not hold the same fate. Later in that same night, the Germans made two more counterattacks.[lxiv] Both times, the enemy was beaten back and forced to retreat as the Canadians stood their ground.[lxv] The Canadian battalion re-grouped, re-organized and re-established the front line, but it was too late for many Canadian soldiers.[lxvi] The damage had already been done by the Germans that night. During the 24 hours of November 3-4, 1917, the 21st Battalion lost over 100 men.[lxvii] Among the dead was Pte. William Neill.[lxviii]
Throughout the war, Pte. Neill gave it his all. The night of his unfortunate death was an act of true valour by Mr. Neill but it was not enough to save his own life. Pte. Neill sacrificed his life for the war and the better of the British people. After his death, his battalion rallied to keep the Germans away from their trenches and played a key factor in scoring a victory for the Triple Entente at the Battle of Passchendaele.[lxix] The victory in this battle put the British one step closer to ending the war. It took another year of miserable fighting, but on November 11th, 1918, an armistice was signed officially signifying the end of World War One.[lxx] Four years of horrific fighting had finally concluded, but at the cost of millions of dead soldiers.[lxxi] After the war ended, Pte. Neill’s entire estate was passed along to his mother, Janet Neill, as stated in a will he had written back on March 8th, 1917.[lxxii] His mother received all of William’s belongings, including his money and possessions, but at the insurmountable cost of losing her beloved son. His mother was also awarded the British War Medal, Victory Medal, Memorial Plaque and Scroll as well as the Memorial Cross, all given to family members of British servicemen who had died overseas in the war.[lxxiii] These were all sent to her home in Mochrum, Scotland, Mr. Neill’s childhood home. Today, Private William Neill is buried at the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world, the Tyne Cot Cemetery in Passchendaele, Belgium.[lxxiv] Among almost 12,000 other servicemen, Mr. Neill lies to rest in Grave 9 of Plot 2, Row CC in the cemetery.[lxxv] His grave is located just kilometers away from where he lost his life, overlooking the fields where he once roamed during the war.[lxxvi] He is also commemorated by his Canadian hometown on the Ingersoll War Memorial in Ingersoll, Ontario, as well as on page 300 of the First World War Book of Remembrance.[lxxvii] His life may have been lost, but his spirit shall always live on. His character will be forever captured and remembered.
Mr. William Neill was a man who craved adventure. He moved from Scotland to Canada in search of more opportunities and a better future. Whilst in Canada, William got what he was searching for and he loyally gave back to Canada with his efforts in the war. He was a man with great morals. Pte. Neill was always eager to contribute to the war and he volunteered to fight on the dangerous front lines. It is a shame that he died so early in his life, as he had many decades of his life still ahead of him to look forward to. Mr. Neill gave up his future for the better of Canada, and his noble sacrifice for Canada will be remembered forever. He died proudly with the maple leaf on his chest. Mr. William Neill was a brave and loyal man who died for his country, and he will never be forgotten.