Library and Archives Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Institutional links

ARCHIVED - Aboriginal Documentary Heritage

Archived Content

This archived Web page remains online for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. This page will not be altered or updated. Web pages that are archived on the Internet are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats of this page on the Contact Us page.

Aboriginal Soldiers in the First World War

By James Dempsey


Previous | Table of Contents | Next

Experiences of War

Language was a common problem among Indian enlistees since many were unfamiliar with English, and at first communication was difficult. One recruit with the 52nd Battalion, William Semia, who was a trapper for the Hudson's Bay Company and a member of the Cat Lake Band in Northern Ontario, spoke neither English nor French when he enlisted. He learned English from another Indian volunteer and one of his responsibilities later on was drilling platoons.

Once in the army, it was difficult for some Indians to accept military discipline since many had been brought up in a culture that favoured individualism. For example, George Strangling Wolf, a member of the Blood Nation, presented himself during inspection wearing elk teeth earrings and necklace and a red handkerchief around his neck. He had also cut off the front of his hat.

Probably as a result of their experience as hunters in civilian life, many Indian soldiers excelled as snipers. Lance Corporal Johnny Norwest, who came from the vicinity of Edmonton and was a member of the 50th Battalion, was one of the leading snipers in the war and was credited with 115 hits. He was supplied with a special rifle fitted with telescopic sights, a weapon he used until he was killed in August of 1918. Likewise, many of the 35 Indian soldiers from the Fort William region in Ontario had lived by hunting and were such good shots that all 35 became snipers.

Although Indians were represented mainly in the infantry, there were exceptions, such as Lieutenants Moses and Martin who served in the Royal Flying Corps.

Indian women also served overseas as nurses. In 1917, Edith Anderson Monture, from the Six Nations Reserve, went to work at an Amercian hospital base in Vittel, France, where she cared for soldiers recovering from bullet and shrapnel wounds and from poisonous gas.

Indian soldiers faced the same hardships as their non-Indian comrades and casualties were high. Many were taken prisoner and many more were decorated for conspicuous gallantry. However, one unique hardship that hit Indian soldiers in particular was tuberculosis. They had no natural immunity to the disease, and it killed many who returned home following the war.

In summary, the contributions of Indians in the war were comparable to those of other Canadians. The major difference was that the Indians were not required or expected to serve, but did so nonetheless with gallantry and valour.

Previous | Table of Contents | Next