Remembering Ralph Connor

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Under the protective shadow of the Three Sisters Mountain, since 1890 the Ralph Connor Memorial United Church has stood in its Carpenter Gothic simplicity on the main street of Canmore, Alberta. After ordination as a Presbyterian minister in 1890, Charles Gordon (pen name Ralph Connor) moved to Alberta (then known as the Northwest Territories) where he served a large area west of Calgary until 1894.  His work among the lumbermen and miners forms the basis of his first book Black Rock published three years after he left the west.  It is believed that he asked his publisher to publish it under the name Cannor (to stand for Canadian Northwest) and through a publishing error it came out ‘Connor’.

But Charles Gordon was more than a minister, more than a writer.  In 1915, at the age of 54, he became senior Protestant chaplain to the 43rdBattalion of the Cameron Highlanders in England and France.

My seventeen year old Uncle Jim joined the Cameron Highlanders in Winnipeg in July of 1915 and was part of the 43rd battalion overseas.  On May 1916 he writes to his mother from the Ypres salient:

There has only been one communion since we have been in France and unfortunately I was on duty all that day.  Dr. Gordon was away for awhile when we came over first but came the second time we went into the trenches with us and has been with us ever since.  We will have a service tomorrow in the YMCA and that will be our last Sunday out before we go back to the trenches.

 Shortly after this letter Jim’s field diary reveals heavy fighting in the Ypres salient:

June 2, 1916

Stand to all day and moved up to Tillebeck dugouts in the evening.  Big battle in the loop of the salient.  CMRs (Canadian Mounted Rifles) and PPCLI (Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry) cut up.  Fritz explodes a mine and takes trenches, also Sanctuary Wood.  Heavy casualties.

 June 13th

Left Belgian Chateau on a forced march to Tillebeke dugouts and stayed there till the next evening. Rained for the last couple of days and trenches in bad mess

13th and 16th Batt. took back trenches lost on June 2nd and took quite a few prisoners. Quite a few casualties.

 Writing home on June 17th, Jim says:

Dear Mother and Father

I guess you’ve been anxious about me. We have been having quite a time these last two weeks but I came through it safe. Now Mother, don’t worry about me.  Altho I had quite a few narrow escapes I am in fine health and a good rest will fix us all up fine…

July 6, 1916

Dear Mother

…I was at church parade and we had a union parade with the 60th Batt. as they are in the same brigade as we are; we had service in the open. Major Gordon preached and is very popular among the boys and certainly does his duty when in the trenches.  He comes around to the trenches every evening to see us…

Later that summer during the Battle of the Somme while trying to take the Regina Trench on October 8th, Jim was wounded.  He died of his wounds on October 15th, 1916.  In response to a letter from my grandmother Major Gordon replies on November 14th

My dear Mrs. Fargey

You have reason to be thankful to God for all he has done for you – for He has given you a wonderful courage and faith in a time when faith and courage are sorely needed.  You say that I perhaps did not know your boy.  But I did. And remember well his fine manly soldierly bearing.  I wish I knew more of his death. But all we know is that he went forward with his company and did his duty – got his wound – a very bad wound in the leg- I fancy his thigh was broken – of this I am not sure.  It was a terrible day for the 43rd – our losses were proportionately very heavy – but we are proud to know that our boys went steadily forward – without faltering – reached the German’s wire – which was found uncut except in certain spots – some of the boys went through these lines into the trench and past the trench on to the second objective – but of these very few came back…

 It is this man – this minister, author, chaplain to soldiers –  who is remembered and honoured by the congregations of the Ralph Connor Memorial United church in Canmore.

In 1976,  Charles William Gordon, (Ralph Connor) was recognized as a Person of National Historic Significance by Heritage Canada.