ESLIE WILLIAM WILKINS, born June 4, 1893 in Southborough, Kent1 was the youngest son of Amos & Eliza Wilkins. He was also the first child born after their devastating loss of three children in fifteen months. It must left them wondering how long their new son would be with them and as it turned out, though Leslie lived to adulthood, he too, would predecease his parents.
Like all of his siblings Leslie attended his compulsory schooling then went to work. In April of 1911 the England census records him living with his parents and working as a blacksmith’s striker at a motor works in Tunbridge Wells.2 Five months later, having just turned 18 and with £4.00 in his pocket, he boarded RMS Albania at Southampton and immigrated to Canada. After arriving in Montreal he boarded a train for Calgary with plans to reunite with his brothers & sisters and become a farmer3 — but it wouldn’t be long before England called him back.
Service Begins with the Canadian Mounted Rifles
Of all of Amos and Eliza’s sons and sons-in-law who served in the Great War it seems Leslie’s life was the one most defined by that experience. He was the first family member to enlist, the youngest at age twenty-one, and the one who spent the longest time overseas – four years.
After enlisting in the Canadian Expeditionary Force on January 6, 1915 in Calgary, Alberta he was initially attached to the Canadian Mounted Rifles. The following September he embarked for England and on January 22, 1916 was transferred to the Fort Garry Horse, the unit he served with for the duration of the war. One month later, he went to France.4
Wounded at Amiens
The First World War battle honours of the Fort Garry Horse are numerous and cover the entire period of Leslie’s service in France.5
|Somme, 1916, ’18
Cambrai, 1917, ’18
St. Quentin Canal
Pursuit to Mons
France and Flanders, 1916–18
Though it’s likely he saw action in many of these battles, which ones and what role he played is impossible to know, except in the case of Amiens. Begun on August 8, 1918, The Battle of Amiens has been remembered by history as the beginning of the Hundred Days Offensive, a series of battles that ultimately led to the end of the war.6
The dangers of WWI battlefields were many but one unique to cavalry soldiers was the high risk of gunshot wounds to the ankle — and on August 10th, while advancing along the Roye Road, this is precisely what happened to Leslie.7 Not a life-threatening wound, unless it became gangrenous, but extremely painful and potentially debilitating. The actions of the Fort Garry Horse on that day and the events that led to Leslie’s wounding are recorded in the unit’s war diaries ~
Leslie was evacuated back to England, admitted first to the Alexandra Hospital at Cosham then transferred to the Princess Patricia Canadian Red Cross Hospital at Bexhill. He was discharged September 24, 1918 but doesn’t appear to have returned to France.8 For all intents and purposes, the war was finally over for Leslie and soon would be for everyone else.
A Cruel Twist of Fate
While Leslie was fortunate enough to survive a long and dangerous tour of duty, returning to Canada in December of 1919, he was not granted the gift of long life thereafter. After his demobilization he went back to farming, working with his brother Sidney (my grandfather) on a farm north of Calgary.9 It was during this time my father got to know his uncle and learned that of all the battlefield dangers Leslie had faced during the war, he had feared being gassed the most.
At some point prior to 1926 Leslie left the farm and married (bride unknown), returning to Calgary where he took a job at an oil refinery.10 His parents must have been thrilled to have their son so near again but that joy was shorted lived. On October 1, 1926, at the of age 33, Leslie was involved in an industrial accident and in a cruel twist of fate was gassed to death.11 He is buried in Burnsland Cemetery in Calgary, Alberta, the final resting place of many of the city’s Great War veterans.12 13