This Week in History: a watch from a soldier killed at Vimy Ridge brings closure to a Haida Gwaii family


In 1893, Ontario born Reverend Barnabas Freeman and his wife Ida arrived in Skidegate, Haida Gwaii, to serve at the Methodist Mission.

There, their son Harold (one of three boys and three girls) was born on June 6, 1895.

Lorne Hammond, Curator of History at the Royal BC Museum explains the significance of a donation made by the Freeman family to the Museum.

“Harold signed up late in the war,” says Hammond, “then wrote a few letters back to his sister from England, saying how nervous he was [as he waited to join the fighting in France].”

One month after Harold’s last letter to his sister, he was killed in the assault on Vimy Ridge.

“His mother Ida was so grief-stricken,” says Hammond, “that she refused the Mother’s Cross and the documents that came from the federal government about the death of her son. She wouldn’t answer the door.”

Eventually, those items did come to the family, but they never really knew how their son died. Until 1920, when a family friend saw an advertisement in a London newspaper looking for the family related to a watch that had been taken from a Canadian soldier killed in the fighting at Vimy Ridge. The ad listed the initials and service number on the watch, and the family friend knew the initials matched those of Harold Freeman.

Using the soldier’s serial numbers, the family confirmed with the gentleman who had placed the ad that the watch had been their son’s.

“Although other people had asked for the watch” Hammond explained, “the family’s numbers matched the numbers on the watch that he had, and he was very honoured to be returning it.

“The gentleman had been a runner at Vimy Ridge, and because he saw a watch ticking on a dead body, he removed it, put it on, and ran when there was a break in the fighting. After the war ended, he was always trying to find the family to return the watch. And so, the watch came back to British Columbia, and was returned to the family.”

Now, Harold Freeman’s story, and the letter he wrote to his sister, and the watch that gave his mother comfort and closure, have been donated by the Freeman family to the Royal BC Museum.

“The Freemans, like so many families,” Hammond says, “sought some means of closure over the loss that would never heal. For a lot of these families, there was no resolution in grief, until many of them made the pilgrimage in 1936 to the opening of the Vimy Memorial, which features a figure of a mourning mother.”

Veronica CooperVeronica Cooper

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