A Remembrance Day Story: Private Frederick Quickfall

 

 No one I checked with in the community knew the name: Frederick Quickfall.

The Leader had received a short email in early July from a man who notes when soldiers’ medals from the Wars are offered up for auction on line. 

Apparently, the mailer indicated, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal awarded to a Fred Quickfall had recently gone up for sale. He thought the Leader might be interested because he’d noticed that Quickfall’s hometown was listed as Morrisburg.

The email also noted that Frederick Charles Quickfall had died on the Western Front, May 5, 1917. 

Who was Frederick Quickfall? 

Why was Morrisburg listed as his hometown? Had he relations in this area? And what had led him to the bloody battlefields of France in the second last year of The Great War?

We decided to find out, hopefully by Remembrance Day, 2015.  

The logical place to begin a search for Fred Quickfall was the records at the National Archives and the National War Museum in Ottawa.

The Museum, however, is currently in the process of creating a virtual memorial to the soldiers who fought in World War One, those who died, those who lived. It is a process that may take years. 

Thousands upon thousands of soldiers are still listed as “missing,” or rest in graves marked “Known only unto God.”

Dog tags were little more than pressed cardboard in 1914-18. When a man fell in battle, it was sometimes the luck of the draw whether his body would be recovered, whether someone would note his name. 

The odds were against a formal burial, even a hasty one. In the chaos at the Front, a man was often interred near the battlefield where he fell, and there just wasn’t time for any rituals.

And there was another, tragic problem associated with the Great War. 

The nature of trench warfare meant that the same few miles of territory ended up being fought over again and again, sometimes for years. With every fresh round of such fighting, makeshift grave yards were blown up and torn apart, their fragile wooden markers lost for good. 

Even in death, it seemed, there was no dignity for the fallen. 

Tracking one boy down, nearly 100 years after he died, was likely to be a challenge.

I was not completely surprised when I accessed the Archives (and later the Canadian Great War Project and the Canadian Virtual Memorial) to discover what information there was about Fred Quickfall was not just limited, it appeared to be almost non existent. 

He served in the 2nd battalion of the Canadian Infantry. His birth date was given as May 20, 1893. His date of death was May 5, 1917. 

He was buried at Bruay Communal Cemetery Extension, Pas de Calais, France, which meant that someone must have recovered and identified his body in 1917.

For the rest, however, there was nothing but frustration in dealing with his “official” records.

Place of death? Europe. Cause of death? Unknown. Place of birth and country? Not specified. Religion? Unknown. Marital Status? Not specified. Prior military experience? Not specified. Where saw service? Europe. Next of kin? Blank.

Finding Fred Quickfall was going to be a challenge.

Several months ago, I carried out a research project into the deaths of six World War One soldiers who had belonged to the Anglican parish of St. John the Baptist church in Iroquois. 

At the time, I found an invaluable source of help with that undertaking. 

Fortunately, she was willing to tackle yet another project.

Eleanor Pietersma, of the Iroquois Public Library, is (she said it herself) a bit a “terrier with a bone” when she sets out to track information down. She has ways, through her considerable library skills, to research books, documents, web sites and other archival sources that are not easily available to the layman.

Early in the Quickfall project, I had located a half copy of the young soldier’s original Attestation (enlistment) Papers. Some of the sections Eleanor and I could actually make out concerned us. 

We noticed phrases in the partial text like the “Recruit was cautioned by me…” and “he would be liable to be punished…” and wondered, quietly, if the reason no one in the area seemed to know Quickfall had to do with something criminal. 

During the War, men were sometimes released from their sentences in county jail if they agreed to immediately enlist. 

Was this the case of our 23-year-old?

Eleanor dug into the War Archives in Ottawa. After several frustrating setbacks, she finally ran to ground the complete Frederick Quickfall Attestation Papers. 

No criminal he, just a kid who claimed Williamsburg as his home address and said his trade was farmer. He had no previous military training, no wife or children, and no relatives in Morrisburg. 

He was born, according to the document, in Kensington London W. No parents were mentioned. He had a brother, Frank, who seemed to be living in Strathroy, fairly far away at that time, in Southwestern Ontario.

(Unexpectedly, Elizabeth Irwin, parish secretary for the South Dundas Anglican diocese, actually found Fred’s name on a pre-war congregation list for St. James in Morrisburg.)

That was all. Nothing about how a British boy happened to be working on a Morrisburg farm in 1916. No history from England. One brother, a long way off.

Private Quickfall, I was able to determine, was originally shipped overseas with the 154th battalion. But some time before his death in May, 1917, he was transferred to the Canadian infantry 2nd battalion.

We decided the best idea was to search the War records of the 2nd.

Miraculously, we turned up a casualty report for a Private Frederick Quickfall, service number 633941.

The words on the report were brief and unemotional. 

“Died of Wounds. He was wounded by shrapnel in the left shoulder on May 3, 1917, and was evacuated to the No. 22 Casualty Clearing Station, where he succumbed to the effects of his wounds two days later. (No next of kin listed).

Sent to Bruay Communal Cemetery Extension, two and a quarter miles north of Houdain, France.”

It didn’t seem like much of an epitaph for a boy who died just days before his 24th birthday.

I went into the War history of his battalion.

On May 3, 1917, the third and final Battle of the Scarpe began. It was part of the larger Arras offensive, and took place only days after the Canadians’ incredible victory at Vimy Ridge.

The German defenders were dug in at Scarpe, along their fortified Hindenburg Line. They were doggedly determined to hold their ground. 

On the 3rd, a day a British historian would later describe as “the blackest day of the war”, the weary 2nd battalion was ordered to capture the village of Fresnoy.

Already on high alert, the Germans at Fresnoy seemed to sense the coming assault on their stronghold. They poured heavy and medium artillery shells on the waiting Canadian lines. 

But at 3:45 a.m., following a return rolling barrage, the Canadians were ordered to attack, and charged through the barbed wire and into murderous machine gun fire.

History records that the town of Fresnoy was taken after 16 hours of vicious fighting. The 2nd battalion lost 1,269 men May 3, 1917.

One of them, we believe, was Fred Quickfall, of Morrisburg, Ontario.

Yet, was that all we could learn about this young life which ended on the battlefields of France?

How did a boy from Kensington, London end up living in Morrisburg in 1916?

Eleanor’s “terrier” instincts were fired up. So were mine.

Through extensive research into government files and records, into documents and search sites, Eleanor uncovered the truth of Fred Quickfall’s early life.

He did not immigrate to Canada.

He was forcibly shipped here.

With a 15-year-old brother, Frank, and a 10-year-old sister, Annie, 14-year-old Fred was on board the British ship Dominion, when she set sail from Liverpool, England on September 12, 1907. Her port of entry was Quebec.

For the three Quickfall children, the ultimate destination was Toronto.

All three were listed as being under the care of St. George’s, Hanover Square, one of Dr. Barnardo’s agencies in England. 

Generations later, such children would come to be known, in Canada, as British Home Children. Thousands of children were gathered, over a number of years, from the streets and slums and orphanages of England, and sent across the Atlantic.

Someone (a parent?) had surrendered all three Quickfall children. Perhaps they were orphans. Perhaps poverty or alcoholism or imprisonment put them into the hands of British authorities.

Whatever the reasons, Fred and his brother and sister were shipped to Canada in 1907 and handed over to unknown families. 

Maybe they found love and support and a real home life in Canada. That sometimes happened. 

Or maybe they were miserably treated by the farm families which took them from the ship, regarded as little more than slave labour.That happened too.

We couldn’t determine most of those things about Fred Quickfall’s life. We did learn that little sister Annie was never mentioned again in any records, anywhere, following her arrival in Canada. 

The conclusion we eventually drew was a sad one.

 Brothers Frank and Fred were split up. Between the Dominion’s landing in 1907, and Fred’s enlistment in 1916, his life in Canada is pretty much a blank.

 But he sailed from our shores in 1916, and died in France for this country in 1917.

Eleanor succeeded in finding a tiny photo of Fred, probably taken before he shipped out. The boy in that photo is open-faced, almost grinning at the camera. He looks very young and very hopeful, as if what lay ahead of him was going to be a grand adventure…

These words have been spoken at every Remembrance Day ceremony in Canada for nearly 100 years. They are all his adopted country can offer Private Frederick Charles Quickfall now. 

“We will remember them.”

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