Great uncle’s ultimate sacrifice not forgotten

·6 min read

Uno Park was a growing train stop community just west of New Liskeard when the Great War broke out in 1914. Frank Hermeston was 20 years old at the time and had a full life in front of him.

The Temiskaming & Northern Ontario Railway had reached the area in 1903 with the discovery of the Cobalt silver fields causing a major mining boom. By 1910, Uno Park was bustling with activity as 200 residents tried to establish their roots. A cheese factory was established with churches for the Baptists and Catholics as well as J.T. Welbourn’s general store. Soon to come was a cattle chute and stockyards, which would help develop the sheep and cattle industry of the region for the next century.

In 1916, Hermeston was a log scaler in a family of rail-roaders when he answered the call to fight and enlisted in Hailbury on January 25 to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

He was 22 years old and was among more than 130,000 Canadians that crossed the Atlantic to fight the Germans. Hermeston, however, never came home and his body never recovered.

But the family never gave up wanting to know what happened.

Pieces of the puzzle started coming together nine years ago when his great-nephew Greg Hermeston and his wife Deb joined John Hetherington’s Battlefields of Europe tour.

Hetherington, a long-time history buff from North Bay, took them to the Vimy Memorial to see his name amongst the 11,285 Canadian soldiers killed in France with no known grave.

“Nine years ago I was leading a group on a battlefield tour in Europe exploring the fields of sacrifice of soldiers during the First and Second World Wars,” Hetherington said. “Travelling with us in our group was Greg Hermeston from North Bay who was looking forward to finding the name of his Great Uncle Frank Hermeston inscribed on the Vimy Memorial.

“Greg became the first person in his family to see the name of Frank Hermeston on the memorial who was killed in action on April 4, 1917 – five days before the battle of Vimy Ridge,” he said.

There wasn’t much more information available at the time but Hetherington kept him in mind during countless archive dives to complete the stories of many other families.

“Since our visit to the Vimy Memorial, personnel service records and war diaries have been made available online that help us piece together the stories of Canadian soldiers,” Hetherington said.

After basic training in Val Cartier, Quebec Frank set sail for England on Oct. 31, 1916. The trip on the troopship took 11 days and a few months later his battalion was broken up and he was reassigned to the 5th Canadian railway troops battalion.

Hetherington said rail transport in the First World War was just as important in war as it was in the settling of Northern Ontario and Canada.

“In 1915, it was becoming increasingly apparent to senior British military commanders that rail transport systems along the Western Front were becoming more important to supply the troops with everything from tons of food to millions of rounds of ammunition. By the end of the war, the Canadians had 13 railway battalions numbering nearly 13,000 troops working along the front.

“The soldiers constructed and repaired the mainline railways and built thousands of kilometers of narrow gauge railways that led all the way to the front lines. These troops worked above ground and were the constant targets of enemy artillery that tried to destroy the supply lines,” he said.

On February 24, 1917, Hermeston’s battalion crossed the English Channel and arrived in France with 29 officers and 918 other ranks. Within three weeks his unit was already deployed in the area just west of Arras building timber bridges, ballasting, and track laying in preparation for the battle of Arras.

“On April 4, he was working in the vicinity of Neuville St. Vaast just three kilometres from the German front lines on Vimy Ridge. At about 4 pm he was sitting in a hut with two other men playing cards when a German shell exploded on their location,” Hetherington reported.

“There were 11 men killed and 27 wounded by the high explosive shell. At first, it was thought that Frank had been wounded and evacuated along with the others to the surrounding field dressing stations,” he added.

Hermeston, however, could not be located anywhere and remained on the missing list for months until a military inquiry was initiated to find out what happened. Three soldiers from his unit testified that they did not see Spr. Frank Hermeston after the explosion.

One of the soldiers being interviewed stated: “I was a personal friend of Sapper Hermeston and knew that his body was freckled.” Another soldier: “I went to the hut immediately after the shell exploded and saw a piece of trunk of someone lying near the door, it was freckled.”

The final report stated: “The court of inquiry considered all of the evidence available and it was the opinion that # 648413 Spr. Frank C. Hermeston was blown to pieces by a shell on 4th April 1917 at St. Vaast and no part of him found that could be recognized.”

Frank Hermeston’s father passed away in October 1917 without knowing the fate of his son. The rest of the family would finally have closure a month later.

“Each time I research a soldier killed during the Great War, I think of how their death impacted the rest of their family back home. The lives of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and wives would never be the same after losing a loved one. Like, Frank Hermeston nearly 20,000 Canadians who fought in Europe during the Great War have no known grave,” Hetherington said.

Greg and Deb Hermeston are remembering Frank Hermeston and his sacrifice today in North Bay.

“We’re proud of Frank and we think of him every Remembrance Day,” Deb told BayToday on Tuesday.

“We are very grateful for resources like John Hetherington. It was just wonderful to go on the Battlefields of Europe trip.”

She said Hetherington made sure they learned as much as possible.

“Vimy Ridge was the first stop and it was his top priority to make sure we saw the name and he was like that for each person on the tour, making sure it was relevant to them,” Deb said.

“We think it’s important that Canadians think of all the sacrifices made, not just by Frank but the sacrifices of all veterans.”

John Hetherington is a retired history teacher and regularly leads tours to the battlefields of Europe. Contact him through email at historyguy62@hotmail.com.

Dave Dale is a Local Journalism Reporter with BayToday.ca. LJI is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Dale, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, BayToday.ca