Today on the podcast, I am going to look at the life of one individual who definitely made his mark on Canada. He is the most decorated First Nations soldier in Canadian military history and the most effective sniper of the First World War.
He is Francis Pegahmagabow, and this isn’t just about his military career because he is so much more than that and the history of the First Nations in the 20th century in Canada is directly tied with him.
Born on the Shawinigan First Nation Reserve in Ontario on March 9, 1891, Francis had the Ojibwa name of “the wind that blows off”.
His father Michael would pass away in April of 1891, followed by his mother Mary soon after. With the death of his parents, he would be raised by Noah Nebimanyquod, who also raised Michael. With Noah, he would learn the skills of hunting and fishing, as well as Indigenous spirituality and Catholicism.
In 1912, he would begin working for the Department of Marine and Fisheries on the Great Lakes as a marine fire fighter and lived in Parry Sound where he received financial aid for room and board, courtesy of attorney Walter Lockwood Haight.
In 1913, Frances developed typhoid fever but he was nursed back to health by the Sisters of St. Joseph in Parry Sound.
When the First World War erupted, Francis enlisted within two weeks despite the discrimination of the government towards minorities. In fact, Indigenous people and minorities were exempted from military service, but that didn’t stop Pegahmagabow when he decided to enlist.
His enlistment only 10 days after the start of the war would get the notice of the local newspaper with Frederic Hill reporting, “His grandfather was a warrior and chief and fought for the British in 1812, so the bot comes by his fighting instincts from a long line of ancestors who fought in the Indian wars. We are all hoping Francis will distinguish himself as his forefathers did and will return home covered with glory and medals. His example might well be followed.”
He was posted with the 23rd Canadian Regiment, also called the Northern Pioneers and was posted to CFB Valcartier. As a soldier there, he decorated his tent in traditional symbols, including a deer, which was the symbol of his clan.
In October of 1914, he was deployed with the First Canadian Infantry Battalion, as part the First Canadian Division. This was the first contingent of troops of Canada to be sent to fight in Europe and they would take part in the first battles of the war.
In April 1915, Francis fought in the Second Battle of Ypres, and it was here he set an example of his skill as a sniper and scout. After the battle, he was promoted to Lance Corporal.
In 1916, he took part in the Battle of the Somme and was wounded in the leg. He received in time to join the First Battalion as it moved to Belgium. During the Battle of the Somme, he would relay messages along the front lines and his commanding officer Lt. Col. Frank Albert Creighton nominated him for the Distinguished Conduct Medal, citing his faithfulness to duty and disregard for danger. For unknown reasons, it was downgraded to a Military Medal. Nonetheless, he was one of the first Canadian soldiers to be awarded the medal, with the citation saying, “He carried messages with great bravery and success during the whole of the actions at Ypres, Festubert and Givenchy. In all his work, he was consistently shown a disregard for danger and his faithfulness to duty is highly commendable.”
In November 1917, he took part in the Second Battle of Passchendaele, earning a bar on his Military Medal. At this point, he was a corporal and he played an important role as a link between the units of the First Battalions flank. When reinforcements became lost, Francis guided them and ensured they reached their spot in line.
His citation for the bar on his medal states, “At Passchendaele, this NCO did excellent work. Before and after the attack, he kept in touch with the flanks, advising the units he had seen, this information proving the success of the attack and saving valuable time in consolidating. He also guided the relief to its proper place after it had become mixed up.”
In 1934, he would relate the situation when their own creeping artillery barrage starting raining down on them at Passchendaele, “At our objective we suffered very heavy from our own gunfire, I done all I could do to stop it by reporting to our C.O. Sparkling and the artillery observers. My comrades going up in pieces, shell after shell. At daylight, cannonade was still going strong. Presence of mind came to me. I had a flare pistol with me. I shot a white flare. Millions of eyes saw it. It should have been fired when we reached our objective anyway. The moment I shot the flare, field guns cease fire.”
Soon after the battle, he developed pneumonia and with the exposure to poison gas attacks, he suffered terrible chest pains that would last his entire life. Despite his injuries and weakened condition, he soon returned to action.
In August of 1918, he was in the Battle of the Scarpe, he helped to fight off a German attack near Upton Wood. With his company almost out of ammunition and in danger of being surrounded, he braved machine gun and rifle fire to go into no-man’s land and get more ammunition to allow his post to carry on and assist the pushing back the attacks of the Germans. For this action, he would receive a second bar on his Military Medal. He is one of only 39 Canadians to receive that honour.
His citation for this second bar reads, “at Orix Trench, near Upton Wood, when his company were almost out of ammunition and in danger of being surrounded, this NCO went over the top under heavy MG and rifle fire and brought back sufficient ammunition to enable the post to carry on and assist in repulsing heavy enemy counter-attacks.”
At the close of the war, Francis had served for nearly the entire war in the front lines and gained a reputation as a skilled sniper. He is credit with killing 378 Germans, and capturing 300 more. His method for gaining kills was to slowly creep into No Man’s Land at night, a very dangerous task, and then wait for German soldiers to start to arrive.
It was said of Francis, “his iron nerves, patience and superb marksmanship helped make him an outstanding sniper.”
For his bravery throughout the war, he would reach the rank of Sgt-Major, and would receive the aforementioned Military Medal with two bars, the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
It is likely that Francis would have received the highest military honour in the Commonwealth, the Victoria Cross, if not for the fact that he was Indigenous and racism against his people was still very prevalent.
In talking about his father years later, Duncan Pegahmagabow stated, “My mother told me he used to go behind enemy lines, rub shoulders with the enemy forces and never get caught.”
Once back home in Canada after the war, he would serve with the Algonquin Regiment militia as a non-permanent member. He was then elected chief, as his grandfather and father had been, of the Parry Island Band in 1921. He would be r-elevated in 1924 and serve until 1925 when an internal power struggle forced him into resigning.
This was far from the end of his political career and from 1933 to 1936 he was back serving as a councillor for the band. In 1933, the Department of Indian Affairs changed its policies so that Indigenous chiefs could not correspond with the department, all correspondence had to go through an Indian Agent. The new amount of power given to the Indian Agent was not something that Francis was happy about. He did not get along with the Indian Agent that was assigned to his band, and that agent called him a mental case because Francis was so involved in political affairs.
Despite others not understanding his motivations in working for Indigenous rights, he continued to send letters to the prime minister and policy makers demanding better treatment for the Indigenous people of Canada. His main goal though, and despite never achieving it in his lifetime, was to have the band council overrule the Indian agents.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Pegahmagabow worked as a guard at a munitions plant and was involved with the local militia. In 1943, he would become the Supreme Chief of the Native Independent Government, which was an early national Indigenous organization. That same year, he took part in the demonstration at Parliament Hill in which Indigenous people called for the exemption of income tax and conscription for the First Nation people. He would go on to serve two terms as the supreme chief of the Native Indian Government.
In 1952, Francis, who by this point was the father of six with his wife Eva, would pass away at the age of 61. By the end of his life, he had to sleep upright because his lungs were so weak from gas exposure that sleeping any other way would cause the lungs to fill with fluid.
Despite his death, his legacy and impact lives on.
He is a member of the Indian Hall of Fame in Branford, Ontario and a plaque honours him and his regiment along the Rotary and Algonquin Regiment Fitness Trail in Parry Sound. The Third Canadian Ranger Patrol Group HQ Building at CFD Borden is named for him as well.
A life-sized statue of Pegahmagabow was also erected on June 21, 2016 in Parry Sound. The figure has an eagle on one arm and a Ross rifle over his shoulder, with a caribou at his feet. The Eagle was the spirit animal of Pegahmagabow, and the caribou represents the Caribou clan.
In 2019, Swedish metal band Sabaton released an album about the First World War called The Great War, included a song about Francis called A Ghost In The Trenches.
Currently, his medals are at the Canadian War Museum.
Information for this piece comes from Wikipedia, Canadian Encyclopedia, Veterans Affairs Canada, CBC, Military History of the Upper Great Lakes