Samuel Sharpe was born in Zephyr, Ontario, the son of Irish immigrants, George and Mary Ann Sharpe, on March 13, 1873.
As a child, he was known for his enthusiasm, which his friend said was contagious to everyone else. He was always involved in games and clubs as he grew up in his hometown of Uxbridge, where his father ran a hotel.
With an interest in the military, a young Samuel Sharpe joined the 34th Ontario Regiment at the age of 16. He would remain with the regiment, rising to the rank of Major.
He attended the University of Toronto and Osgoode Hall, graduating in 1895 and was called to the Ontario bar.
He soon became an elder in the local Methodist Church, and a Master in the Masonic Lodge.
In 1903, he married Mabel Crosby.
After his marriage, he practiced law in Uxbridge and served as the town solicitor for a decade.
In 1908, he was elected to the House of Commons, representing the Conservative Party.
In 1911, he was re-elected.
After the 1911 election, Sir Robert Borden, the prime minister at the time, considered appointing Samuel Sharpe as the Minister of Militia and Defence but in the end he chose Sam Hughes.
Sharpe and Hughes were not friendly to each other before or after 1911. They often clashed over militia policy and Sharpe found Hughes to be far too abrasive in his personal style.
When the First World War broke out, Sharpe was passed over for a command position despite his experience and was not part of the first contingent that went overseas in 1914.
One reason for this was the open dislike between Hughes and Sharpe, and since Hughes essentially controlled the military at that point, he prevented Sharpe from serving.
The Ottawa Journal wrote,
“When war broke out, Major Sharpe volunteered at once and went to Valcartier but there arose a dispute between him and the Minister of Militia with the result that Major Sharpe was not given a command.”
For Sharpe, he worried that this would impact his reputation in the country.
As it turned out, some newspapers questioned why he was not enlisting, not knowing Hughes was preventing it.
On Sept. 1, 1914, the editor of the Uxbridge Journal stated that some captains and majors were hiding behind their wives since the outbreak of the war. Sharpe, at that time a major, took great issue with this. Sharpe had made several passionate speeches in the House of Commons about the war. In response to reading the article, he grabbed a horsewhip and went to the editor to chastise him. The Calgary Albertan stated,
“The major seems more at home with a horsewhip than with a rifle. The Albertan has not heard that Major Sharpe was among those going to war and his attitude towards the editor rather indicates that he is not on the way.”
Finally, in November 1915, Hughes authorized Sharpe to raise a battalion of troops from Ontario County, especially his hometown of Uxbridge. This led to the formation of the 116th Battalion, with several members personally recruited by Sharpe himself. Sharpe was promoted to Lt. Colonel and made commanding officer of the regiment.
The recruiting campaign was incredibly successful, recruiting 700 men in only three weeks. The post office became a military recruiting centre, while a guard house was also built. The rifle range was used for practicing, and private homes were turned into sleeping quarters for the recruits.
Sharpe said during one campaign to gain recruits,
“A man’s first duty is to the God that created him. His second is to the Union Jack that has protected him and his third duty is to his home. That is the proper relation. If Great Britain had stayed out of this struggle, I would have been ashamed to have been a British subject. I would sooner see the little property I may own swept away rather than see the British Empire stay out of this struggle.”
Using his political connections, Sharpe ensured that the battalion was not dispersed into other existing units and remained as one fighting force.
In May, the battalion was presented with a field kitchen and a complete set of double harness by the Beal Brothers of Toronto. The ladies of Uxbridge and teachers and youths in the area also raised money to provide the battalion with a motor ambulance. The McLaughlin Carriage Company then donated $500 and the Chevy Motor Car Company donated a five passenger car to help them on their goal.
Even though Sharpe had wanted to go to war, and raised the battalion, some around him felt he was just a politician going to war and would be home soon.
On July 24, 1916, the unit sailed for England on the RMS Olympic, arriving in Liverpool the next week. They spent the next few months training in England.
In February 1917, the unit was sent to France to begin fighting in the war.
Sharpe remained as the commander of the battalion, including at the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Corporal A.C. Savage, who lost his arm at Vimy Ridge said.
“He was the finest colonel in all France. I lost my right arm at Vimy Ridge, in the raid for which Col. Sharpe won his DSO, and he deserved it too.”
Prior to a raid near Vimy Ridge near Avion, Sharpe wanted to ensure that his men were ready. As a result, he went out the night before into No Man’s Land in the dark and laid strips of white tape down to mark the practicable breaches to the German’s wire.
In the raid, the regiment suffered 25 casualties. His friend, Lt. Tom Hutchinson, died from his wounds that he received in that raid. For Sharpe, the loss of his friend impacted him badly.
Nonetheless, it was a success. The Ottawa Journal wrote,
“It was by these narrow tape marked paths, winding among the deep wire barriers, that the men of Sam Sharpe’s command reached the enemy positions with comparatively few casualties.”
In late-July, Sharpe was listed as missing in France, resulting in his brother cabling to England to determine if his brother was alive or not. Within days, it was determined that Sharpe was indeed alive, and the confusion was caused by another soldier with a similar name being reported as missing. Sharpe had been in a hospital for several days dealing with a sickness, and was not on the front lines at the time.
On Aug. 22 at Hill 70, his regiment relieved the 27th battalion in a frontline trench. For five days, his men fought in the battle. In that time, 11 died and 51 were wounded.
Then, in October and November, his regiment was at the Battle of Passchendaele, where they suffered 36 casualties. It was at Passchendaele he wrote a letter to his wife, stating,
“The boys are splendid and all face the issues of death with a calmness that is magnificent. I am proud of the boys.”
Of the 1,145 men that joined the 116th Battalion, 160 remained on active service at the end of the war.
As he led his battalion into battle, he began to struggle with the impact of his military service.
In October 1917, he wrote to the widow of Lt. Thomas Walton, saying,
“It is awful to contemplate the misery and suffering in this old world, and were I to allow myself to ponder over what I have seen and what I have suffered through, the loss of the bravest and best in the world, I would soon become absolutely incapable of carrying on.”
In December 1917, he returned to England and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order by King George V at Buckingham Palace. That same month, he was re-elected to the House of Commons, despite being on the front lines of France.
The Winnipeg Tribune wrote,
“An utmost enthusiasm prevailed for the candidate and the Union Government he represents and everything points to the return of Colonel Sharpe by a very handsome majority.”
Soon after, he was hospitalized in what was called general debility.
The Vancouver Daily World said,
“Colonel Sharpe did not choose the path of cheap and easy glory. He took the battalion to France and while it was being tempered and tried as a fighting weapon, worked prodigiously to make his men fit.”
In March 1918, he was named as a potential cabinet member when the reorganization of Borden’s cabinet was about to take place. By this point Sam Hughes had long been removed from his position and it was believed Sharpe would be given the Minister of Militia portfolio.
A few weeks later, the Montreal Star reported,
“Colonel Sam Sharpe has had a nervous breakdown and has been sent home to a hospital in England. His condition is not regarded as serious, although it may prevent him attending the session as he had planned.”
Sharpe remained in hospital until late April.
In May 1918, Sharpe returned to Canada on convalescent leave but was hospitalized at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal for what was called nervous shock, but what we term as PTSD today. It is estimated that 10,000 Canadian soldiers returned home with PTSD form the war.
In Montreal, it was said his condition had improved and he had taken a drive through the city at one point. He did announce his resignation from Parliament, feeling he could not continue in the role.
Then, on May 25, 1918, Sharpe jumped out a hospital window to his death.
His friend said,
“It just broke his heart to think of leaving his boys over there without him.”
A nurse had left the room only moments earlier, and stated that she had no indication of what he was planning to do.
Stewart Lyon wrote,
“He gave up his life as truly on the field of honor as if he had fallen in action.”
Some speculated that he could not face going back to Uxbridge and facing the families of his fellow soldiers who he had recruited and who had died on the front lines of France.
The funeral for Sharpe was the largest in the history of Uxbridge, and the procession was a mile long and included friends, colleagues and the surviving members of the 116th Battalion.
The Montreal Gazette wrote,
“How popular the dead officer was in his home town was evidenced by the masses of floral tributes, which filled one of the rooms in his residence where the body lay in state and was visited by hundreds of townspeople all morning. It was a full military funeral, with gun carriage, firing party and military band.”
Dozens of floral arrangements were also set up, bearing messages such as “To my Dear Daddy’s Colonel.”
That wreath was from the child of a lieutenant who went overseas with Sharpe but died in the trenches.
Despite the size of the funeral, only two members of the government, Hugh Guthrie and H.M. Mowat, attended.
Due to the stigma around mental illness and suicide, Sharpe was mostly forgotten for the next century. In 1924, a statue was dedicated at Parliament to Lt. Col. George Baker, the only other MP to have died due to the First World War. Sharpe wasn’t even mentioned.
In 2014, MP Erin O’Toole and Senator Romeo Dallaire inaugurated the Lt. Col. Sam Sharpe Veterans Mental Health breakfast to raise awareness about mental health issues among veterans and to recognize those who have sought help for their operational stress injuries to lead productive lives.
On Nov. 7, 2018, bronze plaque in the likeness of Sharpe was unveiled in the Centre Block of Parliament.
A life-sized statue of Sharpe is on display in Uxbridge across the road from the Cenotaph. In the posture of the statue, Sharpe has one foot off the ground. This is a traditional image of someone who has died in action. While he did not die in battle, today he is considered to have died of battle. In his hand is a letter to Mary Walton, the wife of Thomas Walton, who had died in the front lines.
In 2019, the Durham Regional was renamed the Lt. Col. Samuel S. Sharpe, DSO, MP Courthouse.
Information from Virtual War Memorial, Canadian Encyclopedia, Uxbridge Historical Centre, Wikipedia, Uxbridge-Scott Historical Society, Ottawa Citizen, Sault Star, Montreal Gazette, Edmonton Bulletin, Berlin News Record,
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