By Laurie Leclair
During the early spring of 1915, the newly raised 52nd Battalion C.E.F. (Canadian Expeditionary Force) began its recruitment in Fort Francis, Dryden, Fort William and Port Arthur, setting its mobilization headquarters at Port Arthur, now Thunder Bay. That May, the local newspaper reported that First Nations were also offering to join the battalion to fight overseas with Canada’s land forces. Like in many other avenues of life, standards for aboriginal people were set higher than for others and those who made it into the ranks had to be “of the best character and physically fit” possessing a most “steady and sensible” character. The Fort William Anishinabek were very well represented within this group and at least two dozen young men from their reserve were recruited during the war. Often, as in the Belanger, Boucher, Singleton and Ackabee families, brothers signed up together, or each followed the other once they became of age. This was the case for Frank and Xavier Michon.
Frank Michon, was a young married man with a wife and infant daughter who worked in the lumber camps as a teamster. Shortly before his 25th birthday he went to the recruitment office at Port Arthur and took his oath of attestation. In the early days of the war, the enthusiasm was great and recruitment so successful that there could be a surplus of able-bodied, willing men. When it left Port Arthur for St. John in November 1915, the 52nd Battalion C.E.F left some two hundred men behind. Private Michon was supposed to have been one of these but he packed his kit and climbed aboard the train with the others. When the train disembarked in New Brunswick the extra man was discovered by the battalion’s Lieutenant-Colonel A. W. Hay who decided to keep him on.
The 52nd Battalion. took a very active role in the bloody battles of the Somme which began for Canadian troops on September 15, 1916 and continued until November 18, 1916. Major W. B. Evans wrote in his war diary on September 16th that the men had marched in single file up hill in open countryside in broad daylight across disused trenches and muddy fields. Evans, who would soon become acting Lieutenant-Colonel, was critical of such outmoded tactics and added, “the Battalion came under an intense bombardment of artillery, machine gun and rifle fire suffering heavy casualties in officers and other ranks.” Ultimately, this offensive was all for naught as the other brigades – the 7th and the 60th – who were to lead the attack on the German trenches were both decimated by enemy fire. At day’s end, 256 men were either killed or wounded. Among the deceased were Private Sidney Brant, a member of the Six Nations, and Private John Kukitchu, from Biscotasing. By end of this campaign, Michon’s comrades Nipigon native Lawrence Martin and Manitou Rapids’ Robert Trader also sacrificed their young lives.
Sometimes the gallantry and courage of the Anishinabek were recognized, for example Private Joseph delaRonde from Red Rock received a medal for his work as a guide, helping stretcher parties to evacuate the wounded under a barrage of very heavy shelling. Frank Michon, himself was twice wounded before his transfer to the Corps of Canadian Railway Troops. According to a biographical account by W. R. Brown, the Indian Agent at Port Arthur, Michon at one point in his service was captured by Germans and held as a Prisoner of War for three months before managing to escape.
Although he had been on Active Service for nearly a year, the horrors of the Somme still lay ahead for Frank by the time his younger brother enlisted. Xavier Michon pledged his oath of attestation on February 28, 1916. He signed up originally with the 94th Battalion C.E.F, a new battalion which like the 52nd Battn., attracted young men from northern Ontario. The recruitment drive was quick and successful, with over 1,400 individuals enlisted in a very short time. In fact, the local high school at Fort William contributed nearly an entire platoon. Unfortunately for those soldiers and their families who believed their boys would be fighting alongside one another, the battalion was broken up soon after it arrived in England and the men sent to where they were needed most. Xavier, like many other recruits, was attached to the 52nd Battn.
Accounts indicate that the 21-year old had a difficult time coping with trench warfare, and had been officially disciplined at least two times during the three years he served. Xavier was wounded twice and received a honourable discharge on January 31, 1919. Although he made it back home to Fort William, Michon never fully recovered from his wounds and died the following year from complications. Xavier was only twenty-four years old.
Frank and many of his fellow Fort William soldiers miraculously survived the war. He returned to civilian life, working as a fisherman and living on the Fort William reserve with his wife Elizabeth, their son Eugene and daughter Doris. He passed away in 1961.
Laurie would like to thank Kevin J. Hebib, Program Development Officer, Fort York National Historic Site for sharing his expert knowledge of World War I, and his assistance in researching the history of the 52nd and 94th Battalions.