A Tale of Two Brothers – Part 2
Sgt. William Little MM 192909 (1882-1917)
William Little enlisted with the CEF 92nd battalion in Toronto on Aug 24, 1915. This was the second of three 48th Highlanders battalions raised following the 15th battalion, the only one which fought. Just 50 CEF infantry battalions were used in the field out of 260 numbered and 2 named battalions raised. The rest (including mounted rifle units, which were reorganized as infantry) were broken up and used as reinforcements.
William’s connection to Farquhar McLennan was that they both belonged to the 48th Highlanders, serving with the Militia prior to enlisting. Given his prior experience, William was confirmed with the rank of sergeant with the 92nd battalion on Sept 1, 1915. Unlike his younger brother Ed, who was single when he joined the CEF and listed his sister Lena Little of Toronto as his next of kin, William was a family man. He married Etta Mildred Peir in 1912 and they had their first child in 1913. It seems likely that Mildred was pregnant with their second child when William enlisted in 1915.
William’s 92nd battalion trained in Niagara along with Ed’s 58th plus a number of other battalions. There was an early draft of one company from the 92nd shipped to England as reinforcements in the fall of 1915 around the time that the 58th battalion sailed, but William was not among them. Some of those 92nd early draft members ended up serving with the 42nd battalion, Black Watch of Canada.
William stayed with the main body of the 92nd which sailed from Halifax aboard the Empress of Britain, arriving in England May 29, 1916. William’s service record shows that he was appointed to be acting Company Sergeant Major on Aug 23, 1916. The next notation in his file is ‘processed on conducting duty with draft, France Aug 29th, reporting back from conduct duty overseas Sep 4, 1916. On Jan 5, 1917, the 92nd battalion was taken on strength with 5th Reserve battalion in Bramshott.
Because of the relatively low ratio of Officers and NCOs vs. Other Ranks, it was apparently not uncommon for a soldier to take a reduction in rank when transferring from a reserve battalion to a fighting one. So it was that Sgt. William Little accepted a reduced grade to private just prior to his overseas assignment to the 15th battalion Apr 10, 1917.
It seems unlikely that William was involved with the Battle of Vimy given the timing of his assignment to the 15th btn in spring 1917. There is a notation in his file that he was admitted to hospital Jul 4, 1917 and rejoined unit 6 days later, with no reason stated. He was promoted to corporal in the field on Aug 8, 1917, just prior to the Battle of Hill 70.
Following Canada’s great victory at Vimy Ridge April 1917, for which the 15th battalion earned battle honours, Lt. General Arthur Currie was named commander of the Canadian Corps. Currie was directed by British Field Marshall Haig to assault Lens, France (near Vimy) to divert German troops away from the heavy fighting in Passchendaele. After surveying the situation, Currie persuaded his superiors to instead allow the Canadians to first capture the nearby high ground to the north, code named Hill 70, with a surprise assault. His plan also included effective defensive measures to hold the hill against the inevitable enemy counterattacks.
The Canadian attack was launched August 15, 1917 and was remarkably brutal, with many soldiers engaging in desperate hand-to-hand combat when the Germans counterattacked a total of 21 times in a failed effort to recapture the hill over the next 10 days. William Little was given the following Military Medal citation for his actions at Hill 70 on the day of the attack.
We visited the Battle of Hill 70 Memorial Park near Lens during our Cdn war history tour in Sept 2018. William Little was promoted to sergeant in the field Sep 10, 1917 following the Hill 70 action, reinstating him to the rank he had when first enlisted two years prior.
With the British forces having little success at Paschendaele throughout that summer, and the ANZAC Corps spent in the effort as well, it was the Canadian Corps turn. When they relieved their Australian and New Zealand allies on October 18, 1917, the Canadians found themselves on virtually the same front as they held in April 1915, but one that was an unrecognizable wasteland, an impassable bog even for infantry, let alone artillery.
Three years of war and continuous shelling left at least half the area in front of Passchendaele covered with water or deep mud, filled with rotting debris and unburied dead. Much has been written about Passchendaele or the Third Battle of Ypres. The referenced CEF Official History provides a good overview without going into hyperbole. For a graphic account of Passchendaele as experienced by a Canadian soldier in the trenches, read Chapter 4 of Will Bird’s ‘Ghosts Have Warm Hands’.
General Currie again pushed back on British Commander Hague’s directive, delaying the timeline for the Canadian attack until Oct 26, 1917, insisting that an extensive program of road building be done first and sufficient artillery emplacements established by Brig. General Morrison. “The principle of massive, closely coordinated support for the infantry was the constant goal of General Currie, who consistently sought to pay the price for victory with shells and not in the lives of men”. (Nicholson, 1962)
The 15th battalion along with other units from the 3rd brigade played a support role at Passchendaele. The 1st (which included the 15th battalion) and 2nd Canadian Divisions were held in reserve for the first two phases of Currie’s attack plan. It was the 3rd Canadian Division, including Ed Little’s replenished 58th bt’n and Will Bird’s 42nd bt’n, that was involved in the first phase on Oct 26, with the 4th Division joining them for the second phase Oct 30, both which achieved their objectives.
There was a seven day pause taken at the ‘blue line’ objective as part of the attack plan, allowing time to change out battle weary, depleted units for fresh men, while also ensuring that the hard fought gains were held. “In the opening days of November, the 1st and 2nd Divisions were moved by rail from their reserve area east of Cassel to take over for the 3rd and 4th Divisions. An uncomfortable three-hour train journey brought them to the ruined station of Ypres, whence they marched to battalion areas in the desolate salient. These reliefs were completed by the morning of 5 November”.
On Nov 6th the Canadian Corps captured Passchendaele (green line objective) within 3 hours of launching a well executed attack, immediately following a heavy artillery bombardment of the enemy. The final phase of the battle was planned for Nov 10. Just 2 days before the Third Battle of Ypres was concluded, Sgt. William Little was Killed in Action. He did not have Will Bird’s ‘guardian angel’ looking out for him. The correspondence card pictured below states that he was killed instantly by concussion from a HE Shell while resting at quarters Passchendaele Ridge, at 5 AM on Nov 8, 1917.
William Little, Killed in Action
The total Canadian casualties associated with Passchendaele were 15,654. This heavy human loss in exchange for a territorial gain of just 4.5 miles, which had little bearing on the final outcome of the war. As Winston Churchill later stated, “it was a forlorn expenditure of valour and life without equal in futility”. (Nicholson, 1962)
While on our war history tour, we stayed for a couple of nights at Varlet Farm near Poelkapelle, Belgium. From there we made our Passchendaele pilgrimage walk up Passchendaele Ridge to the Memorial and stopped at the nearby British cemetery. We were also able to visit Sgt. William Little’s grave marker at Divisional Collecting Post Cemetery near Ypres to pay our respects to my great-uncle.
Around the time that Ed Little was invalided home to Toronto from England, the following clipping was published in the Toronto Star.
What would William’s wife Mildred’s reaction have been? She was now a widow with 2 young children, by then ages 4 and 1 years old. Further examination of William’s service record documents indicate that after settling up for any back wages (which by then were up to $30 per month for William) an additional war service gratuity was made to Mildred Little totaling $180. This was paid in two installments, with the second installment coming almost 3 years later in 1920.
War Widow Gratuity
There are also notations that a pension was approved for payment to William Little’s widow and dependents. While there are no records available to verify the amount, the following document ‘Pension Decision for a Widow’ was found posted on the war museum.ca website. It indicates that the widow with 7 children of a CEF solider killed in 1916 was to receive a pension of $384 per annum or $32 per month, which would equate to about $633 monthly in 2017 dollars. Given that Mildred only had 2 children, the pension she received was likely less than that.
One final document dated 1926 from William’s military file leads to a sad epilogue to his life. His wife Mildred was committed to the Ontario Hospital for the insane and the Public Trustee put in charge of her affairs. There she died in 1933 of tuberculosis.
Ed and William’s sister Alberta (Bert) Brown was also a widow – her husband Bob died of the Spanish flu in Moosejaw, SK in 1918. Bert had a young daughter Peggy from the marriage, and moved back to Toronto to live with her unmarried sister Lena Little. Together, they took in William’s daughters following Mildred’s commitment, and raised the three girls on their own. Perhaps not surprisingly, neither Peggy nor her cousins Margaret and Gertrude ever married or had children. The result is that William, Bert and Lena Little all have no known direct descendants living today. That’s why it’s so important to honour our ancestors and share their stories. We will remember them.
My father Edward Campbell (Ted) Little was born on Remembrance Day, November 11, 1934 in a cabin in Sundridge, Ontario. He was the youngest child and only son of Ed and Miriam Little. Growing up, he always kept portraits of his parents hanging up in our homes. He only had a few stories about his father, who died when he was a young man.
For Dad’s 70th birthday, we were able to get his two sisters together with him for the first time in almost 50 years (the last time was at their father’s funeral). My cousin Steve Cowan (who has done a lot of family genealogy research) presented him with what we now call the ‘Ancestors’ picture, posted in Part 1 of these articles. I asked Dad who everyone was in the picture and had him write the names down. I was of course fixated on Charles Edward (Ed) Little, the grandfather we never knew, and also great uncle William, who was killed in Passchendaele. This was the start of a journey of discovery.
All of Ed and Miriam’s three children have now passed on, and we can’t ask them any more questions about our family history. My cousin Ed Hardy is the oldest son of Ed Little’s eldest daughter Jane, and has shared my interest in learning about Ed and William’s WW1 military history, plus provided me with many documents and precious pictures from his mother’s archives. Ed is an author and teacher, and has been a great sounding board. Thanks for all your support, Ed!
In starting to research the CEF 58th battalion, I discovered Kevin Shackleton’s ‘Second to None’ (2002). I originally bought it for my Dad and then delved into it myself. As Kevin described in the preface to his book, his interest in the subject was spurred by researching his own grandfather, who served with the 58th. When I too was having trouble finding certain documents on my grandfather, Kevin reached out with a phone call and provided some very helpful guidance. Kevin is just one of many people within the Great War historical community who have kindly and freely shared their knowledge.
Brigadier General (ret) Greg Young, who is chairman of the 15th Battalion CEF Memorial Project is another such person. He quickly responded to an email request on locating records for Sgt. William Little, which greatly enriched our war history tour.
That tour was lead by author/historian/guide Susan Raby-Dunne, who utilized her extensive contacts and knowledge to provide us with an extraordinary experience. Thanks also for the loan of some CEF books from your personal library, Susan.
I read Richard Law’s fine book Flowers of the Forest while on tour in Belgium. It was a great read and provided insights into the first year of the 58th bt’n which our ancestors shared. Thank you for publishing the Tale of Two Brothers on your website, Rick.
Lastly, and most importantly, thank you to my wife Tammy Wood Little for sharing the journey with me. The history is very interesting, but without you, there is no future.
James Edward (Jim) Little – October 16, 2018
 Nicholson, Col. G.W.L. Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War. Queens Printer, Ottawa. 1962 (pp 312-327) http://www.cmp-cpm.forces.gc.ca/dhh-
 Bird, Will R. Ghosts Have Warm Hands. CEF Books. Ottawa. 2002