Home » The Short Life of Neil John McPhee

Private McPhee

by: Rob Probert

Neil McPhee was born in Carleton Place, June 9, 1890. He was the son of Angus and Jane McPhee.

Imagine Carleton Place at that time. The Town had a population a bit under 4,000. What we know as the old Victoria School was at that time the Carleton Place Town Hall. Much of Bridge St. as we know it was not yet built. The main commercial activities in the town were the lumber and woolen mills. St.James Park, by the current dam, was a working cluster of log booms and milling machines. This was a working river. Just across the river from this hive of activity was a bustling Grist mill owned by the Brown family… a family that was to have fame thrust upon it from the German front lines, and to suffer personal loss just as did many Carleton Place families.

There was no internet, no Skype, no cell phones, no telephones of any sort, hydro was not widely used or afforded by many. Carleton Place had a very workable railway system and along with that the telegraph service and pioneering radio that connected us to the rest of the world. Sadly, over the next four years a telegraph brought to your door was not necessarily a good thing.

By all accounts Neil was a typical young lad. He was described as 5’8”, having a dark complexion, brown eyes and black hair. He was quite athletic and very active in the Carleton Place Canoe Club, along with his brother Archie. This in itself describes many youth of today.

He, and his family, attended St.Mary’s Catholic Church in Carleton Place. This church had a very small congregation by to-day’s standards. Having completed his schooling in Carleton Place he traveled west to find work and eventually returned to Carleton Place, working as a labourer. He was very popular in the community.

Neil, aged 24, volunteered for service and left Aug.14, 1914 in the first contingent of the 42nd Regiment. First sent to Valcartier, Quebec, he was then enrolled in “H’ Company of the 2nd Battallion on Sept. 22, 1914. It was there that he would have received his basic training before deployment.

Neil sailed to England on the S.S. Cassandra along with other lads from Carleton Place and Lanark County. He was under the command of Capt.W.H.Hooper of Carleton Place who was responsible for the recruitment of young men from Carleton Place. Capt. Hooper later led many of them in battle.

Neil was described by Capt. Hooper as “one of the best boys, a conscientious and reliable soldier”

The lives of Capt. Hooper and many of the troops from Carleton Place were intertwined. Many met their demise in a particularly valiant battle to hold a needed farmhouse, our locally famous “Farmhouse Battle at St.Julian’s”.

Sadly that battle was lost. Perhaps at another time we can talk more specifically about this battle. Certainly it should be taught in our local history. It was truly heroic. The unit was forced to retreat and there was no sign of Neil. There was speculation that he was a German prisoner of war but no trace of him was ever found. No body; no definitive answer…. such was the fate of many in that tragic war.

Neil’s father, Angus, walked every day to the Carleton Place Post Office hoping for a letter or any other news that told him that his son was alive.

It was assumed that Neil lost his life in the explosion that demolished the infamous farmhouse and closed out this sad episode of war. Neil’s family received a letter in July 1916 from the Department of Militia stating that he was not among the prisoners of war, nor with any other unit. He was “presumed to have died on or after Apr.22, 1915” at St.Julian. This was the famous 2nd Battle of Ypres conflict.

The letter that had such finality came from Maj. Gen. Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia and Defence for Canada. It offered kind words of condolence and included the following:

“While one cannot too deeply mourn the loss of such a brave comrade, there is consolation in knowing that he did his duty fearlessly and well, and gave his life for the cause of liberty and the upholding of the Empire.  Again extending to you my heartfelt sympathy.”

Neil’s mother died May 4, 1919. When Neil’s medals arrived, including the silver Memorial Cross, only Neil’s father survived to accept them. Neil’s war pension stopped when his father Angus died on July 15, 1920.

A sad closure indeed.

Neil John McPhee lived only into his 24th year, and was what we would call a regular foot soldier, was a Private, defending his country. For the record he died Apr. 22, 1915 in the Battle of Ypres. His body was never found. There is no grave.

Epilogue

In 2013, 94 trees were installed at the various schools in Carleton Place to commemorate the names of lives lost and engraved on the Carleton Place Cenotaph.

This was the VICTORY TREE PROJECT. In Neil McPhee’s memory, an Autumn Blaze Maple “Victory Tree” was planted at Arklan Public School. A large plaque was installed with the trees, and as well, a plaque inside the school denotes the names and details of all represented by the tree planting.

We Will Remember.

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