The Nelson, B.C. cenotaph lists more than a hundred names of soldiers killed in World War I. This from a town of 6000. Other memorials in the Kootenay Lake area bring the total number of area men killed to around 300. “Their Names Liveth Forevermore”, taken from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, is the official war dead epitaph. But just who were these names, these men who no one now alive has ever met?
The old Post Office/Customs House building (1902), which has also served as City Hall and city museum, bears a marble plaque dedicated to the memory of one of these men, Major Percy Rigby:
He was so loved by his men, who called themselves “Rigby’s Terriers”, that those remaining of his company would take up a collection from their meagre pay to erect a memorial to him…
Sylvia Crooks, Names on a Cenotaph: Kootenay Lake Men in World War I
Percy Rigby was born in London, in 1871. His father, Major-General Christopher Palmer Rigby had a long army career before becoming British consul in Zanzibar. Christopher died in 1885 and Percy went on to an education at Marlborough College and Sandhurst. At the age of 19 he joined the Sherwood Foresters and, from 1896 – 1911 served in various Africa campaigns, including the Boer War. Percy was Christopher’s youngest son and had no prospects in England, aside from his Army pension. Like many other men in his position, Rigby decided to emigrate.
Canada began advertising for immigrants in 1892. At first these ads were directed generally and many East Europeans came to Canada, but as time passed, the immigration program was aimed more and more at Great Britain and “desirable” people. One prospect that enticed many Brits who shared Rigby’s circumstances was fruit ranching in British Columbia.
Edible dessert apples, as opposed to cider fruit, had been developed as a crop only in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century. Members of the British Empire (the Commonwealth came much later) developed their own apple varieties — for instance, Macintosh from Canada, Granny Smith from Australia — and British and American varieties were also available. The apple trees were propagated by slips or cuttings from good trees (as they still are) and thus, always bred true. British Columbia wanted settlers, apples grew well there, and Englishmen were always welcome. In addition, ex-officers could commute their pensions into enough to meet the initial investment in fruit — much larger than that required for either cattle or grain.
So, in 1911, the same year he retired from the military, Percy Rigby travelled to British Columbia and became a fruit rancher. He settled at Boswell on Kootenay Lake, named his new residence “Sans Souci”, and soon became known for throwing great Christmas celebrations as well as his minor, but lovable, English “eccentricities”. (I haven’t been able to discover much more about these.)
Fruit Ranching in British Columbia written by John Bealby in 1909 describes the process of developing a new orchard in the area. It was tough work, but rewarding and spiced with reminisces of colorful locals — and the locals were mostly colorful, all except the new-comers from England who were, of course, English and therefore models for the world.
Perhaps by 1914, Rigby’s ranch was producing a profit — fruit trees take time — but, in August, there was a new priority. Ten days after the outbreak of World War I, Percy Rigby was training volunteers in Nelson. Shortly afterward, Rigby and 175 men travelled to Valcartier, Quebec and signed up with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Probably three quarters were English immigrants going to defend the Motherland. Another local contingent of more than 200 soon followed.
Rigby’s contingent included 26 men who carved their names into a CPR tabletop. Of these 26, 10 were killed. 80% of the first Kootenay Contingent were killed, captured, or suffered debilitating wounds. So many losses of young men had serious repercussions in sparsely populated interior British Columbia. Widows, who had little enough when their husbands went off to war, now had to subsist on inadequate pensions — inadequate, but the highest amount paid by any of the Allied nations. Many fruit ranching communities, including Rigby’s Boswell, never recovered. Some became ghost towns. Fruit ranching of the kind discussed by Bealby ceased to be a major enterprise in the Kootenays, although Christmas apples were still featured in Sears and Eaton’s catalogues as late as the 1970s. These were shipped in bulk to England and re-packaged there as “A Gift to Home”.
In February, after three months training in England, the Kootenay Contingent was shipped to France as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. (Some individuals were assigned to Scottish regiments.) In March, the Canadians were assigned to the assault on Neuve Chapelle, a German-held town just south of the Belgian border. There was an English unit to the Canadians’ left and an Indian unit to their right. British command thought this a fine example of the Empire in action. Following a massive artillery bombardment, which obliterated the town, the Indians charged in and actually gained a foothold in Neuve Chapelle, but British forces were unable to turn the situation into an immediate victory and several days of fighting ensued before the town was taken at a cost of some 11600 Allied and an equal number of German casualties and captured. Percy Rigby saw none of this. On March 10, as the battle opened, he was shot in the chest by a German sniper.
Sylvia Crooks, Names on a Cenotaph: Kootenay Lake Men in World War I was mentioned before. This is a great book and a model for local history. (And, in the end, all history, like all politics, is local.) Crooks has also written about World War II, both the names on the cenotaph and life on the home front.