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The Canadian Military Heritage Project
WW1

Letters Home

James Kay
Regimental Sergeant-Major
1880 ~ 1919

Humble Beginnings
By Jane Sherris

James Kay, my great-grandfather, was born Feb. 19, 1880 in Torhead Croft in the Pluscarden Valley near Elgin, Moray, Scotland. He was an only child of Helen Smith and Alexander Kay and lived with his grandparents John and Mary Smith of Torhead, Pluscarden, Elgin, Scotland.

In 1900 at the age of 19 he joined the 2nd Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders in Glasgow, Scotland. He spent 12 years with the Seaforths and served 8 years abroad in Egypt, India, Somaliland and fought in South Africa in the Boer War. During this time he received the Queen's South Africa Medal (Somaliland) and the Africa General Service Medal (Boer War)

He moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada about 1908 and was one of the first to join the 79th Cameron Highlanders of Canada when the militia formed in 1910. He was still serving with the Seaforths at the time. The 79th Cameron Highlanders officially became the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada in Nov., 1923 In 1911 he was among the Special Coronation Company who visited the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders (Imperial Army) at Aldershot, England and attended the ceremonies in connection with the coronation of His Majesty King George the Fifth on June 22, 1911.

On Nov 23, 1911 James Kay married Annie Amelia Clark of Tranmere, Cheshire, England. They had a small ceremony at Point Douglas Presbyterian Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. On July 9, 1912 they were blessed with their first child whom they named Annie Patricia Kay.

In 1914 at the breakout of WW1 he immediately enlisted (even though his wife was pregnant with her second child) and became part of the No 4 Company of the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) Canadian Expeditionary Force, 3rd Brigade, First Canadian Division. They proceeded to Valcartier camp Aug. 23, 1914 and on Sept. 30, 1914 left Quebec for England. They spent the winter of 1914-1915 at Salisbury Plain and arrived in France Feb. 15, 1915.

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Letters Sent Home During WW1

He sent the first, of several letters that were saved by his wife, while on leave Nov. 8, 1914 in Elgin, Moray, Scotland.

His second letter dated Dec. 10, 1914 he was at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain in England. He still has not heard about the birth of the baby.

His third letter dated Jan. 22, 1915 expresses his joy at his daughter's arrival on Nov.24, 1914 and with his wife for naming the baby Doris Cameron Kay in honor of his regiment. His next communication was a form postcard dated March 29, 1915 in which the soldiers were not allowed to add anything except the date and a signature.

His next letter is written from Belgium on July 15, 1915. He has just come out of the trenches in Belgium and has received a promotion to Regimental Sergeant Major due to the previous RSM being wounded and sent back.

On Aug. 24, 1915 he writes after just having had a short 2 day leave at home in Elgin (a little hungover by the sound of it!) In March 1916 he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The citation reads " For Conspicuous gallantry since the formation of the battalion, in all the actions in which it has been engaged. He has invariably exhibited bravery and skill in the performance of his duties, and given a fine example of devotion to all ranks."

At this point I am uncertain where he went. I know that he was wounded and sent home for a two month furlough. He was able to see his children and there are a few pictures of the family together. Newspaper articles state that he was offered a commission several times but that he turned them down. He was also offered inducements to accept Staff positions in Canada but he said that his place was at the front where he was needed most.

He returned to the trenches in Aug. with his arm in a sling. The Armistice Day, November 11, 1918 did not bring an immediate end to army maneuvers. The company was on the western outskirts of Mons and they paraded through the town full of welcoming inhabitants who saw them as the final sign of freedom and final victory.

On Dec. 13, 1918 they marched into Germany and crossed the Rhine. They were quartered in the locality of Cologne until Jan. 5, 1919.

The next letter from Germany is dated Dec. 28, 1918 and he has just had his quietest Xmas ever. Soldiers are starting to come back to Canada. He is glad to be missing the cold Winnipeg weather but he says he is looking forward to coming home in the near future.

Still in Germany a few days later, Jan. 2, 1919 he writes home to say that he was wounded in Cambrai and was given the Military Medal for it and had now heard he will get the Military Cross as well. At the end of it he says "no more wars for me".

Jan 5, 1919 they left Germany for Belgium where they remained in Anthiet, a village some 30 kilometres from Brussels. By Feb. 1, 1919 he has had enough of the war and talks of what his life will be like when he gets home and tells his wife to prepare for lots of visitors as many war buddies may stay with them. They are 6 weeks away from leaving for home. Although he has had enough of the war he says he will still remain with the company "until the next war". He also had the honour of leading the company in a parade as Brigade Sergeant Major as he was the oldest member in France at the time.

His last letter dated Feb. 15, 1919 brings about a sad and unexpected end to a remarkable career and man. He is in the town of Anthiet, Belgium and has contracted the flu. Refusing to report sick he is finally ordered to go to the hospital where he died about 12 hours later. His letter reveals his sickness but not the severity of it and he tells his wife they are leaving in 3 days time to head for down the line and still hope to be in Canada by April.

Death of a War Hero

James Kay died Feb. 18, 1919 of influenza and was buried the day after his 39th birthday in the village of Antheit, Liege, Belgium, only a few weeks before his company returned home to Canada

Annie Kay's next letter came from the Officer in Command of the 16th Battalion on Feb 20th, 1919 informing her of James death. Condolences were sent by the mayor of Anthiet who vowed to take care of the cemetery plot donated by the town for him. The family who cared for James just before his death also wrote with details of his death talking about how he refused to stay in bed and insisted on parading.

Annie Kay never remarried and on May 8, 1935 she was given the honour of unveiling a cross, which was brought from the battle field at Arras, honouring the men of the 16th Canadian Scottish who died there. The cross stands on the grounds of the First Presbyterian Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Annie Kay died in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1976 at the age of 84. R.S.M. James Kay M.C.,D.C.M., M.M., M.I.D. medals and a few of his army artifacts have been donated to the Cameron Highlander Museum at Minto Barracks, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

"Throughout the long career of the 16th the survivors of the company fought on; the further Cameron reinforcements brought men of their kind, and when in February, 1919, R.S.M. Jimmie Kay during the return march of the Battalion from Germany died from Influenza, practically on parade, having refused to report sick, he closed the chapter of heroism, his name being the last on the roll of these great souls who were perfectly willing to give up their lives to uphold a tradition which pride of race forbade them betray"

Quoted from: The Queens Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada Twenty-fifth Anniversary Souvenir, 1935

The Canadian Great War Homepage would like to thank Jane Sherris for her generousity in allowing the use of her great-grandfather's story, photos, and all sections of the memorial she has to James on her webpage at http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Meadows/9402
Please visit Jane's site for more information

Note from Brian
He is one of the soldiers found on Veteran's Affairs Canada Virtual War Memorial

He is also found in the First World War Book of Remembrance

His attestation papers are found on the CEF online database
See the Front of page
See the Back of page


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