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News - All - 11 Nov 2018

News Item 18 of 4474 

Veterans: 11 Nov 2018
Marguerite Ferguson never let her family forget her big brother Leo, killed at 21 by a German shell

he Nolan family prepare to lay a wreath in memory of Pte. Leo Ferguson, killed in the First World War. From left, Phil Nolan, wearing dark glasses, Cathy Nolan, Meghan Nolan, Barb Conway, and Paul Nolan. - Peter Lee , Waterloo Region Record

KITCHENER — He was a small man whose brave death in combat cast a shadow that has lasted 100 years.

Pte. Leo Ferguson was killed Oct. 1, 1918, by a German shell. He was 21.

Sunday, his kin came from across Ontario and Quebec to lay a wreath in Leo's hometown, and to assert that a century passed can't dull his sacrifice or their duty.

"It's important for the next generation to know the sacrifice," said Phil Nolan, 61.

Phil grew up listening to his grandmother Marguerite talk about her big brother Leo, who never returned from the First World War.

As Marguerite recalled, their father Fred was so determined to keep his son safe, he hid a contraband pistol for Leo in the carved-out pages of a Bible and sent it overseas.

There on the Western Front, Leo heard a noise, grabbed the pistol off his belt, and turned to fire at a German soldier wielding a bayonet.

"Gosh Leo that must have been some feeling when you felt those Huns near you. Quite a surprise for them," Marguerite wrote to her brother.

Although brother and sister were an ocean apart in the fall of 1918, death stalked them both.

A flu pandemic was ravaging Kitchener, striking down young and old and killing millions around the world. It killed 90 in Kitchener in the first three weeks of October, forcing the city to close schools and churches and pool halls.

The disease weakened Marguerite but she got through it. "Every person in town almost has the Influenza," she wrote to Leo.

"I just got over the darn thing. It was reported it originated in the German lines. I suppose everything starts there. Even the devil's prayer meeting."

Leo tried not to scare his sister, saying little to her about combat dangers on the Western Front.

"I am still kicking and in the best of health," he wrote from France in the summer of 1918. "I have not much time as I am going up the line now will write again shortly."

Marguerite, 18, wrote cheerfully about boyfriends and dances. She sketched for her brother a spooky Queen of Hearts dress she planned to wear at a masquerade.

"Gosh if I look like that everybody at the party will drop dead on the spot the first look they get at me," she wrote. "I guess I'll dress up like that and go to France and kill a few Huns. What say you? Yes?"

She didn't know that her brother had been dead for six days when she wrote this. The casualty report took almost three weeks to reach home.

Leo Ferguson volunteered to fight for Canada in 1915, days before he turned 18.

He was born in Berlin, which renamed itself Kitchener during the war. He was a baker like his father and he was single when he went overseas.

The family lived on Frederick Street at or near where the cenotaph is today.

For a while the army kept Leo baking, before assigning him to the infantry. There he was given an important job as a runner, delivering orders and communications across the battlefield.

His small frame — he was five feet, four inches tall — helped make him quick and agile.

Canada was six weeks from victory when Leo saw his last dawn.

He huddled in a dark trench with his comrades, soaked by a freezing rain. The whistle to go over the top sounded at 5 a.m.

Soldiers climbed out of the trench and into no man's land to attack the enemy lines.

The Allies had the Germans on the run, battling to liberate the occupied city of Cambrai in northern France. The Germans were fighting ferociously in retreat.

The men of Leo's 13th infantry battalion were ordered to take the villages of Sancourt and Blécourt. But they were not given adequate time to prepare.

The battalion captured Blécourt as ordered. But the men could not hold the village as darkness approached. The Germans counterattacked, forcing a withdrawal. More than 600 Canadian soldiers were killed that day.

A postwar history concluded "defeat had been avoided, but victory had escaped the Canadians' grasp."

Marguerite told her grandson Phil that a German shell blew her brother to pieces. As a child, he imagined it landed right on his head.

The official record states: "He was killed by the explosion of an enemy shell whilst on duty as a 'runner' during an attack on Blécourt." The shell obliterated him, leaving no known grave.

Three weeks after Leo was killed in action, local newspapers put his picture on front pages.

"Leo was one of the finest young men that enlisted and went overseas from this community," the Kitchener News Record declared.

Hometown pride seems deserved. Leo earned a Military Medal for bravery in the field. He died before he had a chance to wear it.

Marguerite never stopped talking about her brother. She displayed his medals to visitors. She kept his letters and showed them. She told her grandchildren stories about him.

On Remembrance Day, two grandsons, a granddaughter, and two great-granddaughters of Marguerite united in Kitchener to pay tribute to the brother she lost to war.

"She just wanted no one to forget him," said her granddaughter Cathy Nolan, 62.

Five years before she died, Marguerite made her way to France to see the Vimy Memorial. Leo's name is etched there in the stone. By then he'd been dead more than 50 years.

There she said goodbye after a lifetime of asking her family to remember him.

She did well. They both did.

jouthit@therecord.com

Twitter: @OuthitRecord

jouthit@therecord.com

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Jeff Outhit Waterloo Region Record/AA
 

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