The McKay Fallen, Part IV: Andrew Douglas Stalker

by Dr. Alan Bowker

This is the fourth and final article in a series that explores how the Great War impacted the lives of a single family belonging to the MacKay United Church in New Edinburgh. See also Part I, Part II, and Part III of the series.

Andrew Douglas Stalker was born on November 30, 1892, in Ottawa, the youngest son of George Frederick Stalker, an eminent Scottish architect who had come to Ottawa in 1883, and his wife Clarinda. Information on the family is included in the blog for Robert Alexander Stalker, which has been posted. Douglas grew up in New Edinburgh, Ottawa, attended public school there, and was very active in athletics in New Edinburgh and the city at large, especially as a football player and a rower with the New Edinburgh Canoe Club. He worked as a pattern maker and draughtsman and presumably on the basis of this training he was able to describe himself on his enlistment papers as a civil engineer.

Following some service in the Canadian Army Service Corps, Douglas Stalker enlisted as a lieutenant in the 207th Battalion on April 16, 1916. Curiously, like his brother Robert he was not given a service number. The 207th was an Ottawa recruiting battalion organized by Lt. Col. Charles Wesley MacLean which included men from the Duke of Cornwall’s Own Rifles as well as volunteers from Eastern Ontario. It trained at Rockcliffe Camp, where it earned the nickname “MacLean’s athletes” because of its prowess in rugby and baseball. Douglas Stalker led the Battalion’s football team in games against Queen’s University among others.[1]

In January 1917 the Battalion moved to Amherst, Nova Scotia for further training and sailed, somewhat under strength, from Halifax on June 2, 1917. Once in England, Douglas assigned $30 a month of his overseas pay to support his mother and presumably had hopes of going directly to the front. But the 207th was broken up to reinforce other units in the field and Douglas as a surplus officer was assigned to the 7th Reserve Battalion. Not until October 6, 1917 was he assigned as a lieutenant in the 38th Battalion – an Eastern Ontario regiment in the 12th Brigade of the 4th Division – which was rebuilding after heavy losses on the Arras front. When he joined the Battalion on October 10 it was en route to Passchendaele and it reached the front line on October 28, two days after George Stalker was wounded.

The 12th Brigade was on the right of the Canadian line on October 30 in the second of four set-piece battles that comprised the Canadian assault on Passchendaele. The 38th was held in brigade reserve while the other three battalions spearheaded the attack, but was nonetheless shelled heavily, and early in the afternoon B, C, and D companies were sent forward to reinforce the forward battalions. Fortunately for Douglas, his A Company was used for carrying parties. On November 5 the 38th was pulled back for a month’s rest, having suffered some 400 casualties.[2]

On December 19, 1917, the 38th returned to the Lens area and settled in for the winter holding positions on either side of the town. The rather chatty war diary describes a quiet Christmas, with snow and calm weather. “All Xmas parcels and letters delivered to men and officers in support line, including Xmas comforts of cigarettes and other presents sent to the Battn. Fraternizing with the enemy was the last thing the men would have thoughts of doing and orders forbidding same were superfluous in regard to the 38th. All ranks made the most of the means at their disposal for the enjoyment of the day, those who felt a bit homesick covering their feelings with a Camouflage of laughter and jest.” The next two months were spent moving in and out of the line, training, strengthening their positions along Vimy Ridge and enduring the usual desultory shelling, raiding, gassing, and sniping of trench warfare.

On March 21, 1918, the Germans began their major offensive which pushed the British back all along the line. Before it began, there were raids on the trenches manned by the 38th by parties of 50 to 200 men, but none was able to penetrate the front line. On March 28, as the British line crumpled, the 4th Division was moved four miles south to relieve a British Division, but after Currie furiously protested this breaking up of the Canadian Corps they were moved back to Vimy where they held the line and escaped the brunt of the German offensive.

In mid-May the Canadian Corps was withdrawn into GHQ Reserve for intensive training for the coming offensive, interspersed with games and sports, rest, and visits to estaminets among other places. German artillery and aircraft occasionally harassed the troops. On June 9, 1918, Douglas was slightly wounded by a gunshot wound to the face, was treated at the 12th Field Ambulance, and returned to duty. It is not clear whether this was a training accident or the result of enemy fire. News of this wound must have added to the anxiety of his mother Clarinda, who had already had one son killed and another badly wounded. On July 22 he was given fourteen days’ leave in England, and when he returned in early August the 38th was moving into position for the Amiens offensive.

The lead Canadian Divisions jumped off at 04:20 a.m. on August 8, 1918, and exactly one hour later the 12th brigade followed in the wake of the Third Division, moving quickly across ground already taken, with only light artillery fire. By nightfall they had advanced 13 km. into enemy territory. In the small hours of the next morning the 12th Brigade moved forward to the village of Rosières and prepared to continue the attack. The 72nd and 85th Battalions led, with the 78th and 38th in support. All, went well until the 85th became bogged down in a zigzag of old trenches, facing heavy resistance and artillery fire, and with their flank exposed because of the slower advance of the Australians to their left.

Battalion command, in the words of the War Diary of the 38th, “therefore decided to push the 38th through at once to the objective of the 85th Battalion, and if possible forward to our own objective.” They also, however, became bogged down, but the brigades on their right had attained their objective and there was now risk that these would be exposed on their left flank. Thus “orders were issued to the various Companies of the 38th to reorganize as quickly as possible and continue to push forward until we could connect up on our right flank with the 78th or 72nd Battalion” to form a continuous line. “Owing to severe officer casualties this proved difficult indeed. However, during the night of the 10/11th, ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies had connected up with the 78th Battalion in front of HAILU, with ‘D’ Company forming posts in the centre of our position and ‘C’ Company on the CHILLY-LIHONS ROAD.”

The 38th was now in a forward position of the Canadian advance, digging in to face a counter-attack. “About 8.30 a.m. in the 11th the enemy placed a very heavy concentration of artillery on our right Companies. ‘A’ [Stalker’s] and ‘B’ Companies withstood this attack gallantly, but suffered many casualties, especially from the left flank where the enemy worked in behind them. After repelling this attack orders were received that the forward Companies would be withdrawn a short distance to improve and straighten our line. Our Companies, however, held their positions until later in the afternoon, and orders were issued that evening for ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies to withdraw to the CHILLY LIHONS ROAD.”

The advances of August 9th had been more costly because the success on the previous day meant that artillery support could not be brought up. The soldiers were also without food and water as they faced the fire of an enemy that had bent but not broken. The 38th was relieved on the night of August 13th, having suffered heavy casualties.[3] But in these two days the Canadians had won a great victory, advancing almost 20 km, capturing hundreds of guns and taking over 22,000 prisoners in what German General Ludendorff called the “Black Day of the German army.”

Instead of resting and refitting, the Canadians were moved to the Arras sector to commence, with minimum preparation, the offensive that would lead them to Mons and the end of the war. The 38th saw some action on August 30 and September 1, but the 4th Division’s major role was in the battle to break the Drocourt-Quéant Line on September 2. The 4th Division was on the left of the Canadian line. After the 10th Battalion took the town of Dury, the 12th Brigade, with the 38th Battalion in the centre, passed through to take on the toughest portion of the German line, with little artillery support. Stalker’s ‘A’ Company was one of two in the lead. After they took their objective and another battalion had passed through them, “A” and “B” companies reorganized and pressed the attack until the concentration of defences against them became too great to allow further advance. They then dug in, having captured 325 prisoners, four trench mortars and forty machine guns, and suffering relatively light but nonetheless sobering casualties: three officers and 57 other ranks killed, seven officers and 176 other ranks wounded and 57 missing, for a total of 300.[4]

It is unlikely that Stalker was involved in the subsequent actions of the 38th because on September 29 he proceeded on course to the 1st Army Infantry School, from which he returned on November 4. By this time the 38th was resting following the battle of Valenciennes and it was in billet at Anzin when the Armistice was announced on November 11.

Unlike his two older brothers, Doug Stalker had had a relatively “good” war. He had seen plenty of action and suffered his share of horror and privation, but he had emerged at least physically unscathed. He was, however, about to fall victim to another peril of the war. On November 15, 1918, Douglas was sent to the 20 General Hospital, Camiers, then to 51 General Hospital, Étaples, for treatment of scabies and gonorrhea. Treatment took almost two months and he did not return to duty until January 12, 1919. His place in the 38th had been taken by another officer, so he proceeded to England to serve with the Eastern Ontario Regimental Depot at Seaford. He then joined District Department #3 at the holding camp at Kinmel, Wales, near Liverpool. There in an unbearably cold, wet, winter, with overcrowded camps and badly managed logistics, Canadian soldiers rioted on March 4-5, with five men killed, 25 wounded, and many court-martialled and sentenced to prison terms. Stalker sailed on April 3 on the S. S. Lapland from Liverpool. He was discharged in Ottawa on April 14, 1919, with no disabilities, a healthy 5’10”, 172 pounds, with a pulse rate of 72.

After the war Doug Stalker once again became a leading athlete, including playing for the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1919 (In this picture he is circled in red, and two other MacKay soldiers were also on this team).[5] He joined the city engineer’s office and rose to be Deputy Waterworks Engineer for Ottawa. On April 14, 1923, still residing at his mother’s home in New Edinburgh, he married Annie Naismith, a 28-year-old civil servant, at MacKay Presbyterian. He then left New Edinburgh.

Douglas Stalker died in 1937 at age 44, possibly of cancer, leaving a widow and an 11-year-old daughter. The Ottawa Journal reported: “His passing has greatly saddened all officials and employees of the Corporation for he was a man of cheery disposition, exceedingly well-liked” with “broad, technical knowledge of water purification systems.”[6]

Two other brothers who had not joined the forces continued to live with their mother at 37 Charles Street in New Edinburgh. Arthur Stalker, also an athlete, became a carpenter and continued to attend MacKay United Church until he died at 65 in 1954 of acute bronchitis, leaving a wife and one child. Moray Stalker, who had managed the affairs of his brothers abroad and his mother at home, rose to the position of Assistant City Clerk. He does not seem to have married and when he retired he was described on a 1949 voters’ list as “gentleman”. He died in 1970, the last of the nine children of George and Clarinda Stalker, and one of only two who had not in some way fallen victim to a foreign enemy – the Great War – or to a more insidious domestic one – tuberculosis.[7]

ALAN BOWKER served for thirty-five years in Canada’s foreign service, including as High Commissioner to Guyana. He has a PhD in Canadian history and has taught at Royal Military College. He lives in Ottawa. His latest book is A Time Such as There Never Was Before: Canada After the Great War. He has also edited two collections of essays by Stephen Leacock, whom he considers one of the most perceptive commentators on early twentieth-century Canada.

[1] Ottawa Journal 12 October, 20 October 1916.

[2] Cook, Shock Troops, Chapter 22, and War diary of the 38th battalion, especially entry for 30 October, available online.

[3] 38th Battalion War diary Appendix I to August diary, and subsequent pages.

[4] War diary of the 38th Battalion, “38th Canadian Infantry Battalion Report on Scarpe Operations, 30th August to 3rd September, 1918.”

[5] Clipping provided by a descendant.

[6] Ottawa Journal, September 30, 1937: “A. D. Stalker Was Popular Civic Official Death Occurs of Waterworks Engineer”.

[7] The fact that Arthur Stalker died of a lung disease also raises the possibility that TB was a factor. There is no way to know whether the lives of George or Douglas Stalker were shortened by the war, but it is a reasonable supposition, particularly in George’s case.