This week’s photograph was donated several years ago to the St. Marys Museum by the late Reg Near. It shows his grandparents and their children in the late summer of 1915, likely one of the last occasions this family was all together. John and Bertha Near are at the centre with their oldest children behind: William (Bill,) Ada, John (Jack) and Frank (Red). To the left in the front row is Harold, the youngest, and to the right, is Reg (our friend Reg’s father), about 10.
Two sons, Bill and Frank, are in uniform, both having enlisted earlier that summer in the 33rd Battalion, training in London. By late November, they were in Quebec City and on April 1, 1916, the SS Lapland took the battalion, including the Near brothers, from Halifax to England. Meanwhile, Jack enlisted in Hamilton in early 1916 and within a few months, he too was overseas.
Bill and Frank were not together for long. Once in England, the 33rd was broken up, the men going to other battalions that that needed reinforcements. Frank was posted to the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR), then serving in Belgium with the 3rd Division. Bill ended up with the 7th Canadian Infantry Battalion, also in Belgium, working in the Transport division.
Bill kept a small pocket diary, briefly noting events such as letters and parcels from home, weather conditions, excursions to nearby towns in search of some entertainment. Although the entries are brief, the tone is consistently cheerful. Bill was an optimist, ready to enjoy any small comfort or amusement. But several entries in late October 1916 are sombre: he learned that Frank, who was fighting with the RCR on the Somme, was missing after a fierce battle near Courcelette.
Although he never forgot his concern for Frank, Bill had his own work to do in his battalion and a full year passed. Bill had a short leave in England in early October 1917. His diary entries indicate he had a very good time. He was back with his battalion by October 16 in time to move with them towards Passchendaele. On November 7, 1918, he wrote his final diary entry: “Raining in a.m. Mailed letter to Mother.”
On November 8, Bill Near was killed by German shell fire. Jack Near did get home to his family in St. Marys; his two brothers were lost. William and Frank Near’s names are at the top of the south side of the cenotaph in Memorial Park. Their story – and those of the other men named on the cenotaph – is told more completely in a new book by Richard Holt, The Fallen: From World War I and World War II memorials in St. Marys and Blanshard. The book will be released in November.