A century ago, with World War I underway, a big cherry table with many leaves was transported from the home of Professor William Dale at 89 Ontario Street South to the upstairs of the St. Marys Public Library. Members of the History Club sat around it and, led by Dale, studied and discussed issues relating to the war. One early and enthusiastic member was William Wright, principal of St. Marys Collegiate Institute.
Wright was born in Zorra Township in 1874. His father died in 1878 and his mother moved the family to St. Marys. William was an excellent student in elementary and secondary school, subsequently studying at the University of Toronto from 1892-97. He graduated with a BA (Classics) in 1896 and the following year received his Master of Arts. Undoubtedly he would have taken classes from Dale, a professor at the university at that time. Wright went on to teach high school in several Ontario communities before coming home to St. Marys before the war when he was appointed principal.
Perhaps partially inspired by History Club discussions, Wright joined the local militia unit in January 1916. In February, on leave from the school board, he took basic officers’ training in London and formally enlisted with the 110th (Perth) Battalion in May 1916. In August, he was one of a draft of officers sent overseas to the Canadian Training Depot in England. After further training, he was sent to France and joined the 19th Canadian Infantry Battalion, then serving in the trenches on the Somme.
Wright kept in touch with Dale and the History Club, writing a series of letters describing conditions at the Front. Four lengthy letters survived, eventually finding their way to the St. Marys Museum. The pages are very fragile and are currently being treated at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa. A page of a typed version is reproduced here along with Wright’s photograph.
The letters contain much of interest, including a description of the famous Battle of Vimy Ridge, sent in July 1917, three months after the event. Wright described the meticulous preparations, the risky expeditions of work parties into no man’s land for four nights before the battle to dig “jumping off” trenches, the determination of his men and the terrible “adhesive, clinging” mud! He said that the gentle slope to the west of the Ridge was similar to the grade “from Water St. up Queen to the West Ward.” This is the last letter in the series. Lieutenant William J. Wright was killed in action on August 18, 1917. He left his wife, Mary, and three young children.
Larry Pfaff provided information about the History Club for this column. Details of Wright’s military career will be found in Richard Holt’s forthcoming book: The Fallen. The full typescript of Wright’s letters can be read in the reference room at the St. Marys Museum.