The Ghost in the Trenches – Francis Pegahmagabow
On the 6th and 7th of November in 1917, the battle of Passchendaele rages on. Amongst heavy fire a young soldier darts from position to position, guiding his comrades of the First Canadian Division to reinforce another unit in desperate need of help. This young soldier was Francis Pegahmagabow, of the Ojibwe tribe.
Born March 9th, 1891, in Parry Sound, Ontario, and named Binaaswi (the wind that blows off), the young boy was abandoned by his mother after his father died when he was just 3 years old. He was raised by a tribal elder by the name of Noah Nebimanyquod, and grew up in Shawanaga reserve in Ontario. During his childhood Binaaswi learned the skills of hunting, fishing and traditional medicine. Pegahmagabow practiced a mix of Catholicism and Anishnaabe spirituality. During his youth Pegahmagabow met a tribal medicine man who told him that he would face great danger in his life and gave him a small leather pouch (the contents of which are unknown) to protect him.
In 1912 Pegahmagabow was given financial aid by the Parry Sound Crown attorney so that he could seek bed and board while continuing with his education, as he had left school when he was 12 years old to work in lumber yards and fishing camps, eventually becoming a marine fire-fighter.
On the 4th of August, 1914, the British Empire declared war on Germany and brought with it the might of it’s empire, including Canada. A month later 32,665 Canadians had volunteered to join the fight. Amongst those men was Francis Pegahmagabow. The Canadian army was reluctant to allow native troops into the armed forces as they were not considered Canadian citizens at the time. Arriving at camp Valcartier in Quebec Pegahmagabow decorated his tent with deer skulls and other Ojibwe tribal emblems and trinkets, which only made him stand out more vividly amongst the other Canadians.
After basic training in Quebec the first division found itself in Britain for more training before being shipped out to the battlefields of Belgium. Upon arriving in Belgium the Canadians found themselves at the Second Battle of Ypres, and it was here that Pegahmagabow would have his baptism by fire and learn a new way to fight. Pegahmagobow was one of the battalion’s scouts and marksmen, it was here at Ypres he started to develop a reputation for his fearlessness and skills. It is said that one night he snuck into the German trenches, walked straight into their sleeping quarters and took pieces of their uniforms off them while they slept (whether this is true or a myth is relatively unknown). As a sniper Pegahmagabow was often tasked with gathering intelligence from enemy positions, and this he did; often picking off enemies whenever he could using his Ross Rifle (a rifle which was standard for Canadian forces but suffered reliability issues in the trenches, which the Canadians later replaced with British Lee-Enfield SMLE rifles. Despite this the Ross rifle remained a favourite of snipers in both the Canadian and British forces.) Pegamagabow also witnessed the first Chlorine gas attack of the war, which the Germans unleashed on Canadian forces during battle.
Pegahmagabow’s reputation grew as the war raged on around him. He was running messages from trench to trench, gathering intelligence from German lines, and also gathering prisoners for interrogation. He would do this by locating isolated German patrols and firing a round in front of them, forcing them to surrender or die. During the battles Pegahmagabow was promoted to Lance-Corporal.
Pegahmagabow’s beliefs rubbed off on the other men in his outfit, mostly due to the desperate situations they found themselves in. The other men frequently asked him to aid them with spiritual protection. In one case, as a gas attack was slowly creeping towards them, his officer gave Pegahmagabow tobacco and pleaded with him to ask the spirits for aid, Pegahmagabow used the tobacco in the ritual as was customary and the wind
changed direction blowing the gas away (yet again, this story is unconfirmed by most sources but a myth does spring from something and it could have happened) .
In July of 1916 Pegahmagabow and his comrades found themselves fighting in the battle of the Somme. The battle became known as the bloodiest battle of the British army during the 1st World War. By now Pegahmagabow had begun to believe himself invincible, in par with his belief in spirituality and in his own legend as the ‘ghost in the trenches’, but unfortunately the brutal reality of war had caught up with him and he suffered a wound in his left leg. Pegahmagabow spent his stint in the army hospital demanding to be sent back to the frontlines. Despite his injury he was sent back to his unit in time to be moved to Belgium, where he earned a military medal for carrying messages through the lines. He had originally been nominated by his commanding officer for the distinguished service medal but this was downgraded.
During the battle of Passchendaele he earned a bar for his military medal for guiding reinforcements who had lost their way in no man’s lands. Pegahmagabow caught pneumonia during this period and was again evacuated to hospital, and yet again he begged to be sent back to the front, eventually achieving his wish. By May of 1918 Pegahmagabow was back in the thick of battle and received numerous citations for his actions in various engagements, but it was in August of 1918 that he made history during the battle of the Scarpe, where he became involved in fighting off a German attack near the Orix trench by Upton Wood. His company had run out of ammunition and were faced with two options; surrender or total annihilation by the Germans. Pegahmagabow took it upon himself to resupply his comrades, darting around the battlefield gathering munitions and weapons off fallen soldiers from all sides, running back and forth with all he could carry and when possible eliminating enemy troops probing the Canadian position For his actions Pegahmagabow was awarded another bar to his military medal, being one of only 39 Canadians to have had been awarded during the conflict.
By now Pegahmagabow had started suffering nightmares, violent rages, and insomnia and became insubordinate. He had become a ghost of himself, and in early November he was sent to a military hospital in England, suffering what was known at the time as ‘exhaustion psychosis’ – what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
When Francis Pegahgabow returned to Canada after the war, he was the highest decorated native soldier in the Canadian army. He is reported to have killed 378 German soldiers and captured another 300. Before the war in Canada he was treated as a second class citizen due to his ancestry, and during the war he became an equal with his fellow Canadians. Despite this, on his return home he was once again considered a second class citizen by the racial constructs of the day. Pegahmagabow found a new purpose in life, becoming an advocate for native rights in Canada (all while still serving in the Canadian militias as a sergeant-major). In February of 1921 he was elected Chief of the Parry Island Band and caused controversy by writing a letter calling for all those of mixed race to be expelled from the reservation. He was re-elected as chief in 1923 and resigned in 1925, when an attempt had been made to remove him from position.
It was in 1933 that the Department of Indian Affairs changed its regulation forbidding the first nation chiefs to correspond directly with them and only permitting correspondence through an “Indian agent”. Pegahmagabow despised his own agent John Daly. Like many first Nation members who had served during the First World War and experienced equality in the trenches of Europe, he now decided to resist against the newly empowered “Indian agents”. Pegahmagabow became one of the most vocal agitators against the Canadian Government and the Indian agents and was adamant he would reclaim territory that the government had taken, claiming it belonged to them and not the natives on the islands in the Georgian bay of the Huron. For all his efforts Pegahmagabow was labelled by John Daly as a “nutcase”
During the Second World War Pegahmagabow worked as a guard at a munitions plant near Nobel, Ontario and by 1943 had become the Supreme Chief of the Native Independent Government, which was an early form of the First Nations Organisation.
Francis Pegahmagabow died of a heart attack caused by the damage to his lungs as a result of service during WW1 in 1952 at the age of 61. He left behind his wife and six children, and a legacy to both his people and the Canadian armed forces. He is a member of the Indian hall of fame at the Woodland Centre in Brantford, Ontario and is the subject of a song by the Swedish power metal band Sabaton, aptly named; ‘Ghost in the Trenches’.