I am grateful to have had the opportunity to share the story of one soldier killed during the First World War with our tour group. I was able to present near the location Private George Copeland fought on the Somme, at what was once a sugar factory. It is now a private residence and our tour guides said it would be alright for us to pull into the driveway, get out quickly and present there, but the lady who owned the place came outside. I didn’t really understand the conversations that happened but saw what I thought was a smile on her face, so I figured she was glad to hear that we were honouring a soldier. As it turns out she did not want us on her property, so we quickly got back into the vans and pulled onto the side of the road for the presentation. It was certainly an eventful start! Here is my presentation and a few photographs:
I decided to select a local soldier from my hometown of Innisfil to honour today by sharing his story with you. He didn’t win any medals, there are no books written about him, and his name is not well known in our community. Like so many others during the First World War, Private George Copeland was an ordinary soldier whose story deserves to be told.
George Albert Copeland was born in Innisfil Township on 31 January 1892 to William Copeland and Sarah Donaldson. I contacted the Innisfil Historical Society, but wasn’t able to locate much information about his life before the war. A local newspaper report of his death mentions that he was born and educated in Cookstown (a small area of Innisfil, about a 10 minute drive from where I live). His personnel records also identify his “trade or calling” as “farmer.”
Copeland enlisted in Cookstown on 15 September 1915 with the 76th Canadian Infantry Battalion. He trained at Camp Niagara, and sailed from Halifax to England aboard the S.S. Empress of Britain. Private Copeland was transferred to the 24th Canadian Infantry Battalion in France. According to his personnel records, he contracted German measles and was treated in hospital between 22 May and 6 June 1916. On 17 September 1916, one year after enlisting, Private Copeland was killed near a sugar factory in Courcelette, which I have been able to identity on a map of the Somme. According to the battalion’s war diary, 3 of the battalion’s companies were to attack the German front line along a distance of approximately 700 yards. The attack commenced at 5pm and A and C Companies reached their objectives while D Company on the extreme right was unable to meet their objective. Many of the men in D Company were killed before they got over the parapet, and the men who managed to advance were held up in the German wire and shot down. The war diary states “With regard to this attack, if the Artillery preparation had been in any way adequate there is no doubt but that the objective would have been obtained along the whole line.”
Private Copeland’s personnel records do not indicate his exact role in the attack on 17 September or the specifics of his death. However, when I contacted the Innisfil Historical Society, they provided an excerpt from a local book about First World War soldiers. This excerpt states that Private Copeland was one of a fatigue party carrying bombs from a reserve trench to the front line on the Somme. While passing the sugar factory he was killed by flying shrapnel from a German shell. I have been unable to confirm these details myself. According to the Canadian War Graves Commission website, 1496 Allied soldiers were killed that day, among them 318 Canadians. There was some initial confusion over whether Private Copeland was wounded or killed in action. The Toronto Star reported his death on 27 November 1916, stating the following, “Word has been received by his brother in Toronto that Private George A. Copeland has been officially reported as killed. His mother at Cookstown received a telegram on Thanksgiving Day advising her that he had been wounded on September 17. From that time until yesterday the repeated efforts of his family have been unsuccessful in getting any information about him whatever. Yesterday they got a wire from Ottawa advising them that he was reported killed instead of wounded.” Another local newspaper reported, “Sad news came to town on Friday last when word was received that Private George A. Copeland, second youngest son of Mr. and Mrs. William Copeland was killed in action on September 17.” Private George Copeland’s name appears here on the Vimy Memorial, alongside the names of over 11,000 other Canadian soldiers who were posted as “missing, presumed dead” in France.
When I was back home over the Easter Weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the local “Veterans Memorial Park” in Cookstown where Private Copeland’s name also appears. I remember passing by the memorial but have never viewed it up close – it’s a very nice area. The sign at the location explains that in 1917, a committee of local residents was formed with the task of creating a dignified and lasting memorial to those who served and to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. They decided on a Memorial Park, where sixty-five Maple trees would be planted to honour each man who enlisted from Cookstown. Most of these trees still stand at this site. The cenotaph located at this Park was designed and constructed by Alfred Davis, and officially dedicated to the community in August 1935. The town added another plaque in memory of the soldiers killed during the Second World War, as well as a stone for Korea. A German trench mortar sits in the garden in front of the memorial. In the nearby Saint John’s Anglican Church Cemetery, a family gravestone marks the burial of George Copeland’s family members. I learned that George had an infant brother named Harry, born two years after him, who died at the age of 3 months old. George Copeland’s mother also passed away at the age of 63 on 17 July 1917, just less than a year after her son. I was unable to determine the cause of death. George Copeland’s name is also included on the gravestone alongside theirs. I will conclude with the inscription that reads, “He bravely answered duty’s call. His life he gave for one and all.”