Smith, Alexander George Jr.

Two sons of Chief Alexander Smith joined the 20th Battalion and both became officers, drawing upon their years of militia experience. Here members of the 20th battalion drill at Exhibition Camp in Toronto before going overseas. (John Boyd / Library and Archives Canada / PA-61412) Source

Alexander George Edwin and Charles Denton Smith

Alexander George Edwin and Charles Denton Smith, both sons of Alexander George Smith, Cayuga chief on the Six Nations reservation near Brantford, Ontario, served overseas as infantry officers during WWI and were awarded the Military Cross (MC) for conspicuous gallantry in action. The MC was similar to the Military Medal (MM), except that it was reserved for commissioned officers up to the rank of captain and, later, major.

Alexander George Edwin Smith was born on the Six Nations reservation near Brantford on August 14, 1880. It was also there that he married Mabel Phoebe Doxtater on December 9, 1908. The couple had seven children including Harold J. (1912-1980), a Hollywood actor better known as Jay Silverheels and best remembered for his role of "Tonto’, the faithful Indian companion of the ‘Lone Ranger’. As for his younger brother Charles Denton, he was born on the Six Nations reserve on October 2, 1893.

Like many members of that community, both brothers served in the local militia, the 37th Regiment (Haldimand Rifles) that made its annual summer trek to Niagara Camp in pre-war years. Alexander served for some 18 years while Charles served for 10 years, and both had risen to the rank of Captain.

Alexander was among the first to enlist in Toronto on November 13, 1914, just three months after the outbreak of the war. He joined the 20th Battalion (Central Ontario Regiment, D Company) of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Because of his previous experience as an officer in the Haldimand Rifles, he was immediately commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Battalion. At the time of his enlistment, he was working as a contractor and residing in Sixty Nine (69) Corners, located south of Hamilton, Ontario.

The 20th battalion, which had been mobilized just one week before he enlisted, did much of its recruiting from various militia regiments, including the 37th. Altogether, 4310 officers and men served in this battalion during the war. Of these, 45 officers received the Military Cross. Upon its arrival in France on September 15, 1915, the battalion was assigned to the 4th Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division. The unit fought in France and Flanders throughout the war. It’s most notable actions include the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, Passchendaele, Amiens, the advance along the Scarpe, Canal du Nord, Canal de l’Escault and the advance to Mons in the Last Hundred Days.

Alexander earned his Military Cross in France in September 1916 during the second Allied assault on the Somme. He was soon promoted to the rank of Captain put in command of No. 4 Company, a specialty unit charged with finding suitable locations for stockpiling ammunition. On September 26th, he led his company in an attack in support of the 8th Battalion in Tara Valley. Along with a scouting unit, his company was the first to move forward. The Battalion’s war diary for that day records: “A 5pm our Bn received order to move forward… The progress was somewhat slow on the left owing to MG fire from Stuff Redoubt. At about 6:30 pm our No 4 Coy was sent up in close support of the 8th Bn.” Smith and his company moved forward against German fire from a well defended position. Smith’s citation explains what happened on the second day of the assault. Though wounded, “he proceeded with a party of bombers and captured an enemy trench and 50 prisoners, displaying the greatest courage throughout. He was twice buried by shells but stuck to his post."

Throughout their three weeks in action on the Somme, the 20th Battalion suffered 430 casualties, including 111 dead. Captain Alexander Smith was among the wounded. Having been evacuated to England to recover, he wrote a letter home to his father which read in part: “You may tell Mabel (his wife) that I was awarded the Military Cross for bravery and gallantry on the field of the greatest battle the world has ever known. Don’t forget to tell Donnie and Harold what God had enabled me, their papa, to go through and do.” He concluded his letter lamenting that his mother had not lived to see him do well in battle and not be thought a coward. His mother, Mary Hill, had died on January 12, 1916. Due to the severity of his wounds, he was not returned to the front, but was sent back to the Reserve Depot of his unit. However, in April 1917, he fell ill and was invalidated home soon after.

The following October, he was posted to a training camp at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Here, he served as the Assistant Adjutant General. Originally constructed in pre-war years as a summer camp to hold 1,200 campers, Niagara-on-the-Lake was serving as a training camp for Polish Canadian and American recruits for General Józef Haller’s new Polish “Blue Army” which formally became part of the French Army in Europe. The site accommodated more than 4,300 recruits by November 1917. For his services to the Blue Army, Alexander Smith was one of only five Canadians to be awarded the “Order of the Black Star of Poland” on March 19, 1920.

Despite having been wounded three times during the war, Captain Smith returned to his home in Hagersville on the Grand River Reserve in July 1918, where he resumed his civilian occupation as a contractor and later became a Six Nations chief. Like most soldiers, he told few tales about his time in war. He died of a heart attack in Buffalo, New York, on August 21, 1954 and is buried in the Saint Paul Anglican Church Cemetery, Middleport, Ontario.

Though Alexander’s younger brother, Charles Denton Smith, also won the Military Cross, little is known of him. He seems to have enlisted first with the 114th Battalion, also known as the Brock Rangers, in Cayuga, Ontario, on November 12, 1915. But then, on the same day, he enlisted with the 18th Battalion, CEF. Like his brother, because of his experience in the Haldimand Rifles, he was given the rank of Lieutenant upon enlisting and soon rose to the rank of Captain. At the time of his enlistment Charles was married and was working as a carpenter in nearby Oshweken. It appears that he also worked for some time as a recruiting officer on the Six Nations reserve.

Charles earned his MC in Frameries, a small municipality located south-west of Mons, Belgium, on November 9, 1918, two days before the war ended. The Allies had finally broken through the enemy defences along the Western Front and were advancing steadily eastward. Charles’ battalion was fighting its way toward Mons. According to his citation, he "led his platoon forward with such rapidity that he surprised a party of [enemy] sappers preparing to blow up a road mine." The party was stopped as the fuse was being ignited. Charles also personally captured an enemy machine-gun from its crew later that day. The 18th Battalion arrived in Mons November 11, 1918, officially the last day of the war. Captain Charles Smith returned safely to Canada six months later. He received his Military Cross from the hands of the Prince of Wales during his visit to Canada in October 1919. He died on June 5, 1960.

Though many aboriginal veterans may lay claim to having received more decorations than the Smith brothers during WWI, including Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow who is often cited as the most highly decorated Aboriginal veteran of that war having received the Military Medal with two bars, Alexander and Charles Smith both received the Military Cross which is the highest individual award attributed to any aboriginal veteran during the Great War, and is second only in order to the Distinguished Service Order and the Victoria Cross.

Further reading

Biographical Record
Full Name Smith, Alexander George Jr.
Heritage Haudenosaunee
Band Name Cayuga Nation - Six Nation
Band Location Six Nations of the Grand River, ON
Biographical Notes Son of Six Nations Cayuga chief, Alexander George Smith, and brother of Charles Smith, who also earned a MC, Smith later became Chief. Cf. Native soldiers, Foreign battlefields, p. 13
Conflict WWI
CEF Unit 20th Bn, (Can.), 37th Haldimand Rifles 17 yrs.
Rank Lieutenant, Captain
Previous Military Experience Haldimand Rifles
Date of Enlistment 1914-01-01
Medal awarded (MC)
Medal notes In Oct. 1917, Smith was posted to a training camp at Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON. Many soldiers from Poland trained there. Smith had been promoted captain and served as adjutant, the commanding officer's assistant. When the war ended, Smith was named an Officer of the Order of the Black Star, a Polish order, for his distinguised service at the camp. Cf. Native soldiers, Foreign battlefields, p. 13
Identifier 1389