Longboat, Thomas (Tom) Charles

Thomas Charles (Tom) Longboat did not receive any awards for bravery. He was not killed in the thick of battle while performing a daring feat above and beyond the call of duty. Rather, he is an example of the selfless response of so many Canadians to the chaos spreading throughout Europe.

Longboat (his native Onondaga name was Cogwagee) was born on July 4th, 1886, at Ohsweken, a village on the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation Indian reserve near Brantford, Ontario. When he was a child, a Mohawk resident of the reserve, Bill Davis who finished second in the 1901 Boston Marathon, got him interested in marathon running. Four years later, Longboat was to finish second in the Victoria Day race at Caledonia, Ontario. This was the beginning of a long career as a professional runner. He went on to become one of the most celebrated pre-WWI athletes after winning several marathons, including the Boston Marathon (1907) and the World’s Professional Marathon Championship (1909), and breaking numerous records. By the time WWI began, his running had earned him what could be considered a small fortune in those days.

But mounting casualties in France were putting increasing pressure on able-bodied Canadian men to join the forces. Since 1911, Longboat had been affiliated with the 37th Battalion, which was a militia unit based in Haldimand, Ontario. Married to Loretta Maracle since 1908, he did not immediately decide to volunteer for overseas duty. But then, at the age of 29, he set aside his athletic career, took the oath of service in Brantford on 17 February 1916 and joined the 180th Sportsmen’s Battalion which was engaged in recruiting volunteers with athletic backgrounds. Longboat’s athletic skills were soon put to the service of Canada’s official recruiting propaganda, his main contribution being his ability to run at an elite level.

Longboat and his battalion were shipped out to England in early November 1916. In January 1917, his battalion was transferred to the 3rd Reserve Battalion, and then, in February 1917, he and some of the original Sportsmen were re-assigned to the newly formed 107th Pioneer Battalion. This battalion developed a formidable running team intended to maintain troop morale, which was essential given the appalling casualties suffered in the trenches. Composed of just 905 men, the 107th Battalion’s running team forged a distinguished running reputation in the British Expeditionary Force.

But, of course, the main purpose of the 107th Pioneers Battalion was not running, but engineering and labor. Typical activities in France included digging and repairing trenches, constructing dugouts or shelters, hauling ammunition, burying telephone cables, erecting and repairing barbed wire fences, building roads and mule tracks, laying tracks for light railroads to connect the front with rear area supply depots, and building plank roads so that artillery could be pulled forward through mud and other obstacles. Because of the nearly constant scrutiny of German observers, heavy artillery and chemical warfare, much of this work was done wearing gas masks during the relative safety of night.

Much of what happened on the battlefields can be explained by poor communications. Telephones were widely used in the trenches, but wires were often cut during battles by enemy bombardments. Radios existed, but these were not yet portable or reliable enough to be carried into battle. As a result, troops in battle were often cut off from their commanders. To bridge this communications gap, armies were forced to rely on old fashioned and unreliable means such as carrier pigeons and messengers. And as a Pioneer, Longboat’s skills were put to good use by running messages in the trenches, carrying them between units, especially when his unit was at the front. Couriers such as Longboat had to run through mud, poison gas, bombs and shells, often at night, while coping with the loss of friends and comrades.

The 107th suffered its first combat casualties near Vimy Ridge on 4 April 1917, when a German artillery bombardment killed three men, seriously wounded five and slightly wounded two. But the 107th’s casualty lists steadily and inevitably mounted, as did the stress and homesickness felt by its soldiers. Longboat’s unit was particularly hit hard in the Canadian victory at the battle of Hill 70 (Lens, 15-25 August 1917). The 107th’s next major engagement was the Canadian assault on the infamous Passchendaele Ridge, where Longboat and his comrades worked on the lines of communication and built emplacements for the artillery from mid-October to mid-November 1917.

While the war was raging elsewhere, the 107th was broken up on 28 May 1918 as part of a Canadian Corps reorganization, and Longboat was transferred with many of his comrades to the 2nd Battalion Canadian Engineers, which was part of the elite 1st Canadian Division. Soon afterwards, he was engaged in probably the most dangerous phase of his military career. Between August 8 and November 11, the British Expeditionary Force engaged in a victorious advance known as “the Hundred Days”. The Canadians spearheaded this drive and were engaged in nearly continuous fighting at a staggering cost of 45,830 casualties.

As part of the 1st Canadian Division, Longboat and the 2nd Battalion Canadian Engineers followed behind the advancing infantry and were responsible for all the types of work the Pioneers had done, as well as bridge building, repairing water wells and salvaging captured German supplies. As a courier in this unit, Longboat found himself much closer to the front for longer periods of time than ever before. One of the highlights of this period was the battle of Amiens on August 8-12, the “black day of the German Army”, in which Longboat’s unit worked with tanks to haul bridge-building supplies forward. Later, between September 27 and October 1, the Engineers took part in one of the most complex military attacks of the war, when the Canadian Corps successfully breached the Canal du Nord, a key part of the formidable German Hindenburg line.

Longboat was one of the fortunate soldiers who successfully emerged physically unscathed from the war. Numerous sources state that he had been wounded twice, but this was not the case. Longboat’s personnel dossier indicates that he received medical attention twice during his enlistment, but not for combat related wounds. On one of these occasions, he was diagnosed with myalgia of the knee, a condition aggravated by life in the trenches but not deemed serious enough to warrant special treatment. But, in spite of the doctor's’ analysis, it does appear that Longboat’s short post-war running career was hindered by knee and back pains.

Upon Longboat’s return to Toronto in May 1919, he discovered that his wife Loretta had remarried in 1918 after twice receiving news of his death. A divorce followed allowing Loretta to remain married to her new husband and Longboat later married Martha Silversmith with whom he had four children. He lived and worked in Toronto as a steelworker and street cleaner until 1944, when he retired to the Six Nations Reserve. He died there of pneumonia on January 9, 1949.

In the sporting world, Longboat’s legacy is rather more impressive. In 1951, Jan Eisenhardt instituted the Tom Longboat Award which annually honours outstanding First Nations athletes and sportsmen in each province. Longboat was inducted into both Canada's Sports Hall of Fame (1955) and the Indian Hall of Fame, as well as into the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame (1996). He is also commemorated annually by the Toronto Island 10 km race.

Further Reading

  • Bruce Kidd. “Tom Longboat” in The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 7, 2016
  • Bruce Kidd. Tom Longboat. Don Mills, Ont.: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1980
  • Jack Batten. The man who ran faster than everyone: the story of Tom Longboat . Toronto: Tundra Books, 2002
  • Robert K. Hanks. Tom Longboat and the First World War. Published on the site: Longboat Roadrunners.
  • Suzy Botica. To run like wildfire : the story of Tom Longboat and the race to be world champion. Toronto: Scholastic Canada. 2009.
  • Veterans Affairs Canada. Native Soldiers, Foreign Battlefields. [Ottawa]: Veterans Affairs Canada, 2005. Retrieved March 7, 2016
  • Will Cardinal. Tom Longboat : running against the wind : a First Nations Canadian conquers the world's marathons. [Edmonton]: Eschia Books, 2008
Biographical Record
Full Name Longboat, Thomas (Tom) Charles
Also Known As Longboat, Thomas Charles
Heritage Onondaga
Band Location Onondaga, ON
Birth Date 1886-07-04
Birthplace Brant County, ON
Date of Death 1949-01-01
Next of Kin Wife: Mrs. Loretta Longboat
Married before Enlistment Yes
Occupation before Enlistment Professional Runner
Biographical Notes Longboat had a compelling reason not to enlist: he was a world champion long distance runner. In 1907, he won the Boston Marathon (approx. 40 kms) in record time, with his closest competitor four-fifths of a km behind him. In 1909, he won the world professional marathon championships at Madison Square Garden in NYC.His running earned him thousands of dollars. But he set this all aside in Feb. 1916 when he volunteered to enlist. Cf Native soldiers, Foreign battlefields, p. 16, He was a member of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and the Indian Hall of Fame
Religion Church of England
Conflict WWI, WWII
Service Number 862805
Service Files http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/first-world-war-1914-1918-cef/Pages/item.aspx?IdNumber=536020
CEF Unit 107th Pioneer Bn, W.W.II Veterans Guard
Date of Enlistment 1916-02-17
Location of Enlistment Brantford, ON
Age at Enlistment 29
Identifier 8428