Cleary, William (Willie)

During WWI, the Royal 22nd (French Canadian) Battalion, Quebec, nicknamed the Van Doos (an English play on words with the number 22), disembarked in France in September 1915, where it fought as part of the 5th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division, in France and Flanders until the end of the war. Among its ranks were two remarkable aboriginal soldiers, both of whom received the Military Medal: William Cleary and Joseph Roussin.

William Cleary

Private William Cleary, a Montagnais, was born on June 3, 1897 in Pointe-Bleue (known as Mashteuiatsh since 1985), a First Nations reserve in the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region, Quebec. He was working as a day labourer at the time he enlisted in Chicoutimi on March 24, 1916.

Cleary served as a scout in the 22nd Battalion. In February 1918, he volunteered to join a raiding party headed for an enemy trench near Lens, France. When the party returned to their own trenches after the raid, they discovered that two of their group had been left behind. Cleary immediately returned to the enemy position and, with help from three others, brought back the two missing wounded men.

Three months later, private Cleary suffered a gunshot wound, which forced him to recuperate in Great Britain. Cleary returned to Canada in February 1919 and, in October of that year, at La Fontaine Park, Montréal, he received the Military Medal from the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, for conspicuous gallantry in an important trench raid.

Joseph Roussin

Private Joseph Roussin, a Mohawk from the Kanesatake Band, was born on April 12, 1887, in Oka, Québec. Prior to enlisting in Ottawa with the Canadian Expeditionary (CEF) Force on July 16, 1915, Roussin worked as a lumberjack.

Roussin first served in Ottawa with the new 77th Canadian Infantry Battalion before being transferred to the 38th Battalion on December 6, 1915. This Battalion served on garrison duty in Bermuda. On January 26, 1916, Roussin joined the 69th Infantry Battalion which embarked for Britain on 17 April 1916. Roussin was finally taken on the strength of the 22nd Battalion on August 27, 1916.

On August 15, 1917, the opening day of the Battle of Hill 70, near Lens, France, Roussin serving as a scout merited his Military Medal for carrying out a successful solo attack against eight enemy soldiers. Having attacked and killed five German soldiers, he came back with three prisoners and a gash in his arm from an enemy bayonet thrust. Fortunately, the wound healed, and he returned to action one month later.

In the history of the battalion, Roussin is remembered as one of the most wounded men in the Regiment:

In the chaplain's hut ... another casualty has just been given first aid. One of the scouts from the Van Doos has been wounded in the wrist. Roussin, an Indian, is the most wounded man in the Regiment, perhaps in the entire British Army. This one will earn him a ninth wound stripe. It's starting to become old hat to him; he's patched up and heads back to his post!

Roussin was wounded nine times during his service at the front, but he survived the war and returned to Canada in late 1918.

Further reading

  • Library and Archives Canada. Soldiers of the First World War: 1914-1918. Joseph Roussin’s Attestation Papers. Retrieved March 8, 2016
  • Library and Archives Canada. Soldiers of the First World War: 1914-1918. William Cleary’s attestation paper Retrieved March 8, 2016
  • Veterans Affairs Canada. Native Soldiers, Foreign Battlefields. [Ottawa]: Veterans Affairs Canada, 2005. Retrieved March 7, 2016
Biographical Record
Full Name Cleary, William (Willie)
Heritage Montagnais
Band Name Montagnais du Lac St-Jean
Band Location Mashteuiatsh, QC
Birth Date 1897-06-03
Birthplace Pointe-Bleue, PQ
Next of Kin Mother: Marguerite Cleary
Occupation before Enlistment Labourer
Religion Roman Catholic
Conflict WWI
Service Number 672469
Service Files http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/first-world-war-1914-1918-cef/Pages/list.aspx?k=RegimentNum%3a%22672469%22
CEF Unit 22e Bataillon canadien-français
Rank Private
Date of Enlistment 1916-03-24
Location of Enlistment Chicoutimi, PQ
Age at Enlistment 19
Medal awarded (MM)
Identifier 9082