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Corporal William Maybury: Hero of Vimy Ridge and Hill 70 by Roy MacGregor

November 7, 2012

As Remembrance Day nears, here, at The Promise of Home, we are remembering a Barnardo Boy, Corporal Will Bradbury. Will arrived in Canada on July 24, 1903. This story first appeared in The Globe and Mail on November 10, 2008.

More than 10,000 Home Boys, every one a child immigrant,  joined the Canadian military and fought in two world wars. Will’s story is dedicated to their memory and to their valiant efforts on behalf of their home country, England, and their new country, Canada. They deserve more accolades than I can give them here but I’m convinced that telling their stories is the best way to honour their sacrifices.    RMB

They say the good die young, but losing your life twice by the time you’re 25 seems a bit much.

Still, this is Will Maybury’s story: the good young man who fought, and died, for the country that abandoned him.

He was a “bastard” – the result of “immoral relations” – and belonged, until the authorities took him away, to “a drunken family, the grandmother included.”

At least that’s the way the official documents once described him. Today, the broken family he helped put back together prefers to think of him as a “hero.”

Vimy Ridge Victory

It is hard for anyone today to imagine the horrors of the 25th year of his short life. He commanded a small group of men who fired mortars from the heart of battle. In the spring of 1917, he helped take Vimy Ridge. In summer, he fought in the Battle of Hill 70. In the fall it was Passchendaele. By then he would have known his luck was running thin, if not altogether out.

Corporal Will Maybury was hit by shrapnel at Passchendaele on October 28, 1917. He died from his infected wounds five weeks later.

But then, it was always hard to tell whether Will Maybury was very lucky or very unlucky. He was born in Sheffield, England, in 1892 to an impoverished widow who had taken in a roomer. A sister, Elsie, followed two years later and, six more years later, brother George was born.

They were undernourished and illegitimate and, eventually, the authorities moved in and shipped Will, 11, and Elsie, 9, off to Canada where they became two of the many thousands of “Bernardo Children” sent to the colony to serve as farm helpers and domestic servants – some would say “slaves.”

They both ended up in Ontario, but in different communities, and did not see each other for 10 years, by which time little George had also been shipped out to Canada.

They were apart yet thrived. Annual “check-ups” found them well and happy in their new land.

Passchendaele, a futile battle

By 1914, Will and Elsie had reconnected and were living in the same small town of Brussels. They had also tracked down George, and Elsie had sent the little brother photographs of her and Will picnicking with a young man and woman. Will seems a ham, even wearing his girlfriend’s hat in one photo. In the last picture, he is in uniform, looking very serious.

He went off to train in England, using his downtime to travel to Sheffield in the hopes of tracking relatives. It is not known what he found there.

In fact, hardly anything at all would be known of Cpl. Will Maybury were it not for a History Channel project called Finding the Fallen. Archeologists working nine decades after the Battle of Hill 70 found evidence that Maybury and his men had commandeered a German mortar pit, turning it against the Germans who tried, unsuccessfully, to retake the vital ground more than 30 times in a bitter 10-day battle.

Using these field findings, a historian and a genealogical expert eventually worked their way to three living Mayburys in Canada, the descendants of Will’s little brother George, who had also died young but who left behind a wife and infant son.

That little boy, also called George, had long been curious about his family. When he died several years ago, he left behind what the children had come to call “The Family Tickle Trunk” stuffed with papers from the Bernardo foundation, those few photographs and a lot of unanswered questions.

Yap Films, producers of the eight-episode series that begins tomorrow evening with Bernardo Boy, took the contents of the Tickle Trunk, added in a series of letters Will had written to sister Elsie that had been reprinted in the local weekly, and began putting Will Maybury’s lost life back together.

It is a powerful, moving tale of lives lost and lives found.

“The whole experience kind of caught us off-guard,” says the third George Maybury, who lives in Pembroke, Ont. “Up to that point, they had been just strangers on paper.”

What most intrigues today’s Mayburys is how a boy who was abandoned by his country would then feel an obligation to return to fight for that country.

Will Maybury was but one of thousands of  “Bernardo Boys” who enlisted – some 500 of them not coming “home” to Canada.

“Today,” says George Maybury, “it would be all about animosity and frustration, not about going off to defend king and country.

“But he stepped up – and I respect him for that.”

He stepped up, as so many did, knowing that the chances of returning unharmed from the front lines were slim indeed.

“He survived Vimy Ridge,” says David Maybury, who works in Ottawa for National Defence. “He survived Hill 70. But he didn’t survive Passchendaele.

“He almost made it.”

a typical Barnardo boy trunk

The Maybury Family Tickle Trunk held but a single postcard with Will Maybury’s own handwriting, but someone had glued paper over it and it was unreadable.

A forensic scientist took the card and carefully removed the cover so Will Maybury’s only saved message home could finally be read: “We are going to leave for France tonight. Will write you from France – Bye bye.”

For more stories of home children who joined the Canadian Military, see: Arthur Theodore Clarkson, Arthur Burns Sculthorpe, Charles Holloway,

 

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean’s magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. He has won numerous awards for his journalism

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 8, 2012 6:34 pm

    What an amazing story. I will have to read it a few more times, because I can’t get over how this young lad who came out of poverty, was sent to Canada and worked his little butt off, seemed so happy!! This is wonderful, and it is what brought him through it all I guess. No grudges, no hatred, wonderful.

Trackbacks

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