The Boxer: William Elliott at the Battle of Courcelette

In loving memory of William Elliott | 1892-Sept.15 1916. Montreal Gazette, 17 September 2016.
In loving memory of William Elliott | 1892-Sept.15 1916. Montreal Gazette, 17 September 2016.

This clipping was sent to us this week from one of our supporters; it was published in September in the obituary section of the Montreal Gazette by William Elliott’s family to mark the centenary of his death at Courcelette on the Somme. I thought it would make a good post this week because it represents so much of what we at the Centre want to achieve; that is, long-lasting relevance and connection to the memories of those involved in the First World War. 

An immigrant from Manchester, William Elliott worked as an electrician at the Montreal Tramways Company, the precursor to today’s Montreal Transport Society, or STM. In addition to his career as an electrician, Elliott was a boxer, a bloody sport in the early 20th century where no one wore the safety gear that we see today. According to his biography above, he was featherweight champion for both the City of Montreal, and Canada in 1913.

Elliott enlisted with the 42nd Battalion, one of three Highland units to come from Montreal, in 1915. Part of the 3rd Division, the 42nd Battalion arrived in France in the fall of 1915. Their first introduction to battle on the Western Front was at Mount Sorrel in June 1916; of that experience, the regimental history has the following to say – “above all events of those trying four days the terrific shelling stands out pre-eminently in the memory of those who survive” (Topp, 37). The battalion fought under constant shelling from 2 June until 5 June, after they were relieved by the 2nd Division.

During the Battle of Courcelette, the 42nd Battalion, with the rest of the 3rd Division, was involved in the second wave of attack, in a flanking movement on the Sunken Road and Fabeck Graben trench to the left of the village of Courcelette. Like the 22nd and other attacking battalions, the 42nd had 5 miles to march to their jumping off point and 4 hours in which to do it. They would also be launching their attack in the daylight at 6pm.  According to the battalion history, they arrived at 5:45pm and jumped off almost immediately, rushing the Sunken Road and taking their first objective. The second objective, the Fabeck Graben was to be attacked the next day.

The battles around the Sunken Road, the Fabeck Graben, and Courcelette itself were chaotic. It was difficult to know what was occurring along the lines, and many of the platoons were under constant fire for 36 hours. On 15 September Private Elliott was initially reported wounded and in hospital, however after the battalion had been pulled out it became clear that the Elliott in the hospital was not William Elliott. He had been killed in action sometime on 15 September during the attack on the Sunken Road and there was no record of his burial.

Elliott was awarded a posthumous Military Medal in December 1916. His name appears on the National Vimy Memorial in France, along with the other 11 000 Canadians missing in France during the First World War.

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