Shedding Light on the Family Tree: The Shadow of War

The 44th in a series on my family tree

Prompt: Shadow


Every family has its shadow characters. People whose misery casts a pall wherever it lands and upon whomever it entangles. In previous posts reference has already been made to family members who created emotional havoc for their immediate circle and, indeed, for ensuing generations as well. Havoc I have, in my own way, been able to unravel and heal so I feel no need to revisit it here. In truth, my attention lies elsewhere.

As Remembrance Day approaches it feels appropriate to focus on a different kind of shadow … that of war. Specifically, I refer to brave men in my ancestral family who, like so many, volunteered for service and sacrificed much in defence of freedom. A freedom it appears we are perilously close to losing.


Lest We Forget … Sgt. Major William Alexander Gordon, WWI

My great granddad, Sgt. Major William Alexander Gordon (1880-1954) served in the 10th Battalion Black Watch Royal Highlanders during WWI, working his way from Private at the beginning of the war to medalled Company Sgt. Major by war’s end. Most notably, he managed to survive the disaster that was Gallipoli. Still, his injuries were the cursed shadow under which he lived and a constant reminder of his time in the trenches.

In her own words, his daughter Alice (Gordon) McDonall (1916-1994), had this to say about her father’s military service:

“My dad was mentioned twice in despatches to the King during World War I, and he won a white gold watch and chain engraved with his rank and Battalion and name … for being one of the champions in the British Army tug-of-war team. Only five men in the world had that watch. I think someone in the family has it.My dad’s brothers all served in World War I.”

It’s worth noting here that great granddad Gordon was invited to participate in officer training yet refused choosing instead to remain with his men.

Sgt Major William Alexander Gordon (left) with his men. Date, location and specific details regarding platoon unknown.
Source: Family Archives

Granny Alice goes on to say:

“He had been wounded in the knee and had a very bad case of malaria which plagued him for the rest of his life. I have seen him stooking the grain and falling down (collapsing) on the sheaves.

One winter (in Canada), about 1929 or 30, he was bedridden with sciatica in the leg that had been wounded and his malaria had been active. Finally, he just had to go to hospital. Neighbours brought a sleigh and box packed with straw and blankets (it being about the month of January and extremely cold). They loaded him into the sleigh box and took him as far as Leslie Short’s four miles away where another man, Charlie Marriss, (who owned one of the very few Model T Fords) met them. Charlie Marriss and Leslie Short somehow got dad to the University Hospital in Edmonton. Dad collapsed at the door. He was in hospital until nearly spring. My uncle Jim Walker (by marriage ~ he was my aunt Isabel’s husband) was a man returned from navy duty. He helped get dad a doctor and hospital care. As we had little money we worried about how we could pay for his care, as my Dad was of the Imperial Army not the Canadian Army. However, it was a relief and a blessing to us that they put him in the Soldier’s Ward and the Canadian government paid for his hospital care. We were only supposed to pay the doctors. However, the Canadian ex-servicemen took care of that, too. It was good as we were all on the edge of the Great Depression and my dad’s crop had been frozen out.

“My father was never afraid of work or afraid of any situation in his life. There should be a lot more like him. I am glad, too, that he spoke of his faith in God ~ not often but maybe often enough.

Great granddad Gordon was known for his industry and pleasant disposition, and was well-liked and respected by many. Though he was decorated with a number of medals (a few details available below) he never fussed about it and allowed his children to play with them. He died, age 73, in Edmonton and is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.


Lest We Forget … Sgt. Major Frank Gordon, Canadian Army, WWII

Sgt. Major Frank Gordon
Source: Family Archives

Great uncle Frank was the sixth of 12 children born to William Alexander Gordon and Jane (Robson) Gordon (1883-1959). He followed his father in the Gordon tradition of serving sovereign and country.

In her memoir granny Alice shares the following:

“Sgt Major Frank Gordon (1911-1974) was born in Dundee. He was a good, well behaved boy always. He liked to march with the Salvation Army band playing the triangle. As I look back on his life it becomes plain to me that he always wanted things to be right and orderly. He had the best paper route in Motherwell, then the best route for delivering hot breakfast rolls. Both these jobs required that he get up very early to make his deliveries. … He was very bright in school and ahead of boys his own age. Frank was apprenticing as a civil engineer when we left Scotland in 1927. He belonged to the Boy Scouts. It must have been a very difficult adjustment for Frank to make coming to this country where all seemed to be tough wild grass, huge trees and scrub to clear off the land with an axe in order to break it up to make it productive. He left twice without informing anyone.

“The first time he just left the field where he was brushing land with my dad, collected $10.00 from a neighbour who owed it to him and walked across the Sunnibend bridge and out of the country. We didn’t see him for two years. I don’t know why he chose me to write to, but after a long time he did just that. He was about 15 or 16 at the most. He got a job with a surveying crew and when he came home he put money in the Bank in Westlock and he brought home $200.00 and put it on the table. To help out, he said. Indeed, it did help us out. That was a lot of money in those days. He stayed at home and worked with dad. Then one morning he got up early to go and get the cattle home, but he did not come home. Again, he just kept on walking out of the country. He always got good jobs and did well. He worked at different occupations until WWII came when he joined the Army at the same time as Archie joined the Air Force.

Frank and [Archie] enlisted as volunteers at the same time. Before enlisting they had set aside a few weeks at home and they and my dad travelled around together and sort of (did the town). Then Frank and Archie went their different ways into the services. One Army; one Air Force. Frank tried later to get a transfer to the Air Force but didn’t make it.

Frank’s service is detailed as follows (my thanks to his son, Gary Gordon, who is collecting the family’s military history):

Frank enlisted in the Army, Aug 1, 1940 in Edmonton and was promoted to Corporal, Nov 8, 1943. He was put in charge of Camp Borden (Ontario) bus services and looked after maintenance and bus routes for getting people to and from the Camp. Frank was promoted to Sgt. Major Aug 1, 1944.”

The loss of his brother was the shadow of war that dogged great uncle Frank (see below). Some might call it survivor’s guilt. Following the war he married Nancy Malloy. They had five children and spent most of their life in Calgary, AB. He died, aged 63, under suspicious circumstances, December 8, 1974, and is buried in Queen’s Park Cemetery and Mausoleum, Calgary.


Lest We Forget … Flight Engineer, Archibald Don Gordon, Bomber Command, RCAF, WWII

Flight Engineer, Archibald (Archie) Don Gordon
Source: Family Archive

Great uncle Archie (1919-1943) was the 10th of 12 children and the youngest boy. He also followed in the Gordon tradition of military service.

Again from granny Alice’s memoir:

“Archie was a chubby, sturdy little boy. Red hair and hazel eyes. He grew into a good looking young man with a ready grin. He was popular with everyone who knew him. He had what is called a sunny disposition. When he was angry it never lasted for long. However, he had lots of grit and his temper, when aroused, was something to see. … He joined the RCAF.

“The war got very grim as history books will show you. Archie started out as ground crew, but studied to become Air Crew. He was very happy when he made it. He flew in a Halifax Bomber as a Flight Engineer. These bombers were big and awkward and had very little maneuverability and were really sitting ducks for enemy planes. Of course, it happened. He and his crew were shot down over the Bay of Biscay while on a mine laying expedition. Six fellows in the crew. Some bodies were washed up on islands in the Bay. He was reported as missing in action for six months, then he was officially presumed dead. The bodies that washed up were buried by the French civilians in a cemetery in La Rochelle. Later after the war was over the bodies were all gathered up from different burying places and buried in a big military cemetery. Archie’s body, along with those of his crew companions, was reburied at Pornic cemetery in France.”

In an undated letter written in memorium, granny Alice shared this:

The darkness that descended on us when the dreaded telegram came never did quite leave. Words cannot express the very depth of our sorrow. Hearts were broken never to heal. His big tough dad wept until the tears rolled down his cheeks when his face he thought was hidden behind his newspaper. But I saw them. We all turned and wept. I don’t believe (and some others feel the same) that his brother, Frank, ever got over the loss and the grief. Archie was brave. He was a man among men. He was 23 when he was killed. He offered to fight among men for a cause he believed in. He died among men. He is buried with the best beside him. His star shines bright among the other bright stars of his companions. They laughed together. They died together. But I know they live together again in spirit. ... I never forget them. The hosts of the great volunteers. They unselfishly and willingly offered their all.”

The shadow of uncle Archie’s death, as granny Alice described, was dark indeed. More information can be found in the following posts:

Shedding Light on the Family Tree: Treasured Service Records

Lest We Forget: Sacrifice and the Ultimate Price


Lest We Forget … Sergeant George Earle, WWI

Sergeant George Earle was the husband of my great aunt, and sister of Jane (Robson) Gordon, Isobel Margaret Ellen (Robson) Earle Walker. It’s my understanding that he was well-loved within the family circle, so much so that upon his tragic death in 1918 his surname was added to granny Alice’s middle names (full name Alice Isobel Earle Nicol Gordon.) She was just two years old at the time.

The following document outlines the circumstances of his death ~ “Killed in Action.” Sadly, no image is available, however I was able to find his military records at the Canadian Great War Project. The link is included under Resources below.


The Final Word

The shadow of war, it seems to me, is simply a larger scale version of the conflicts battled within the individual hearts and minds of humankind. Sadly, as in our day-to-day entanglements with shadow characters, it is the innocent who suffer most. Families struggle to find meaning in the relentless war time shadows of loved ones lost or traumatized in the chaotic projection of others’ toxic ambitions. We speak of “the war to end all wars” and yet mass conflict continues to wreak havoc even in our modern times.

In truth, the peace we seek in the world must first be found within each one of us. Until then, more lives will be lost; more tears will be shed; and, more misery endured in the seemingly endless shadow of war. ❦

Source: The Great Historic Families of Scotland by James Taylor, published 1889



Gallipoli CampaignNational Army

Camp Borden historyCanadian Military

Pornic War

Sgt. George EarleCanadian Great War Project

Memoir of Alice (Gordon) McDonall

©Dorothy E. Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2022 …
Aimwell CreativeWorks

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