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Policing Vancouver During the Great War–Part 2

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

This is a reposting of a popular blog series from 2014 in honour of Remembrance Day and those who nobly served.

The First VPD Men Who Went to War:

“No mere jackboot militarism inspired them. They sought neither the glory of conquest, nor the rape nor the loot of sacked cities. No selfish ideal led them to leave their homes and exchange the ease and comforts of civil life for the sufferings of war and the risk of death. They came forward free men and unconstrained with a simple resolve to lay down their lives if need be in defense of the Empire. Their Empire too.”

– Lord Beaverbrook, WWI chronicler and the creator of the Canadian War Records office commending the heroism of Canadian Soldiers

In recognition of the 100th* anniversary of the beginning of WWI–one of the most influential events in the world’s history–and its effect on Vancouver, we’d like to shed some light on the men of the Vancouver Police Department who left their job, their home, and their families to fight the war in Europe. As we’ve previously discussed, 1914-1919 was a time of major social and lawful change in Vancouver. And, as with any public policing organization, the Vancouver Police Department was (and still is) a reflection of its city in a time and place–one struggling with the pressures and heartbreak of war, in addition to unionization, prohibition, and (eventually) an unexpected flu epidemic.

Upon the declaration of war on August 4th, 1914, hordes of young men from across Canada rushed to enlist. They were spurred by patriotism, adventurism, opposition to German aggression, and personal ties to Great Britain. The Canadian Prime Minister of the time, Sir Robert Borden, had promised Great Britain a contingent of 25,000 men to aid oversees, but up to 40,000 had immediately voluntarily enlisted and were ready to fight.

The men of the Vancouver Police Department were no exception. Within two weeks of the declaration, ten men were given indefinite leave by Chief MacLennan “to enlist in the war overseas.” Ten officers might not sound like a lot, but the entire VPD only employed 74 officers in total. That’s an alarming chunk of an organization’s roster gone in two weeks, especially an organization whose mandate is to maintain law and order.

Some of the first few VPD enlistees were given leave with half-pay and were promised their rank and position would be held for them upon their return. This promise, however, was made with the expectation that the war would only last until Christmas. The overwhelming requests received by the chief’s office for leave made the brass think again, and the half-pay was quickly reduced to no pay.

There’s no official statement to this end, but it appears that the administration of the VPD recognized that, at this rate, enlisting officers could not continue. Three more officers were given leave to join the fight in September. It’s safe to assume that new requests from the department’s constables and non-commissioned officers were responded to with a firm ‘no’ after this point. The department had to keep a minimum of officers to police the city.

This wasn’t good enough for some of the men, though. Some opted to walk away from the department, giving their permanent leave and signing up for the war regardless.

The chief’s order books for 1914-1918 are filled with statements of officers who submitted their resignation. The unfortunate side of this action is that our historical records don’t name those officers as having been “Vancouver Police Department members who fought in WWI.” Because they quit the department, they are simply “Men who went to war,” even if they ended up re-entering the department after 1918. VPD officer Leonard Philip Parsons, who quit in 1915 and was rehired in 1921, was a prime example of this oversight. He fought in WWI and then stayed with the VPD until his retirement in 1953 as Detective Sergeant. His name and photo is not on the Roll of Honour created by the VPD to commemorate their officers who fought the good fight.

Keeping this bias in mind, the following is a list of those first ambitious VPD officers who were granted leave to fight overseas in 1914. They are listed in order of the date they were released from the department.

  1. David Angus Morrison, Police Constable 159, was granted leave from the department on August 10th, 1914. He enlisted in the Canadian Infantry and served as a private in the 16th Battalion–the Canadian Scottish Regiment. He fought for less than a year and was killed in the battle of Frezenberg Ridge at the age of 28. He is buried in the Boulogne Eastern Cemetery in France, and his name is commemorated in the First World War Book of Remembrance.

VPD Constable David Angus Morrison, killed in WWI

VPD Constable David Angus Morrison, killed in WWI. Image credit: The Vancouver Police Department.

  1. J. Stevenson, Police Constable 53 was granted leave from the Department on August 10th, 1914. He left for war at the age of 27. He eventually returned to the VPD and retired in 1947 as a Detective.

  2. Albert Champion, Detective, was also granted leave on August 10th, 1914. When war was declared, Champion had already been with the Department for seven years and was known as a hero. In 1908, he jumped from the Granville bridge to save a drowning man, and received many accolades, one reporter even stating: “Surely some of our public men will take the matter up and see that due recognition is taken of a heroic action which, had it been performed in any other branch of His Majesty’s service, might have gained for him a V.C. or D.S.O with pension. Honour to whom honour is due!” Champion returned from service and stayed with the VPD until his retirement in 1931.

Four officers were given leave on August 11th, 1914. We know little about them, except the following:

  1. H. Oliver, Police Constable 108, served in the war at the rank of Private.

  2. Alexander George McNeill, Police Constable 194, served at the rank of Lieutenant.

  3. Patrick Thomas Burke, Police Constable 184, served at the rank of Lieutenant and received a Military Medal.

  4. John Ronald Gillis, Police Constable 199, served at the rank of Private. He had been with the VPD for less than a year when he enlisted and only stayed on until June of 1920.

  5. Andrew Struthers Rae, Police Constable 186, was given leave on August 13th, 1914. Born in Kirkcudbright, Scotland, Rae was only 24 when he left for war. He served as his battalion’s Regimental Sergeant Major and was responsible for discipline, dress and deportment in garrison, the field handling of prisoners of war, as well as various duties including the flow of ammunition forward and wounded men to the rear. After the war, he returned to the VPD and retired in 1949 with the rank of Detective Inspector.

  6. Harry Hayward Symes, Police Constable 83, was given leave on August 14, 1914. He served with the 16th battalion at the rank of Private. He was seriously injured during the war, and returned to the VPD for desk duty. He resigned in August 1919 and died in 1921 at the age of 40.

  7. John Elliot, Police Constable 67, was granted indefinite leave on August 15, 1914. He served in the Canadian Infantry 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish Regiment) and the CEF with the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders of Canada in Vancouver. He achieved the rank of Lieutenant. He was killed on the Somme battlefield in France on September 2, 1918, at the age of 28. He is buried in the Dominion Cemetery in Pas de Calais, France. His name is commemorated on Page 403 of the First World War Book of Remembrance in Ottawa.

VPD Constable John Elliot, killed in WWI

VPD Constable John Elliot, killed in WWI. Image Credit: The Vancouver Police Department.

Three officers were given leave on September 24th, 1914:

  1. Allie Legoria Nickerson served during the war as a Private. He returned to the VPD and stayed on until 1935 when he retired as a Detective Sergeant

  2. William McKenzie Thompson served as a sergeant in the war. He returned to the VPD until his retirement in 1929 as an Acting Detective.

  3. Horace Ashley Vince also served as a sergeant in the war. He returned the VPD until his retirement in 1952 with the rank of Inspector.

Thank you to all our veterans and serving military members. Lest we forget.

*This year marks the 105th year since the beginning of World War I, and the 101st year since The Great War ended.


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