They gave him a medal and named a mountain after him. But this Passchendaele veteran’s story is a tragedy
John Kinross-Kennedy spent his childhood summers at his mother’s family farm near Lougheed, Alta. Among his cherished activities was heading out into the field with his Uncle Cecil to gather wheat. Cecil Kinross was tall, slim and had piercing blue eyes. He had two younger sisters, preferred silence to talking, and never spoke of the war.
“My uncle never talked about what he had done at Passchendaele,” his 89-year-old nephew says from California. “He was very quiet, and very polite, and just the nicest uncle you could ever have.”
If Vimy Ridge is the First World War battle where Canada as a nation was born, then Passchendaele — another Canadian victory, won on Nov. 10, 1917 — is a monument to war’s waste. The months-long fight claimed nearly half a million casualties, both Allied and German, including 15,654 Canadians. The battlefield near the Belgian village of Passchendaele was a mud-sucking hell. Wounded men drowned in the stuff. Corpses were swallowed by it, and those who survived it were indelibly marked.
Cecil Kinross had scars on both his shins due to a run-in with a plough in the pre-war years. He was born in England to Scottish parents in 1895 and came to Canada with the family as a teen to farm a patch of land near town. He enlisted in 1915, was wounded in 1916, recovered and arrived in Passchendaele with the reputation for being an incorrigible soldier of somewhat sloppy dress, when not on the firing line, but as fierce as they come in a fight.
On Oct. 29, Kinross and B Company, of Edmonton’s 49th Canadian Infantry Battalion, were being shredded by German artillery and machine-gun fire. The call went out for a volunteer. Pte. Kinross stepped forward. He stripped off his heavy pack and greatcoat and, with just a rifle and a bayonet and a bandolier of extra ammunition strung across his chest, launched a one-man, broad daylight charge across open ground against a German machine-gun nest.
Kinross would kill six Germans, destroy the gun and continue fighting until he ran out of ammunition and was seriously wounded in the head and left arm. He walked himself back to an aid station. C.D. McBride, a stretcher-bearer attached to another unit, would recount how word of the “wild Canadian, running amok trying to defeat the entire German army single-handed,” rippled through the ranks, lifting morale.
Kinross was awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroics, the highest military decoration in the British Commonwealth. He met King George V at Buckingham Palace. He was written up in the London Gazette. He returned to Alberta in 1919, was feted by the mayor of Edmonton at a massive rally and presented with a purse filled with gold coins. The Canadian government gifted him a plot of land near Lougheed. Crowds cheered. Kinross waved, but said little.
“The whole story is tragic,” says his nephew.
Kinross was barely out of his teens. He did what he did and for the remainder of his life — and even today — he is remembered for it. Mt. Kinross, near Jasper, is named after him, as is Edmonton’s Kinross Road. The house in England where he was born has a historical plaque affixed to it. His descendants donated his Victoria Cross to the people of Alberta in 2015. It is displayed at the mayor’s office in Edmonton.
Heroes, the lucky ones, come home, where their life stories — unlike their war story — continue. Kinross took out that German machine gun in a profound act of bravery, but at a profound personal cost. Passchendaele changed him. It made him the hero he was, but less of who he had been, or might have hoped to be.
Post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t recognized as a psychiatric diagnosis until 1980. In 1919, there were no bandages or sympathetic labels applied to a soldier’s mental wounds. Demons got buried, and to keep them buried, many veterans drank.
“There was a sense that some of these guys who had gone to war had come back changed,” says Tim Cook, author and historian at the Canadian War Museum. “I think Kinross was no different than the vast majority, in that they tended to deal with it themselves, and they tended to deal with it with alcohol.”
Using alcohol as an opiate for wartime trauma is one of the untold stories of the First World War, says Cook. Military records track enlistment dates, battles fought, wounds received and medals won. But they don’t peer behind the curtain of a person’s inner life to see the veteran, years after the fighting is over, at the family dinner table or local bar or locked in their bedroom, drinking with a simple purpose — to forget.
Kinross went home to his family farm near Lougheed. He suffered from terrible headaches. Sleep was near impossible to find. His sisters, Ellie and Nancy, would walk him around the property at night. He never married. He kept to himself, mostly, unless he was drinking, and then he could charm, argue with, debate, defend — or offend — anyone within earshot.
“He liked to discuss anything that was controversial so he could raise hell at the local bar,” says Richard Conrad, the 85-year president of the C.J. Kinross VC legion branch in Lougheed. “His favourite expression was, ‘Well, you know it all, so why are talking to me?’ ”
John Kinross-Kennedy shares a family story about Uncle Cecil at the Dirty Dick, a London bar favoured by Canadian troops. He was wearing his greatcoat. A fellow soldier, eyeing a man who seemed so familiar — Kinross’s photograph had appeared in the papers; he had met the King — drew back his coat, revealing the Victoria Cross.
“The pub went wild,” Kinross-Kennedy says. “He never could buy his own beer for the rest of his life.”
The 1930s were a miserable decade for Alberta farmers. Prairie droughts and grasshopper plagues ate away at crops. The Kinross family sank into debt and had their land repossessed by the railroad. Cecil leased out his government tract to other farmers in the area. He was too debilitated to work it on his own. And so he took on odd jobs, here and there, collecting his soldier’s pension and moving into the Lougheed Hotel, a wind-blasted, three-storey box on Main Street. His room was kept clean. The hotel staff kept an eye on him, understanding that the local war hero had two personalities — one sober, one not.
“To me, his struggles with alcohol wasn’t a difficulty — it is what kept him alive,” his nephew says. “What comfort was there (for veterans) as they progressively got worse? None. Little wonder they took to drink.”
Kinross was quiet, but not reclusive. He curled and bowled and attended town functions. He loved children. When local kids would pester him with questions about the war and the famous medal he had won, he would tell them stories. Concocting fantastical tales, featuring himself as a bumbling battlefield hero, a soldier who didn’t win the Victoria Cross so much as stumble his way into it.
“He would never actually tell them the true story, he would tell them these fairy stories,” says Ed Dixon, a retired teacher and amateur historian in Scotland whose book, Tales from the Western Front, includes a chapter on Cecil “Hoodoo” Kinross.
People around Lougheed grew accustomed to Kinross’s “stunts,” unpredictable behaviours that took on a mythical stature — like having his tonsils removed and refusing the anesthetic. One frigid winter night, after a bout of drinking and debating with his bar mates about the nature of courage, Kinross peeled off his coat and plunged into an icy stream. Emphasizing his point, the story goes, that his famous charge at Passchendaele was no more courageous — or dumb — than going for a dip in the middle of a Prairie winter.
He died alone in his hotel room in 1957. He was 62 years old. His funeral at the C.J. Kinross VC legion was standing-room-only. His sisters, long since departed to Vancouver, came. Hundreds more gathered outside in a gently falling rain. Kinross’s flag-draped coffin was transported on a gun carriage to the cemetery near town. A medal-bearer carried his Victoria Cross. A military salute was fired. Bagpipes played.
“Never in this town has there been such a gathering of mourners,” Jack Deakin wrote in the Edmonton Journal.
Cecil Kinross, Canadian war hero, returned to Alberta, but he never fully came home. It is a lesson of war, lest we forget.
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