Next of Kin: Eric and Mary McKay, R.R. #2, Kippen, Ontario
Personal Details: 5 ft. 10 in., 135 lbs., fair complexion, blue eyes, light brown hair, double heart tattoo on left forearm, Presbyterian
Born November 5, 1896, William Alexander McKay was the third generation to reside on the family farm on the 10th Concession, Tuckersmith Township, near the hamlet of Chiselhurst. He was the eldest son of Eric and Mary McKay, had an older sister named Mary Evelyn, and younger siblings, Eric Edward and Henrietta ‘Etta’ Alice.
Like so many other Huron County boys, William enlisted in early 1916 in the 161st Battalion. By June of 1916, the Hurons were training on the heights of Wolseley Barracks, London, Ontario, along with several other battalions. According to a letter home, William indicated this included the 153rd Wellington Battalion, as well as the 135th, 118th, 110th and 142nd.
William arrived with the 161st Battalion at Camp Borden in September to continue training. In a letter home he says, “There is about 45,000 men here and they are wild tonight. They won’t work and nothing will make them. Nothing here but spruce trees, mountains and sand.” In a later letter he described a “big sham battle” in “miles of trenches like a net and about six feet deep.”
The 161st Battalion embarked Halifax aboard the S.S. Lapland on November 1, 1916, arriving in Liverpool on November 11th. William’s letters described a rough crossing, where the “water washed right over the decks and in one place where the men slept it bursted open a door and flowed into the room.” Later in November the battalion was encamped at Lower Dibgate on the English Channel, where “on calm nights you can hear the big guns in France.” William was granted 6 days leave to Edinburgh, where it is believed he met a young lassie named Isa, who began to correspond with him via letters and postcards.
At the end of December 1916 William was transferred to the 38th Battalion and proceeded with his unit overseas, arriving at Canadian Base Depot at Havre, France. On February 6, 1917 he left to join his unit in the field, arriving two days later. His letters home describe the conditions - “It is a corker for mud here…”, and “We get all kinds of work to do here…” On March 21, 1917 William wrote what would be his last letter home. His unit had just come out of the trenches, where they “had quite a few casualties in the line but if we are always so fortunate it will be alright.”
During the night of March 25th/26th 1917 patrols were sent out, and one patrol encountered the enemy and received machine gun fire. The weather was cold and wet and the wind was from the north. A gas alert was in effect. The 38th Battalion was in the front-line trenches between Vincent Avenue and Ersatz Avenue in the Vimy Sector. The brigade artillery had been pounding the enemy trenches over the previous 24 hours, and the trench mortars and machine guns were also actively engaged. During the day enemy shells had targeted the front line area where William’s battalion was positioned, and he was gravely wounded as a result. Private McKay was moved to No. 6 Casualty Clearing Station at Bruay where he succumbed to his wounds.
Nursing Sister A.M. Raine penned a letter to William’s parents on March 27th, noting he “was brought here very badly wounded and though everything possible was done for him he passed away a few hours later.”