Who was the first Canadian to die in the First World War?

Who was the first Canadian casualty of the First World War? That’s a good question.

The records online in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) database start on the day Britain declared war on Germany, August 4, 1914. The first entry for someone commemorated in Canada is Harry B. Little, who died on August 14, 1914. His grave is in Czar, Alberta. I hope to write about Private Little in a future blog.

The first entry in the Online War Memorial on the website Canada at War is: Name: Charles Harper Regiment: Canadian Merchant Navy Rank: Cook Death: May 15, 1914. Is this an error? The date is well before the war started. What could explain it?

Was this entry incorrectly copied into the Online War Memorial? The Online War Memorial displays data found in the original Books of Remembrance on the Veterans Affairs website. On Page 260 in the book: Merchant Navy – Second World War, there is an actual picture of the page. The text in the picture reads: Cook, Cuisinier Harper, Charles DUNSYRE 14.05.15. The date format is clearly yy.mm.dd, established by looking at some of the other entries on the same page. So, Harper died on May 15, 1914 according to the Book of Remembrance. There was no transcription error between here and the Online War Memorial.

Did Charles Harper die on May 15, 1914 or on some other date? In Ancestry.com, which is a site you have to pay to use, I found an entry in a category called Reports of Deaths of American Citizens Abroad, 1835-1974. The records there show clearly that Charles Harper, which may be an alias, was a cook on the ship Dunsyre. He died at sea on May 15, 1914. His death was classed as a suicide when reported at Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The date of death being correct, and well before the war started, it would appear Harper’s name was incorrectly inscribed in the Book of Remembrance. I don’t know how or why that happened.

Was the Dunsyre a victim of combat during the same voyage as Harper’s death? The answer to this is almost certainly no. Dunsyre was a merchant ship registered at Victoria, B.C. until December 1914, after which she was registered at San Francisco. In 1916, the Germans briefly seized the ship, leading to a fair amount of news coverage. In none of the reviews of her history is there any mention of earlier casualties or of being caught up in the war. I can’t think of another plausible justification for Harper’s appearance in the Book of Remembrance. Explanations that come to mind at this point are all in the category of “innocent but unfortunate bureaucratic error”.

Was Charles Harper Canadian? Because Dunsyre was registered in Canada at the time of Harper’s death, it is true that he was considered to be working in the Canadian, and by extension, the British, Merchant Navy. That is his connection to Canada.

Charles committed suicide during the course of an illness which had given him a fever and headache. Though he seemed to be better on the day before he died, apparently it wasn’t so. In his suicide note, Charles said, “Sir. In case of accident give my clothes and gear to Harry and when you reach port please notify Mr. S.A. Smith, c/o Messenger Office, Fort Dodge Iowa U.S.A.” Harry was his assistant.

After poor Charles’s death, Mr. S.A. Smith of Fort Dodge, Iowa was duly notified. He wrote back to the American consul at Port Elizabeth, calling Charles Harper “our son”.

Mr. S.A. Smith and The Fort Dodge Messenger Selby Alvin Smith worked at the newspaper, The Fort Dodge Messenger, for his whole life. His brother Scott Smith owned the paper, which is still operating today. Selby and his wife Mollie had nine children. In the 1910 census, they said that seven were still living. The seven known children who survived infancy were:

  • Scott, their son, b. July 1884
  • Selby, their son, b. March 1886
  • Joy, their daughter, b. April 1889
  • Francis, their son, b. October 1891
  • Minnie, their daughter, b. May 1893
  • Gay, their daughter, b. May 1897
  • Happie, their daughter, b. 1902.

Of the three known sons, Scott, Selby and Francis, I have been able to find records of Selby and Francis being alive after 1914. I can’t prove that Scott was Charles Harper, but to date I have found no records for him after 1900. There were several Scott Smiths in the USA at that time, and he could have been one of them. On the other hand, the first child of Selby and Mollie was christened Charles Scott Smith. Was he Charles Harper? I don’t know.

One thing we can say is that nothing in the record of Charles Harper’s death would suggest that he was a Canadian casualty of the First World War.


Was I wrong to say there is no reason for Harper to be included? Maybe. I won’t mind that. I think the entries in the Books were all put there for a reason. We need to be sure those reasons aren’t lost.

Here is a possible explanation.

The report of Harper’s death was not made until the Dunsyre reached Port Elizabeth, South Africa. This was around the 27th of August, 1914 – after the war had started. Perhaps because the death occurred during a voyage which was in progress when war was declared, it was included in the Books.

I think this may explain not just Harper’s name but perhaps others. Anyone who knows what the criteria were for including names, please do comment.