Sid Unwin - First World War

Sid Unwin (V25-PA1), Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies


The story of Sid Unwin and his experiences during the First World War is just one of the many stories in the new Gateway to the Rockies exhibition being developed by the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. We want your input and feedback on this permanent (ten year life) exhibition that we are planning to open at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in the spring of 2012. Tell us what you think of this and the other concepts and stories featured here. Let us know how you think we could make this exhibition more interesting. Please keep in mind that this is a draft of the storyline, not the finished product. As the stories develop, information will be updated.

Sid Unwin (1882-1917) was one of the Canadian Rockies legendary guides and outfitters in the years preceding World War I. He came to Banff from London, England in 1901 and soon became known for his resourcefulness, horsemanship, marksmanship and camp skills. In addition to setting up a guide and outfitting business, Unwin spent the winters trapping in the Mistaya Valley near Waterfowl Lakes. Clearly, he lived an adventurous albeit short life. He was assigned to the famed expeditions of Mary Schaffer and Molly Adams, who quested for Maligne Lake in 1907 and 1908. In Mary’s accounts of their travels, he is known as ‘K’.

But Sid Unwin's adventures in the peace and tranquility of the Canadian Rockies were interrupted by World War I. Prior to coming to Canada he had fought with distinction in the South African War (Boer War). Then when the First World War broke out in 1914 he asked his sister Ethel to take over his pack and saddle-horse business and Sid enlisted in the Canadian Army, which assigned him to the 20th Artillery Battery at Lethbridge. In January 1916 the Battery saw its first action in France and a year and a half later during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Sid was severely wounded after single-handedly manning an artillery battery. The position was being shelled and Sid ordered all his men to leave the battery and go back to their dug-out because, "It's too dangerous; the Boche has the range." Sid did all the loading and firing single-handedly even when one of his ammunition pits was set on fire by a direct hit. Lieutenant E.K. Carmichael, Sid's commanding officer, wrote, "I was so much pleased with, and admired his conduct, that I committed the circumstances to paper at once in case of accidents, so that if anything did happen to me, the paper would bear witness.

In a First World War diary of Sidney Joseph Unwin, now in the Archives of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, he records short observations about duties on the front, gun positions, prisoners and gas warfare. By the time he started the surviving diary on January 1, 1917 he recorded having fired 13,028 rounds.

Unwin's diary recounts the capture of Vimy Ridge, his subsequent injury the amputation of his arm, evacuation to England and his convalescence. No days were without an entry, as he continued writing with his remaining hand, even scribbling poems and comic songs like this one while in hospital.
"One spring day near Vimy Ridge
I very nearly crossed the Bridge
Which leads to Heaven or to Hell
For I tried to stop a Fritz shell
But now in Heaven I must be
For around me angels do I see
Protecting me from further harm
For I am bruised and short one arm."

-- Sgt. Sid Unwin, May 27, 1917.

A last letter, written in a left-handed scrawl from a military hospital, proved that his spirit had not been broken: "Aside from having my right arm blown off, being almost stone deafened by shell fire, and having my head full of shrapnel fragments, I'm fine and dandy." The entries cease after June 27: "Went up town to tea with Miss Pushby." Sid died two days later of complications. Despite his desire to serve his country and this indomitable spirit while in the horrid trenches of France, he must have longed for his time in the Rockies while he lay in that hospital bed.

Mary Schaffer named Mount Unwin, 3268m (10722ft.), after Sid Unwin. It is located between Maligne Lake Valley and the Maligne River, in Jasper National Park. Mary Schäffer also dedicated a beautiful stained glass window to Sid Unwin in the St. George’s-in-the-Pines Anglican Church in Banff. Today, because of the loss there of so many Canadians like Sid Unwin, Vimy Ridge is Canadian territory in France.

Comments

  1. Thank you for the story of Sid Unwin. Heart warming that he kept his humour under horrifying circumstances. Didn't realize Mary Schaefer dedicated a stained glass window to Mr. Unwin at St. Georges Anglican Church. We live on Otter Street and will visit it.

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    Replies
    1. He has quite an incredible story, like many other young men of his time. We're happy to share them with all who are interested.

      We definitely encourage you to go to St. George's for the stained glass, it will be part of Doors Open Banff coming up on August 13th as well as other historic homes such as Mary Schaffer's home Tarry-a-While. Many of these historic places aren't normally open to the public so it's a great chance to explore them! There is a brochure for Doors Open at this link if you're interested: https://www.whyte.org/events.

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