At the onset of World War I, the Canadian government was not eager to recruit Indigenous men into service out of concerns it may be a treaty violation. By the year 1915 a substantial amount of casualties changed the mind of leadership, recruitment opened to Indigenous people and 4000 First Nations men enlisted across Canada. Six Nations represented the largest group of people from one community — with a total of 300 enlistments.
Around the same time a Canadian named Glenlyon Campbell was appointed a commanding officer and directed to form an infantry battalion. He began recruiting Indigenous boys from schools in Western Canada and in three months time had recruited 1000 officers and men — half of which were members of the Blackfoot Confederacy, Cree, Ojibwe, Haudenosaunee, Dakota, Delaware and Mi’kmaq nations.
Not surprisingly, several of the new Indigenous recruits did not speak English. Campbell was the son of a Hudson’s Bay trader and spoke both Cree and Ojibwe. He instructed his training in those First Nation languages and offered English lessons to his recruits.
By September of 1916 the 107th Battalion — nicknamed the Timberwolf Battalion — was headed to Britain across the sea. One month later they arrived in Liverpool, England.
Upon arriving in England the battalion was being divided as soldiers were sent as reinforcements to other units. Campbell took efforts to keep the Indigenous soldiers together, concerned that as individuals or small groups the men would be subjected to racism and poor treatment. The unit was designated as a pioneer battalion and were tasked with engineering duties such as reinforcing trenches, hauling ammunition, building plank roads and laying railroad tracks.
Tom Longboat of Six Nations and Joseph Keeper from Norway House Cree Nation — both Olympic runners, were a part of the Timberwolf Battalion. In a sporting competition amongst the Allied troops in 1917, Keeper and Longboat competed and won a cross-country championship race near Vimy Ridge.
One man, James David Moses, was also a part of the Timberwolf Battalion. Moses was Delaware from Six Nations and was a school teacher before he registered to fight overseas.
He served with the Timberwolves and was appointed to the 57th Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps as an aerial observer and gunner.
On April 1, he was engaged in a mission against the Germans and never returned. Official searches did not recover the plane, it’s pilot or Moses. They were listed as “presumed dead”. Records show the men may have been shot down by German forces and buried in unknown graves at the British Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery in France.
Another of the Timberwolves — Lieutenant Oliver Milton Martin from Six Nations would serve for seven months in France and Belgium. He survived a gas attack in the First World War and went on to serve in the Second World War as a Brigadier-General, the highest rank ever attained by an Indigenous Canadian.
Martin was awarded the Colonial Auxiliary Forces Officers’ Decoration for his service and achievements, and the Royal Canadian Legion Branch #345 in Toronto was named in his honour.
On October 20, 1919 a visit to Six Nations by the Prince of Wales — a memorial plaque bearing the names of those Six Nations men lost in the war was presented to the community in their memory.