Portrait of a Soldier
By James Franklin McDonald
In late October, 1918 Captain William John Franklin, with several hundred officers and nurses, walked through the gates of Buckingham Palace into the cavernous building and came to rigid attention in a large, ornate assembly room. They were called together to receive recognition for meritorious service during the Great War. Visibly nervous, but highly honoured to be summoned into the presence of royalty, they quietly fidgeted and worried about following the proper protocol. Capt. Franklin was there to receive the Military Cross. He was fervently hoping that his throbbing injured wrist would not make any involuntary movement to mar this very formal gathering.
Doors opened and in strode the sombre, austere King George V. Franklin bowed as the monarch approached and stood before him.
How did a simple Glengarry farm boy, with an elementary school education, and few prospects for a promising future, become a highly decorated war veteran, honoured by his king? Was it fate, intelligence, personality, happenstance, determination, ambition, opportunity, or the desire to excel that spurred a farm boy from an ordinary family to achieve such remarkable heights? Or was it a combination of these? From his sketchy personal notes, handed down through the family, it is possible to gain some insight as to the forces that molded him and allowed him to achieve such unexpected prominence during his lifetime. What appears to stand out head and shoulders above everything is one overriding trait: tenacity.
As a young boy, John did not have much going for him, except a healthy body, common sense, and native intelligence. He left his little Riceville country school house near Pendleton, Ontario in Prescott County (Franklin’s Corners) in 1907 as a 14-year-old for the last time and set out for home. John was well aware of his potential to pursue higher learning after successfully completing his grade 8 high school entrance exams, but he had resigned himself to accepting the stark reality that this was not going to happen. His formal education was over. Now physically capable of doing a man’s work, he was a valuable asset to his father who had just purchased a new farm with good land, but rundown buildings. John was urgently needed to help out. With calm resignation he bowed to his family’s wishes.
John’s father, Benjamin, was an ambitious farmer struggling to build a good life for his family. His new farm near Laggan, in Glengarry County, in Eastern Ontario, was not far from where John was born and went to school. To earn extra money, Benjamin hired out to lumber camps for several years during the winter months. He needed someone to take over the farm chores during his absence. His teenage son was just the person: mature, serious, and dependable.
Being a fulltime chore boy on his father’s farm at 14 probably did not particularly thrill him, but John didn’t complain. However, life took a slightly different turn, thanks in part to his innate curiosity and to his growing maturity.
As a young boy, John had been fascinated with reading about soldiers and wars. He followed the news of the Russo-Japanese War which raged between February, 1904 and September, 1905. He began to dream about someday becoming a soldier just like the ones he read about.
His excitement perhaps grew the day his uncle presented him with a brand new 22-calibre rifle. With this gleaming new rifle, he wandered the banks of the river near his home in his spare time, shooting muskrats. He soon discovered that he was a good shot.
Although his family was not from a military background John knew about the long military heritage of his many Scottish neighbours who had settled much of Glengarry when it was just a wilderness. His attraction for army life gradually intensified. To his family’s surprise, on June 12, 1909, at age 16, he went to nearby Alexandria, Ontario and enlisted as a private with 59th Stormont and Glengarry Militia Regiment. He was fitted out with a scarlet jacket, Sutherland trews (narrow tartan trousers), patent leather leggings and Glengarry cap. It was at this moment he knew that he had found his calling, his real purpose in life, although the militia was only a part time, sporadic occupation.