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Bertrand, Lancelot Joseph

Updated: Dec 13, 2021

There were not many Black soldiers in the first contingent that was formed in Camp Valcartier, Quebec in September 1914. One of those who was able to enlist was Lancelot Joseph Bertrand from St. George's, Grenada in the Caribbean. He may well be the first Black officer in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) and its first to be awarded a medal for valour, hard won at the famous Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Born on 18 December 1892, Mr. Bertrand served two years in the Grenada Volunteers before coming to Canada. His family, three brothers, and six sisters and half-sisters remained in Grenada. One of his sisters lived in Chicago, Illinois. He sent her part of his monthly pay. In Canada, Mr, Bertrand worked as a clerk. With the outbreak of the war he enlisted in the 95th Saskatchewan Rifles on 12 August. The Saskatchewan Rifles sent a large contingent to Valcartier to become part of the CEF. Private Bertrand was one of these soldiers. He enlisted in the 11th Battalion, CEF on 23 September. The battalion was composed mostly of soldiers from Manitoba and Saskatchewan. It sailed for England on October 2nd, 1914 on the S.S. Royal Edward. Private Bertrand was one of 1134 soldiers in the battalion.

On arrival in the United Kingdom the battalion proceeded to Salisbury Plain for training and preparation for France. The battalion was eventually broken up, along with the 6th, 9th and 12th Battalions, to serve as reinforcements for the other Canadian battalions in France. On February 27th, 1915 Private Bertrand was transferred to the 7th Battalion depot in preparation for deploying to the front lines. The transfer occurred on 18 March. The 7th Battalion was stationed near Ypres, Belgium on 22 April when the Germans launched the first poison gas attack of the war, using chlorine. While other troops broke and ran from the front lines the Canadians remained in place and fought a desperate battle.

Private Bertrand was among those who fought the Germans in the confusion and kept them from having a major breakthrough at the front. For many of the companies of the 7th Battalion, they were unable to receive food, water or ammunition from the night of the 22nd until the 25th. This battle around St. Julien lasted three days. The Germans used chlorine gas on all three days.

On May 24th the 7th Battalion supported the 5th in an early morning attack on a German position. They withdrew later that morning but were heavily shelled the rest of the day and left isolated until dark. In the shelling Private Bertrand was badly wounded in the right shoulder. Making his way through the medical system he arrived in England on June 15th. He was then given a week off to help recover. Private Bertrand was then ordered to the headquarters section of the Canadian Signal School at the major Canadian base at Shorncliffe in July. Here it was hoped that he would regain full use of his right shoulder. With his clerical abilities, a trade that was in short supply, he was appointed a sergeant in charge of the pay section. Here his leadership abilities were noticed.

On 21 August 1916 Sergeant Bertrand was commissioned as a lieutenant. Lieutenant Bertrand returned to France on 21 September 1916 to serve with the 7th Battalion. This was likely just in time to serve at the Battle of Thiepval Ridge (26-28 September 1916). Lieutenant Bertrand's first major battle after his return was the Battle of Vimy Ridge on the morning of 9 April 1917. The battalion faced fierce opposition. When all of the other officers in his company were killed or wounded, Lieutenant Bertrand led the remaining soldiers onwards to take their objective. For these actions he was awarded the Military Cross in July. This was the third highest medal for valour in combat.

His next major battle was at Hill 70, near Lens, France on 15 August 1917. From the top of the hill the Germans could see all of the allied trenches and what they were doing. This was a very important hill for the Germans. Its capture would harm the German defences as the allies would then be able to see the German trenches. Hill 70 was therefore heavily defended. The attack on Hill 70 began at 4:25 AM. During the intense fighting Lieutenant Bertrand was killed when his company had to withdraw from their position because of German pressure. His body was never recovered and his name commemorated on the Vimy Mmeorial. He was only 24 years old when he died.

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