On April 12, 1917, a 21-year old Rhodes scholar candidate from British Columbia lay injured in a German trench on Vimy Ridge with gunshot wounds to his side, arm and leg. He received basic First Aid but would endure twelve long hours in the mud and snow before being evacuated from the battlefield. Private Thomas Shearman was a devout Methodist who believed his “destiny was in higher hands“, a belief that hopefully comforted him on his long journey to a war hospital in Huddersfield.
Thomas Stinson A’Beckett Shearman was born in Brantford, Ontario on July 8, 1895 to Arthur Evans Shearman and Lotti Bond. The Shearmans moved to Vancouver in the early 1900’s to join Tom’s grandparents, aunts, uncles and many cousins including Eustace Ruyter A’Beckett Shearman.
Tom was a promising young student and in 1912 he entered the Arts program at McGill University College of British Columbia, graduating in 1916 as a member of the first convocation of the University of British Columbia. In Tom’s final year he was the President of the Literary Society and Treasurer of the Students’ Council. He was also a fine orator and in early 1916 he won a contest held by the Kitsilano Methodist Epworth League for a talk entitled “Influence of War on Social Reform“. In March he represented UBC in a debate with Washington State on “The Government of China” and by July he was one of six candidates to become the provincial Rhodes scholar.
His military service began in 1915 when he joined the 72nd Regiment “Seaforth Highlanders of Canada”. On April 28, 1916 he enlisted with the 196th (Western Universities) Battalion which was made up of four Companies recruited from universities in Manitoba (‘A’ Coy), Saskatchewan (‘B’ Coy), Alberta (‘C’ Coy) and British Columbia (‘D’ Coy).
‘D’ Company was headquartered at UBC and led by Major Brock, formerly of the 72nd Regiment “Seaforth Highlanders of Canada”. The battalion trained at Camp Hughes in Manitoba and departed Canada on November 1, 1916 aboard S.S. Southland. The 196th battalion would not serve together as a fighting unit and in January 1917 it was absorbed into a Reserve battalion. The men were transferred to various units and by February many including Tom were sent to France to join the 46th (South Saskatchewan) Battalion.
The 46th, later nicknamed the “Suicide Battalion” for its 91.5% casualty rate, was in the 10th Brigade of the 4th Canadian Division. On April 9th the 46th was positioned at the northernmost point of Vimy Ridge directly in front of the German stronghold known as The Pimple. Initially the 46th was held in reserve but by the afternoon ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies, including Tom, were moved into front-line positions to protect against an expected counter-attack. While the battle on the southern half of Vimy Ridge was largely over this was not the case for the 3rd and 4th Divisions facing heavily fortified Hill 45 and The Pimple. Heavy fighting continued for a further three days by which time the 46th had lost 67 men killed and 157 wounded, including Private Tom Shearman.
Tom was evacuated to the Royds Hall War Hospital in Huddersfield and on April 22 he cabled his mother with the news that he was safe in England. Tragically six days later family friends cabled again with the news that he had succumbed to his wounds on April 27th.
The funeral, described in detail in the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, was held on May 1st and included another Canadian casualty from Vimy, Private Thomas Lawson of the 49th Battalion, who had died one day before Tom. They were both buried in Edgerton Cemetery which by war’s end was the final resting place for 90 British, 5 Canadian and 1 Belgian soldier.
Tom’s obituary in the Vancouver Daily World revealed that he was also a sportsman, a member of the Kitsilano Baseball team that won the 1912 Church League cup. It also contained this extraordinary letter to his family:
“I think this world war marks a wonderful stage in the history of man. I think there will be some revolutionary change in life after this, perhaps not altogether for the best in the immediate future, for man always seems to run to extremes but this upheaval will inevitably lead to reformatory changes. The cost is terrible but it seems to be one of the facts of life that things worth while are not to be won without sacrifice. Certainly no spiritual gain is won without a struggle. I just remember now Major Pringle’s sermon at the Congregational Church on a text in revelations about obtaining the hidden manna.
He dwelt on the point that the best things are usually hidden so that man has to work for them. The more I think about this war the more it appears as a clean cut struggle between right and wrong, the advancement of the world or its retrogression, and I feel that even if I lose my life in the fight I have not lived in vain. It matters not how long we live, but what kind of life we live. Of course, I trust that all will be well and that I am to be spared to see you all again, but if not, you will know that I have given my life willingly for what I believe to be right.
You may think it is an unpleasant way to talk, but to me there is nothing gruesome about it. A great many fellows go over there thinking nothing about the result. They are out for excitement and take a chance, but I have thought it all over and am prepared for whatever happens. As Nelson said: ‘My destiny is in higher hands,’ and as long as we steadfastly pursue the right, regardless of the end, we are fulfilling our purpose in life.
I didn’t intend to write all this when I started, but on the eve of our departure for the trenches it is just as well that you should know I am not fearful of the issue whatever it be and I know that you will derive comfort from the fact that owing, chiefly to my bringing up, I have followed the path of duty.
Your loving son,
One wonderful discovery was made while researching Royds Hall for this article. The building has had many uses since it was built in the early 19th century including a farmhouse, a mansion and after the war a school which will celebrate it’s 95th anniversary in 2016. The search brought to light this Dec. 22, 2011 article in the Huddersfield Daily Examiner which stated:
The death toll included five Canadians, one of whom, Private Shearman, is buried in Edgerton Cemetery. Every year Royds Hall’s head boy and head girl lay a wreath at his grave and the school is currently trying to trace the man’s family in Canada.
We will never know what this bright young man may have achieved had he returned safely to Canada but it’s heartwarming to know that he is not forgotten in the city that cared for him in his final days.
- Library and Archives Canada
- University of Saskatchewan: Remember Us
- University of British Columbia Library Archives
- University of Huddersfield
- Vancouver Daily World (Newspapers.com)
- Huddersfield Daily Examiner (FindMyPast.com)
- Shock Troops by Tim Cook
- Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War (PDF) by Col. G.W.L. Nicholson CD
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