Percy Freely Latham

Percy Freely Latham was my first cousin twice removed, and was first cousin to John Pickering and William Frederick Pickering. Percy’s mother, Emily Pickering; John and William’s father, John Pickering, and my great-grandmother, Mary Alice Pickering; were siblings: three of the 10 children born to James Pickering and Elizabeth Wilson.  My great grandmother was the second youngest of these sibling which is part of what accounts for her nephews being veterans of the first world war while their first cousin, my grandfather, Joseph Foster, was a veteran of the second world war.

Percy’s mother, Emily, was the eldest of the Pickering siblings, and was born in 1873 in Stockton, Yorkshire.  She was 13 years old when her family immigrated to Canada and settled in Ontario (East York, now Toronto) where her father was a rail labourer.  In 1894, at the age of 20, She married Henry Freely: a milk delivery man 20 years her senior who had immigrated from Germany as a child. Emily and Henry had five children together before Harry died due to pneumonia and heart failure in 1901.  This left Emily alone with her children, ages newborn through seven.  Percy was the second youngest, only two years old. Two years later, Emily, still only 30 years old, re-married.  Her second husband, Alexander Latham, was very much a father to the two youngest Freely children, as both of them added his name to theirs, and Percy listed him as his father on his attestation papers. Emily and Alexander had five more children together, the youngest two of whom sadly died in infancy.

Percy attested to the Canadian Expeditionary Force on February 5, 1916.  On his attestation papers, he listed his date of birth as May 18, 1897, which would have made him 18 years old.  I will spare you the math from all the dates above, but this is not consistent with other records. It wasn’t until after he had already been serving for over two years that the military discovered that he had aged himself by two years.  He was actually only 16 years old when he enlisted.  He originally enlisted in the 169th Battalion, which, after arriving in England in October 1916 was absorbed into the 5th Reserve Battalion.  At this time, Percy was transferred to the 2nd Pioneer Battalion.  Pioneer battalions were infantry battalions plus skilled labour.

It was the pioneers that built the dug outs, built the roads in forward areas, laid barbed wire entanglements, and were the power house in trench construction. Pioneers also were the ones who followed on the heels of the Infantry in the attack to fill trenches and build passable avenues for the guns to be brought forward.  (From description of 3rd Canadian Pioneers at Russians in the CEF).

He arrived with the unit in Northern France in early December where they were stationed at Fosse 10, and were supporting nearby trench activity.  The war diary of the battalion has a beautiful description of what would have been Percy’s first Christmas away from home, including the description of the dinner.

2nd Pioneer Christmas

In the spring of 1917, the 2nd Pioneers were supporting the preparations for the 2nd Canadian division’s attack on Vimy Ridge.  They were laying cable for communications and explosives, as well as track for trams in order to get supplies closer to the front.  On April 8, 1917, the day before the Canadian guns opened fire on the German line, Percy was shot in the left wrist and through to his abdomen.  He was evacuated to a field hospital at Le Treport, then back to England to recover at several different hospitals before being released in August of 1917.   Throughout the rest of 1917 and in to 1918, 18 year-old Percy was moved through several reserve battalions in Bramshott, and was even put in some senior roles on an acting basis. Late in 1918, he was returned to Canada, and discharged in January 1919 as medically unfit, likely as a result of his earlier injuries.

In the 1921 census, Percy is listed as living in Toronto with his parents and younger siblings, and his occupation is listed as “engineer.”  He married in 1924, but I have no other information about his life after this time until his death in 1969 at the age of 70.

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