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William Sunley

William Sunley was born on 10th January  1880 in Malton according to his attestation papers for the Canadian Expeditionary Force and his sister K. Jamieson was living in Coxhoe, County Durham.  He signed up on 23rd August 1914 at Regina, Saskatchewan. He was 5’ 9”” tall with brown hair and blue eyes and had an Orange emblem tattooed on his chest.

K. Jamieson is actually Catherine  (Kate) Jemmeson and was married to George Francis Jemmeson iin 1901 , the brother of Aaron Jemmeson (qv). In the 1901 Census, shortly after her marriage she is staying with her widowed mother, Jane at 69 Town Street.  Living with them is William Dobson born in Scarborough and Jane’s grandson who is the same age as our William.   

1901 census – resident at 69 Town Street, Malton

SUNLEY, Jane, Head, Widow, F, 71, , Malton, Yorkshire,

DOBSON, William, Grand Son, Single, M, 21, Boot & Shoemaker, Scarborough, Yorkshire,

JEMMESON, Kate, Daughter, Married, F, 30, , Malton, Yorkshire,

William had been living with his grandparents at 69 Town Street since 1881

1881 census – resident at Town Street, Old Malton

SUNLEY, John, Head, Married, M, 45, Painter (Journeyman), New Malton, Yorkshire,

SUNLEY, Jane, Wife, Married, F, 48, , Old Malton, Yorkshire,

SUNLEY, Mary, Daughter, Single, F, 16, Dressmaker, Old Malton, Yorkshire,

SUNLEY, Catherine, Daughter, Single, F, 12, Scholar, Old Malton, Yorkshire,

DOBSON, William, Grand Son, Single, M, 1, , Scarbro, Yorkshire,

1891 census – resident at Town Street, Old Malton

SUNLEY, John, Head, Married, M, 55, Painter, New Malton, Yorkshire,

SUNLEY, Jane, Wife, Married, F, 60, , Old Malton, Yorkshire,

DOBSON, William, Grandson, , M, 11, Scholar, Scarborough, Yorkshire,

In the 1871 Census we find Fanny Dobson, an elder daughter of John and Jane but born before their marriage, who is presumably William’s mother.  It is tempting to suspect that William Sunley is the same person as William Dobson and the illegitimate son of Fanny Dobson , herself the illegitimate daughter of John and Jane Sunley, and that after his grandparents’ death he adopted their surname.

His death was reported in Malton Messenger, as Sgt W. Sunley, Old Malton, killed in action.  “The deceased was formerly employed by Messrs Leatham’s, Malton and subsequently went to Canada. On the outbreak of war he gave up his farm and went to France with the Canadian soldiers”.  He enlisted in No. 7 Platoon, "B" Coy., 28th Btn Canadian Infantry.

The 28th (North-west) Battalion was recruited in 1914 from the Manitoba / Saskatchewan area of Canada. The battalion went overseas to Britain as part of the 'Second Contingent' in June of 1915. There it joined 6th Brigade, 2nd Division of the Canadian Corps. In September of that year, they crossed the channel and were promptly sent to the front lines. The Battalion suffered its first major casualties within the month when "D" company was nearly wiped out from a mine explosion near Kemmel. This, and later battles, taught the men of the battalion its craft, and winnowed the ranks of the original recruits.

The days of early September were ones of feverish preparation, when so much had to be learned in a minimum space of time, when the men seized eagerly every opportunity of acquainting themselves with the many details of a big offensive. It was a new feature to explain minutely the exact meaning of plans and objectives to every man-jack of the regiment. It was a newer feature to inform the humblest private that in the heat of battle he may be called upon to fill the place of some fallen senior, to command his section, to rally his platoon or even to lead his company but the new order of things, as emphasised in person by the Corps Commander, Lieut.-Gen. Sir Julian Byng, came as second nature.

Within a few days of arriving in the Somme valley, the 2nd Canadian Division was called upon to move up to the battle-front to the relief of the senior division of the Corps. A new and greater British attack was impending. The Canadians were to take part, and the Canadians this time meant principally the 2nd Canadian Division. British troops were to co-operate on the flanks.

The main objective of the Canadian infantry was to be the village of Courcelette, a heap of ruins, but a dominant factor in the German defence line and the key to the strong hostile positions beyond it. The capture of the village was to be accomplished in two swift, bold strokes. The first of these embraced the heavily manned approaches to Courcelette - a task allotted to the 6th Brigade-and the Sugar-Factory, south of the village, believed to harbour numerous nests of Boche machine gunners. The latter stroke was assigned to the 4th Canadian Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-Gen. Rennie. Upon the decisive carrying out of this dual operation depended the success of the battalions of the 5th Canadian Brigade, which were to storm Courcelette.

The date selected for the attack was September 15th - the first anniversary of the 2nd Division's arrival in France. Preparations for the advance were very thorough and on the night of September 14th the 28th left their bivouac in the " Brickfields " of Albert for their assembly trenches, dug under heavy shell fire by their comrades of the 29th Vancouver Battalion.

The Battalion War Diary does not record any action on 14th September and they had actually only seen their first hostilities after a period of training near Omer the day before when the War diary records enemy shelling of the transport lines with no casualties .

By 4:20 in the morning of the 15th the attacking units of the 6th Brigade, 27th on the right, 28th on the left, were ready for action. On the left of them were the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles, attacking on the 3rd Division front. On both flanks again, Canadian units linked up with British regiments co-operating in the offensive.

The bombardment which paved the way for the assaulting waves of Canadians was a triumph for the British artillery and the 28th and their companion units began to move forward. By 7:40 a.m., every objective had been gained-and gained beyond all doubt-and the 28th, with their Winnipeg neighbours, the 27th, were established in the main line of the enemy before Courcelette. Casualties were not heavy on the whole, but rather severe in some companies which encountered outlaw enemy machine gun posts in a sunken road-one of many in these parts. From these positions the German fire was especially deadly, and the success of the operation looked in jeopardy for a time. From this juncture no further reverses ensued, and the battalion proceeded to consolidate their gains.

Advanced posts were pushed out towards, and even into, the village of Courcelette, and the enemy's reserve strength was gauged by skilful and daring reconnaissance by battalion and company scouts. Meanwhile, the 4th Infantry Brigade, on the right, had also gained their objectives with comparative ease, overrunning the Sugar Refinery south-west of Courcelette and establishing a strong line of outposts on the fringe of the village. Twelve hours later - in the early evening of the 15th-the whole of Courcelette was brilliantly stormed by battalions of the 5th Canadian Brigade, whose task was made easy by the success of the 4th and 6th. Fierce engagements between Canadian bombers and isolated bands of Germans continued throughout the afternoon and evening of the 15th with invariable success to the Canadian infantrymen.The 28th thus shared substantially in one of the greatest Canadian victories.

The battalion was relieved on the night of the 15th, and marched towards Albert and rest billets for a period of recuperation.  A private in the 10th Platoon wrote to a friend who was a Prisoner of War already “Well, we went into reserves and for a couple of days we did nothing but lounge around. We took a walk through Albert to see the statue of the Madonna and the infant Jesus. It hung right over the road, and it is marvellous how long it stayed there without being hit. The French people used to say that when it fell the war would end, but it has been down some time and the war is not over yet. They put us on fatigues and working parties for a few days and then we were moved up to the supports.

We were told that we were going over the top early next morning assisted by tanks. Now, tanks had not been used up to this time and they were the surprise of the war. We hadn't heard one word about them and we were crazy to know what they were like, so our officer told us where we would find one, and away we went to see it. When we got there it was covered with a tarpaulin, but the officer in charge took the sheet off and let us have a good look at it and such a queer looking monster as it was! It looked like a cross between an elephant (without his baggage) and a mud turtle. We bombarded the officer with questions, but he wouldn't answer many of them; only he said that nothing but a direct hit with a six-inch shell would penetrate its hide; and it could go through any hole or walk right over a house. It was some diabolical device all right, and we went back chuckling over the surprise that the Germans would get next day. That night we went in, marching in single file. It was pitch dark and the Germans were shelling furiously, though before we left all our massed artillery had carried out what is known as half an hour's counter-battery work, the idea being to put as many German guns out of action as possible. Our gunners had most of the enemy positions covered, as our aeroplanes had been spotting them.

Well, we went in on the night of the 14th of September, 1916, and as I had been wounded in the knee the day before I was limping along with the other boys when, whiz-bang! a big shell burst right near us. It killed several of the boys that were just ahead. I hadn't been able to bend my leg a few minutes before, but believe me, I ducked when I saw that shell coming and I never thought about my knee. I was with the Stokes gun crew and was detailed off as a runner. This meant that I had to keep in touch with the various trench mortar crews, and report how things were going, to Headquarters. Tommy, Bink, and our other friends were with the battalion. Just before daybreak the Sergeant came around and gave us a snort of rum. We were lying in the trench that we had dug that night out in No Man's Land. It was called a "jumping off" trench. In front of us lay the German trench, and we were supposed to capture it and also a sugar refinery that was located a little further back. Altogether our advance was to cover about a thousand yards. Just at daybreak our barrage burst on the enemy trenches, and over we went; we got the frontline trenches without much opposition, but, where the Fritzies did make a stand there was some dirty work. We were losing quite a lot of men with artillery fire. Rust was hit in the back with shrapnel, and as he half turned, a bullet caught him, smashing his jaw. Flarepistol Bill was waving his arm to direct some of the boys when a bullet caught him in the head. But we were too busy to notice by this time, and leaving the wounded to the care of our stretcher bearers, we pushed on. We reached the second German trench and proceeded to lay out the Huns. Fat was bayoneting them as fast as he could, and "tee-hee-ing" all the time. Tommy had a big Hun in one corner, and with his bayonet under his chin was trying to make him put his hands up. At first Fritzie didn't understand, but when at last it dawned on him his hands went up in a hurry, and he cried "Kamerad!" in the approved fashion.

By this time all the Germans in sight had either been killed or taken prisoners, and a whole bunch were being herded back to our lines. The German guns were dropping heavies on the ground we had left, and as the prisoners went back they were caught in their own shell fire and a lot were killed.

From the start the tanks had been doing great work, walking over machine guns and killing hundreds with their own machine gun fire. The Germans were scared stiff and absolutely demoralized. One band, with more courage than the rest, gathered round a tank and tried to bomb it with hand grenades, but they met with no success, for the bombs either bounded off or exploded harmlessly against the steel sides. Finding their efforts useless they surrendered to the tank crew. While all this was going on, I was busy carrying messages between the gun crews and Headquarters. I was on the go all day and though the German shell fire was heavy, my luck was with me, and I didn't get hit once. Bink was dispatch runner for his company, and I passed him several times and he told me about the boys, as he was with them more than I. The last time I met him, he said, "Bob, Tommy's killed." "Tommy!" said I, almost too stunned to speak. "Yes," said he, "I was passing along the trench and had just jumped over a body when I thought the clothes looked familiar and I turned the body over, and there was poor Tommy; he had been shot through the chest by a sniper. I took charge of his things, and I'll send them to his people when I get out again." After Bink left me, I tried to realize that Tommy was gone, but I couldn't believe that my chum and bedfellow was really dead. It seemed so hard when he had only been back from hospital a few days. Well, I had no time to sit down and think, things were getting too warm.

At six o'clock that evening General Byng decided to throw in the third division, who had been held in reserve. I watched them as they came over, and it was a great sight. The 42nd Highlanders were in the lead, and they came in long lines with their bayonets fixed. The Germans spotted them as soon as they came over the ridge and immediately turned their guns on them, but they came on steadily in spite of their losses, over the top of us, and into the Hun lines. They cleaned up what was left of the Germans and established themselves firmly in Courcelette. The French Canadians had been holding Courcelette all day, but had lost heavily.

Well, that night we went back in reserve; we were all in, and we staggered along till we got to the brick fields at Albert. There we had our bivouacs and we turned in. Next morning I went over to see Bink, and we felt pretty blue. Tommy, Flare-pistol Bill, Barbed-wire Pete, and Lieutenant Oldershaw were all killed, and half a dozen others, including Rust, were wounded. Poor old 10th Platoon, they were going fast! Bink, Fat, McMurchie, Erne Rowe and I were the only ones left of my old pals, and the ones who were gone were the ones I had chummed with most. Sink and I had a lot of sad letters to write to the boys' relatives that day.”

It is tempting to wonder whether “Flare-pistol Bill” might be William Sunley!  Whether or not he is, this extract gives a far more graphic account of the action where William was killed than the adulatory history or the very terse War Diary.

William died on 14th September 1916 and has no marked grave.  He is commemorated on the Vimy Memorial, the official memorial to all Canadian soldiers who lost their lives in the First World War.