Someone to Respect, Look up to and Trust
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, November 5, 2004
Much has transpired to debase the lot of the soldier and the time when a man enlisted to fight for a cause. So when James MacGregor’s biography of his father arrived by express post from the Victoria Publishing Company I read it through in one sitting.
I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a well researched book with photos, maps, dates and personal reminiscences, the sort anyone might write about an old guard Canadian father – one who at first seems distant and remote then becomes human and more accessible in old age. But of course that father wouldn’t be John (‘Jock’) MacGregor, the first Canadian over Vimy Ridge and Canada’s most decorated soldier.
MacGregor V.C. opens in the Scottish highlands where as the third-born bairn of crofters on the Earl of Cawdor’s lands John McGregor arrived in February of 1889. South of Nairn not far from Inverness, the area today is a tourist destination steeped in Shakespearean lore, the Loch Ness monster and Glenfiddich whisky. In 1909, though, a stout lad with a trade in stone masonry and carpentry but no inheritance rights had to seek his fortune elsewhere. With tool kit and suitcase in hand, and advice from his Presbyterian father to “think of Him as your friend”, John MacGregor set out for Canada. There, in March of 1915 while trapping in northern British Columbia, he learned that Britain was at war.
For John, the question wasn’t whether to leave immediately but how. “We were all British then,” he later said, “and the king needed me.” Snowshoeing for days before riding a box car into Prince Rupert to enlist, he was rejected as unfit for service. Better groomed, he reapplied in Vancouver and was accepted.
A superb marksman from years of aiming at rabbits “in the right eye”, MacGregor was destined to make his name in “C” Company, 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles. By September of 1915, he was in the trenches in a war that split the Continent from the Channel to the Swiss border. Trained on the Lewis gun, he was promoted from private to sergeant just before the battle of Vimy in April 1917.
Vimy and the infamous ridge had been seized by the Germans in 1914. Thousands of British and French died in attempts to regain the position and now the Canadians were given the job.
On the night of 8 April, Easter Sunday, “C” Company was in the second line ready for the creeping barrage that would enable the capture of three targets, including the enemy’s main line of defence, the Zwischen Stellung. MacGregor, defying snipers and driving snow, zig-zagged his men up the slopes. Then, yelling at them to lie low, he charged a machine gun nest, killed the crew and captured the gun. The enemy surrendered and Jock fired the flares to signal they’d taken Swischen Stellung. In four days, the Canadians lost 3,598 men killed, 7,000 wounded during fighting in which MacGregor earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
As a lieutenant, he went on to receive a Military Cross at Hill 70 in 1918 and, as a Captain at Cambrai, he was awarded the Victoria Cross. He then added a Bar to his Military Cross at Quievrain.
After the war, MacGregor married and raised two boys but resisted public attention. Back in Nairn, his mother set him straight: “John, you’re a real live hero and people need heroes. Countries need heroes. They need someone to respect, look up to and trust…” In 1940, he commanded the 2nd Canadian Scottish Regiment, where he trained men for battle in Europe.
Ever humble, he was most proud of his efficiency decoration for serving in both wars and for 20 years of dedication to the military. Of his Canadian citizenship papers he said, “These are the greatest award Canada has ever given me.” He died in Powell River in 1952.
Among many transformational and tragic events during the first half of the 20th century, it is said that two World Wars destroyed the best men of their generations and that the western world has never recovered. In the aftermath of an American election fought on issues of security and values, Canada’s Remembrance Day may this year serve to remind us that similar values and security are as important now as they were when men like Lt. Col. John MacGregor - V.C., M.C. and Bar, D.C.M., E.D. - fought and died for them.
Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.