Medhurst, James Nahor

Lieutenant Colonel James Nahor Medhurst, OBE, ED

Lieutenant- Colonel James Nahor Medhurst, OBE. ED was a lesser-known senior officer of the Queen’s Own Rifles (QOR) but his service was far from ordinary. LCol Medhurst was born on 26 July 1899 in Toronto, Ontario. The son of a Sergeant in the Royal Canadian Dragoons (RCD), who the same year left to fight in Boer War in South Africa where he participated in every major engagement in which the RCD fought. At the conclusion of which he returned as a Warrant Officer, First Class and was later posted with his family to Fort St Jean, Quebec where he served as an instructor for several years before returning to Toronto in 1912. It was here in Toronto that LCol Medhurst became a member of the QOR (Cadets) and became a highly proficient Marksman and Signaler.

When war broke out in 1914, troops were mobilized at Camp Valcartier, and due to the large influx of troops at the overcrowded and rapidly expanding camp, communications were essential to help maintain command and control. As such, QOR Cadets with Signals training were sent to Valcartier to aid in this endeavor. As this was a primary training and staging area prior to deployment to Europe, his father, who had commissioned from the ranks to Lieutenant, arrived at the same time with the RCD. It was at this point he sought his father’s permission to go overseas with the 1st Canadian Division, but alas, he was only 15 years old and his father flatly refused. His father has already lost his only brother who joined the British Army under age and died in India. He did not want his son to suffer the same fate at a young age.

LCol Medhurst was not one to give up, and after returning from Valcartier went to Exhibition Park where the 20th Battalion was recruiting, and on 15 April 1915 at the age of 15 years 9 months he became a Volunteer with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. His tender age was not considered a deciding factor on his enrolment as he looked old enough and the Army was in desperate need of trained Signalers. The next month he would sail for England and commence training and kit issue. This included the issue of the accurate but temperamental Ross Rifle. Then it was across the Channel to Boulogne, France before a forced march to Ypres and into the trenches at Mount St Elois where they relieved the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles, perpetuated today by the Governor General’s Horse Guards.

It was in the trenches of France that LCol Medhurst learned of the horrors of war having lost many friends in combat. His introduction to trench warfare was “immediate and brutal” as he recalled. He actually lost a friend to a German sniper. As he had a lot of training on marksmanship he requested to be a sniper himself, it was his own personal way of gaining some sort of justice for losing his friend.

LCol Medhurst would later be severely wounded himself on 27 March 1916 from shellfire, spending almost a year in Lewisdam Military Hospital near London, England recovering. However, the war would not end for him, as upon release from the hospital he would return to France just in time for the attack on Vimy Ridge in April 1917. In preparation for the infamous Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge there were many preparations. Much of his time was spent conducting raids on enemy positions to help capture prisoners in order to gain information. This information would be used in planning the attacks. Many of these raids were meticulously planned and rehearsed, a revolutionary concept for the time that would pay off greatly at Vimy. At one point, troops were taken to the rear and tape lines were laid out to represent enemy trenches and they would train for days on how they would carry out a particular raid. These raiding parties were about 100 men strong and were so carefully planned and rehearsed that they were able to take quite a few prisoners without any casualties. They were also so stealthful in their execution that they were able to place explosive charges during their withdrawal which caused considerable damage to German wire and trenches.

As a result of the volume of information secured during one particular raid, the troops in LCol Medhurst’s Battalion were again taken to the rear in small groups to the tape trenches to receive information and practice attacks for the actual Vimy Ridge attack. It was this new concept of briefings and rehearsals that helped reduce casualties during the actual attack in April, 1917. It was shortly after Vimy on 10 May 1917 he was to be wounded again, this time from a sniper’s bullet which barely missed his heart, and this second wound would send him back to England. It was after this second wound that his father convinced the Army to transfer him to the RCD and he reported to the RCD Depot at Shorncliffe, England.

The RCD felt like home to the young 18 year old having grown up in the stables of the Dragoons. This made the transition from Infantryman to Cavalryman much easier and reminded LCol Medhurst of his young days in Quebec. While with the RCD, due to his past experience with horses, combined with his combat experience in France, it wasn’t long before he became a Corporal and eventually a Troop Sergeant. It was with the RCD that he would return to France yet again on 26 July 1918, the day of his 19th birthday. It was here that he was tasked with being in charge of a Hotchkiss automatic machine gun section, which the section carried by pack horse.

It was only to be a few months before the Armistice on 11 November 1918, but LCol Medhurst would remain in Europe until May 1919 when he would finally return to Canada before being discharged from the CEF and returning to civilian life. It was during this year that LCol Medhurst would marry his wife Beatrice May (nee Kelly) on 26 December. After about a year at trying different jobs and returning to school to become an Elementary Electrical Engineer, the desire to return to military life came upon him. LCol Medhurst returned to the armoury in Toronto in 1920 and joined the Mississauga Horse, a non-permanent Calvary Regiment. He enrolled as a Squadron Sergeant Major based on his experience in the Great War. It was also the same year that LCol Medhurst’s first son, James H. Medhurst was born on the 23rd of June. James would later go on to serve as a Major and Company Commander in the Royal Regiment of Canada and fight in the Falaise Gap.

In 1925, LCol Medhurst was offered and accepted a Commission as a Lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals. However, his time as a Signals Officer would be short lived as LCol Medhurst was approached in 1928 by Col Kesbrick of the Queen’s York Rangers, 1st American Regiment (QYR), who was his platoon commander in the 20th Battalion in WWI, to transfer to his Regiment as a platoon commander. He was keen to do this as the QYR actually perpetuates the 20th Battalion in which he served in WWI. This year would also be marked by the birth of his second son, Jack. In 1937, LCol Medhurst would receive the King George VI Coronation Medal, and the next year he would be promoted to the rank of Captain.

At the outbreak of WWII in 1939, LCol Medhurst would once again be called to serve and would do so continuously until 1946. His first assignment would be as a General Staff Officer, (GSO), Grade II at Military District Headquarters 2 in Toronto. While there, he would be under the command of Col John K. Lawson, who would later go on to be a Brigadier and the commander of the West Brigade during the Battle of Hong Kong and he would unfortunately become the most senior officer to be killed in action during the battle, and the highest-ranking Canadian soldier killed in action during WW II. During this time on the staff he travelled throughout Ontario inspecting and observing training activities preparing soldiers for eventual deployment overseas.

In 1940, LCol Medhurst was promoted to Major and sent to Atlantic Command in Halifax, Nova Scotia as GSO II Weapon Training under Major-General Elkins. This was to be a very busy command covering all of Atlantic Canada and dealt with the many Coastal Defence Batteries, mobile artillery, tank training at Camp Debert, Nova Scotia, and several Infantry units spread across the area. He would be responsible for coordinating much of the training, operations, and activities of these various units as well as assisting in the inspection of convoy escorts ships departing Halifax for England.

After two years as a GSO in Atlantic Command, LCol Medhurst would be promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel on 15 June 1942 and he was appointed Commanding Officer of the New Brunswick Rangers in Goose Bay, Labrador. There they were tasked with local home defence duties of what would now become Canadian Force Goose Base. This was to become a major multinational low-level flying training location throughout the Cold War and it is still a very large airport base continuing in its role as a low-level tactical training facility and as a forward deployment location for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Upon arrival in Goose Bay the facilities of the day were much to be desired and morale was low. Battalion Headquarters consisted of a tent and 20 of the officers wanted to resign as they despised the idea of an Upper Canadian commanding a Maritime Regiment. However, LCol Medhurst would hear nothing of this and said he would strive to make the New Brunswick Rangers a top battalion with or without them. He set about right way with this, beginning with the camp defences against air attack and improving the living and training conditions on the camp. The Colonel himself refused to leave his bell tent for the comfort of a dug-out cabin until every man in the unit was properly housed. After the officers understood the Colonel’s sincerity, they all withdrew their resignations and got on with the business at hand. The next year was spent preparing the defences, training the Battalion and surviving the harsh sub-arctic winters. LCol Medhurst would later be appointed Commander of Canadian Army forces in Labrador. While in Labrador he had many opportunities to explore this sub-arctic region which unfortunately included being stranded in the deep Canadian wilderness. He and one of his Company Commanders almost perished when the snowmobile they were testing broke down 16 Km from the Camp in -40C weather. This predicament was against his own orders which was “Prompt obedience to Orders.”

On 4 June 1943, LCol Medhurst received a message from Command that he was to be appointed an Officer of the British Empire (OBE), and not long after this, he would return to Toronto for leave with his family before rejoining the Battalion, which moved to Sussex, New Brunswick for more training. Following this training, the Battalion would be off again by train to Halifax to board the Queen Elizabeth for Europe. As LCol Medhurst was boarding the train, a staff officer approached him with a personal message from Col (Retired) Ralston, Minister of National Defence (MND) offering him to Command the winter training school in Churchill Manitoba, including a promotion to Brigadier. LCol Medhurst politely refused the offer and said he would “prefer to proceed with my Battalion.” The staff officer said he would convey the message but said that the “MND thought this is what you would say and wished you the best of luck.”

The NB Rangers would land in England and move to the area of Aldershot, England and later be based north west in the nearby Town of Fleet. It wasn’t long before they were training again and preparing for an attack on the European continent. As training progressed, a call came from Headquarters informing the LCol that the NB Rangers were to be reduced in strength to a Heavy Support Machine Gun Company and the rank of the Commander of this Company would be a Major. LCol Medhurst was given two options. One, he could relinquish his rank or, two, he could keep his rank and be given temporary command elsewhere. He told them that it took 30 years to reach LCol from Private, so he preferred to keep his rank.

As the NB Rangers were to be reduced to Company strength many of the officers and men would also be sent elsewhere and initially joined the LCol at the Holding Wing of the #7 Canadian Infantry Reinforcement unit in the Aldershot area, which was his next command. The breaking up of the Regiment came as a severe blow to the Colonel and his men who trained and worked so hard to prepare for the “big show” in Europe. In April of 1944, LCol Medhurst would be transferred again to #7 Canadian General Reinforcement Unit as Second-in-command as the Commanding Officer was a Colonel. This unit held and trained specialty officers such as doctors, dentists, padres, clerks, etc. However, LCol Medhurst was not happy with his new post and wanted to be part of the “active part of the war” as he put it. So, he arranged an interview with General Stewart, Chief of the General Staff at Canadian Military Headquarters in London. The General asked if he preferred Italy or France, and he said “no”. So a short time later he was off to Italy on 20 August 1944.

Upon arrival in Italy, LCol Medhurst was being considered for command of another Maritime Canadian Battalion, The West Nova Scotia Regiment, but alas, his fortune would remain unchanged and command would pass to another officer. After a series of special staff projects, the Colonel would be off again, but this time to Belgium via France in January 1945. Immediately on arrival in Brussels, he was ushered in to see Major-General E.L.M. “Tommy” Burns for an interview. During the interview, the General offered an apology to the Colonel as it was him who was the Corps Commander and he said that he denied LCol Medhurst’s command of the West Nova Scotia Regiment, and he did so purely on his age. He was 45 years old and most Battalion Commanders were under 40. The General also went on to explain it was dreadful as this Regiment and others suffered many casualties and this had cost the General his command. He went to say that it may have turned out differently if he had chosen an officer with LCol Medhurst’s previous combat experience, but of course we would never know.

LCol Medhurst’s first task back on the continent was to lead the First Canadian Army Ceremonial Parade for the 28th Anniversary of Vimy Ridge on 9 April 1945. This was to be a great honour having served there so long ago with his first Regiment. After the Vimy ceremony the Colonel would be off again to take charge of the Disciplinary Centre in Varrschoot, Belgium on the direct orders of Major-General Burns. Once again, this post would be short lived as the war in Europe would come to an end when the Armistice was signed on 8 May 1945 and he was summoned about a month later to the Headquarters of 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade in Ghent, Belgium to see the Commander, Brigadier General John “Jock” Godfrey Spragge DSO, OBE, ED. The same officer who led the QOR 1st Battalion ashore on D- Day.

The meeting with Brigadier Spragge was strange to say the least, as he greeted him very early in the morning wearing a bathrobe as he had just been awoken by the Duty Officer upon the Colonel’s arrival. The Colonel also noticed an ice bucket next to him containing a bottle of champagne and obviously wondered why. This mystery would come to an end when the Brigadier told the Duty Officer to pour them both a drink and then raised his glass and said, “Lets drink to the CO of the 4th Battalion QOR of Canada”. The Colonel’s reply was, “I’ll drink to that; who is he?” The Brigadier replied, “You as of now and you will go to Amersfort-Holland today and start to organize the Bn”. Not currently being a badged officer of the Regiment, he told the Brigadier that he didn’t have any QOR badges, and then the Brigadier opened his hand and gave him a set of Lieutenant-Colonel badges for a QOR Lieutenant-Colonel and told him they were the ones he wore when he came ashore on D Day commanding the 1st Battalion, QOR.

The Colonel was thrilled and honoured to not only have command of his own Battalion, but to have command of a Battalion in the Regiment that he started with as a QOR Cadet, 33 years before, all of which was unbelievable. The Battalion under his command would move to Aurich, Germany and would become part of the Rifle Brigade within the Canadian Army Occupation Force (CAOF) composed of 4th Battalion QOR, 4th Battalion Regina Rifles, and 4th Battalion of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. This was the first time that these three Rifle Regiments were brigaded together. Their mission was to contain thousands of German prisoners of war on the north side of the Elms-Jade Canal and help them eventually transition back to civilian life.

Field Marshall Montgomery (left) and Lieutenant Colonel Medhurst (right).

Following an inspection by Field Marshall Montgomery in the fall of 1945, good fortune would befall the Colonel again as the Brigade Commander, Brigadier Gibson would return to Canada and the Colonel would be appointed Brigade Commander of 2nd / 7th Canadian Infantry (Rifles) Canadian Army Occupation Force. He was thrilled to say the least about the appointment, although he was not to be promoted to Brigadier, but would instead receive the pay of one. He would have rather had the rank to accompany the appointment, rather than the pay. At this time he would say goodbye to the Regiment as its Commanding Officer.

The war trials were being held in Aurich Barracks in December of 1945 and the next one was to be the trial of German SS Brigadier General Kurt Meyer. As Brigade Commander he was responsible for keeping him alive and in good health to stand trial as some previous German prisoners had committed suicide. The Colonel carried out this task, thoroughly ensuring his cell was properly secured and free from anything that Meyer could use to take his life. The trial would end with Meyer being found guilty, but the court had not found him guilty of directly ordering the murders, but tacitly condoning them – the court sentenced Meyer to death. However, he would never be executed and instead spent many years in prison in both Canada and West Germany before being released in 1954.

Shortly after the trial of Kurt Meyer in 1946, the Brigade received word that they would return to Canada. They were then taken to transit camp in England and later boarded a ship for their return to Canada and home. In June 1946, LCol Medhurst would be discharged from the Canadian Army and return to civilian life where he would first secure employment as a sales representative and manager with an Oil Company in Ontario, in which he would later become a controlling partner, Allied Heating Appliances. This would later be sold to Frigidaire. It was during this time that LCol Medhurst would gain a fondness for Florida, having spent many winters there. So, in 1955 he left the heating business and started building a 20’ cabin cruiser. Once he finished the boat, named MIZPAH, he sailed it to Florida in 1956. He would later become a representative for West Chemical until his wife became ill in 1969. Then in 1972, after 53 years of marriage, his wife would tragically pass away. LCol Medhurst would spend the remainder of his life in Florida, remarrying his second wife, also named Beatrice in 1983 before she passed away on 13 September, 1988, at the age of 89.

Although Col Medhurst’s son, Major James H. Medhurst, fought in WW II, and post-war was extremely involved as a civilian with The Royal Canadian Military Institute, even acting as Chairman for the Institute, none of LCol Medhurst’s grandchildren were called to serve. It wasn’t until his great-grandson, LCol Mark Anthony, would the military tradition carry on. LCol Anthony was the son of LCol Medhurst’s grand-daughter, Maureen Anthony (nee Medhurst). He joined the Canadian Army Reserve in 1987 as a Private. His mother, Maureen Anthony had moved to Cape Breton to the home of her husband in the 1970s and raised their family there. The Regiment that LCol Anthony joined was the 2nd Battalion, The Nova Scotia Highlanders (Cape Breton), now known by its WWII designation, the Cape Breton Highlanders. The author of this story, LCol Anthony, would go on to be a Captain in the Highlanders before transferring to the Regular Force in 1997 as an officer in the Royal Canadian Regiment before reaching the rank of LCol, much like the career path of his Great-Grandfather so long ago.

"In Pace Paratus – In Peace Prepared"