Thomas McSmart

Gunner Thomas McSmart was raised in Chicago, Illinois by his adoptive parents.  He joined the thousands of Americans who flocked to the Yukon in 1898 as part of the Klondike Gold Rush. Unlike many of his fellow miners, McSmart fell in love with the region and remained there as a prospector for 14 years and experienced moderate success. In 1912 he left the Yukon to find work as a gold miner in Mexico and panama before settling in San Diego California.

In 1915 upon hearing of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, McSmart resolved to avenge those who died. However as American was not yet at war with Germany, he and thousands of other Americans went to Canada to enlist in the Canadian Army, often in American brigades. Unfortunately, an ongoing lawsuit involving the divorce of his wife, prevented him from leaving the state. It was during that time Thomas got into a fight with a Russian who said Canadians were “SOB’s”. McSmart responded by putting the man in hospital for several weeks. He was subsequently arrested and released as he had acted in self defense.  He was finally able to return to Canada in mid-1916 and enlisted in the American Legion 221th infantry. He reached England in February 1917 and was sent to Belgium where he saw action at Passchendaele.  Due to the extreme casualties suffered during the battle, McSmart found himself as one of two men crewing an artillery gun as opposed to the usual six.  Conditions were horrendous with rain and artillery falling for days at a time. The only times he slept was when he was lucky enough to find an unoccupied pillbox.  

It was during the battle he caught dysentery and developed a terrible cough. He refused to parade sick however, he was afraid that if he did so his fellow soldiers would assume he was a coward faking illness since it was his first time in combat.  While he soon recovered from the dysentery its symptoms were replaced by a burning pain in his shoulders that would plague him until his death.

After a few weeks of leave in England and northern France McSmart was sent to the Arras Sector. He fired 300 shells a night into the Oppy woods. He spent his time hauling hundred pound crates of ammunition from the railroad a kilometre away to his gun.  McSmart summarized the battle as “Another hellhole”.

McSmarts physical condition deteriorated after being transferred to another unit yet he refused to parade sick. He feared being sent to a labour battalion which he believed would be even worse as his shoulders hurt him too much for the labour.

On the 28th of August 1918 through some mistake, McSmarts unit was sent to establish a firing position directly in front of German Fortifications. The Germans caught the Canadians by surprise and opened fire at point blank rage devastating the unit. McSmarts was lucky to escape with only minor shrapnel wounds and a concussion from a German shell.  However, in escaping the shell Smarts had severely damaged his left foot which swelled to twice its size for a week.  He spent one week in hospital before asking to be sent back to the front lines early in order to open a bed for fellow wounded soldiers.

By this time in the war the Allies were on course to force the Germans out of Belgium and McSmart assisted in the capture of Valenciennes and the city of Mons which he took on the day of the armistice.  He then participated in the Allied occupation of Germany for a few months before returning to England for medical care. In England he was diagnosed with Bronchil Asthma.

Shortly afterwards he returned to Canada where he saw a lung specialist for treatment of his Asthma. The doctors told him that if agreed to stay in a sanitarium he would be provided with a pension but McSmart refused as he needed to return to California to care of his adopted sister who had recently taken ill.   It was after the war that McSmart discovered that his condition was worse than he thought. He had developed difficulty communicating and remembering names which he attributed to his concussion. He also discovered his shoulder pain was the result of a pinched gland and artery.  

Upon realizing that his condition was so severe and unlikely to improve McSmart filed for a pension with the Canadian government.  The pension board ruled partly in his favour granting him a 30% pension of 28$ a month for his asthma but no pension for his shoulders or head injury.  His pension was increased a few years later to 35% and in 1936, to 100%.

After the war he married in 1926 and had several children together. Unfortunately for the family, McSmart continued to suffer from poor health and died October 14th 1943 due to complications caused by his service.

CLICK HERE to access Thomas McSmart’s Military Service File at Library and Archives Canada.