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John Wilkinson: Puslinch's forgotten hero of a forgotten war

John Wilkinson was a decorated casualty of a long-forgotten conflict who went on to contribute in several ways to the area
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John Wilkinson.

On Jan. 6, 1903, a special reception was held at Guelph City Hall to honour two soldiers who had distinguished themselves on the field of battle.

One was Corp. John K. Minchin of Milton, crippled by a bullet wound in the leg. The other, and the trooper who really was the man of the hour, was King’s Sergeant John A. Wilkinson, who had lost his right arm and his right eye. Like their comrade-in-arms John McCrae, also present at the reception, they had fought in the South African War (aka the Boer War).

The South African War of 1899–1902 wasn’t exactly Britain’s finest hour. Even though the British won the war, the tough Afrikaner fighters gave the armed might of the British Empire all it could handle. But it was the first foreign war in which Canadian soldiers fought. More than 7,000 men from communities across Canada, including Guelph, volunteered to fight for the crown, and 284 of them died. Another 252 were wounded.

In the words of Guelph’s Lieutenant-Colonel William Nicoll, they had upheld the dignity of the empire and had shown the world the real mettle of Canadians. They were national heroes, and none more so than Wilkinson.

John Wilkinson was born about 1874 to a pioneering family in Puslinch. He grew up on a farm and attended Killean School. At age fifteen, like so many other teenage Canadian boys, he joined the militia. Wilkinson enlisted in Guelph’s “A” Battery of the First Brigade Field Artillery.

Wilkinson had evidently found his calling in the military, particularly as an artilleryman. He took a gunnery course in Kingston and then won a silver medal in an artillery competition there. He was promoted to sergeant and was part of the Canadian artillery team that went to England in 1896 to compete for the Queen’s Prize. The Canadians won, defeating teams from all over the British Empire. They were taken up the Thames on the Royal Yacht Britannia to Windsor Castle where they had lunch with Queen Victoria.

By the time the South African War broke out, Wilkinson had been promoted to sergeant-major. In 1899 he joined the Canadian Mounted Rifles and volunteered for service overseas. His regiment sailed from Halifax for Durban on Jan. 14, 1900.

Wilkinson participated in several engagements including the Battle of Harts River, also known as the Battle of Boschbult. That was one of the last major engagements of the war, but also one of the bloodiest. On March 31, 1902, a British column of 1,800 men that included a company of Canadians clashed with a force of 2,500 Boers. The outnumbered British took up defensive positions around some farm buildings. During a battle that lasted more than four hours, a group of 21 Canadians became separated from the main British force. Wilkinson and Minchin were with them.

Eighteen of those 21 soldiers were killed or wounded. Wilkinson was shot 10 times. An exploding bullet shattered his right arm below the elbow and a fragment from it blinded his right eye. He also lost the hearing in his right ear. Wilkinson continued firing his rifle until he ran out of ammunition. Then he threw away the bolt from his rifle so it would be useless to the enemy if he were captured. He lay wounded on the battlefield in a cold rain for hours before he was finally picked up by British stretcher bearers.

A doctor who was amazed that Wilkinson was still alive operated on him in a bell tent. The surgeon had no hot water and worked by lantern light. Wilkinson and the other wounded men lay in that tent for eight days and then endured three days and two nights in mule-drawn wagons being hauled 98 miles to an army hospital.

In June of 1902, Wilkinson was sent to the military hospital in Netley, England. There, he was visited by Queen Alexandra. Wilkinson was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, which ranked second in prestige to the Victoria Cross. On the recommendation of Lord Kitchener, he was presented to King Edward VII who awarded him the rank of King’s Sergeant. Wilkinson was the only Canadian to receive that honour in the South African War.

Wilkinson returned home and in 1909 married Hattie Mae Bailey of Galt. Over the years he served on Puslinch council, as Reeve of Puslinch Township and as auditor for Puslinch and Nassagaweya Townships and Wellington County. The Wilkinson family eventually moved to Guelph, residing on Glasgow St., then Home St. and finally Mont St. They belonged to St. George’s Anglican Church. In 1938 Wilkinson opened the Wilkinson Insurance Agency on Douglas St. in downtown Guelph.

Wilkinson was presented to royalty again on June 6, 1939, when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Guelph. After Wilkinson’s death on May 15, 1947, his widow received a letter of condolence from the king and queen. Flags were flown at half-staff at Guelph city hall and Wellington County buildings in honour of the decorated veteran of the South African War.