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Last updateThu, 30 Nov 2023 8am

East Coulee tragedy in war time

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In wartime, it’s all hands on deck. This is true for the men and women on the front and on the home front.
That was the case for the coal industry in Canada and in the valley. Coal powered the war effort and it was needed at home and abroad.
During World War II, the country was mobilized and young men were joining up quickly to battle on the front. This led to a shortage of men to work in the mines. Not only was there a shortage, but the men who were left to work in the mine were aging.
A former driver, Bob Moffatt, tells the Mail, “Everybody was joining up, they joined up by the thousands. Somebody said we need miners, and we need to keep the furnaces going. I had one uncle who was sent back. He was in tank training, and they found out he was a miner and he was sent back.”
This struggle on the home front led to one soldier in Drumheller having the tragic distinction of appearing on both the Drumheller Miners Memorial and the Cenotaph.
Private George Hill Brown was born in New Cumnock, Ayrshire, Scotland, and resided in Canada for 23 years. He enlisted in Bienfait, Saskatchewan. Because of the strategic significance of the coal industry, Brown spent much of his time on active service “on mining leave without pay.”
“I guess Mr. Brown was just about to board the ship when they nailed him down in Halifax and sent him home. His mother was happier than hell he wasn’t going to get shot,” said Moffatt.
The government worked with the mine owners and unions to help stabilize the industry and keep the mines running. Three years into the war, the Department of Labour modified its military recruitment policies to limit miners from entering the armed forces. According to, “In June 1943, further amendments were made to the National Selective Service Civilian Regulations so that no former or current coal miner would be allowed to work in any occupation other than that of a coal miner, and no employer could retain the employment of a former coal miner without the permission of a selective service officer.”
According to The Drumheller Mail, on January 4, 1944, George Brown was injured. He was working for the Regal Coal Company at the Atlas Coal mine as a driver. While bringing out a load of coal, he slipped and rolled underneath a car and fractured his pelvis and internal organs. He died in the Wayne Hospital on January 6 due to sustained injuries. He had been in East Coulee for about eight months.
What made the story even more tragic, his brother, Bertram Brown, died of nearly identical injuries in October 1943 while working in the Murray Mine.
The Saskatchewan government names geographical locations in honour of fallen service men and Brown Peninsula in North East Saskatchewan is named in his honour.
Local historian Reg Bennet has done a lot of work researching the honour roll in Drumheller and came across Brown in his work. In 2012, he was able to have the Cenotaph rededicated with four names, including Brown who was not previously included on the honour roll.

Bennett's research honours veterans


Over the years, Reg Bennett has worked meticulously to document hundreds of soldiers who died in action, including his namesake. In fact, that is what got him started.
Between 1999 and 2016, he compiled a volume of biographical information of soldiers who appear on the honour roll in Drumheller. In fact, he was able to research and find four more soldiers from the Drumheller area who were added to the Drumheller Cenotaph in 2012.
He has gone on to do research for other communities and has compiled 40 books, including one that was presented to the County of Strathcona at the Lord Strathcona’s Horse’s Centennial.
It all started when researching who he thought was his namesake.
It was in 1999, he was a Navy League cadet officer. He sat down in front of a computer hooked up to the Internet.
“It took me two hours to find information on my great uncle,” said Bennett. “The reason it took me two hours is that no one had ever told me his name was George. As I grew up, I was always one of the Reg’s.”
He knew his great uncle George Reginald Bennett and his brother Percy Guy Bennett fought in World War I. One came home, and in honour of his deceased great uncle, two of his brothers, including Reg’s grandfather gave him the same name. It has continued to be passed down the generations.
One of the reasons he wanted to do the research was because there were very few family stories.
He learned George Reginald signed up first, but he was held back because he was the eldest child, and it was important for the effort to keep the farming industry viable. Percy then signed up and was sent overseas. He was grazed on his head in battle.
“He was incapacitated. He couldn’t go back home because he wasn’t wounded enough so they kept him over there as a stretcher bearer,” said Bennett.
His older brother Reginald then entered the war and they both fought at Vimy Ridge. Reginald was a private and was on the front line. Percy continued as a stretcher bearer. They also both ended up in the Battle of Hill 70 four months later.
“They did not even know each other was close by. There were so many different battalions,” he said. “The battle began on the 15th of August, 1917, Reginald was wounded and they transported him 138 kilometres to the 3rd General Hospital at Le Trepot, France.”
Reginald’s brother Percy received word sometime between August 15 and August 30 that he was wounded. When learned his brother was wounded, and he could not leave the front anyway as the battle raged until August 25.
All of this information Reg learned from his research.
“When his brother came back from the War, all he could say was he walked 30 miles to a POW camp, and when he arrived his brother had already died of gunshot wounds,” explains Reg. “All my life this was the story.”
What Reg learned was that it was not a POW camp, but a hospital.
In fact, had it been a POW camp, he would have been captured.
“When I found the record, he did arrive a day after Reginald died. It was a hospital and not a POW camp, and it wasn’t a gunshot wound. It was a shell shot wound, it must have been a fragment of shell,” he explains. “77 years later I discovered all of this information.”
When he undertook this initiative to find information on his great uncle it was just after Remembrance Day. He had the program from the Drumheller ceremony and he started punching names in.
“After I did the Drumheller Legion, I did East Coulee and started expanding. By the time I finished in 2016, I had about 40 community binders,” he said.
He has compiled a database of over 2,000 service men and women. He has also photographed graves for the Commonwealth War Grave Commission.
There are about 1,050 servicemen and women buried in Alberta who have died in wartime.

Poppy Project reappears for Remembrance Day

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A look around many stores and buildings throughout the valley leading up to Remembrance Day stand beautifully coloured red and purple poppies.
This is thanks to a collaborative community project spearheaded by the Drumheller Geneology Club.
The 2022 Poppy Project was an overwhelming success, where more than 3,000 poppies were crocheted and knit by residents of Drumheller and surrounding areas. Committee members designed artful pieces with the poppies and they made their debut last year at the Western GM Art Galley at the BCF, as well as in local business and institutions throughout town
The red poppies signify the servicemen and women who fell in battle and the purple poppies are for the service animals.
At this time the committee is not looking for more poppies, but has designs to make it an ongoing project similar to the veteran’s banners in Drumheller.


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