The middle child of three, Henry Louis Norwest’s early life was shaped by his family’s experience of single parenthood and community dislocation and diaspora. During his childhood, his extended Cree family led a highly mobile lifestyle in the area of present-day central Alberta, searching for new hunting territories following the abrupt disappearance of the bison on the prairies in the 1870s and 1880s (see also Buffalo Hunt).
His mother, Genevieve Batoche, had been a member of the Cree Papaschase Band but found herself, along with 83 others, struck off the band membership list and placed on another as a result of a dispute between the local Indian Agent and the band’s chief in 1880. These 84 individuals and their families were re-located to the north side of the North Saskatchewan River at present-day St. Albert and were denied the land and rations they were owed as signatories of Treaty 6. They would become known as the “Edmonton Stragglers.”
Eventually, Genevieve applied for scrip (government-issued certificates offered to Indigenous individuals who had extinguished land rights in exchange for a one-time payment or a plot of land) in 1886. From the government, she received a mere $240 one-time lump sum payment to help support her three young boys. The remaining members of the Edmonton Stragglers and the Papaschase Band soon followed suit, surrendering rights to title and accepting scrip. By 1887, they had effectively been dispersed to either neighbouring First Nations reserves or Métis settlements throughout present-day Alberta. The Norwests moved south to Waskasoo Seepee (Red Deer River) in pursuit of a new life.
Little is known about Norwest between the mid-1890s and 1914 except that he had five children of his own and was employed in typically labour-intensive work, including farming, ranching, hunting, trapping and even as a rodeo performer. It was likely during these years that he honed his skills as a hunter and trapper, which would later serve him well as a sniper in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
When the First World War was declared in Europe in August 1914, Norwest had just recently taken up a homestead near Wainwright, Alberta. Yet he still worked to a seasonal cycle, farming from the spring until winter, and then hunting, trapping and labouring until the spring planting season began again. But, in January 1915, instead of entering another round of winter labour and hunting, he decided to enlist as a soldier in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He assumed a false name — Henry Louie — and enlisted at Edmonton as part of a mounted rifles unit.
It took Henry Norwest over a year-and-a-half to arrive on the battlefields in France and Belgium. After a rocky start where he was discharged in April 1915, Norwest worked as a Royal Northwest Mounted Police officer for five months. But he re-enlisted in September — this time under his real name, Henry Norwest — with the 50th Battalion of Calgary. The battalion was shipped overseas the following month, but it would take nearly a year before Norwest finally saw action on the front line. In August 1916, after months of training in England, the 50th Battalion finally embarked for France as a combat unit. And it was here where Norwest would settle in as a member of the 50th Battalion and gain a reputation as one of the deadliest snipers of the British Empire.
By 1917, fellow soldiers in the 50th Battalion began to realize Norwest’s prowess as a marksman. His stealth and expertise in camouflage was applauded early on and, soon after, his riflery too. He was first mentioned in the 50th Battalion’s war diary at the end of April when he killed three enemy soldiers in just one day at the sharp end of his Ross rifle. Exactly one year later, Norwest notched his 100th kill –– a record unrivalled in the entire British Army to that time.
Norwest’s approach to sniping was aggressive. Most snipers fired from their own trench through metal loops built into the parapet, while others retreated to the rear of the front line to gain a wider perspective of the battlefield. Norwest, however, preferred no man’s land — the wasteland between the opposing forces’ trenches — to wreak havoc on the advancing forces. His patience was unparalleled, having once waited two days to silence two other snipers who had spotted an earlier shot. His reputation grew beyond his battalion and even the Canadian Corps, as some prisoners of war spoke of their fear of him.
DID YOU KNOW?
Soldiers of the 50th Battalion rarely referred to Henry Louis Norwest by his surname. Instead, he was given the nickname, “Ducky” because of his shyness, having reportedly “ducked” all of the women he encountered while in England. Norwest was above average in height and “powerfully-built,” yet he remained quiet and reserved among his fellow soldiers. When he did speak, his comrades knew him to be “pleasant and kindly.” Several people noted Norwest’s dark, piercing eyes that resembled at once seriousness, compassion and humour. A fellow 50th Battalion soldier remembered fondly, “[Norwest] was quite naturally one of us.”
As a member of the 50th Battalion, Norwest found himself involved in some of the Canadian Corps’ deadliest battles during the First World War. He sniped at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, the muddy Battle of Passchendaele in the summer and fall of 1917, and the particularly bloody Battle of Amiens in August 1918. During these engagements and the many others in which he participated, Norwest sent many enemy soldiers to the grave but not nearly as many comrades he saw killed and helped bury. In the constant presence of death and its prospect, he developed, like many other soldiers, a certain fatalistic attitude towards death. He regularly and openly pondered when he would be killed — often adding: “But it doesn’t bother me.”
In August 1918, the 50th Battalion, as part of the 4th Canadian Division, took part in the Battle of Amiens to mark the beginning of the Hundred Days Campaign that would eventually end the war. The first day — 8 August — was a success as the 4th Division reached its goal with little difficulty, but soon after it encountered fierce resistance from the enemy. Amidst the fury of bullets and shells, Norwest confided to one of his fellow soldiers that he believed he would die in the coming days. On 18 August, as Norwest settled into his sniping post as he had done so many times before, an enemy sniper pulled the trigger before Norwest could pull his own. He was killed instantly, shot through the head.
Death and Burial
When it was reported that Henry Norwest had been killed, General Arthur Currie of the Canadian Corps ordered a barrage against the location from which the enemy snipers had fired. Soon after, a temporary grave was dug and a wooden cross erected for the burial of Lance-Corporal Henry Louis Norwest. On the cross, it read, “It must’ve been a damned good sniper that got Norwest.”
In the coming months, Lance-Corporal Page of the 50th Battalion would pen a letter to Norwest’s mother, Genevieve, informing her of her son’s death. The only conciliation she received was an opportunity to write the inscription on her son’s permanent grave — “may his soul rest in peace” — and a $20 monthly pension from the Canadian government, which was heavily administered by the Department of Indian Affairs because of the unquestioned assumption at the time that Indigenous peoples were incapable of handling their finances responsibly.
Norwest’s body was buried in 1918 and remains at the Warvillers Churchyard Extension in Somme, France — one of the 23,000 sites around the world maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Significance and Legacy
By the time of his death, Henry Louis Norwest had amassed 115 confirmed kills, though it is generally assumed his actual count was higher. Norwest received a Military Medal in July 1917 and was posthumously awarded a Bar to his medal in November 1918. Even though he is now dead, his legacy as a skilled marksman and a Cree man lives on. Beginning in the 1960s, one of his daughters began recounting stories about him, which have been passed down through generations of the Norwest family.
Ninety years from the day Norwest was killed, members of the Royal Canadian Legion branch in Fort Saskatchewan, having heard these stories, realized that Norwest’s name was not included on the local cenotaph. In 2008, at a ceremony with his descendants present, members of Branch #27 added Norwest’s name to the cenotaph’s honour roll and named their canteen in his honour.
One of the remaining physical remnants of Norwest’s life as a sniper is his Ross rifle, which is currently on display at the King’s Own Calgary Regiment Museum.