Samuel Simpson Sharpe | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Samuel Simpson Sharpe

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Samuel Simpson Sharpe, barrister, politician, soldier (born on 13 March 1873 in Zephyr, Ontario; died 25 May 1918 in Montreal, Quebec). Sharpe was a militia officer and sitting Member of Parliament when he raised the 116th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, and took it overseas. After participating in some of Canada’s bloodiest battles of the war, he was hospitalized for “nervous shock” and returned to Canada. While undergoing treatment, he committed suicide by jumping from a Montreal hospital window.

Education and Civilian Career

Samuel Sharpe was the son of George Sharpe and Mary Ann Simpson. He received his primary and secondary education at schools in nearby Uxbridge, Ontario. When he was 16, Sharpe joined the 34th Ontario Regiment, a local militia infantry unit. He completed postsecondary education at the University of Toronto, where he took a Bachelor of Arts in political science at University College and a law degree at Osgoode Hall.

Sharpe graduated in 1895 and became a prominent barrister and solicitor in Uxbridge. He was a community leader, an elder in the Methodist Church, a Master in the Masonic Lodge and town solicitor for 10 years. In 1903, he married Mabel Crosby (1871–1938). Sharpe was commissioned in 1894, rose to the rank of major and became the 34th Regiment’s second-in-command.

Political Career

In 1908, Samuel Sharpe was elected as a Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for the former riding of Ontario North; he was reelected in 1911. Prior to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Prime Minister Robert Borden had considered Sharpe for his Minister of Militia and Defence. In the end, Borden selected the bellicose Samuel Hughes, another militia officer. Sharpe and Hughes quarrelled in the House of Commons about militia policy and Hughes’s antagonistic personality. In 1917, Sharpe was elected for the Unionist Party while serving overseas (see Union Government).

First World War

When the First World War began, Sharpe was not initially selected for command. He believed this was due to past disagreements with Hughes, who used his power to appoint and remove commanding officers at will. Finally, in November 1915, Hughes authorized Sharpe to raise an infantry unit: the 116th (Ontario County) Battalion.

Sharpe was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and appointed commanding officer. He personally recruited many of the unit’s members, several of whom were his relatives or friends. The battalion sailed from Halifax on the RMS Olympic (sister ship of the ill-fated Titanic) with four other battalions on 24 July 1916 and arrived at Liverpool a week later. After further training, the 116th deployed to France on 11 February 1917.

In France, the 116th became part of 9th Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, replacing the 60th (Victoria Rifles of Canada) Battalion. During the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 9–12 April 1917, the 116th was in reserve; it entered front-line trenches later. On 23 July, the battalion participated in a raid at Avion on the far side of Vimy Ridge and suffered 25 casualties. Sharpe’s long-term colleague, Lieutenant Tom Hutchinson, died from wounds sustained in the raid; the loss affected him badly.

On 22 August at Hill 70, the 116th relieved the 27th Battalion in a frontline trench. During the next five days, the unit suffered 11 men killed and 51 wounded, the result of sustained German artillery bombardment. In October and November, during the Battle of Passchendaele, the battalion suffered another 36 casualties. On 7 November, Sharpe was mentioned in Despatches by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, to which the Canadian Corps belonged.

On 26 December, Sharpe was sent to Britain to attend a senior officer training course. At the same time, the chain of command relieved Sharpe as commanding officer. Lieutenant-Colonel George Pearkes, VC, replaced him. In January 1918, Sharpe was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Shortly after receiving the medal from King George V at Buckingham Palace, Sharpe suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to the Canadian Convalescence Hospital at Buxton.

In May, Sharpe was invalided to Canada and admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. He was suffering from shell shock, today known as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Conditions at the front, in particular the death of so many of his comrades, had taken their toll on Sharpe. On 25 May, he jumped to his death through a fourth-floor hospital window to the concrete pavement below. His funeral was held in Uxbridge four days later.

Newspaper Clipping about Samuel Sharpe, 1918

Significance and Recognition

Sharpe killed himself due to the strain of wartime service. He was among almost 10,000 Canadian soldiers diagnosed with shell shock during the First World War. At the end of the war, it was generally accepted that soldier suicides were caused by traumatic war experiences. Sharpe was considered one of the “gallant heroes” who had sacrificed their lives in service. In 1920, a memorial plaque to Sharpe was unveiled at the local Methodist Church.

Yet Sharpe’s story and those of other “shell-shocked” soldiers were quickly forgotten or ignored. In 1924, a statue was dedicated in Parliament to another MP, Lieutenant-Colonel George Baker, who had died in battle in June 1916. Sharpe, the only other MP to have died in the war, wasn’t even mentioned. It would be almost a century before his sacrifice was formally commemorated in Parliament.

In 2015, Conservative MP Erin O’Toole, then veterans affairs minister, began a campaign to officially recognize Sharpe. A bronze bas-relief of Sharpe was commissioned and completed in 2016. However, after the Liberals came to power, it remained in storage. Eventually, a coalition of MPs organized a successful unanimous consent motion to permit it to be installed. On 7 November 2018, the tribute was unveiled in the Centre Block of Parliament.

On 25 May 2018, the Uxbridge Scott Historical Society and the Sam Sharpe Statue Committee publicly unveiled a bronze statue of Sharpe in downtown Uxbridge in the presence of members of his family. The larger-than-life statue depicts Sharpe sitting down in a reflective pose as he contemplates writing a letter to the wife of one of his soldiers who has just died. Tellingly, Sharpe has one foot raised above the ground (resting on a rock), a sculptural tradition indicating the subject died in battle.

On 12 September 2019, the Durham Region Courthouse in Oshawa was renamed the Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Simpson Sharpe, DSO, MP Courthouse. The ceremony took place in the presence of government officials, soldiers, teachers, students and Sharpe family members. As Grade 11 student Emma Webb noted, “His story cannot be forgotten. It needs to be remembered.”

Sharpe is one of many service members over the years who have suffered psychological injury due to combat. There is hope that public recognition of his fate will lessen the stigma so often associated with PTSD.