The Ross Brothers

The Ross Brothers

1. Hugh Ross

From the left, Hugh Ross, Simon Ross, and William Ross.

They were three brothers in the First World War – they all died within one year of each other. Hugh Ross (23) died on 6 June 1916 in Belgium, Simon Ross (27) died on 22 February 1917 in Mesopotamia, and William Ross (29) died on 1 May 1917 in France. They were the sons of Hugh Ross from the Highlands of Scotland, who immigrated to Canada in 1907 and settled in Virden, Manitoba. He brought two sons to Canada, Hugh and William, a daughter, Mary, and a second wife, Jane.  The middle son, Simon, did not immigrate to Canada.

The youngest of the three brothers, Private Hugh Ross, was born in Forres, Scotland in 1893. When he enlisted in January 1915, he was single and a farmer living in Virden, Manitoba. The 28th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, took him on strength in February 1916, and he died in action four months later at 23. Hugh died early in the attack at Sanctuary Wood, a strategic hill in the Ypres Salient in Belgium. He died during the Battle of Mount Sorrel, with the Canadian Corps having heavy casualties from 2 June 1916 to 13 June 1916. On June 6th, the 28th Battalion reported him missing in action, then six months later, the Canadian Corps listed him as presumed killed. On 10 January 1917, the Brandon Sun had his name under war casualties. Canada never recovered his remains.

The second oldest, Private Simon Ross, who never immigrated to Canada, joined the 1st Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders before the outbreak of war and went into theatre in France on 12 October 1914. The 1st Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, served in India before WW1, on the Western Front in France from 1914-15, and then dispatched to Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) in December 1915. In December 1916, they participated in “the advance on Baghdad,” part of the Mesopotamia campaign, with 50,000 soldiers, most from India. In late February 1917, the British advanced on Kut to retake the city, which the British had lost in April 1916. The British retook Kut from Ottoman forces on 24 February 1917, then marched on Baghdad in March 1917. Simon died in action on 22 February 1917 during the retaking of Kut at 27.

The oldest brother, Acting Lance Corporal William Ross, was born in 1888 in Scotland. Before the war, he worked as a teamster and lived on 8th Street in Brandon, Manitoba. On 26 August 1916, the Brandon Sun said he was “a wrestler of some repute, being a husky young athlete.” He was single and enlisted on 27 October 1914, sailed in May 1915, and went to France in September 1915. In February 1916, he fought on the Western Front with the 27th Battalion, CEF. On 9 August 1916, the Germans wounded him in the left hand, then on 1 May 1917, he died in action in the trenches west of Fresnoy. Canada never recovered his remains.

The 27th Battalion War Diary lists 37 KIA, 8 died of wounds, 186 wounded, and 36 missing during the lead-up to the attack on Fresnoy starting on 3 May 1917. During the Battle of Fresnoy, 3 May to 7 May 1917, at the village of Fresnoy-en-Gohelle, the Canadian Corps incurred 1,259 casualties. While the Canadians took the town within a few hours from the Germans, enemy forces shelled the village with an estimated 100,000 rounds of artillery, causing most of the Canadian casualties.

The RCA Museum displays the military decorations and memorial plaques (“Dead Man’s Pennies”) of the Ross Brothers. Mrs. T. J. Demers, their younger half-sister, donated the photographs and military decorations to the RCA Museum in 1984. Each soldier received the British War Medal and Victory Medal, with Simon also receiving the 1914 Star and William receiving the 1914-15 Star. Note the military decorations and memorial plaques above.

We thought all three Ross brothers were Canadian but discovered staff had incorrectly labelled Simon as Canadian. When we looked at their photos, Simon and William had Canadian Infantry uniforms, and Hugh wore a Seaforth Highlanders uniform. Previously someone had mislabelled the images of Hugh and Simon. Also, Simon received the 1914 Star instead of the 1914-15 Star. The Canadian Infantry did not fight in France and Belgium until January 1915, after the eligibility date for the 1914 Star. Interestingly, Simon fought in the Mesopotamian Campaign in modern-day Iraq. From a Canadian perspective, this is very unusual due to the Canadian Corps not participating directly in Mesopotamia.

“Dead Man’s Penny” is a term used to refer to the Memorial Plaque given to the next-of-kin of British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the First World War. The manufacturer made the plaque from bronze and featured an image of Britannia holding a laurel wreath and a trident. They inscribed the soldier’s name in raised letters on the plaque. The term “Dead Man’s Penny” is believed to have originated from the resemblance of the plaque to a penny. The plaque was a way for the British government to honour the sacrifice of soldiers who died in the war and to provide some comfort to their families as a tangible reminder of their loved one’s service.

Commonwealth nations awarded the British War Medal to all officers and enlisted personnel of British and Imperial forces who served overseas from August 1914 to November 1918. They awarded the Victory Medal to those who received the British War Medal and entered a theatre of war from August 1914 to November 1918. They made the British War Medal out of silver and the Victory Medal out of bronze and suspended them from a ribbon. The ribbon for the British War Medal was orange with blue, black and white stripes at the edges, while the ribbon for the Victory Medal was rainbow-coloured.

The British Empire and Indian Forces awarded the 1914 Star to officers and enlisted personnel who served in France or Belgium from August 1914 to November 1914 (end of the 1st Battle of Ypres). They issued the 1914-15 Star to soldiers who served in any theatre of war between August 1914 and December 1915 who were not eligible for the 1914 Star. Both decorations include a ribbon with red, white, and blue stripes.

News of the Ross brothers’ death likely spread in Virden and Brandon, but museum staff could not find a single article on the Ross brothers after their death. They appear to be a previously unrecognized set of brothers who died during the First World War. Maybe the father, Hugh Ross, did not want the story broadcasted or to talk about his loss. The mother of the three brothers, Elsie Kynoch, died in Scotland in 1902, and never had to experience the sorrow of losing three sons to war. Losing one child is a tragedy beyond words; losing two or more is difficult to comprehend. For these families, the war was not just a distant military conflict but a personal tragedy that shaped their lives.

The families of those who died in the First World War were left to struggle with their grief. Mental health services were virtually non-existent, and many people found it difficult to talk about their feelings or seek support, and many families suffered in silence. Despite these challenges, many families found ways to honour the memory of their fallen soldiers, including displaying their photos and decorations in their homes. Additionally, the Canadian government offered support to these families, including financial compensation and issuing service medals to honour their sacrifice.

The way the brothers died was unusual. They all died in the lead-up to significant battles with heavy casualty rates. In all three cases, they likely died from the impact of enemy artillery fire or explosives. Additionally, the British and Canadian armies never recovered their bodies from the battle sites, and their remains have no known burial location. Sadly, the Ross brothers died from youngest to oldest over eleven months in separate countries and theatres of war.

War memorials worldwide list the names of British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in military conflicts. The Ross brothers are on war memorials in Canada, Iraq and Europe: the Menin Gate Memorial in Belgium lists Hugh Ross, the Basra Memorial in Iraq lists Simon Ross, and the Vimy Memorial in France lists William Ross. The Virden War Memorial, erected to honour residents, lists Hugh Ross and William Ross. The Roll of Honour at St Paul’s United in Virden lists the names of all three Ross brothers. The Roll of Honour at Knox United Church in Brandon lists William Ross. The Canadian Virtual War Memorial lists Hugh and William, and other war memorials likely list one or more of the brothers. Their inscriptions are a tangible reminder of their sacrifice and help to keep their memory alive.

The Virden War Memorial listing Hugh and William Ross. Photo by Captain T. Challen.

Since the First World War, the stories of the families who lost multiple sons have been kept alive through films and other media. These stories help to highlight the terrible toll that war can take on families and the importance of remembering those who died in combat operations. The families who lost three or more sons during the world wars represent a poignant reminder of the human cost of war and their legacy will continue to inspire future generations.

By Andrew Oakden & Jonathan Ferguson