Reviving Remembrance: The Sandwick Cairn and Lieutenant Thomas Wilkinson, V.C.

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Article / January 20, 2017

By: 2Lt Cameron Park, CANSCOT UPAR

Under a tall oak tree near a small white church in Comox, B.C., a tall pyramid of grey stone stands. Rising from the ground to support a cross as a memorial to fallen Canadian soldiers, the Sandwick Cairn has stood as a quiet sentry of remembrance since November of 1922. Named for the neighbourhood in which it stands, a brass plaque with the names of soldiers from the Comox area who fell in the First World War faces the nearby road.

Unveiled by then Governor General Lord Byng of Vimy, the Sandwick Cairn was built as a memorial for all of Comox from stones brought from the fields in the surrounding farms. Many of the stones were contributed by families of the fallen. As described by the Vancouver Daily Province at the time, “[I]t is a pyramid of stones gathered from the farms which the lads it commemorates knew and loved so well.” As the community grew, other cenotaphs became the focus of Remembrance Day ceremonies, and the cairn did not receive the same attention it once did.

In 2016, a name on the cairn became an item of special interest to The Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary’s), an army reserve unit based on Vancouver Island. A Victoria Cross winner, Lieutenant Thomas Wilkinson, from Little River near Comox, was listed on the cairn. As the centennial of his award approached, his connection to Canada was explored, and it was discovered that Lieutenant Wilkinson’s military service began with The Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary’s), then known as the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish), Canadian Expeditionary Force. Joining as a Private, upon arriving in England he was selected for training as an officer and was transferred to the 7th Battalion of the Loyal Regiment (North Lancashire). Lieutenant Wilkinson was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for his actions during the Battle of the Somme on July 5, 1916. Manning a machine gun post during a withdrawal, he held back an enemy attack. While attempting to rescue a wounded soldier in front of his position, he was shot and killed.

The Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary’s) reached out to find a connection to Lieutenant Wilkinson’s family. Lieutenant Wilkinson’s nephew Tim was found and contacted.   “This year is the commemoration of the Battle of the Somme and various people in the family have written genealogies. Tom had been mentioned in that, and someone tracked us down through the genealogy and identified me, ” he explained.

The family had always been aware of the decorated soldier in their family history, said Tim Wilkinson.  “It kind of permeated our childhoods, so we always had his photograph up. He was known as Tom, although his full name was Thomas. His picture was there, and he was always known as this iconic figure in the background.”   

Together, The Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary’s) and the Wilkinson family made arrangements for a visit.  On the weekend of September 24-25, the Wilkinson family — Tim, his wife Bellamy, and their son Tom — arrived in Victoria as guests of the regiment. Escorted by Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Crober, the family toured the regiment’s home, the Bay Street Armouries, after which they joined members of the regiment in Nanaimo to observe soldiers training on the rifle range. Under close supervision, both father and son took advantage of an opportunity to fire a C7A2 service rifle and a C9A2 light machine gun. Broad smiles spoke to their view of the experience.

Shortly after, the Wilkinson family had the opportunity to speak to the assembled soldiers of the regiment. It was an opportunity for the soldiers to learn more about a regimental connection to a Victoria Cross recipient as both Tim Wilkinson and Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel Crober spoke to the assembled ranks.

Lieutenant Wilkinson’s grandnephew Thomas spoke to the experience of meeting the soldiers who perpetuate the name and traditions of his great uncle’s regiment.   “ I think it’s highly important that you’re not allowing tradition to be dissolved. It seems like you’re carrying things on and flying the flag, and commemorating at this time something that we all hold dear to us. ” 

For the final part of their pilgrimage, on the morning of September 26, the family and soldiers from the regiment gathered at the Sandwick Cairn in Comox, 100 years to the day since Lieutenant Wilkinson’s award of the Victoria Cross was announced. Standing at the Sandwick Cairn next to a piper, Tim spoke about his uncle’s life in the Comox area:

 “By 1912, the family had moved to live near here, in Little River, where Tom joined them after completing schooling. Wilkinson Road in Comox is named for the family. One local lady was reported as remembering him attending dances there and described him as a shy, handsome young man. Then, as soon as war was declared, Tom joined the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish), as a Private and shipped with the other volunteers to England. After his arrival, he transferred to the 7th Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment as a gunnery officer, with the rank of temporary lieutenant. In late 1915, he went with his regiment to France.” 

Honourary Lieutenant-Colonel Crober spoke to the importance of the event as the centennials of many events in the First World War loom close.   “For the Canadian Scottish Regiment, this is one of many such opportunities over the next few years to recall, review and consider such bravery and sacrifices because the unit had so many soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice, many of whom also won the highest categories of awards for valour in the field.” 

Valour is an important story in the regiment’s history: Four Victoria Crosses were won by members of the regiment during its own actions in the First World War.

To maintain this connection with the community of Comox, the Wilkinson family, and the Sandwick Cairn, members from The Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary’s) paraded at the Sandwick Cairn on Remembrance Day this year, and at the direction of Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen Sawyer, the regiment will continue to do so in years to come.

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