By Jensen, Randy on November 7, 2020.
Among the small group of men who decided to leave the Kainai Blood Reserve to enlist and serve in the Canadian Expeditionary Force to fight during the First World War, two brothers, Nick King and Joe Crow Chief, made a solemn pledge to each other before heading overseas.
The two men went to a local Sundance together in their white buckskins. On that day in 1916, Joe rode into the Sundance on a white horse and his brother, Nick, on a black horse. The two men vowed to each other when they returned after the war one day they would go to another Sundance, and this time Nick would ride the white horse and Joe the black.
This would happen finally in 1920, but before that reunion both would see horrors neither could have imagined as young warriors eager to prove their salt on the fields of battle in the greatest war humanity had ever perpetrated on itself up until that time.
Joe and Nick enlisted with the 91st Battalion in Fort Macleod in 1916. Their older brother, Bumblebee, also tried to enlist, but was rejected because he could not speak English and did not want to cut his braids. The family came from warrior stock. Their grandfather had fought in the last great Indian battle, the Battle of the Belly River in Lethbridge on Oct. 25, 1870, leaving them a large legacy to live up to.
“They went because of the Treaty they had with Britain,” explains Elder Charlie Crow Chief, who is the son of Joe and the nephew of Nick. “To protect their Treaty rights. They didn’t have to go, but it was a choice they made. Of course, he never told us anything about it. He never talked to his children about what he did and what he went through; so I never really heard him talk about it. But I would hear others talk about it.”
Both men would eventually find themselves on the front lines fighting on the Western Front a little less than a year later just in time for the Battle of the Somme, one of the most brutal battles of the war. A serious train accident sometime during that time would injure both men. Nick would spend the next three months in hospital recovering from his injuries.
Joe would recover from a minor shoulder injury and return to the front. For Nick the war was mostly over, but for Joe it was just beginning.
As trench warfare took its toll, and the war ground to a stalemate where neither side could turn the advantage despite horrendous losses, to keep morale up and obtain important intelligence the Canadian soldiers began to take part in fierce night raids into German lines. The Canadians excelled in this type of non-conventional warfare, and Joe was even more adept at it than most. It was a brutal and merciless business for which Joe was never proud.
“My dad was never proud to talk about what he did,” confirms Charlie. “He told me, ‘I never wanted to be coming into a parade for what I done. I killed kids, ladies, young boys in the army.’ And, he says, ‘I am not happy about it.’
“Sometimes he would be sitting here, and he’d say, ‘My Gosh. My Gosh.’ And he would go out. He always remembered what he did being over there.”
One of these night raids almost cost Joe his life when his squadron came under attack from enemy mustard gas shells. Joe was the only survivor. He had lung problems for the rest of his life as a result of his 10-month, prolonged exposure on the Western Front to various gas attacks.
One of the undoubted Allied triumphs in an otherwise bleak year of warfare was the Canadian Corps’ victory at Vimy Ridge in April 1917.
Joe took part in that battle, and was one of the first in his battalion to make it over the top. His backpack was shredded from constant fire and the heel of his boot had been shot off by the time he got there, but nonetheless Joe and his sergeant managed to get around and in behind the German defences.
“When we went into Lethbridge to the Piccadilly restaurant, a couple of veterans would come and sit with my uncle and talk about what they did and what happened,” remembers Charlie. “The good times; they would never talk about the bad times. They used to talk about my dad, how brave he was. There were a bunch of them going up toward Vimy Ridge, and they were getting slaughtered all the time. A lot of them were killed, and then several of them were right along the cliff. The sergeant and my dad went right up to the barricade behind the snipers, and when my dad got on top he did the (Blackfoot) War Cry, and the Germans dropped their weapons.”
The sergeant ordered Joe to shoot them down anyway, and the rest of the squadron joined them on top soon after.
“He said once,” recalls Charlie, “looking at his family here, ‘If this is what comes here I know what will happen to my family. What we did over there with the Germans – we had no mercy.'”
Feeling guilt over what he had done later in life, Joe seldom talked about his wartime experiences going so far as to tell his grandchildren, when asked about what he did in the war, that he “just took care of the horses.”
“He just didn’t want to share the pain and sadness of it,” confirms Charlie.
When Joe returned to Canada he simply abandoned his unit in Medicine Hat and later became a farmer. Nick returned to mining coal upon his return and eventually started his own mining business on the reserve. He lost his son in a riding accident, and later adopted, as per Blackfoot custom, his nephew Charlie Crow Chief as a replacement son.
Charlie says he remembers working in the mines with his uncle as a kid.
“I still have my pick,” he says. “I started picking when I was 12 years old with my uncle.”
The business was largely successful until natural gas came into Alberta in 1945. After that Nick closed up his mine.
Charlie says Joe once told him when he got sick and older that what got him through a lot of the fiercest fighting in the war was a cup of rum given to all soldiers to put fire in their bellies before going into battle.
“That’s what he told me,” remembers Charlie. “‘When I die,’ he said, ‘go pour some rum on my grave.’ So that’s what I do on every Veterans Day.”
Follow @TimKalHerald on Twitter