Archives provinciales du Nouveau-Brunswick

Les soldats de la Grande Guerre : Projet de biographies historiques sur les soldats de Fredericton

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Duffie, David William

Private 536338
16th Canadian Field Ambulance
Canadian Army Medical Corps


Private David William Duffie was born January 5, 1901 in Fredericton, New Brunswick to David Duffie and Ellen Eliza Kaye who resided on 337 Aberdeen Street. His parents married one another on April 5, 1893 in Fredericton. Growing up, William was the youngest in the family having two older sisters named Ellen May, who would pass away at the age of 23 in 1912, and Mary Louise. David’s mother, Ellen Eliza, would pass away prior to David’s service in the war as records reveal his father was left a widower and re-married a woman by the name of Agnes Tribe on November 3, 1913. According to David’s attestation, before his enlistment on September 29, 1916 in Saint John, New Brunswick, he was working locally as a drug clerk, was unmarried, and belonged to the Presbyterian Church. Duffie was described to be five feet three inches tall, having a scar on his right thigh previously from a burn, and had brown eyes, light brown hair, and a medium complexion. An interesting note to his enlistment reveals that while he claimed to be 18 years of age at the time of his attestation, claiming to be born in 1898, in truth David, or “Billy” as he was known to the community, was only 15 years of age as his birth certificate confirms. He would never return home to his family.

Wartime Experience

After enlisting with the 16th Canadian Overseas Field Ambulance in Saint John in the fall of 1916, David would arrive in Liverpool, England seven months later on April 7, 1917 aboard the S.S Missanabie. Another young man from Fredericton, Frank Chandler Williams, would also be on the same ship while serving with the 16th CFA. Prior to leaving Halifax for England, on March 25 in Saint John, David would write his formal will naming his step-mother as his sole beneficiary. For the next eleven months, David would be in England with the Canadian Army Medical Corps for training. An interesting note in his medical history sheet highlights him being brought before a medical proceedings board at Witley Camp on July 9, 1917 to determine if his small physical stature was a developmental impairment. The likelihood of questions surrounding his age because of his small stature likely led to his continued training within the CAMC until being assigned to the Llandovery Castle March 21, 1918. Sadly, Billy would only spend a few months aboard the ship.

On June 27, 1918 while enroute from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Liverpool, England after having brought injured soldiers back to Canada, the HMHS Llandovery Castle sent out an emergency signal seventy miles off the coast of Ireland after it had been torpedoed by a German U-86. Being a hospital ship it was clearly identified as such and was running with full lights. In addition to David and Frank, the crew consisted of one hundred and sixty-four men, eighty officers and personnel of the Canadian Medical Corps, as well as fourteen nurses. There were two hundred and fifty-eight people on board as the ship sunk in a matter minutes. As news spread of the disaster, outrage followed as reports revealed that while the crew were attempting to escape in lifeboats, the German U-86 surfaced and began tracking lifeboats with machine gunfire in an attempt to destroy evidence. Only twenty-four people would survive what became known as one of the most significant war atrocities and Canadian naval disasters of the Great War. On Tuesday, July 2, 1918 the Daily Gleaner reported two Fredericton and three Marysville boys on board. In addition to David “Billy” William Duffie’s body never being found, Frank Chandler Williams, Edward McPherson, Harry Harrison, and Walter Sacre were lost and presumed to have died at sea. David was only 17 years old when he died. According to his service record, by 1921 David’s family had relocated to 15 Morris Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Lest We Forget

Private David “Billy” William Duffie is remembered at the Halifax Memorial along with 274 individuals from the First World War and 2, 847 from the Second World War. This memorial was built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to honour and commemorate those who died during the First and Second World Wars and have no known grave and those lost at sea. A majority of those here include Canadian sailors, merchant seamen, and Canadian soldiers and nursing sisters who were lost at sea. An ordinary and amazing young man “Billy” gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to helping our most vulnerable. While he may not be considered a war hero, in paying the ultimate sacrifice he needs to be remembered for defending rights and freedoms we all hold dear. Please, do not take these values for granted.

*This biography was researched and written by Rachel Boucher & Rodney Maillet-Robichaud, Grade 7 and 8 students (2015-2016) at George Street Middle School located in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada.