By Randy Richardson
It is with a tear in my eye and the pride of my community, Fort Saskatchewan, AB, that I write you to let you know of the great honour, respect and esteem with which Lance Corporal Henry Louis “Ducky” Norwest is held. As an Associate Member of Branch #27 (Fort Saskatchewan) of the Royal Canadian Legion, I was aware of Mr. Norwest’s reputation in the branch and have heard senior branch members discuss him on several occasions. However, in conducting this research for you, I was deeply moved in learning the details of his life, his military record and his sacrifice.
Henry Norwest was born in Fort Saskatchewan on May 1st, 1884, a Metis of Cree descent. Before enlisting in the Canadian Army, Henry lived on the Hobbema Reserve (now known as Maskwacis), approximately 100 km south of Fort Saskatchewan, and was a rodeo performer and ranch-hand. He enlisted in 1915 as a private in the 50th Infantry Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces and was deployed to France in August 1916. Promoted in the field to Lance-Corporal, Norwest was the leading Canadian sniper during World War I and is credited with 115 documented fatal shots. Known to have only counted witnessed kills, his actual total can only be higher than 115.
Henry Norwest was awarded the Military Medal in April 1917 for his “great bravery, skill and initiative in sniping the enemy after the capture of the Pimple,” a peak on Vimy Ridge, near Arras in northern France.
Vimy Ridge held a commanding view of the surrounding countryside and had defied all previous attempts at capture, before being assaulted and successfully captured by the CEF, April 9 -12, 1917. All four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, acting together for the first time in battle, did what the mighty nations of Britain and France could not. They defeated the Germans. The Pimple was captured on the first day, but the battle raged for 3 days more. A costly battle, the CEF lost more than 10,600 troops killed and wounded in those four days, but this was a fraction of the 150,000 casualties suffered by French and British troops in previous efforts to conquer Vimy Ridge. Canadian losses would have been higher but Henry Norwest saved numerous Canadian lives by conducting overwatch sniper operations to eliminate German snipers and machine gun emplacements before they could exact revenge on the victorious Canadians.
According to the webpage “Sharpshooter: Henry Louis Norwest” on the Veteran Affairs Canada website, a Bar was added to his Military Medal in 1918 for accomplishments since lost to history. However, further research uncovered that the Bar was added posthumously “for Gallantry in the Field.” A Bar represents another award of the Military Medal, something that was only achieved by 830 members of the 600,000+ strong Canadian Expeditionary Forces.
Besides being an outstanding marksman, Lance Corporal Norwest was known as an expert in camouflage techniques, and was able to remain motionless for seemingly days at a time. He accomplished most of his kills while stalking through No Man’s Land, the deadly zone between the Allied and German fronts, where anything that moved was a target for snipers and artillery from both sides, and by covertly getting behind enemy lines. He was known to have fearsome eyes that looked like black marble, and he was respected by troops in his battalion for his calm demeanor and kind manner.
In an era when due respect was not bestowed upon native soldiers, Norwest was not initially included on the Branch #27 Cenotaph, despite his legendary sniping record, and his payment of the ultimate sacrifice, death on battlefield, In 2004, members of RCL #27 succeeded in erasing this embarrassment and had Henry Norwest’s name added to the Cenotaph, in the presence of several guests of honour, his descendants.
The Canteen of RCL #27 is officially known as the Henry Norwest Canteen and his picture is proudly displayed within, along with a feather and a beaded wristband, donated by descendants and relatives for the Cenotaph ceremony. In the centre of the Fort Saskatchewan Cemetery, in the Royal Canadian Legion’s Henry Norwest Field Of Honour, two brass plaques pay tribute to Lance Corporal Norwest.
According to German POW’s, Lance Corporal Norwest was known by and feared by German forces. He was killed by an enemy sniper on August 18, 1918, and is buried in Warvillers, Somme, France. Upon his death, Canadian Major-General Arthur Currie ordered every available artillery gun to fire on enemy positions as a tribute to one of the British Empire’s top sharpshooters.