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Heroes of Vimy Ridge: WWI Métis sniper was twice awarded the Military Medal

Published in the Wasaga Sun / Metroland Media, 9 April 2017

Aboriginal and Métis soldiers have a long history of honourable service to Canada and the British crown.

Close to 4,000 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in World War I were of aboriginal descent, an astonishing number given the limited civil rights accorded Canada’s First Peoples in the early twentieth century.

One Métis soldier who served with the CEF was Lance-Corporal Henry Norwest, a sniper who during his three years of service, claimed 115 confirmed kills, although it’s possible that he had many more unconfirmed kills.  Many German POWs confirmed that Norwest was known and feared for his sniper skills.

He was also awarded the Military Medal twice for bravery on the battlefield.  Of the 13, 654 Military Medals that have been awarded to Canadians over the years, only 848, or 6.2% of recipients, have won the medal twice.

Henry Louie Norwest was born on 1 May 1884 in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, the son of Louis Norwest, a Cree from the Hobbema reserve in near Edmonton, Alberta, and Geneviève Batoche.

After leaving school, Norwest found work as a ranch hand and performed in rodeos.

In January 1915, Norwest joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force at Wetaskiwin, Alberta, using the name Henry Louie.  He served with the 3rd Canadian Mounted Rifles, but he lasted only three months before being discharged for misconduct.

Undeterred, he re-enlisted in the CEF in Calgary on 1 Sptember 1915, this time using the name of Henry Norwest, after briefly serving with the Royal North-West Mounted Police.

Norwest was assigned to the 50th Infantry Battalion, CEF and shipped off to England in November 1915.  Norwest would eventually earn the nick-name “Ducky”, apparently for his shyness towards the ladies.

The 50th was sent to France in August 1916, where Norwest soon distinguished himself as a marksman and a deadly sniper.  He was stealthy and an expert in camouflage, a skill that saw him sent on reconnaissance missions across “No man’s land” and behind the German lines.

He was known for his patience and determination, sometimes silently waiting for days to shoot his prey.  Norwest and his observer spent much of his time in “No Man’s Land”, between the armies, or behind enemy lines eliminating threats.

It was during the Battle of Vimy Ridge that Norwest won his first Military Medal.

According to his award citation, Norwest showed “great bravery, skill and initiative in sniping the enemy after the capture of the Pimple. By his activity he saved a great number of our men’s lives.”

Norwest was awarded a bar to his Military Medal for actions in August 1918, “for gallantry in the field”, although it appears records that specify the nature of his heroism have been lost.

However, Veterans Affairs Canada confirms the award was made posthumously as Norwest wouldn’t live to see it.  During the battle of Amiens on 18 August 1918, Norwest was killed by one of the German snipers he had been sent out to eliminate.

In a strange twist of fate, Norwest also killed the sniper who shot him, something the fatalistic Norwest had seemingly predicted when he told a comrade during the Battle of Amiens in August 1918 that he thought he would die soon.

Norwest’s spotter Private Oliver Payne recalled, “Suddenly, the instant Ducky fired, a German sniper fired. It missed me but got Ducky right through the head, coming out the other side.”

On his temporary grave marker his comrades inscribed, “It must have been a damned good sniper that got Norwest.”

As The First Nations Drum noted in an article in November 2015, “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.”

Lance-Corporal Henry Norwest is buried in the Warvillers Churchyard Extension in Warvillers, Somme, France.  He left behind a wife and three children.

One of the Ross Rifles used by Norwest is currently on display at The King’s Own Calgary Regiment (RCAC) Museum, under the umbrella of The Military Museums of Calgary.

It’s believed that the rifle Norwest was carrying the day he was killed was taken by the German sniper as a trophy.

Sadly, Norwest’s heroism and place in Canadian military history appeared to have been somewhat forgotten for almost 90 years, including the omission of his name on the Fort Saskatchewan cenotaph.  This omission was corrected in 2010 by Royal Canadian Legion Branch #27 in Fort Saskatchewan.

A field of honour was also named after him in the Fort Saskatchewan Cemetery, where a plaque honouring him was mounted, and the canteen at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch #27 in Fort Saskatchewan is officially known as the Henry Norwest Canteen.

Sources:  http://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/people/in-uniform/first-nations-soldiers, http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/those-who-served/aboriginal-veterans/native-soldiers/norwest, http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial/detail/308861, http://greatwaralbum.ca/Great-War-Album/Battle-Fronts/Amiens/Henry-Norwest, www.canada.com/faces-of-war/cree-sniper-finally-gained-recognition-for-his-exploits-decades-after-the-great-war, http://www.calgarysun.com/2015/01/31/fearsome-fort-saskatchewan-sniper-henry-louis-norwests-first-world-war-rifle-on-display-at-the-military-museums, “No man’s land” by Victor Wheeler, http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/those-who-served/aboriginal-veterans/native-soldiers/norwest, ww1.canada.com/faces-of-war/cree-sniper-finally-gained-recognition-for-his-exploits-decades-after-the-great-war, http://www.firstnationsdrum.com/2015/11/remembering-henry-louie-norwest, http://indigenouswarhero.org.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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