| May 22, 2008

Feature Article - May 22, 2008

Back toHome

Feature Article - May 22, 2008 John Leslie Ball Comes home:Denbigh Library to Become Permanent Home of WW1 Hero’s MedalsBy Jeff Green

In the fall of 1915, army recruiters fanned out into the northern regions of Frontenac and Addington Counties looking for young men who were willing to come to Kingston for training. The First World War was grinding along, and troops were needed. The recruiters arrived in Vennachar at the border between the two counties, and they were able to convince two cousins, both the eldest males in their families and thus saddled with responsibilities for running the family farm, to come to Kingston for the winter. They were told they would be back in time for ploughing in the spring.

But before leaving home, the two men, John Leslie Ball and Charley Gregg, signed what were called attestation papers. John Leslie Ball's attestation papers are included in the materials his descendants have gathered in the past few years. The papers are a simple one-page document, and on John Leslie Ball's, the “yes” is ticked off next to the attestation saying he was willing to go to Europe “for the term of one year or during the war now existing between Great Britain and Germany should that war last longer than one year.”

Before going over to Europe, John Ball had an eight day leave in September of 1916, and he visited with his sister Lillie and her new family in Oconto, and spent time back at Vennachar as well.

On September 27, John Ball and his cousin Charley Gregg were among troops that set sail from Halifax harbour. The ship arrived in England on October 6, and on December 1, John Ball was sent to France as part of the 95th batallion. He spent Christmas in a tent with his battalion, and his cousin Charley Gregg was with him.

A series of letters went back and forth between John Leslie Ball and his family, and although the letters were subject to censorship, something of the character of John Ball still comes through on the pencil-written pages. The letters were written to his mother and sisters, as well as to his girlfriend Eva. He reassured them that he was doing fine, but there are indications that he had been exposed to danger and death, particularly when he was in the trenches between February and March of 1917.

His final letter was written on April 4, 1917. The letter revealed that John Ball was feeling lonely, and in it he asked for more letters to keep up with family events.

It said nothing of the big battle that was about to start.

Almost a century later, it is still a moving experience to read the final line off the original page: ”Once in a while I feel as if I'd like to be home but I let it go, ha ha, well believe I have to close for tonight. With love and kisses to you all. Good bye JLB”.

On Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, the battle of Vimy Ridge began, and that same day John Leslie Ball was injured. On his way to the hospital on a stretcher he was hit by a stray bullet, and he died three days later, on April 12.

It was early on a Saturday morning when the dreaded telegram arrived at the Ball homestead in Vennachar.

``Deeply regret to inform you 835576 Pte. Leslie Ball Mounted Rifles officially reported died of wounds field ambulance April 12th 1917, gunshot wound (abdomen) or bowels and shoulder. Officer in Charge records.``

A few days later, over on the Gregg homestead, a similar telegram arrived. Charley Gregg had died on April 17.

A third son of Vennachar, George Draper Quackenbush, died on April 9 at Vimy Ridge; a steep price for a tiny corner of the country to pay in a battle that claimed a total of 3,500 Canadian lives.

According to an account of the life of John Leslie Ball written by his great nephew Bill McNaught, the deaths of John Ball and Charley Gregg, the two eldest sons of their families, left younger teenage brothers with the responsibility to run the hardscrabble family farms, and left a hole in the families that has never been filled.

“The family circle was broken. There was nothing left of John Ball for his family but his letters and their memories. The letters were gathered and kept within the family. The losses to the family of their two young men were so great that the tragedies were never spoken about. However, neither John nor Charley were ever forgotten. The photograph of John Ball in his army uniform was hung in the living room of his sister Martha during her lifetime, with a poppy stuck into its frame. His photograph still hangs with his family.”

It couldn't have helped, when in 1924, John’s mother Nancy, known in the family as Grandma Ball, received a form letter from the Imperial War Graves Commission, requesting $1.65 in order to inscribe John Ball's tombstone in France with the inscription “IN MEMORY OF MY DEAR BRAVE SON”. Grandma Ball paid the money, and the inscription remains at his grave to this day.

On June 14, thanks to the efforts of his descendants, four of John Leslie Ball's surviving nieces and nephews and many younger family members will participate in a ceremony at the Denbigh library that will mark a symbolic return home for John Leslie Ball, some 91 years after his untimely death at the age of 24.

Herbert and Bob McNaught were born at White Lake, in Renfrew County, to John Ball's younger sister Martha and Tom McNaught, who was a Presbyterian minister. Herbert, who is 89, has written an account of a trip his family made at Christmas time in 1924, by horse and cutter, to Vennachar. Among the people that Bob (who is now 90) and Herbert (89) met that Christmas was their older cousin Alice. Alice Chatson is now 93, and she still lives near Bon Echo Park. Another cousin, John Ball, was born a few years later. He still lives at Vennachar.

Herbert McNaught's son Bill has been gathering family memorabilia for several years, and a couple of years ago he commissioned a framer to mount all of the existing medals that John Leslie Ball received, along with a photo of him in uniform, pictures of his parents, his ID tags, and some letters, into a single frame.

The extended family has also gathered at the Napanee Cenotaph, where John Ball's name is engraved, each of the last two Remembrance Days to lay a wreath in his honour, but Herbert and Bob felt that something was missing. They wanted to bring John Leslie Ball back home.

That's where the Denbigh library came in. On June 14, at 12:30 pm, a piper will announce the beginning of a ceremony that will mark the installation of the John Leslie Ball display as a permanent feature of the Denbigh library.

Family, friends, and members of the community are invited to mark the occasion, which will be attended by four of John Leslie Ball's nieces and nephews: John Ball, Herbert McNaught, Bob McNaught, and Alice Chatson, the last surviving member of the family who was alive when that telegram arrived, so many years ago, informing the family that John Leslie Ball was a casualty of war.

On the following day, Sunday June 15, a memorial service will be held at the old Vennachar Church, which is still standing after all these years. Gravestones at the adjacent cemetery include the names of Charley Gregg, George Quackenbush, and John Leslie Ball; three who died at Vimy Ridge.

(This article was based on a history of John Leslie Ball that was written by Bill McNaught. That story will be read out at the ceremony on June 14)

Support local
independant journalism by becoming a patron of the Frontenac News.