Private Frederick Lee: one of the first fallen Canadian soldiers of Chinese heritage
By Jeremiah Hemens, Army Public Affairs
May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada, a time to reflect on and celebrate the contributions that Canadians of Asian heritage continue to make, to the growth and prosperity of Canada.
Ottawa, Ontario — In a less inclusive time, Private Frederick Lee overcame discrimination to become one of the first Chinese-Canadians to serve in the First World War, and sadly, may have been the very first Chinese-Canadian to die for Canada in military service.
Pte Lee was born in Kamloops, British Columbia in 1895. Records indicate his mother lived in the Chinese province of Canton and that the only family he had in Canada was his brother, Thomas, who also lived in Kamloops.
Although born and raised in Canada, Pte Lee was subject to the discriminatory practices of the time, simply due to his Chinese roots. Chinese-Canadians of his era, both men and women, faced many barriers, including not being recognized as Canadian citizens, not able to vote, banned from entering some of the professions, and repeatedly having their brave attempts to volunteer for service denied.
Even though Chinese-Canadians faced these challenges, they demonstrated perseverance, courage and commitment to Canada. In the end, fewer than 300 Chinese-Canadians were permitted to volunteer to risk their lives for Canada during the First World War – one volunteer being Pte Lee.
Pte Lee showed his determination to fight for peace and freedom when he left his farming job at age 20 to enlist in the 172nd (Rocky Mountain) Battalion on March 13, 1916 in Kamloops.
He departed for Europe in October of the same year and when he arrived, the 172nd Battalion was absorbed into the 27th Reserve Battalion. Then on February 2, 1917, Pte Lee was transferred to the 47th Battalion and sent to France.
Pte Lee was part of the Canadian Infantry, which formed the primary strike force of the Canadian Corps and was made up of volunteers from all walks of life and ethnicities.
Pte Lee fought in one of Canada’s most famous battles: The Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Vimy Ridge was a key victory, and Canada played a vital role. It began on April 9, 1917, Easter Sunday, as 97,814 Canadians attempted to capture Vimy Ridge, an extremely difficult task that would require great leadership and huge sacrifice.
Six days later on April 14, 1917, the Canadian Corps, together with the British Corps, were successful in capturing Vimy Ridge, but at great cost.
There were 10,602 Canadian casualties, including 3,598 soldiers killed.
After surviving Vimy Ridge, Pte Lee continued to serve his country until he was killed in action on August 21, 1917 during the Battle of Hill 70, an important battle that is not as well-known as other First World War battles, much like his remarkable story.
Although often forgotten, the Battle of Hill 70 is one of Canada’s greatest victories. Sir Arthur Currie, who became Commander of the entire Canadian Corps after the success of Vimy Ridge, described the Battle of Hill 70 as “ … altogether the hardest battle in which the Corps has participated. It was a great and wonderful victory.”
Pte Lee’s story, along with that of the Battle of Hill 70, has become better known recently due to the hard work of a group of volunteers of the Hill 70 Memorial Project: Jack Gin, Susan Everett, Sarah Murray, Colonel Mark Hutchings and Robert Baxter.
This group has helped Pte Lee’s story receive the recognition it deserves, and their work has contributed to the establishment of the Battle of Hill 70 Memorial Park in Loos-en-Gohelle, France. The memorial opened officially on August 22, 2017, 100 years after the battle.
According to the Hill 70 Memorial Project website, a new walkway will be added to the Hill 70 Memorial. It will be named after Private Frederick Lee, thanks to the very generous support of Robert H.N. Ho; former Senator Vivienne Poy, the first Asian Canadian to serve in the Senate and Dr. Sylvester Chuang.
Other important elements related to this initiative were made possible by support received from Jack Gin, The Lam Foundation, Richard Wong and Dr. Chan Gunn. The monument, along with the Frederick Lee Walkway, will serve as a memorial to those who fought and died at Hill 70, and will also be a symbol of the contributions of Chinese-Canadians during the Great War.
The new walkway is anticipated to be complete by the fall of 2019. This dedication is important, according to the Hill 70 Memorial Project team members, because Pte Lee volunteered prior to conscription in spite of the racism of the times. They plan to search for descendants of Pte Lee so they will know the valour and sacrifice of their ancestor.
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