Underground mines have been used in warfare for a few hundred years but in the First World War it was on a much larger scale than ever before. On 6 June 1916 the Germans blew up four huge mines under a system of trenches near Hooge in Belgium and the explosion killed almost all the men in one company of the 28th Battalion. Among them was Private Hugh Melville Carmichael from Kenora, Ontario.Hugh Melville was the oldest of three sons of Angus Carmichael and his wife Minnie Helena Simpson. Angus was from the township of Mariposa, Ontario, near Lake Simcoe, and Minnie was born and raised in Toronto. They were married in Toronto in 1886 and made their home in Rat Portage (later called Kenora), where Angus had already been living for about four years. All three boys were born there: Hugh Melville (1887), Ross McNevin (1890) and George Raymond (1893). Angus was very active in community affairs. He operated a dry goods store and was also involved with the local power company, the flour mill, the board of trade, real estate and insurance. He was the first officer of the local militia, clerk of sessions for Knox Presbyterian Church, a lodge member and the mayor of Kenora in 1906.
The two oldest boys, Melville and Ross, both became civil engineers. Melville went to high school in Kenora and attended Upper Canada College in Toronto. It was probably then that he joined the militia, serving for one year with the Queen's Own Rifles in Toronto. He also attended both McGill and Queen's Universities. The war started in August 1914 and when Melville enlisted in May 1915 he was working out west for the Canadian Pacific Railway. He signed up with the 56th Battalion in Calgary, Alberta. While his battalion was training the 1st Canadian Division was fighting in France and Belgium. Men were needed to replace casualties in the front line combat units and battalions in Canada were asked to send reinforcements. Melville was sent to England in the fall of 1915 with the 2nd Reinforcing Draft. He embarked from Montreal on the Metagama on 11 September 1915, one of 250 men from the 56th Battalion, and in England the men were assigned to new units. Melville was transferred to the 9th Reserve Battalion for training and promoted to Lance Corporal on 13 November. From December 1915 to February 1916 he spent seven weeks in hospital due to illness and when he recovered he returned to his unit and trained at the Colt Machine Gun School. He was sent to France on 7 May 1916 where, by his own request, he reverted to being a private in order to be transferred to the 28th (North-west) Battalion. After some time at the Base Depot in France Melville joined his new unit in the Ypres Salient in Belgium on 2 June. Four days later he was missing in action.
The Battle of Mount Sorrel started on the morning of 2 June with an intense bombardment of the Canadian lines followed by the explosion of underground mines. After the barrage German infantry advanced and captured Mount Sorrel and nearby areas. A counter-attack on 3 June was unsuccessful and plans were made for a second one a week or so later. In the meantime the 28th Battalion was brought in to relieve the Royal Canadian Regiment and on the night of 5 June they took over the front lines near Hooge. The relief was completed at 2:30 am on 6 June, with "A" Company and its machine gun crews occupying trenches 70, 71 and 72. On 6 June the 28th Battalion faced the worst day in its history when a heavy artillery barrage was followed by the explosion of four mines under some of their trenches. "A" and "B" Companies were almost wiped out and the battalion's strength was reduced by 50%. Melville belonged to a machine gun crew in "A" Company and he was reported missing in action.
From the War Diary of the 28th Battalion, 6 June 1916: "3:30 pm Enemy blew four mines under Trenches 70, 71 & 72 which it is believed with the previous bombardment practically wiped out the garrison."
From the Circumstances of Death record for Melville: "Previously reported Missing, now for official purposes presumed to have died: The enemy exploded four mines under the trenches held by the Company to which Private Carmichael belonged and this was accompanied by a very heavy bombardment. After the action a muster parade was held and he was found to be missing. Since then no further information has been received concerning him."
Melville is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial (Ypres, Belgium), which bears the names of 55,000 men who died in the Ypres Salient and have no known grave. He is also commemorated on the Cenotaph in Kenora, the Kenora Legion War Memorial, the Upper Canada College Memorial Tablet, the Memorial Plaque of Kenora and Keewatin High Schools, the family gravemarker in Lake of the Woods Cemetery, and the Roll of Honour for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Every year at 11 am on November 11th the CPR stops all of its trains in North America for two minutes of silence, to pay tribute to those who served their country. The silence is followed by a whistle blast from each train in memory of the fallen. (www.cpr.ca)
His youngest brother George Raymond also enlisted. He received a commission as Lieutenant with the 94th Battalion and in England he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. He flew reconnaissance missions in Europe and narrowly missed being killed when his plane was attacked by German fighters in 1917. After the war he lived in Kenora where he was very involved in the Legion and in military matters and he served as the town's mayor for three years. George married in 1923 and had three children. He passed away in Winnipeg in 1981 and is buried in Lake of the Woods Cemetery in Kenora.
Melville's brother Ross was married in Kenora in 1921 and lived in Montreal for about twenty years, working as a civil engineer. Their father Angus died in 1938 and their mother Minnie in 1948. They are buried in the family plot in Lake of the Woods Cemetery.
By Kenora Great War Project