Private George Melvin Atkinson

This is part of a series of essays about the First World War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in New York.

The grave of Private George Atkinson
The grave of Private George Atkinson

Private George Atkinson was a Canadian-born farmer from Clinton County, New York. He is the oldest casualty researched thus far—he was born in 1858, adjusted his age by 14 years when he enlisted, and died just before his 59th birthday. Three of his sons, all born in the United States, served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France.

George Melvin Atkinson was born in Franklin Centre, in Huntingdon County, Quebec on 23 March 1858 one of the seven children of Thomas and Sarah Atkinson, who had emigrated to Canada from England. The family farmed on land near Franklin.

In 1882 he married his first wife, Emily A. Harris, and their first son was born the following year. The couple went on to have seven children, of whom six survived childhood.[1] In 1893 the family moved south, just over the border to Clinton County, New York and settled south of Ellenburg, where they also farmed. His wife died of diphtheria on 27 February 1901, just before her 41st birthday, and was buried in Riverside Cemetery in Ellenburg Center.

George soon remarried. He and his younger second wife, Cornelia Baker, had a daughter, Mary Ethel.[2] That marriage did not last, however, and the couple were divorced.

George remarried, thirdly, Mary Lillian Harris, who was considerably younger, being born in 1894. The couple had three children between 1913 and 1917.[3]

By 1915 George Atkinson, his wife, and three of his sons—George Jr., Frederick and Earnest—had moved north to Canada, to North Bay, Ontario, where they lived on Laurier Avenue; the two elder sons remained in Ellenburg. It is not clear where the younger children lived in this period.

His three sons had enlisted in the late summer of 1915 into the Militia, joining the 97th Regiment (Algonquin Rifles). In early 1916 they all enlisted for service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and all joined the 159th Battalion (1st Algonquins). Earnest enlisted first on 3 February (648040 Private) followed by George Jr. on 23 February (648036 Private), and Frederick (649107 Private) on 24 March. All three sailed with the Battalion for England in November. The Battalion was absorbed by 8th Reserve Battalion and used a source of reinforcements; all three sons proceeded to France.

Earnest arrived on 24 February 1917 with the newly formed 4th Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops. He spent the rest of the war with that unit before returning to Canada in February 1919; he was discharged in March 1919. Frederick, meanwhile, had been posted to the 5th Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops and he too arrived in France on 24 February. He spent the rest of the war with the 5th Battalion before he too returned to Canada in February 1919. He was discharged a few days before his brother. Fred subsequently enlisted into the United States Navy and served in various capacities until 1947.

George Jr. was destined for the infantry—he arrived in France in May 1917 and joined the 58th Battalion in 9th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Canadian Division. He was caught by shellfire during the Second Battle of Passchendaele in October 1917 and again in January 1918 and was finally evacuated to England with shell-shock, having also lost his voice, in March 1918. His speech was returned after ‘strong electrical stimulation’ at 4th London General Hospital and he spent the rest of the year on light duties before being returned to Canada in January 1919 and discharged in March 1919, medically unfit for further service.

George Sr, meanwhile continued to work in North Bay as a millwright until he too enlisted. He was far over age—when he enlisted at North Bay on 17 February 1917 he was 58 years old but gave his date of birth as 23 March 1872, and was accepted as being 45 years old! He was deemed a suitable recruit for the Canadian Forestry Corps and he joined the draft of men being assembled at North Bay; he was allocated the regimental number 2250329. Soon after he enlisted his wife returned to the United States.

On 2 March 1917, after a short route march at North Bay, Private George Atkinson Sr. fell dead on the parade ground. He was almost 59 years old. It was determined that he had died of heart failure.

His body was returned to his family in the United States and he was buried in Riverside Cemetery, Ellenburg Center in a plot with his first wife. Buried nearby are his infant daughter, Sadie, his son John and his infant grand-daughter, Joyce. Private George Atkinson is commemorated on page 193 of the Canadian First World War Book of Remembrance; that page is displayed on 3 May.

The Canadian Book of Remembrance showing the entry for Private George Atkinson
The Canadian Book of Remembrance showing the entry for Private George Atkinson

His sons returned to Clinton County. His wife Mary and her children moved to Bloomingdale in Essex County, New York. She received his Memorial Cross (because his mother was deceased) and his Memorial Plaque and Scroll. He was not entitled to any war medals.

1. (Back) Edgar Harris (23 August 1884-11 April 1968); John Sherman (18 May 1888-1944); George F. (28 May 1893-February 1969); Alfred Frederick (26 June 1896-25 September 1980); Sadie J. (1891-18 February 1898); Earnest (3 September 1898-9 January 1968); and Myrtle E. (later Minckler) (17 October 1900-30 November 1962).
2. (Back) Cornelia Atkinson (née Baker) (1882-after 1940); Mary Ethel (later King) (29 May 1905-5 May 1991). Cornelia Atkinson later lived in Plattsburg, Clinton County, New York, where she worked as a hotel cook and by 1930 was an asylum in-patient at St. Lawrence State Hospital, Ogdensburg. It is likely that she died there in the early 1940s and is buried in a numbered plot in the hospital cemetery.
3. (Back) Mary Lillian Harris was the daughter of Thomas E. and Ella M. (née Preston) Harris. She was born on 15 October 1894 near Ellenburg. Their children were: William J. (13 January 1913-25 September 1993); Eleanor (later McKillip) (15 August 1915); and Grace (later Greengrass, later Brewster) (13 January 1917-30 June 2013).

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