James Talbot: A noble young life

News Article / April 6, 2017

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The Royal Flying Corps Canada’s first casualty was Cadet James H. Talbot, who died on April 8, 1917, while training at Camp Borden, Ontario. 16 Wing Borden will hold a commemorative service, open to the public, to honour Cadet Talbot’s memory at 10:45 a.m. on Friday, April 7, 2017, at the Union Cemetery in his hometown of Dorchester, Ontario.

By Major Jean-Maurice Pigeon

The first fatal military flying accident at Camp Borden occurred on Easter Sunday, April 8, 1917. It involved a Curtiss JN-4 aeroplane piloted by pilot instructor Second Lieutenant G.C. Husband. His student pilot was No. 70005 Cadet James Harold Talbot who eventually died of injuries sustained in the crash. The aeroplane was a complete write-off.

Both men were members of No. 81 Canadian Reserve Squadron which was formed March 21, 1917. The squadron was one of five that made up 42 Wing of the Royal Flying Corps Canada. The first group of cadets had only just arrived in Borden; the official opening of the aerodrome was scheduled for May 2, 1917.

On the morning of the April 8, on a routine training flight, the JN-4 took off from the Borden airfield. Some accounts stated that the trip was only the second or third for the student victim. He had been in Borden only a couple of weeks at the time of the accident. Newspaper reports indicated that he may have done some training in Toronto before coming to Borden. In any event, the accident was described in the local newspaper as "the aeroplane falling rapidly to earth". The aeroplane is said to have struck the ground with such force that, upon impact, the engine separated from the rest of the airframe. The aeroplane apparently overturned and the student was thrown against the airframe resulting in severe injuries which included a fractured skull. The pilot, although injured, survived the accident. The student was taken unconscious to hospital in Barrie where he died at approximately seven o’clock in the evening, some 12 hours after the crash. It is believed that he never regained con­sciousness following the accident. It was reported in the Barrie newspaper that he died some two hours before his father arrived at hospital.

James Harold Talbot was born in Buffalo, New York, on July 22, 1893, to Canadian parents. He was the only son of John Talbot and his wife Jesse Agnes Talbot, née Duffin. He had one sister, Elizabeth Gladys Talbot. Their mother was killed in an accident in March 1902 – a young woman, only 41 years old – when James Harold was only eight years old and his sister not yet four. The brother and sister lived in Dorchester near London, Ontario, where their father was the local postmaster. The family was well known in the area. An uncle of the children, Charles Talbot, was the county engineer.

James Harold graduated from the London and Woodstock Collegiate Institutes in 1910 where he won the Oxford County Scholarship to Western University. He was a devout Presbyterian and lived the next few years in Alberta doing mission work in the service of his church. In the fall of 1913, he enrolled at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, where he studied political sci­ence. He was a most accomplished scholar and was the winner of the Andrew Hayden Scholarship in Colonial History in April 1914 as well as the winner of the Lochead Scholarship in Political Science in April 1915. In 1916, he obtained first place in Preliminary Honour Politics. He possessed a superb ability as a debater and was named "Year Orator 1915-1916". His accomplishments were many and showed him to be a well-rounded individual. In addition to being on the executive of various committees, he was also the captain of the champion soccer team. When he graduated in the spring of 1917, with a Bachelor of Arts, he had intended to pursue further studies in law. Sometime before graduation, "Tal" decided there were more important tasks at hand and he enrolled in the Royal Flying Corps on January 23, 1917.

Three days after his death, on Wednesday, April 11, 1917, James Harold Talbot was buried in the Dorchester Union Cemetery. His funeral was reported to be one of the largest ever held in the county. The service was held at 2:30 in the afternoon, at the home of his father. The ceremony was conducted by Reverend Doctor D.L. McCrae of Hamilton Road Presbyterian Church in London, Ontario. A class mate of James Harold Talbot, the Reverend J.D. McCrae, son of the Reverend D.L. McCrae, spoke during the funeral about his close friend. The ser­vice was reported to have been very simple and non-military in nature, in keeping with the wishes of the grief stricken father. Twelve brother officers from Borden marched alongside the coffin to the site of the grave. His tombstone reads "A noble young life given in service".

In James Harold Talbot's copy of the Queen's 1917 yearbook, the second last paragraph of his biography reads, "We cannot say where he will go, or to what he will devote his life when he leaves these halls, but we are not worrying about his future, we envy it." The last paragraph – "He is now overseas with the Royal Aviation Corps" – sadly never came to be; his sister stroked it out with a black pen.

This article originally appeared in the book Camp Borden: Birthplace of the RCAF, © 16 Wing, published in 2004. Major Pigeon was a Reserve Officer for more than 25 years and was serving as the Heritage Officer with 16 Wing in Borden when he wrote this article.

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