WO1 (RSM) J.A. Fraser

The RSM is a key figure in the life of the Regiment who does much to define the culture of the unit.  Even long retired soldiers have no trouble recalling who the RSM was during their service, and can likely recount a few colourful stories about them as well.

One of these figures from our Regiment’s history is John Alexander Fraser.

He was born near Forres-Morey Mairn, Scotland on 19 July 1880, the youngest of eleven children.  When he was relatively young, his family moved south for work, eventually settling in Lancashire, England.  When he was old enough to work himself, he found employment in a local wallpaper factory. He also joined the Territorials, serving with the East Lancashire Regiment.  When his unit was mobilized for service in the Boer War, he was approved for a leave of absence from the factory and deployed with them to Africa.

Seeking better economic prospects, he emigrated to Canada with his wife, teenage son and three younger children in 1914, landing in Toronto. He found employment as the foreman of a crew of paint colour mixers, but when the First World War broke out, he enlisted with the 20thBattalion.  Due to his 18 years of service with the East Lancashire Regiment, he was immediately given the same rank that he held with them – that of Sergeant. His son also later enlisted, serving throughout the war in the Canadian Army Medical Corps.

He was evidently a keen soldier and leader, as he was appointed as an Acting Company Sergeant Major just before the unit embarked for England on the SS Megantic.  He was formally promoted to the rank of Warrant Officer, 2ndClass (WO2) on the 20thof Oct, 1915 and confirmed in the position of Company Sergeant Major. 

In early February, 1916, the Battalion Sergeant Major, Warrant Officer First Class (WO1) Rowe-Whitton, was wounded and invalided to England.  In his place, WO2 Fraser was made the acting Battalion Sergeant Major.  A few weeks later when it was clear the WO1 Rowe-Whitton would not return to the battalion, Fraser was promoted and confirmed as the BSM.

Around the same time, BSM Fraser’s wife Mary passed away from causes that are not noted in his record.  While his eldest son had enlisted and was in France at this time, his younger three children had to be sent to live with a guardian in Lancashire. Exactly how they made their way across the Atlantic is unclear, but BSM Fraser soon made the arrangements for his separation allowance to be sent to their new caregiver in England.

A few months after this tragedy, while the Regiment was conducting work parties well behind the lines near St. Eloi, BSM Fraser was arrested. His service record notes that he was held in confinement from 21-26 July 1916 while awaiting trial by court martial. The charges against him were “absenting himself from his quarters without leave,” and “appropriation of government property for illegal use.”  He was convicted of both charges, reduced in rank back to Sergeant, and fined 30 day’s pay. He continued to serve the the battalion.

In the Fall of that year, Sgt Fraser was wounded at Courcelette and invalided to England.  His medical file notes two gunshot wounds to the right knee, though upon further examination he was also found to be suffering from diphtheria and “VDG,” which was the common medical short form for “venereal disease, gonorrhea.”

He returned to service with the battalion after five weeks of convalescence, and continued to be considered a highly valued member of the unit. In March of 1918, he was again appointed as an Acting Company Sergeant Major, and in June, promoted to the rank of WO2 “while so employed.”  He remained in this rank at the end of hostilities, and was with the Regiment when they marched into Germany to begin occupation duties.

One can imagine the discipline and morale problems that would arise amongst volunteer soldiers held in Europe for mundane duties after the end of the war.  CSM Fraser would have dealt with these issues within his company, but also perhaps fell prey to them.

He was court martialled for a second time on 25 February, 1919 for having been absent without leave from 10-11 January, and for “damaging by neglect an electric torch entrusted to his care.”  He was once again convicted and was given a reprimand, forced to forfeit one day’s pay – and demoted in rank to Sergeant (again).

Sergeant Fraser was discharged in the same rank in which he enlisted, and was allowed to proceed to England rather than return to Canada with the rest of the battalion.  He went directly to Lancashire to collect his three children from their guardian. While there, he also met a woman named Alice Baines, who accompanied him and his children when they made their way to Canada in 1919.  The two were married in Toronto in 1920.  He soon found work at Staunton’s Wallpaper Factory, a company that was related to the one for which he had worked in Lancashire.  

John Fraser also continued his military career after the war by serving in the Militia.  When the Queen’s Rangers were formed (again) in 1925, John Fraser was appointed as the Regimental Sergeant Major, a post he held until his retirement.

RSM Fraser passed away at home on 21 May, 1955.  While some might look at his record and see only the blemishes, it is clear that for him to have been twice reduced in rank to Sergeant and to still have become the RSM, he must have been a man in whom his subordinates, peers and superiors could place great trust.  In that sense, the story of RSM Fraser is the story of living a life full of the Ranger Spirit.

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