Not too long after I wrote my Roadstories post about Soulpepper Theatre’s excellent production of Eric Peterson and John Grey’s “Billy Bishop Goes to War” describing the exploits of Canada’s famous First World War air ace, I learned that Canada also could boast of an air ace who was less well-known, but even more decorated than Bishop.
On September 22, 2011, in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery, the grandsons of William George Barker presided at the erection of a monument to this famous World War One flying ace. The monument describes him as “The most decorated war hero in the history of Canada, the British Empire and the Commonwealth of Nations”. He had received a total of twelve First World War awards, including the Victoria Cross, among other English awards, as well as two medals from Italy and one from France. Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, David Onley and RCAF Lieutenant-General Andre Deschamps were present at the ceremony, which featured a fly-over of two vintage World War I aircraft, including a Sopwith Snipe, a favorite plane of Barker’s.
Major Barker was born on November 3, 1894 in a log farmhouse in Dauphin, Manitoba. This was still pioneer country at that time, and a sister later described Barker as an adventurous boy, given to taking risks and a great shot with a rifle who loved to ride out into the open country, often without waiting for the permission of his parents. He was in his final year of high school at Dauphin Collegiate when the First World War broke out. He volunteered as a trooper with the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles and was sent to England and then to the trenches in France. He fought at Ypres, but, like Bishop and other flying aces, he seems to have tired of life in the trenches and volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps. By May, 1917, he was back in Europe as a flyer and an officer, and by August, 1917, he was wounded in an air fight and sent back to England to recover. A story is told that during this period, he disobeyed orders by conducting a display of low-level flying over Piccadilly Circus. It sounds like the type of thing that the population of war-time London would have loved more than his officers might have!
On his return to Europe, he was sent to Italy where he shot down many enemy planes. On one of his missions he and a fellow flyer destroyed a German airfield, and for this he apparently was reprimanded for exceeding orders and awarded a medal at the same time for the same expedition! On one of his missions he was severely wounded, and for the remainder of his life he suffered pain from shrapnel in his leg and had little use of his left arm because the elbow had been destroyed. When he was recovering in London from these injuries, he met Billy Bishop.
After the war Barker and Bishop worked together and formed several companies under names such as Bishop-Barker Aeroplanes Limited. Although these companies weren’t always successful, they were part of the early development of commercial flying services in Canada. Barker later married Billy Bishop’s cousin, Jean Kilbourn Smith.
In 1918, Barker flew at the Canadian National Exhibition, beginning an annual tradition that still draws large crowds to this day. He joined the newly-formed Canadian Air Force in 1922, became an officer and an active promoter of flying and what it could do for Canada. In 1927 Conn Smythe, who had also been a flyer in World War I, named Barker the first President of the newly-named Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team.
Barker also apparently continued to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Today we call this PTSD, and it is taken seriously as something that afflicts many war veterans and regarded as an illness that should be treated. After the First World War, it was called “shell-shock”, and the mode of the era seemed to be that a veteran should suck it up and get on with life. There was also perhaps less recognition in that era that a Manitoba farm boy could have risen to the heights of shooting down fifty enemy aircraft: flying was considered more of a “gentleman’s game”. This may explain why there was no headstone or mention of the number of enemy planes he had shot down.
He may also have had less fame than Bishop because he did not live as long. On March 12, 1930 Barker was demonstrating a new aircraft over the Ottawa River. A complex circular maneuver he was performing went out of control and he crashed onto the ice of the river and was killed. His death certainly did not pass unnoticed in his own time. At his funeral in Toronto there was an honor guard of 2,000 soldiers, including six Victoria Cross recipients. The U.S. Army sent an honor guard. 50,000 spectators lined the route to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where his remains were interred in the crypt of his wife’s family, the Smiths. And there he remained until a September morning over eighty years later when a monument and a flyover would recognize his daring and courage from a long-ago war.
When I bought my poppy last week, I thought of Major Barker and wished his spirit continued joyous, daring flight.