Remembering a Forgotten Hero

By coincidence, as I began typing this column, the CBC’s This Morning featured an interview with John Gray and Eric Peterson. They were discussing the return of their highly successful 1978 musical Billy Bishop Goes To War. I stopped to listen, as the two enacted several scenes; noting particularly how the play was, once again, speaking to a new generation.

During the first world war Canada did not have its own air force. Nonetheless, hundreds of Canadians joined the Royal Flying Corps where many achieved fame as pilots. Thanks to John Gray’s musical, the exploits of Billy Bishop are well known; but what about the others? Not many people are aware that, listed among the top ten Canadian flying aces of that war, was one from this region.

Albert Desbrisay Carter was born at Point de Bute on July 3, 1892, the son of Leonard Carter (1850–1928) and Violetta Lettie Goodwin Carter (1864–1922). This branch of the family was of Yorkshire origin and successive generations of Carters had lived in the area since the late 1770s.

After attending the local school, and Fredericton Normal College, Albert Carter taught briefly in New Brunswick and at Stanstead College in Quebec. Later, in 1913. he enrolled at Mount Allison University intending to pursue a career in law. The following year, the outbreak of war intervened. On February 25, 1915 he enlisted in the army at Saint John, NB. His progress through the ranks was rapid as he already had three years experience in the militia.

Proceeding overseas in December 1915 Carter saw action as a machine gun officer on the front line in the infamous Battle of the Somme. Described by military historians as one of the most futile and bloody battles in history it accounted for the staggering number of over 24,000 Canadian casualties. In this bloodbath Carter was wounded in the hip and thigh. As a result, he was invalided home. After regaining his health Carter returned to England in early 1917.

Because of a commendable war record he was placed in command of an army discharge depot. Not content with the safety of a desk job; Albert Carter volunteered for service in the Royal Flying Corps. After qualifying as a pilot Carter perfected his flying skills in patrolling the English coastline. He reported for active duty in France on December 29, 1917.

By February 18, 1918 Carter’s first of several citations for bravery, conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty were announced. These were to climax in the award of the Distinguished Service Order. Soon afterward, the Belgian Croix de Guerre was bestowed on April 13, 1918. A bar was later added to the DSO and Carter’s courage in battle was mentioned in dispatches on three separate occasions.

What was behind these honors? Reliable statistics were difficult on the battlefields; but even more so, in the dog fights that took place in the air. The most accurate figure of downed enemy aircraft attributed to Albert Carter (provided in official Royal Flying Corps communiques) was 27. To this was added the ambiguous note that he might have been credited with several more. At least one other source raises the number to 31. Incredibly, he was on active duty with the RFC for less than five months!

Statistics aside, Carter’s bravery and extraordinary skill as a pilot were never questioned. George Drew in his book Canada’s Fighting Airmen commented: He was a fighter, continually seeking combat, and finally after numerous almost unbelievable escapes, his aircraft was shot down behind the German lines on May 19, 1918. Reported missing and presumed dead, it was not until the Armistice, that his survival became known. He had been interned in a prison camp in Bavaria.

Although badly injured Carter recovered, and returned to England in December 1918. Immediately he resumed flying; and joined one of the Canadian squadrons organized following the war. A few captured German Fokker aircraft were used by this squadron for training purposes.

Ironically, it was while flying a Fokker D.7 that Albert Desbrisay Carter’s luck ran out. Again, in the words of George Drew: Carter’s friends on the ground were horrified to see [the Fokker] suddenly go to pieces in the air, hurling its daring pilot to the death which he had so miraculously escaped while on active service.

Today, nearly eighty years later, an inscription on a monument in the Point de Bute cemetery and war medals displayed in the Fort Beausejour Museum are local reminders of the remarkable exploits of Albert Desbrisay Carter DSO and Bar, Croix de Guerre — a forgotten Canadian Hero.

But one question remains. Why is it important that ALL Canadian service personnel be remembered on November 11, 1998? It is not, as some critics would have us believe, for the glorification of war. Far from it! Ask any battle-scarred veteran and they will tell you that War Is Hell. The significance of their sacrifices lies deeply buried within Canada’s psyche.

Two respected Canadian historians, J.L. Granatstein and Desmond Morton have placed the question in perspective: While the quest for peace and global harmony is a noble one, it should not blind us to the lessons of history. Canadians took up arms without joy, but with ample courage and resolution. And while the fires of war inflicted terrible sufferings, they also forged a stronger, surer, and more sovereign nation. Canada is a nation forged in fire.

I am indebted to John Carter who suggested the subject for today’s Flashback. As always, he was helpful in providing me with background material. Cheryl Ennals and Donna Beal of the Mount Allison University Archives were of special assistance in locating information concerning the region’s Forgotten Hero.