Wanted For Desertion

Wanted For Desertion from the NWMPolice

Constable William Kellock McKay

Regimental # 5852

If one has the time so scroll through the National Archives Personnel Records of the North West Mounted Police you would be surprised to find the number of officers and men who deserted.


It was probably a case that many of those who deserted did not anticipate the hardships they would face on the prairies, or the North West Territory, in those early days.   Life was certainly not like the early images portrayed in artists portrayals of the Great March West

On the 6th of July 1874…. “the whole Force, horses, foot and artillery paraded in marching order.  Everyman in new scarlet tunics; pugri bound white helmet, loose ends of the pugri hanging down the back-lending a “India Mutiny effect”, the horses fresh and in splendid condition.  This was the one and only time in the entire history of the Force that it was to be seen thus on ceremonial parade in full strength, fully equipped, and every officer and man present.”  July 08, The Great March West begins at Dufferin, 338 horses 302 officers and men, 142 draught oxen, 114 Red River carts, 73 wagons, two 9 pounder field guns, two mortars, portable forges, 93 head of cattle and a field kitchenA column of men and supplies stretch almost 8 kms from the leader to the rear guard!”

It took a mere couple of days for the image described above to change and desertions to take place.  How hard did the NWMP try and track down deserters, often it was a case of “good riddance”.   Occasionally, men would return seeking forgiveness and asking for their jobs back.   For many who were caught, it was a sentence to “Hard Labour” and dismissal from the NWMP upon completion of their sentence.   As the Force moved from the NWMP to the RNWMP, it would appear that desertions became far from the normal.


Why then did Constable William “Willie” Kellock McKay, Regimental # 5852, ‘Desert the Force’ in 1916 while stationed in the Whitehorse, Yukon Territory?

Willie McKay emigrated from England, and in July 1914 enlisted in the Royal North-West Mounted Police (RNWMP) at Regina, Saskatchewan as a constable for three years.  Later in 1914 he transferred to the Yukon, B Division at Whitehorse. He soon decided to join the British Army in order to fight in the First World War but was unable to obtain his release from the Force. In February 1916 he deserted to Alaska, sailed from New York for Liverpool, and enlisted in the 1st King Edward’s Horse stationed in Ireland. After his discharge the British Army sent him to university to take a medical degree. Upon graduating he was employed as a medical officer for an oil company in Persia (Iran) where he later died during an influenza epidemic.  He was granted a pardon, for his desertion from the RNWMP, in February 1920 by the Canadian government (Order in Council 254) on account of his service during WWI

Many of Willie’s daily diaries and letters have been preserved by the Glenbow Museum Archives.   It is interesting to note that in one of his letters home he still speaks with of a fondness for the Force: “it is the finest force, and contains some of the finest men in the world,” even as they are trying to track him down to arrest him for desertion.

In his daily diaries, while posted in Whitehorse, he often mentions going into town along with other members to attend a movie, attend a dance, at the Moose Hall with the Daughters of the Empire or with the Nurses at the hospital and billiards to finish off the evening.  On one occasion, it must have been a sad evening when they arrived at a dance and found that there were no girls!    To celebrate his one-year anniversary in the RNWMP, Willie, accompanied by William Henry York, Reg # 6013, Andrew Williamson, Reg # 6362 and William George Craig, Reg # 6312, went into town to celebrate….must have been a great celebration as they all ended up in orderly room and as result they were all fined $10.00.







At some point this was Willie’s cabin at Lower Laberge, Yukon Territory.  Note the Strathcona boots have lost some of their “Depot” shine!

Fatigues at Whitehorse – maybe, just maybe, desertion looked pretty good on some day!

During Willie’s time in Yukon Territory, WWI was raging in Europe.  It can probably be interpreted from his letters that being originally from England he felt a calling, like so many others who originated from Great Britain, to return home and serve.   He requested permission to leave the RNWMP…to purchase his way out, but was refused.   One can only imagine how he felt when one of fellow constables asked to purchase his discharge and it was granted.   Willie, notes in his diary that he went downtown on February 23, 1915 to wish George Pearkes “au revoir”….it was minus -28F!   Little did George Pearkes or Willie realize when they said their good byes where Pearkes career would take him….he went onto many great things… Major General George Randolph Pearkes, VC PC CC CB DSO MC CD OD.   Through his repeated acts of bravery and leadership, he was promoted through the ranks to Lt. Colonel and was awarded the Victoria Cross, Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order.  After the war, he would continue his military career and would retire at the rank of Major General.  After the war he became a Member of Parliament and Minister of Veteran’s Affairs.   George Pearkes died in 1984 at age of 96 years in Victoria, BC.   It is interesting that he had requested members of the RCMP to act as his pall bearers and Honour Guard, which, apparently, did not sit well with the military based on his past connections with them.

Willie plotted his desertion for a year according to his letters home.   He left with the clothes on his back and a camera.  He left behind a suit case with some odds and ends.   He later sent the key to the suit case back to the RNWMP so that they could examine it and be satisfied that he was not stealing anything belonging to the RNWMP.   He asked his father to contact Inspector Bell (Arthur Lionel Bell Reg # 3247/O.184) O.C.  Whitehorse Sub-District RNWMP, and ask the Inspector to forward Willie’s suitcase to his father who lived in Vernon, BC.  Willie would send the money for the shipping of the suitcase.

William McKay wanted his family and members of the RNWMP to know why he deserted and prepared the following letter:


Deserting from the RNWM Police and my journey to England to Enlist:

“On February 12th (1916) Const St. Lawrence, stationed in Carcross, came into Whitehorse with a prisoner, and it was decided for him to stay in Whitehorse for a week.  This meant that the line to Alaska was clear (this must mean that Lawrence was the only policeman along that route).  In winter only two trains only run a week to Skagway on Mondays and Fridays. I decided to make this my chance to make my get away.

On February 12th I complained of an earache and asked for a sick report to see the doctor the next day. That evening I hid my civilian clothes in the stables and made everything ready.  The next morning, I complained to the boys that my earache was worse and that I was going to the doctor.  Instead of going to the hospital I went to the stables – it was quite dark – and changed into civilian clothes and left my uniform there.  At 7:30 a.m., Feb 14th, I left the barracks and “mushed” along the railway line.  The train left Whitehorse at 9 a.m., and somewhere up the line I flagged the train as one can do in the North.  I told the guard and driver I was trapping and living in a cabin nearby, and wanted to go into Skagway.

Nobody knew me, and there were only two passengers, so I got on board paying my fare as an ordinary passenger.  All went well until I arrived at the “The Summit” – the international line – There is one cabin here where McCallister, the Canadian Immigration Officer lived.  He had just heard from Whitehorse that I might be on the train and had orders to search it.  The train had drawn up just over the line.  He came up to me, as looking the most likely, and asked me if my name was McKay and I said it was – he told me I was a deserter from the RNWMPolice – but I knew that, being just over the line, he could not touch me.  He then got off the train and I saw him walk along and speak to the driver.  I was ready for this, so, when they started to back the train over into Canadian Territory, I jumped off where I knew I was free.  The train then started for Skagway and McCallister and I got on.   Arriving at Skagway I was met by the U.S. Marshall, the Customs and U.S. Immigration officers who detained me. That night I was brought before a board of U.S. officials to state why I should not be deported as an undesirable citizen”.  They could prove nothing against me, and I had $50 on me, the required sum.  


On leaving this meeting I was arrested on the street by U.S. Marshall Cook on a wire from Whitehorse of “having stolen property on me”.  I was put into the Skagway gaol.   The next day I sent a wire to Whitehorse. “Please state one article of stolen property brought into U.S. Territory”. Insp. Bell then wired to say that “kit complete please release”.  He also wired to say that he was coming over by the next train four days later, but a snow storm coming on, that the train never ran. 


On February 20th I made my way to Juneau – the capital of Alaska – 120 miles the coast in a small gasoline launch St. Nichollas.  Here I went to see Governor Strong – Governor of Alaska and asked him what right the U.S. Marshall Cook had to arrest me on a Canadian wire in Skagway, and he said none, and that I was free as long as I remained in U.S. Territory.  On February 23rd I left Juneau on S.S. Jefferson – The Alaskan Steam Ship Company – arriving in Seattle February 26th, not touching any Canadian Ports.  Here I booked through to New York on the C.M. and St. P Railway leaving Seattle February 27th arriving at Chicago March 1st

Alaskan Steam Ship Company – S.S. Jefferson

I left Chicago on March 2nd, but foolishly took the line that goes North of the Great Lakes, and therefore again crossed the line into Canada, but the Immigration officials did not trouble me.  I arrived in New York on March 3rd and took a room down by the docks.

I booked a steerage passage on S.S. California and sailed on March 5th arriving in Liverpool March 15th.   On March 18th I arrived in London having travelled from the Yukon with only the clothes I stood up in with a fur coat, fur cap and moccasins.

S.S. California ready for departure from New York.

Oh, the twists and turns of history!  S.S. California sailed on her last voyage to New York on January 12, 1917. She began her return voyage back to Britain on January 20, 1917 with 184 crew and 31 passengers on board.  On the morning of February 7, 1917 when homeward-bound and approaching Ireland under full steam, she was attacked by SM U-85. The German submarine, under the command of Kapitanleutenant Willy Petz, fired two torpedoes at California; one struck the ship squarely on the port quarter near the Number 4 hatch. Five people were killed instantly in the explosion; thirty-six people drowned either as the ship went down or when one filled lifeboat was swamped in the wake of the burning vessel, which plowed ahead losing little headway as she went down. She sank in nine minutes, 38 miles (61 km) W by S of Fastnet Rock, Ireland with a loss of 41 lives. Though Captain John L Henderson stayed on the bridge through the entire incident, and subsequently went down with the ship, incredibly he made his way to the surface and was rescued.

According to the Royal Navy, on March 12, 1917 the HMS Privet avenged the sinking of California. Posing as an unarmed merchant vessel, the crew of Privet lured U-85 to the surface after sustaining heavy damage in an unprovoked attack by the submarine. As Privet’s highly trained crew feigned abandoning ship, they uncovered the ship’s hidden guns and opened fire on the submarine at close range. U-85 was sunk by gunfire, and Kapitanleutenant Petz and his crew of 37 men were killed.  Willie’s luck held true, if he had sailed a year later he may not have made it back to enlist.

 Willie McKay finishes his epic story of desertion and his trek to go fight in WWI;

 “On March 17th I enlisted in 1st King Edwards Horse.”  (The King’s Overseas Dominions Regiment)

Photo Left – W.K. McKay – Photo Right W.K. McKay – center back row serving in 1st King Edward’s Horse (The King’s Oversea Dominions Regiment), Ireland –1916

Longford, Ireland – former members of the RNWMP pose for a photo – 1916

L-R back row: William Kellock McKay, Reg # 5852; Walker Mayow Burgoyne Short,

Reg # 4398; T.A. Harley, unable to find his Reg #;

L-R front row: Cyril Carl Kernahan, Reg # 4688, an original Charter member of the Vancouver Division RNWMP Veterans’ Association;

 Arthur Charles Coker Dare, Reg # 5223.


William McKay served one year and 176 days with the 1st King Edward Horse in Dublin, Ireland and then was transferred to the Army Reserve.  It was noted on his transfer paper that “His Conduct while serving with the Colours was:  V. Good.”

William Kellock McKay


Why is this man smiling?   No longer wanted for desertion, he is a pardoned man.

With thanks to Inspector Cris Gastaldo, Reg # 45667/O.2955, Liaison Officer London, who brought the story of William McKay to my attention via the Glenbow Museum

http://www.glenbow.org/collections/search/findingAids/archhtm/mckay.cfm .

To Joe Healy for the use of his RCMP Graves Web site to assist in filling in some of the fine details.

As this is probably my last submission for 2017

 Merry Christmas to you and all the best for 2018!

Ric Hall 24394/O.1330


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