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Percival Joseph Anker, MM (1892 - 1918)

By Stuart Cook and Alan D Craxford

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Percival Anker

Percival Joseph Anker (about 1916)

Percival Anker was my grandfather. He was killed in action during WWl at the age of just 26, 43 days before the end of The Great War. He never really got to know his own children - my mother was 2 years old and my aunt, just 6 months old in September 1918. During my family tree search I learnt a lot about his short life.

Percival was born and raised in the fens of Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire. We know from subsequent documents that he was of medium height (5 foot 5 inches tall) with blue eyes, fair hair and a fair complexion. He immigrated to Canada to farm, married an English girl who had also emigrated there from the Watford area. He joined the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force in Brandon, Manitoba where my mother was born. My mother was just 13 years old when her mother died! I never got to meet my grandmother either. In 1932 at the age of just 15 my mother moved to England from Canada to be raised by her mother's family (the Clarks) and was completely unaware of her Anker relatives residing in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire just 40 miles from her. Twenty-one years later with a knock on the door of her home in Hunstanton, Norfolk she was introduced to several members of her Anker family who had traced her there.

I was fortunate enough to meet and spend a summer holiday with Percival's younger brother Ernest - a farmer. He had a wonderful cheeky sense of humour and I can only imagine Percival would have been of a similar nature. - STU Cook

A Cambridgeshire lad

Market Street about 1905

Market Street, Whittlesey: from an old postcard franked October 1905

Dorothy Clark

Dorothy Clark

Percival Joseph Anker was born on August 28th 1892 in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, the second son of David and Harriet Anker. The Anker family had been associated with the town for many generations, their ancestors arriving with Dutch and Huguenot settlers in the early part of the seventeenth century. Whittlesey stands on the edge of the East Anglian fens, part of which had been drained to create farm land. David followed in his own father's footsteps and by the turn of the century was a dairyman and farmer. Little is known of Percival's early years but by 1911 he was employed as a horseman on his father's farm.

Percival emigrated to Canada in 1913. The reasons for his decision are lost to the family's history but various documents suggest he intended to follow a career in farming. He embarked on the "Empress of Ireland", a vessel belonging to the Canadian Pacific Railway Atlantic Steamship Line, in Liverpool on March 21st 1913 bound for St Johns, New Brunswick, Canada. He settled in Brandon, Manitoba where he met and subsequently married Dorothy Ellen Clark. Dorothy's family had originated in England (indeed Dorothy was born in Hertfordshire in 1892) and had emigrated to Canada on the same ship only a couple of months before him. The wedding took place in Brandon on October 23rd 1915. Percival was already enlisted in the Army and many of the guests were also in khaki. A short period of married life followed and their daughter Barbara was born on August 17th the following year.

The Canadian Expeditionary Force

The outbreak of war in 1914 was greeted with enthusiasm in Canada, but the Canadian forces were very small, comprising about 3,100 regular soldiers supplemented by a poorly trained active militia of 75,000. In August 1914 Canada offered and Britain accepted an expeditionary force whose strength was fixed at first at 25,000 but this was soon to rise. The Minister of Militia and Defence, Colonel Sam Hughes, acted as a human dynamo in creating the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) (2, 3). He accepted the offer to raise a battalion of ex-regulars, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), which went on to serve with the British 27th Division and he set up a major camp at Valcartier, which trained civilian volunteers. The first contingent of the CEF left for England on 1 October, a force of over 31 000, many of this number British-born. . The 1st Canadian Division went into the line on the western front in February 1915, under the command of Maj Gen Alderson, a British regular. The division fought heroically during the second battle of Ypres in April 1915, when poison gas was used on the battlefield for the first time (by the Germans). The arrival of the 2nd Canadian Division allowed the formation of a Canadian Corps in September 1915, initially commanded by Alderson. He was replaced by Byng, another British regular, in May 1916. He proved popular with the Canadians, and the Canadian Corps became known as the "Byng Boys" after a popular musical review. In November 1915 the PPCLI joined the Canadian Corps, and in January 1916 the Canadian Cavalry Brigade joined a British formation. The 3rd Division was formed in France in February 1916, and in August 4th Division joined the Canadian Corps in France. A 5th Division was formed in 1917 but was disbanded in 1918 to help keep the other divisions up to strength. About 418, 000 served with the CEF, and 56, 000 were killed.

There was no conscription until close to the end of the war and all able-bodied men were encouraged to enlist. Recruitment was carried out in towns and neighbourhoods and recruits were allocated to battalions which were numbered consecutively and were often named for their location of origin. Eventually the battalions numbered 260, each with its own badges and insignia. Many of these battalions did not see action in their own right but were absorbed into much larger reserve battalions which then acted as reinforecement depots for battalions on the front line.

The Winnipeg Grenadiers was an infantry regiment of the Canadian Army formed in 1908. They became the 78th Battalion (Winnipeg Grenadiers), part of the 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade, 4th Canadian Division of the CEF and served in France and Belgium from 13 August 1916 to 4 May 1919.

For King and Country

Sergeant Anker

Sergeant Percival Anker

Percival answered the call and enlisted with the Canadian Army, his first posting was with the 99th Manitoba Rangers which was based in Brandon, his home town. At the beginning of 1915 he spent six weeks at a military school of instruction at which he passed the sergeant's examination. He also achieved Marksman status. Coinciding with this success he enrolled for duty with the CEF, the date of his attestation for overseas service being 12 April 1915. He was initially assigned to the 45th Battalion (Victoria and Halliburton Militia) of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Transfer overseas was not immediate and he spent a period of time training at Camp Sewell, Manitoba.

The 45th battalion was mobilised in early 1916. It arrived in Liverpool, England by sea on March 25 with a compliment of 38 officers and 1119 other ranks. From there it was used as a reinforcing unit until it was absorbed along with several other battalions into the 11th Reserve Battalion on July 7, 1916. This was based at Tidworth Barracks on Salisbury Plain in the south of England where infantry training was carried out. From there the 11th Reserve acted as a reinforcing point for infantry battalions serving on the front in France. Percival was assigned to the 78th Infantry battalion (the Winnipeg Grenadiers) in April 1918.

Although he achieved the rank of sergeant during his time of service with the Army in Canada he arrived in France as a private soldier. CEF units in the field had a continuous need for privates, NCOs and second lieutenants and often preferred to create their own second lieutenants from their own corporals or sergeants. Everyone else had to revert to private on transfer to France with few exceptions. It was expected that all officers and NCOs would have battle experience.

In 1918 Percival was awarded the Military Medal for gallantary in the field. Although we do not know where this occurred, the award was signed into Army Orders on September 14th 1918. In the month prior to that, the 78th Battalion had seen action in the Battle of Amiens. The award was announced in the supplement of the London Gazette in January 1919 (5) where his rank was given as Acting Corporal. We believe this to have been a battlefield promotion, possibly in the same action.

The battle for the Canal du Nord and Cambrai (7, [B])

By the end of the summer of 1918 the object of the Allied forces was to break through the Hindenburg line. This was a vast system of defensive fortifications which included concrete bunkers and machine gun emplacements, heavy belts of barbed wire, tunnels for moving troops, deep trenches, dug-outs and command posts which had been constructed during the winter of 1916-17 in north eastern France. The line stretched from Lens to beyond Verdun. The Allied strategy was to utilise the entire front from the river Meuse to the English Channel and attack the line at different points simultaneously. Canadian forces were to advance toward Cambrai, situated in the Nord-Pas de Calais region in northern France. The town is surrounded by an elaborate system of canals. The 35 metre wide Canal-du-Nord, which was incomplete at the outbreak of war, lies to the west. At this point the main German defences at the Marquion Line were only a mile beyond the canal. The canal itself was dry but the enemy had already flooded the surrounding swampy area leaving only a 4,000-metre southward stretch in which the ground was firm. The objective was for the 1st and 4th Canadian Divisions to make a rapid crossing of the Canal-du-Nord, take Bourlon Wood, and capture surrounding towns, pushing to the northeast. Then the 3rd Division would join them and push to the Cambrai/Douai Road opposite Tilloy. The operation was planned in two phases and advancement targets were defined by Red, Green and Blue lines drawn on the battle map. Groups of artillery field brigades would relay each other in a continuous rolling barrage to support the infantry as it progressed through these lines.

As noted above Percival Anker was fighting with the 78th Infantary battalion which was part of the 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade, itself part of the 4th Canadian Division. He was killed in action on September 29th 1918. Although it is not known conclusively where this happened, it is possible to determine the route of his battalion through the course of that day. On September 28th, they had gained the objective of the Green Line and passed through Bourlon. They spent the night just east of the town and the Blue Line. The next day, the battalion moved north and east past Raillencourt and Sailly forming part of the assault on the German defensive position, the Marcoing line. They met stiff resistence in crossing the Cambrai to Aubencheul-au-Bac road and the railway line and came to rest south of the town of Sancourt. The following is an extract from the Report of the Bourlon Wood Operation 27th September to 1st October 1918 for the 12th Brigade summarising the part played by the 78th Battalion. (9)

Continued in column 2...

ZERO hour (First Phase) was 5.20 AM, 27th September 1918. The task of the 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade was to leap frog the 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade on the RED Line (with the 11th Canadian Infantry on the Right) and clear the area up to and make good the BLUE Line - then push patrols forward to gain a footing in the MARQOING LINE. The area allotted to this Brigade included the remaining trenches of the MARQOING LINE, the trench system around BOURLON, the village of BOURLON and the railway within the Brigade Boundary. Owing to the frontage and depth of the allotted area two Battalions (the 85th and 38th) captured the GREEN Line and then the remaining two (the 78th and 72nd) made good the BLUE Line.

Capture of the BLUE Line: The 78th and 72nd Bns in moving up to the GREEN line to leap frog the leading Battalions suffered few casualties, although some of the forward platoons of the 72nd Bn joined the 38th Bn in their capture of the GREEN Line. The attack of the Right Bn (78th Bn) developed more rapidly than the left. Owing to the 72nd Bn having not yet come up on the right it was necessary for the 78th Bn to form a defensive flank on the left. The advance continued at 2.45pm and the BLUE Line was taken shortly after 5pm. Situation at 8pm: All of the BLUE Line in our hands with the exception of a portion on the right which was strongly defended by an enemy post. "A" Company of the 85th Bn was placed at the disposal of the C.C., 78th Bn to assist in clearing out the enemy post. At 8pm the attack was made and the whole of the BLUE Line was established.

On the morning of the 28th September the 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade and units of the 3rd Canadian Division passed through this Brigade on the BLUE Line. The 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade followed in the rear taking up positions in supprt.

ZERO hour (Second Phase) was fixed for 8AM, 29th September 1918. The task was to clear the area including trenches, the village of SANCOURT and wood there, the railway cutting and the village of BLECOURT, The distance from the jumping-off line to the final Objective was 4000 yards. It was decided to use two Battalions - 38th Bn (Right) and 7nd (Left) to carry out the attack, both Bns going through to the Final Objective. The 85th Bn (Brigade Support) was ordered to follow in the rear of the 72nd Ban and the 78th Bn (Bde Reserve) which was in the rear of 38th Bn. The strength of the operation was 72 Officers; 1681 Other Ranks.

Our Artillery barrage was mounted at 8AM and during the 20 minute halt the leading Bns advanced from the jumping off line. The enemy artillery opened up almost simultaneously with our own. The Right Bn - 38th Bn - came under very heavy Machine gun fire after crossing the CAMBRAI-DOUAI ROAD; the fire coming from the ring trench, the railway and the flanks and was held up. The 3rd Canadian Division on the Right appeared to make no progress EAST of the above road. An Artillery bombardment of the railway opposite the 38th Bn front was arranged. The 78th Bn attacked passing through the 38th Bn. Heavy casualties occurred while crossing the CAMBRAI-DOUAI ROAD from strong Machine Gun fire. Posts were established by the 78th Bn but no further progress was made. The 78th Bn maintained the positions gained until the morning of 30th September when the 11th Canadian Inf Bde passed through them.

Of the 68,500 men engaged in the conflict, 13,672 or 20 percent were lost in the Canal-du-Nord and Cambrai operations.

In Memoriam

Dorothy Anker moved with her eight week old daughter, Barbara, from Canada to England in October 1916 to be near her husband during his training and while he awaited redeployment. They travelled on the Cunard liner Ausonia from Montreal, landing at Falmouth, Cornwall. She stayed with her father's family in Garston on the outskirts of Watford, Hertfordshire. Salisbury Plain is about 70 miles from Garston. During this time, Dorothy became pregnant again and in March 1918 their second daughter Gwendoline was born. In all probability Percival was sent to France almost immediately after she was born and never saw his family again.

Wooden marker

Grave marker and letter

Bourlon Wood Cemetery

Bourlon Wood Cemetery today (11)

Percival was buried close to where he fell, his grave marked with a wooden cross inscribed with his name. Dorothy was subsequently sent a photograph of the grave marker from the Director-General of Graves Registrations. In due course, Bourlon Wood became a site of commemoration under the auspices of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Percival's headstone is number 20 in row C of Plot II. It records his Corporal's rank and his Military Medal. In Canada his name was entered on Page 360 of the 1918 volume of the Book of Remembrance. His name is also commemorated in two places in Whittlesey. The residents of the town subscribed to a War Memorial, dedicated in 1923, which lists the fallen of the Great War. Members of the Wesleyan Chapel in Queen Street erected an organ which was dedicated to the memory of the thirteen members of the congregation who had made the Supreme Sacrifice.

Dorothy remained in Hertfordshire for two more years, finally taking her two daughters back to Brandon aboard the liner, the Empress of Britain, on May 25th 1921. She died there in 1930 at the age of 37 years.

Headstone: P J Anker
Whittlesey War Memorial >

(Left): Percival Anker's headstone, Bourlon Wood; (Centre) Detail from the Memorial; (Right) The Whittlesey War Memorial

Book of Remembrance

Book of Remembrance (13)

Further reading

A. The War Diary of the 78th Battalion - Winnipeg Grenadiers (12th Canadian Brigade - 4th Canadian Division) 1916 - 1919: Transcribed by Ed Tainton. NOTE: This is a pdf file: A free version of the Adobe Pdf Reader can be downloaded here:

B. The battle for Cambrai and the Canal du Nord is described in Chapter 14 "Through the Hindenburg Line to Cambrai" in Nicholson, G. W. L. 1962. Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Queens Printer and Controller of Stationary, Ottawa, Canada.


1. Canadian Other Ranks Seven-button Service Dress Jacket and Cloth Headgear in Kaiser's Bunker On-line Guide to Canadian Expeditionary Force Clothing 1903 - 1919
2. Canadian Expeditionary Force: Reference Answers at
3. The Canadian Expeditionary Force. in: The Canadian Encyclopedia
4. Historical Map of The Western Front (Northern France and Belgium) 1918: Courtesy of the United States Military Academy Department of History Emerson History for the Relaxed Historian
5. Percival Joseph Anker (424516) Announcement of award of Military Medal: Supplement to the London Gazette Issue 31142 page 1237 Published January 24th 1919
6. The Military Medal: image courtesy of Sarah Jane Medals
7.Canada and the First World War War Diaries: Canal-du-Nord and Cambrai Library and Archives, Canada
8. High Resolution Barrage Map [][1:20,000]. Light linen backing. Trenches corrected to 20-8-18. four complete adjacent maps joined to form one large map. Lines indicating inter-brigade boundaries as well as the southern boundary of the Canadian Corps. Lines also indicating 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Division objectives. Battle of the Canal du Nord - battle map (Sept 1918): Ordnance Survey Wikimedia Commons at wikipedia. Commons is a freely licensed media file repository. This work is in the public domain because it is an Ordnance Survey map over 50 years old. Ordnance Survey maps are covered by Crown Copyright which in this case expires 50 years after publication. Ordnance Survey does however ask that they be credited and that the date of publication be given. Please be aware that this is a very large file download.

9. The Bourlon Wood Operation September 27th - October 1st 1918 et seq Library and Archives of Canada 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade Report
10. The Canal-du-Nord and Cambrai, September 27 - October 11, 1918 Library and Archives Canada
Source: Gerald W.L. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919: The Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War (Ottawa: Queen's Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1962), p. 458
11. Bourlon Wood Cemetery, Franch The Commonwealth War Grave Commission
12. Percival Joseph Anker: Entry in Canada, War Graves Registers (Circumstances of Casualty) 1914-1948 at
13. The Books of Remembrance - First World War: Veterans Affairs, Canada

Page added: May 10th 2011
Last updated: October 20th 2012

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