Captain Percy Vere Binns

Captain Percy Vere Binns,  B.Sc., MC

My Remembrance Day project this year is one of my maternal first cousins twice removed Captain Percy Vere Binns,  B.Sc., MC., who died in action in World War I. Percy was born on 9 Feb 1893 in Port Antonio, Jamaica. His father, Ellis Panton Binns, was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and Amelia Saffery, his mother, was born in England. His father, Ellis, worked as an accountant, an auditor, and an exporter for the United Fruit Company in Jamaica.

Percy had nine siblings, with only seven surviving to adulthood. They were Dr. Edward Ellis (1881–1946), Claude Ellery (1882–?), Marion Louise (1884–?), Jessie Amelia (1886–?), Amy Alice (1888–?), May Edith (1889–?), Ray Ellerton (1890–1974), Ralph Spencer (1895–?), and Elsie Randall (1899–1997). Apparently, Claude and May died in childhood.

Percy’s paternal aunt, Mary Annie Binns (1854–1915), was married to my great-grandfather Rev. Caleb Lister Reynolds (1853–1922). Their son Charles Russell Starre Reynolds (1887–1925) was my mother’s father.

Although Percy’s parents lived in Jamaica, they sent Percy and his brothers to a preparatory school, Woodstock College, in Canada. Later on, Percy attended the University of Toronto and graduated in April 1914 with a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering. After graduating, he went to work for the Hydro-Electric Power Commission (renamed Ontario Hydro in 1974) and was stationed in Kenora, Ontario.

In November 1915, Percy enlisted in the Canadian Army and was appointed to the Canadian Engineers at the Engineer Training Depot, Ottawa, Ontario. In June 1916—after signing his Officers Papers on 19 Jan 1916—he, along with the 1st Field Company, joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the front.

In France, Lt. Percy Binns joined more than three million British and French forces in the Somme Offensive that took place 1 July and 18 Nov 1916 on both sides of the upper reaches of the River Somme in France. With one million men wounded or killed, the Somme was one of the deadliest battles in human history. Unfortunately for Percy, he was one of the 24,029 Canadian casualties of that momentous battle.

Battle for Courcelette – 1916
Painting by Louis Weirter  Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum

On 8 Sep 1916, Percy sustained a wound while his unit was constructing trenches in the run-up to the Battle of Courcelette, which was fought from 15 to 22 Sep 1916. Tanks were used in battle for the first time at Courcelette, as was the creeping artillery barrage. Also of interest is the capture of the village of Courcelette by Canadian troops, as depicted in the painting above by soldier and war-artist Louis Weirter. Weirter witnessed the capture in September 1916, then painted the scene in 1918.

Military Cross (MC)
Military Cross (MC)

For “valuable service rendered in the construction of jumping off trenches before Courcelette,” Lt. Percy Binns was awarded the Military Cross (MC) on 1 Jan 1917.

The MC is granted in recognition of “an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land.” In 1917, the Military Cross was the second-level military decoration awarded for gallantry to officers of the United Kingdom and other British Commonwealth countries’ armed forces. The Victoria Cross was the only higher combat gallantry award presented by the British Empire. Recipients of the Military Cross were entitled to use the post-nominal letters MC.

Despite his wound, Percy remained at duty after only a day in the hospital and served in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 9–12 Apr 1917. The Canadian Corps was assigned to capture the German-held Vimy Ridge, an escarpment on the Arras front. Supported by a “creeping barrage,” the Canadians captured most of the ridge during the first day. The village of Thélus fell during the second day, and so did the crest of the ridge. The final objective was a fortified knoll located near Givenchy-en-Gohelle. It fell to the Canadians on 12 April. Vimy marked the first time the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force had fought together.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge | Richard Jack
( Library and Archives Canada)

The Canadian victory at Vimy, many believe, remains the moment Canada saw itself as an independent nation. And, because of its stunning success, the Canadian Corps earned a reputation for getting the job done. 

Following Vimy, Percy took part in the Lens campaign and the Battle of Hill 70, which took place on Lens' outskirts in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France between 15 – 25 Aug 1917. The Canadian Corps captured Hill 70 and established defensive positions despite the heavy use of poison gas. The Canadian victory gave the Allied forces a crucial strategic position overlooking Lens. The Battle of Hill 70 was the Canadian Corps' first major action under a Canadian commander. Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie had replaced British General Julian Byng following the Corps’ victory at Vimy Ridge.

Canadians in captured German trenches | Canada Department of National Defence
 Canadian soldiers in a captured German trench during the Battle of Hill 70 in August 1917. The soldiers on the left are scanning the sky for aircraft, while the soldier in the centre appears to be re-packing his gas respirator into the carrying pouch on his chest. Dust cakes their clothes, helmets, and weapons.

In September 1917, Percy was made Assistant Adjutant of the 1st Divisional Engineers at the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele. That campaign took place in Belgium, from 31 Jul to 10 Nov 1917, to gain control of the ridges south and east of the Ypres in West Flanders. German and Allied armies had been deadlocked for three years, when, on 31 July, the British began a new offensive to capture a ridge near the village of Passchendaele. On 26 October—after British, Australian and New Zealand troops had launched failed assaults—the Canadians joined the battle and captured the ridge on 6 November. 

Battle of Passchendaele | William Rider-Rider
Wounded Canadians on the way to aid-post during the Battle of Passchendaele, 1917
(Library & Archives Canada)

Canadians won despite heavy rain and shelling that had turned the battlefield into a quagmire. Nearly 16,000 Canadians were killed or wounded, however. Percy seems to have survived Passchendaele unscathed and was appointed Staff Captain on 31 May 1918. He was also promoted to acting captain at that time.

While reviewing Percy’s service record, I was surprised to see that he got leaves of absence—at least one of which he spent in England—while serving at the front. 

By July 1918, Allied forces had gained the upper hand and were also being reinforced by contingents from the United States. Allied commanders believed it was time to switch from defence to offence and force the entrenched Germans out of France. The Battle of Amiens (a region of northern France) became the first major action to support this strategy.

In early August, before launching the attack, the Allies used a series of deceptive tactics that led the Germans to believe they were weakening their front line. Much of this was done in the daytime. Meanwhile, Canadians, British, Australians, and French, among others, moved to the front lines under cover of darkness. As a result, the Germans never expected the assault.

The Allies armies were supported by heavy artillery, more than 600 tanks, and 2,000 aircraft, greatly outnumbering the Germans.

Battle of Amiens,  9 Aug 1918 |  Library and Archives Canada
Canadian armoured cars going into action at the Battle of Amiens

To maintain the element of surprise to the last minute, the 8 August assault was not preceded by the usual bombardment of enemy positions. At precisely 4:20 a.m., the Canadians stormed positions held by the German Fourth Army. 

The Battle of Amiens ended on 11 August and stood as Germany’s worst defeat of the war. The Canadian contingent had pushed the Germans back an impressive 12 km but at the cost of over 3,800 casualties. Again, though, Percy survived. The Hundred Days Campaign followed success at Amiens and led directly to the Germans’ defeat on 11 Nov 1918.

Circumstances of Death Registers, First World War – Source: Library and Archives Canada. CIRCUMSTANCES OF DEATH REGISTERS FIRST WORLD WAR Surnames: Bernard to Binyon. Microform Sequence 9; Volume Number 31829_B016719; Reference RG150, 1992-93/314, 153 Page 643 of 652

Sadly, after surviving Amiens, Captain Percy Vere Binns was killed by a shell near Arras on the afternoon of 28 Aug 1918. He was only 25. From the CIRCUMSTANCES OF DEATH REGISTERS FIRST WORLD WAR for Percy:

“Killed in Action” 

This officer was proceeding forward on his motor-cycle for the purpose of making arrangements for the establishment of a forward Engineer Dump and, when in Rue St. Quentin, Arras, he was hit by pieces of an enemy shell and was also badly burnt by the engine of the motor-cycle bursting. He died from the effects shortly afterwards. 

Captain Percy Vere Binns is interred in the Dainville British Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France. It is located on the western outskirts of Arras. Dainville is a village in the Department of the Pas-de-Calais, on the outskirts of Arras. The British Cemetery lies about a kilometre from the village.

St Albans Cathedral Memorial, Kenora, Ontario

Captain Percy Vere Binns is commemorated on the Christ Church War Memorial in the London Borough of Lewisham (Lee). Although the church was destroyed during World War II, the plaque is part of the Lewisham Museum Collection. He is commemorated on the University of Toronto Roll of Service and on a plaque hanging in St Alban’s Cathedral in Kenora, Ontario. Percy’s death was also mentioned by newspapers in Kenora and Toronto, Ontario and in Kingston, Jamaica.

Telegram from the War Office as it appeared
in The Gleaner, Kingston, Jamaica

All three of Percy’s brothers served during World War I. Dr. Edward Ellis Binns was a Corporal with the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Ray Ellerton Binns served with Borden’s Motor Machine Gun Battery, Canadian Machine Gun Corps. Ralph Spencer Binns was a Lieutenant with the US Army. All three survived. 
Percy’s parents, Ellis and Amelia, eventually moved to London, England. Ellis died there on 21 Feb 1942. Amelia died on 13 Sep 1949 in Edinburgh, where she lived with her daughter, Jessie Clapperton.