Lieutenant Colonel A. H. G. Kemball, D.S.O. †
54th (Kootenay) Battalion
So Kemball was ignored. That gallant officer—the adjective in his case is deserved—defied orders and refused to stay in the rear when his men were in peril. He led them personally on an attack he knew was futile.
(Pierre Berton, Vimy, 1986, 129)
Born in Belgaum, India on 4 January 1861, Arnold Henry Grant Kemball was a professional soldier with thirty-two years’ experience in the Indian Army. A veteran of the Gurkha Rifles, Kemball served in the Hazara Expedition (1888), the North West Frontier (1897) and Tirah Campaign (1898). He retired as commander of the 5th Gurkhas in 1910 and moved to British Columbia.
In August 1915, Kemball succeeded William Mahlon Davis in command of the 54th Battalion, based in Nelson, British Columbia. The 54th arrived in France in August 1916 and joined the 11th Infantry Brigade, 4th Division. Kamball was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for leading a trench raid during the battle of the Somme in November 1916.
According to second-in-command, Major R.D. Davies, Kemball worked to nurture the individual responsibility of his junior officers. Davies explained, “He made it a point to leave company Commanders particularly free to carry on the work in the Companies, merely telling them what was intended to be done.” The C.O. also surrounded himself with fellow Indian Army veterans, such as Davies and Major V. V. Harvey, whose appointment in July 1916 caused some resentment among the original officers.
In preparation for the Vimy Offensive in spring 1917, Kemball and Lieutenant Colonel Sam Beckett of the 75th Battalion were ordered to organize a major raid against the German Line. Both commanders objected to plan but decided to lead the attack personally when their protests were ignored. During the ill-advised raid on 1 March 1917, Beckett was shot down by a sniper and Kemball was killed when caught up in the enemy barbed wire. Harvey assumed command of the battered and demoralized 54th Battalion.
Two days later, the Canadians and the Germans made a temporary truce to recover the dead from No Man’s Land. In sign of respect for the fallen 54th commander, the Germans returned Kemball’s body for burial. A junior officer eulogized, “A truer man or a finer soldier never stepped.”
View my illustrated account of Kemball’s death here.