Lieutenant Colonel Jim Cornwall
218th (Irish Guards) Battalion
He certainly knows his constituency better than most representatives do. There is scarcely a mile of these unmapped ways that he has not tramped alone; not an Indian guide in the North can last with Jim for a week, in summer or on snowshoes.
(A.D. Cameron, The New North, 1910,)
On 3 March 1916, James Kennedy Cornwall enlisted as a private in Lieutenant Colonel L. J. Whittaker’s 218th Battalion. Within two months, Cornwall, a former Liberal Alberta MPP (1909—1913), was commanding the unit. Nicknamed “Peace River Jim,” he was a pioneer, prospector, trapper, adventurer and entrepreneur. Born on 29 October 1869 in Brantford, Ontario, he became a world traveler before settling in Peace River, Alberta in 1902.
Over drinks at an Edmonton hotel, Cornwall and his friend, the equally adventurous Morris Cohen, decided to volunteer in the CEF. On his attestation form, Cornwall listed prior military experience as “Soldier of Legion—South America.” On his officer’s form, he gave the equally vague response “Revolution, South America.” One of the most notorious members of the 218th, “Two-Gun” Cohen later became a general and aide-de-camp to Sun Yat-sen during the Chinese Revolution.
Peace River Jim’s battalion, variously nicknamed the “Irish Guards” or “Cornwall’s Cossacks,” encompassed a range of ethnicities, including Cree, Sarcee, Métis, Americans, Irish, Scandinavians, Russians, Ruthenians, Austrians and Germans. While stationed in Edmonton, the multinational troops earned a reputation for rowdiness. Although understrength, the 218th gained special permission to proceed overseas in February 1917. It merged with the 211th Americans and went to France under Cornwall’s command as the 8th Railway Troops. The commander was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
Since many of the Austrian and German volunteers were officially considered “enemy alien,” most claimed to have been Russian on attestation papers. Liberals pointed out that the Conservative Government had instead created racial discord by disenfranchising the same “enemy alien” voters who were willing to enlist in the 218th. According to Alberta Liberal MP James McCrie Douglass, the “cosmopolitan” composition of the battalion represented the blending of nationalities into a stronger nation.
As the debate over citizenship restrictions continued after the war, Liberal MP William Henry White argued that Austrians and other eastern Europeans, “wanted to become Canadians; they wanted to serve Canada … The very fact that the 218th Regiment was made up of ninety percent of that class of people shows that they were willing to serve their country.”
While overseas, Cornwall had run as a soldier candidate in the 1917 Alberta election, but finished fourth. He tried to return to the legislature again in a 1920 by-election and the 1921 general election but lost both times. Despite lack of political success, Cornwall remained an influential community leader and promoted the development of Athabasca oil sands.
He died on 20 November 1955.