Lieutenant Colonel J.N. Semmens
78th (Winnipeg Grenadiers) Battalion
… it will act like a wild tornado to fan the flame of anger that burns within us now when we see the cryptic phrase, “Remember Hong Kong.” That anger is not alone aimed at the Japanese but at anything that impedes or hampers the all-out effort of this country of ours. To the Winnipeg Grenadiers it means grim preparedness.(Col. Semmens, Ottawa Citizen, 11 Mar 1942, 3)
Born in Toronto on 7 October 1879, John Nelson Semmens was a Winnipeg architect and militia captain in the Winnipeg Grenadiers. He first joined the 100th Battalion under the command of fellow architect Lieutenant Colonel J.B. Mitchell before transferring to the 78th to act as second-in-command. He assumed temporary command during Battle of Passchendaele until Lieutenant Colonel James Kirkcaldy recovered from his wound in March 1918.
Even on the battlefield, Semmens put his architect skills to use constructing a makeshift memorial at Vimy. Twice mentioned in dispatched and recipient of the Distinguished Service Order, he was promoted to acting lieutenant colonel after the armistice. He returned to his architectural work after the war but remained connected with the militia.
When the Japanese Army captured Hong Kong on 25 December 1941, Semmens was commanding officer of the 2nd (Reserve) Winnipeg Rifles back in Manitoba. The 1st Battalion, as part of Canadian “C Force” sent to reinforce Hong Kong, had been destroyed when the city fell. “They have added another glorious page to the annals of Canadian heroism,” Semmens declared. “To the men of the Second Battalion now comes the inevitable desire to step into the breach and fill the gap now made by the loss of the valorous First Battalion.”
Ottawa accepted the offer, and Semmens assumed command of the reconstituted the 1st Battalion, Winnipeg Grenadiers. “It is a tradition of the British army,” he affirmed, “that while a single man of a shattered unit survives that unit shall not die.” Near the end of the Second World War, the colonel called for more extensive social support for veterans, noting, “We remember what happened to us after the last war. We don’t want anything like that to occur again.”
Having designed dozens of buildings, schools, and churches, Semmens retired to British Columbia in 1957. He died on 2 November 1960.