Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History November 20, 1917 – In Memory of John Shiwak, Inuit Sniper
With Remembrance Day just over, northerners might like to know a little of the life of John Shiwak, an Inuit hunter and trapper from Labrador who died in France during the First World War.
His family name was originally Sikoak – newly-formed ice – but family memory says it was changed to the meaningless “Shiwak” by Doctor Harry Paddon of the Grenfell Mission. The family lived in a bay called Cul-de-Sac, near Rigolet, on the north side of Hamilton Inlet, the entrance to Lake Melville. John Shiwak was probably born there, or in Rigolet itself, to John and Sarah Shiwak, sometime in the late 1880s.
As a boy John, like all Inuit of his time, learned to hunt seals, fish, trap, and handle a dog-team. But he was restless and left home while still a boy, to find what work he could elsewhere.
But Rigolet was where his heart was, and he often returned. He probably worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company for a time, at Rigolet, where the company had a fur and salmon processing operation.
In 1911 Shiwak met a writer, William Amy, while returning to Rigolet by steamer from St. John’s. The two became friends and Shiwak shared his diaries of hunting and trapping expeditions into the interior with Amy, who wrote that young Shiwak was a naturally-gifted artist and writer. The two maintained a correspondence for some years. In one letter, Shiwak confided in his friend that he wanted to become a soldier. So it was no surprise that in 1915, a year after war had broken out in Europe, John Shiwak enlisted at St. John’s in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. He was about 28.
He took his basic training in Scotland and first saw action in France in July of 1916. Shiwak was a tremendous marksman. Indeed, one officer claimed that he was the best sniper in the entire British army. His success was recognized when he was promoted to lance-corporal in April of 1917.
But, although he was good at killing, he was troubled by the interminable bloodshed of warfare. In his letters home, he expressed his unhappiness. He longed for the end of war and wrote often to “My Dear Louisa,” probably Louisa Flowers, to whom he was engaged.
A fellow soldier from Newfoundland, a close friend of John Shiwak, described him as “shy and lonely,” but added, “I got to be quite friendly with him by talking of seal hunting. We’d talk for hours and often he’d say, will it ever be over. He sure was a great shot and had a lot of notches on his rifle. He said sniping was like swatching seals.”
“Swatching” was a Newfoundland term for hunting seals in open water, as they popped their heads above the surface to breathe. It required alertness and accuracy. John Shiwak’s childhood training as a hunter had prepared him well for his military role as a sniper.
A quiet man with many comrades but few close friends, war took an emotional toll on Shiwak. When one friend, also a trapper from Labrador, was killed in early 1917, Shiwak went into a period of depression.
In November, the British launched a major offensive against the Germans at the Battle of Cambrai. It marked the first significant use of tanks in warfare – they had made their debut only a year earlier. The British attack was launched early on the morning of Nov. 20. An astonishing 476 tanks were used and they were supported by six infantry and two cavalry divisions.
The unexpected attack forced the Germans back 10 kilometers, and marked the first time that the German three-trench system was breached during the war.
But over the course of a week, the Germans recovered all the ground lost during this bloody battle. Although the Battle of Cambrai has been described as “the most significant battle of the First World War,” one British survivor described it as “a harum-scarum affair, ill-planned and feebly directed.” The losses on both sides were appalling. In all the Germans lost 50,000 men, the British 45,000.
John Shiwak, the Regiment’s leading sniper, was one of those casualties. On the first day of the British offensive, he was killed by an exploding shell. He was buried that same afternoon in the village of Masnieres in France. The official record relates, “His loss was keenly felt throughout the Regiment, for his matchless marksmanship and his skill as a scout and an observer together with his reliability and good nature had won him many friends.”
Lest we forget.