Perth’s Hall of Remembrance unveils unique display

Stacey Niceliu at William Del Donegan display, Hall of Remembrance military museum.
Stacey Niceliu at William Del Donegan display, Hall of Remembrance military museum. Photo credit: Terry O'Hearn.
Posted on: April 26, 2019

The Hall of Remembrance military museum at Perth’s Legion has unveiled a unique display for its season opening on Friday, May 3. The exhibit features soldier William Del Donegan, who was one of 2,100 Canadian men killed during the 10-day “Battle of Hill 70” in World War I.

Donegan, who died on Aug. 16, 1917, had a connection to Perth. He was a nephew of Peter J. Cavanagh and Euphemia “Effie” (Donegan), shipbuilders who lived where the Crystal Palace in Perth now stands. Cavanagh was also owner of the steamer “St. Louis”, which plied the waters of the Rideau system. Donegan’s death came the day before his battalion was relieved by other Canadian troops.  By the end of the battle, Canadians had won 6 Victoria Crosses, suffered 9,200 casualties, and 2,100 were killed.

Interest was focused on William Del Donegan after human skeletal remains were found in September, 2010, during a munitions clearing process near rue Léon Droux, Vendin-le-Vieil, France. Clues to the identity of the remains included the finding of buttons from the 16th Canadian Infantry Battalion, and the insignia of the 179th Battalion. A ring, wrist watch, and other artifacts were also found at the scene.

The Perth connection can be verified starting with The Courier newspaper edition of March 16, 1900, which published an obituary for Patrick Donegan. “His funeral was a large one, and took place from the residence of his son-in-law, Mr. Peter Cavanagh, the funeral cortege first proceeding to St. John’s church where High Mass was performed …” The obituary indicated that Patrick Donegan “was born in Danville, Quebec, and came to Perth on the opening of the old Brockville and Ottawa railway, in the position of engine-driver on the branch from Smith’s Falls to Perth … The funeral took place from the residence of his son-in-law Peter Cavanagh.”

On Friday, June 21, 1912, the following was published in the newspaper: “Last Wednesday evening the steamer ‘St. Louis,” owned by Peter Cavanagh of Perth, a former Brockvillian steamed into Mathen’s wharf and this morning at 9:30 made her first trip on the Butternut Bay7 route … She is 67 feet long, 14 foot beam, and 4 foot draught.”

The Department of National Defence web pages carry much information about the soldier William Del Donegan: “Donegan was born March 27, 1897 in Ottawa, Ontario, son of William Donegan and Elizabeth Donegan (née Shields). At some point during William’s youth, the Donegan family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

“Donegan enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) at age 18 on 21 February 1916 with the 179th Battalion (The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada), CEF. Prior to enlistment, Donegan spent four years in the Highland Cadets with the 79th Cameron Highlanders of Canada and later worked as a railway clerk in Winnipeg.”

“Through historical, genealogical, anthropological, archaeological, and DNA analysis, with the assistance of the Canadian Forces Forensic Odontology Response Team, and the Canadian Museum of History, the Casualty Identification Review Board was able to confirm the identity of the remains as those of Private William Del Donegan in October 2017.

“Following the war, Private Donegan’s name was engraved on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial commemorating Canadian soldiers who died during the First World War and have no known grave.

“Private Donegan was buried on 25 August 2018 in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Loos British Cemetery in Loos-en-Gohelle, France by members of The Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary’s) from Victoria, British Columbia. Attending the burial were cousins and other family members, as well as representatives of the Government of Canada, the local French government and the Canadian Armed Forces.”

The service included honouring three other Canadians who were killed in the same battle as Donegan. A CTV News narrative of the ceremony stated: “The remains were found between 2010 and 2016 and identified publicly in May as belonging to Pte. William Del Donegan, Pte. Henry Priddle, Pte. John (Jack) Henry Thomas and Sgt. Archibald Wilson. Relatives of all four soldiers were in attendance. Through the CWGC (Canadian War Graves Commission), they had been able to choose phrases and religious symbols to be inscribed on the soldiers’ headstones.”

Donegan’s family received his British War Medal, Victory Medal, Memorial Cross, Remembrance Plaque and Service Scroll.

Although the capture of Hill 70 achieved the desired results, it was at an appalling cost of human life. Six of the 72 Victoria Crosses awarded to Canadian soldiers during World War I were won at Hill 70. The remains of more than 1,300 Canadians killed during the battle have never been found. May their blessed souls rest in peace forever in the sacred earth surrounding Hill 70.

Article by Terry O’Hearn