By Gayne C. Young
The deadliest sniper of World War I with over 350 confirmed kills, he was awarded the British War Medal, the Victory Medal, and is one of only 37 Canadians to win the Military Medal with two bars.
Not bad for a guy named Peggy.
Francis Pegahmagabow was born in an Ojibwa community of Parry Island Indian Reserve in Nobel, Ontario, Canada on March 9, 1891. Although his true Ojibwe name was Binaaswi— meaning “the wind that blows off”—he went by Peggy for the majority of his life. Peggy’s world changed greatly at age three when his father died, and his mother abandoned him. He was taken in by an elder named Noah Nebimanyquod who taught him the Anishnaabe ways of hunting, stalking, and fishing. Peggy’s adopted mother taught him survival and traditional medicine.
He entered public school but dropped out at age 12 to take jobs in lumber and fishing camps. Although indigenous persons were exempt from military service, he volunteered to serve in the Canadian Expeditionary Force on August 13, 1914, at age 25. World War I was underway and Peggy stated that he wanted to become a warrior. This caught the attention of the editor of the Parry Sound North Star newspaper, William Ireland, who wrote: “His grandfather was a warrior and chief and fought for the British in 1812, so the bot[sic] comes by his fighting instincts from a long line of ancestors who fought in the Indian wars. We are all hoping Francis will distinguish himself as his forefathers did and will return home covered with glory and medals. His example might well be followed.”
Peggy was deployed overseas with the 1st Canadian Infantry Battalion of the 1st Canadian Division—the initial contingent of Canadian troops sent to fight in Europe—in October 1914. He saw heavy combat in the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915 and received permanent damage to his lungs when the Germans unleashed nearly 6,000 canisters of chlorine gas onto the field. Despite this, Peggy proved himself greatly in battle. By the end of the skirmish, he was established as an excellent sniper and scout and received a promotion to lance corporal.
Over the next few years he fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the Second Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, and the Battle of the Scarpe in 1918. Each successive battle saw Peggy further excel at warfare. A comrade that fought alongside him later said, “…Pegahmagabow went looking for it [danger]. He preferred to work alone, in the dark, even infiltrating an enemy trench to stand among its occupants for the fun of it.”
By the time the war ended in November 1918, Peggy had not only fought almost the entire duration of the war but was confirmed as having killed 378 Germans and capturing 300 more. This officially made him the deadliest sniper of the war and garnered him almost every imaginable accolade.
But he wasn’t done fighting.
Peggy returned to Canada, but given that he was an indigenous person, he remained an Indian “ward of the state” and didn’t hold the rights of a Canadian citizen. He couldn’t vote and his ability to leave his home on the reservation was at the whim of the always white Indian Agent. Believing this was far from the way anyone should be treated—especially one of the most highly decorated war veterans of all time—Peggy involved himself in local and federal politics and became an advocate. He served as chief of the Parry Island Band from 1921 to 1925 then band councilor from 1933 to 1936. During this time, he demanded better treatment for indigenous peoples via meetings with the prime minister and other policy makers. Despite not having equal treatment, Peggy did his part in World War II. He served as a guard at a munitions plant near Nobel, Ontario, and was also a sergeant-major in the local militia.
Peggy died on August 5, 1952, of a heart attack after years of suffering from badly damaged lungs earned in the Second Battle of Ypres. He was 64. In 1967, Peggy became a member of Canada’s Indian Hall of Fame. In 2006 a monument in his honor was unveiled and the command post of the 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group was renamed after him at the Canadian Forces Base Borden in Ontario.