By MPP Toby Barrett
William George “Billy” Barker is the most decorated serviceman in the history of Canada and the British Empire. Barker is one of our country’s most renowned First World War flying aces and interestingly, has roots in Norfolk County – in the village of Lynedoch. A fascinating fact my Executive Assistant Bobbi Ann Brady stumbled upon.
To learn more about this hero, I visited Mount Pleasant Cemetery while working at Queen’s Park. A plaque on his tomb was officially unveiled September 2011, and describes Barker as “The most decorated war hero in the history of Canada, the British Empire and the Commonwealth of Nations.”
Much the same is stated in Ottawa’s Canadian War Museum: “Lieutenant Colonel William G. Barker, one of the legendary aces of the war, remains the most decorated Canadian in military service.”
After enlisting at age 20 in 1914, Barker returned to Canada in May 1919 with the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, the Military Cross and two Bars, two Italian Silver Medals for Military Velour, and the French Croix de guerre.
Barker’s feats are legendary. He could hit anything that moved and had an easy-going but reckless spirit. Historians note the deadlier the war got the better Barker became. During his service, Barker downed 50 enemy aircraft, and in his last 12 months of combat, not one pilot under his command was lost. On October 27, 1918, Barker was wounded three times but managed to shoot down three enemy aircraft before crash landing.
No other Canadian warrior has surpassed Barker’s record. While the name Billy Bishop remains synonymous with WWI, Barker’s accomplishments are often forgotten. While they did not serve together, Bishop described Barker as “the deadliest air fighter who ever lived,” and the two were good friends. Bishop kept Barker’s story alive in every speech, news article and book often referencing the frontier childhood he had growing up in Manitoba where he spent his days riding horses and hunting birds.
Barker’s exploits earned him celebrity status upon his return home. Bishop and Barker formed various companies and co-founded Canada’s first commercial airline. The pair also launched the Canadian International Air Show at Canadian National Exhibition (CNE). In 1927, Conn Smythe, also a flyer in WWI, named Barker the first President of the newly-christened Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team.
Barker also married Bishop’s cousin Jean Kilbourn Smith. In 1924, the couple arrived at Lynedoch, Haldimand-Norfolk, to grow tobacco. Although I don’t know the location of the farm, if anyone reading knows, please advise.
Sadly, Barker suffered permanent physical damage in his legs and left arm from the war, and in the last few years before his tragic death, he struggled with alcoholism. Barker died in 1930, at the age of 35, when he lost control of his biplane trainer during a flight demonstration for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), near Ottawa.
Barker’s state funeral was the largest in Toronto history with 50,000 attending, including political and military leaders and an honour guard of 2,000.
As time marches on, it’s important we continue to share stories of our Canadian war heroes. Their overseas service was just part of the sacrifice they made for you and me, as when they returned home they were forever changed – a personal haunting we will never know.
Toby Barrett is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk