Frederick Lee died on Aug. 21, 1917.
It was five days after Canadian forces launched their attack on Hill 70, an important strategic diversion that prompted 21 German counter attacks and persisted for 10 days, relieving the pressure on the Allies in the midst of the Passchendaele campaign during the First World War.
The attack was hard on the Canadians, who suffered 9,000 casualties and lost 1,877 men, but it was even more costly to the Germans, who recorded an estimated 25,000 casualties.
Lee’s part of the attack on Hill 70, which has since come to be recognized as one of the most important battles of the First World War, occurred just months after his fighting in another major Canadian campaign — the battle at Vimy Ridge in April 1917.
Efforts continue to trace the Chinese-Canadian man’s historic path in the war meant to end all wars.
“This guy’s father arrived in Kamloops before Canada was Canada — in 1861,” said Jack Gin with the Hill 70 project, which has been working since 2012 to have a memorial erected at the site of Hill 70.
Research led the group to a roll call sheet of 1,000 172nd Battalion (Rocky Mountain Rangers) soldiers who were part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force sent overseas.
It found approximately 475 men listed were from Kamloops, with the rest from other parts of the Thompson region. Although it’s not known how many soldiers specifically from Kamloops fought at Hill 70, the group found that approximately 200 soldiers from the Rangers were there.
Dave Hanna, a retired lieutenant-colonel with the Rangers, has been helping the group in their research. He said one of the issues with looking into the past is that the Rocky Mountain Rangers were split up when they went overseas.
“They lost their identity as Rocky Mountain Rangers,” he said.
Part of Hanna’s work is to ensure that Rangers are recognized as such. Lee, for example, died as a member of the 47th Battalion of the Canadian Infantry British Columbia Regiment even though he belonged to the 172nd.
Others working with the group have found cultural connections to Lee.
Albert Chen graduated from UBC last year with a history degree. He has put his education to work as a researcher for the project.
Chen’s research has involved analyzing the list of 1,000 Rangers who went overseas.
Lee was on that list, which Chen was surprised to discover contained men from more than 15 different countries of origin, with only one-third being born in Canada — and Lee being among that minority. Chen also found he has a few things in common with Lee, but it’s the differences that have really struck him.
“As a Chinese-Canadian, I find a lot of interest in learning about the history of my own people,” he said.
Lee was about Chen’s age when he signed up to go to war.
“The difference of 100 years — his life and the trajectory he found himself in is so different to mine,” Chen said. “The choices he had available to him were far more limited compared to what I have now. So I truly believe that Fred Lee was an integral part to making my own life in Canada possible.”
Chen said there weren’t many Chinese-Canadians in the First World War because many who tried to register as soldiers were denied.
Lee’s contribution to the war also meant more than just victory for Canada, according to Chen.
“My belief is that the few that did become soldiers paved the way for others to serve in the Second World War, and it was after the Second World War that Canada began to open up to the Chinese and began to repeal some of the more restrictive laws that applied to them,” he said.
As for Lee and his family, research shows ties to the Fulton law firm, founded in 1885 and still in operation today. That link is being investigated.
“We know the Chinese were not considered citizens at the time, but despite this, he and his family seemed to have been very well-regarded in the Kamloops community,” Chen said.
Further research around Lee’s family is underway, including the search for his seven brothers and sisters.
“Being able to discover something about Chinese-Canadian history that no one has seen before — that’s tremendously exciting,” Chen said.
One effort underway involves establishing DNA links between family members — something Gin is working on with Lee’s nephew Richard Lee, 86.
“There’s quite a lot left,” Chen said. “We want to find, not just Chinese-Canadians, but people from other ethnicities. We want to create a more complete picture of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.”
The project has a number of goals, including finding Lee’s remains and uncovering his entire story and family history.
Meanwhile, construction at the Hill 70 memorial in Loos-en-Gohelle, France, continues.
The walkway, which will be named after Lee, is a $2-million project that will allow wheelchair access to the Obelisk and amphitheatre, which have already been constructed.
The project is important not only to the Chinese-Canadian community, but to the Rangers as well, who see a broader significance.
“I think the Rangers will benefit, no doubt about it, but Kamloops, too. It’s nice to be able to say, ‘This is what actually happened,’” Hanna said.
“I liked the idea that it’s not only here — they’re going to hear about Kamloops around the world in the end.”