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April 8, 2018

Lt. James Murdock Christie, MC, DCM – Regimental # 1576

In September 2017, an observation was made on facebook with respect to the condition of the grave of Lt. James Murdock Christie, MC, DCM.   Above is a photo of the grave and headstone.  The grave is located on Salt Spring Island, BC and is in good condition when you consider the humid climate.  Romas Blekatis, a retired Patricia who lives on Salt Spring Island, has contacted the Anglican Diocese of BC to inquire about changing the headstone to a Commonwealth style and raising it to the proper height.  This is a work in progress.

Lt. Chrisite, 1576 was an original who joined the Patricias in August 1914.  His story of a grizzly bear mauling while in the Yukon made him a minor celebrity.  In addition, his experience as a hunter and guide in the Canadian north made him one of the pioneering snipers for the Regiment.

Christie was 19 when he immigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1886.  His family made their way to Manitoba and settled near Carman Manitoba where he farmed alongside his parents, Joseph and Ellen, until 1898 when he joined the Klondike Gold Rush.

While living in the Yukon, Christie spent his time prospecting in the summers and trapping in the winters.  As well, he acted as a professional hunter and guide, becoming acquainted with many figures famous in Yukon lore such as Dominion surveyor Joseph Keele, journalist Agnes Deans Cameron, RNWMP Insp. Francis Fitzgerald and Const. Sam Carter, and Bishop Isaac Stringer.  Joseph Keele hired Christie as a guide for his 1907-08 Canadian Geological Survey expedition of the McKenzie Mountains between the Pelly and Mackenzie rivers.  Keele named Mount Christie and Christie’s Pass, which connects the Keele and Ross rivers, in honour of his guide.

Christie became famous when he was brutally mauled by a grizzly bear in the fall of 1909 and lived to tell the tale.  Christie tracked a bear that had raided his hunting cache near his camp 350 miles east of Dawson City.  The grizzly attacked Christie who managed to fire two shots before sustaining horrific injuries.  The bear succumbed to its wounds, but not before it had broken and dislocated Christie’s jaw, torn his scalp, dislodged his eye, snapped his arm and bite his thigh.

Gravely injured, Christie, following the Rogue River, managed the seven-mile trek to his base camp. There, his trapping partner, George Crisfield, sent Christie to the Lansing trading post, a four-day, 50-mile journey via dog team.  After a two-month recuperation, Christie made the 17-day snowshoe and toboggan trip to Dawson City for additional medical care.  Doctors sent Christie to Victoria via stagecoach so that his jaw and arm could be reset, surgical procedures requiring a six-month hospital stay.  Much to Christie’s disappointment, the bear attack had a greater impact on his health than he expected.  Consequently, he returned to Carman, where he worked in the civil service until the war’s outbreak.

Scottish census records show Christie was born in Perthshire, Scotland, on 22 Octobter 1867. The date is important as Christie did what any resolute enlistee would do when determined to serve his country: he lied about his age.  In Christie’s case, he shaved seven years off his age in order to meet the PPCLI’s age limit of 40. When Christie enlisted in Winnipeg, his attestation papers reported his “apparent age” as a convenient 39 years and 10 months.  Christie’s occupation as a civil servant was also missing from the “trade or calling” section of his attestation papers. James M. Christie, “guide and hunter,” had emerged from retirement.

Overseas, Christie quickly distinguished himself as the “first Patricia sniper.” Col. Farquhar, organized a sniping unit under Lt. WG Colquhoun and Cpl. J M Christie. The newly formed unit recorded 17 kills on Jan. 25, 1915, in St. Eloi, Belgium, and the PPCLI’s sniping section was born.

Christie became a respected sniper and instructor, known for honing his craft and maintaining careful technical notes.  Maj. Hesketh-Prichard referenced his work in 1920 book “Sniping in France: Notes on the Scientific Training of Scouts, Observers, and Snipers.”  He believed Christie was the embodiment of the “hunter spirit,” a trait necessary for the successful sniper. While his fellow soldiers boasted Christie never wasted a bullet and made hundreds of kills, he did not believe in celebrating numbers.  In fact, the press had him on record as stating he never mentioned killing any men in reports he submitted.

On 22 April 1915, Christie was wounded for the first time.  It was stated that Cpl. Christie “miraculously escaped death” during a battle where his pocket copy of the New Testament slowed a bullet, leaving him with a minor flesh wound.

In the fall, Christie’s sniping and reconnoitering efforts earned him the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the second highest award for “gallantry in action.”

“7 October 1915” A patrol of 8 snipers and 2 grenadiers under Sgt. Christie went out late this afternoon from our left Trench and made their way, crawling through the grass to the German side of the marsh, with a view to intercepting a German patrol believed to pass down the road from La Grenouilère to Curlu about 7 p.m. each evening.

Our patrol got safely to the German side of the marsh and concealed themselves 20 yards from the road. Just after dusk a strong German Patrol came down the road, (consisting of 30 men under an officer) marching in fours and with a flanking party in the marsh.  Sgt. Christie seeing himself hopelessly outnumbered and in danger of being cut off between the two parties resorted to bluff and ordered the Germans to “Hands up”.

The enemy not complying, our men opened rapid fire, the grenadiers at the same time throwing their bombs into the midst of the close mass of men in the road. The Germans threw themselves down and returned the fire of our men while the flanking party closed up. Our two right hand men faced around to meet them and one of our men killed a German who had come within a couple of yards of him.  The enemy after throwing 2 or 3 bombs which did no damage began to crawl away, leaving several dead and some wounded men groaning in the road.

Fearing a return of the enemy with reinforcements from La Grenouillere, Sgt. Christie took the opportunity of withdrawing, his whole party returning to our lines without a casualty.  Pte AGS Fleming did splendid work with his bombs, remaining behind with Sgt. Christie to cover the retreat of the remainder. (PPCLI War Diary, 7 October 1915)

Sgt. Christie suffered a gunshot wound to the chest on 16 July 1916. By then, he had been at the front for 19 months.  Days later, he took furlough, returning to Winnipeg and Carman to visit friends and family.  Sgt. Christie eventually returned to the front, not feeling optimistic about surviving the war.  He was the last remaining sniper of the 18 first selected by Lt. Colquhoun; the others were dead, wounded or captured.

Lt-Col HW Niven described Christie as follows:

His long life alone in the mountains made him the most observant man I have ever known.  He saw everything and said nothing.  He could put his hand on the ground in no man’s land and tell whether a man had walked there one hour ago, two hours ago, three hours ago.  It was uncanny, and he was never wrong.  He would lie out in the open behind our trenches, day after day and get his sight on some part of the enemy trench and wait for someone to put his head up.  If he did not put it up today, he would be there tomorrow, and sure enough some German would come to that spot, and Christie would get him.  This happened year after year.  I have never known anyone outside an Indian who had the patience of Christie.  He would concentrate hour after hour on one spot.  No white man that I know of can concentrate for more than say, three hours on one spot. Christie could do it for two days.

Christie wandered over no man’s land all night long, and he came back one morning saying that he thought a German patrol went past our front about 0200.  He wanted four men to go out next night to scupper the lot.  I rode into Headquarters and spoke to Gen Sir George Milne (afterward Chief of Imperial General Staff – ‘Uncle George’ to the PPCLI) who said he would come along about midnight.

About 0200 a hell of a row started away to our left front in no man’s land.  We could not fire and neither could the Germans as we both had patrols out.  About 0330 Christie and his men came in and Uncle George questioned them.

Christie and his men had lain out in the open ground each with four grenades and his rifle.  The German patrol, one officer and sixteen men came across where Christie thought they would. First, he shot the officer, each of his men threw two Mills bombs and finished them off with their rifles.  Then Christie cut off their shoulder straps for identification and put them in a sand bag, and put all the officer’s papers etc in.  But Christie was in a state of consternation.  He found that his patrol had pinched the German rifles and two of his men had left their own.  Christie asked Sir George for permission to go out and get the rifles as he was responsible.  The General’s face was a study, but he gave permission and he awarded Christie an immediate DCM.

Christie was promoted to Lieutenant on 6 August 1917 and distinguished himself in the field at Passchendaele, earning the Military Cross. “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during an attack. He made three separate journeys through intense artillery and machine gun barrage, bringing back valuable information.  He also took part in hard fighting round the enemy strong points, and by his own initiative and resource accounted for several of the enemy.  His courageous conduct was an inspiration to all and assisted materially in the success of the operation.”

Discharged on 21 August 1918, Lt. Christie, 51, returned to Manitoba as “medically unfit”. Newspapers reported Christie returned to Winnipeg and Carman to visit for “a season” while recovering from the effects of gas. Records show Christie worked as a miner in Jasper Park in 1922, but he could not resist the call of the north.  Christie worked as a linesman on the Yukon Telegraph Trail before marrying and entering retired life on Salt Spring Island.

According to a great niece’s blog, Christie married a spinster (Elizabeth Calder) who knitted socks for soldiers during the war.  She allegedly left a note in one of the socks and maintained a correspondence with Christie until they married in 1933.  On 1 June 1939, Lt. James Murdock Christie, MC, DCM, died after having lived a life as remarkable as anything heard in legends or seen in the movies.

Hopefully Christie’s headstone will be replaced in the near future with a Commonwealth marker. A very appropriate recognition of his service as an “original” Patricia.

Paul Hale

References:

  1. Brandon Sun The War from Here – Soldier survives grizzly bear attack in Yukon by Suyoko Tsukamoto Published 16 January 2016
  2. Internet http://ssns.frontiersd.mb.ca/SeniorYrs/Curricula9-12/Grade11/CanadianHistory/RemembranceDay/Soldiers/PPCLI/Christie.html
  3. With the Patricia’s in the Mud and Blood. Stephen K. Newman, 2005, Bellewaerde House Publishing, pg 70