Francis Pegahmagabow peers out from a crater in the middle of No Man’s Land. Barbed wire and dead bodies covered the ground all around him. Pegahmagabow brings up his Ross rifle and peers through the scope.
He spots a German helmet poking up from the enemy trench. Pegahmagabow takes a twig from his satchel and places it in his mouth. He chews slowly, knowing that the twig will give him protection as it did for his Ojibwa ancestors.
He takes a deep breath and holds it to steady his aim. He squeezes the trigger. The German soldier falls to the ground. It is the Second Battle of Ypres, and Francis Pegahmagabow’s first battle. This was not his first kill, or his last thought, because Francis Pegahmagabow is the most deadly sniper in World War I.
The Legend of Francis Pegahmagabow
After getting another confirmed kill he crawls back to the allied trenches. He relays information on the location of the enemy troops that are across the battlefield.
Suddenly, Francis Pegahmagabow and the commanding officers hear screaming from further down the trench. They run to see what is happening. Yellow-colored gas fills the ditch.
The men who were yelling now lay dead in the mud, poisoned by a weaponized gas. Francis Pegahmagabow and the other members of the First Canadian Infantry Battalion look on in horror. This is the first time the allied forces have seen mustard gas and its deadly effects.
Second Battle of Ypres: His count kill is rising
The battalion evacuates the trench and relocates to a less deadly area of the battlefield. The Second Battle of Ypres rages on. Francis Pegahmagabow continues to scout and relay vital information to his commanders.
He crawls through the blood-covered ground of No Man’s Land to ensure that the Allies have the most up-to-date information on the enemy. While scouting he picks off any German soldier that he spots with his rifle. His kill count rises.
Unfortunately, his battalion loses almost half its men in just three days. War is hell, and Francis Pegahmagabow is finding out quickly that the only way to win the war is through detailed reconnaissance and the deadly accurate shots from his rifle.
Battle of Mount Sorrel and capture of 300 prisoners
In his next battle, Francis Pegahmagabow adds to his confirmed kill count. He also begins to capture enemies for information. If he can take the enemy alive, then the allies can use the information extracted from enemy soldiers to plan for their next attack.
In June of 1916, Francis Pegahmagabow fights at the Battle of Mount Sorrel. He is recorded as capturing dozens of prisoners. Over the course of the entire war, it is estimated that Francis Pegahmagabow captured approximately 300 prisoners in total.
Using tracking and hunting skills he learned from other Ojibwe members before the war, Francis Pegahmagabow can practically disappear. He sneaks into No Man’s Land under the darkness of night, and buries himself in debris and dirt.
He patiently waits until an unknowing German crosses his path and captures them. Francis Pegahmagabow can also use his tracking skills to figure out the routes enemies are using to cross the battlefield and ambush them.
He uses his superior marksmanship skills to fire a warning shot at an enemy’s feet. The bullet impacts the ground just ahead of the German soldier spraying dirt up into the air. There would be no doubt in the enemy’s mind that they had two options, either return with Francis Pegahmagabow to be interrogated, or be shot by the deadliest sniper of the war.
However, what Francis Pegahmagabow does next makes capturing 300 enemy soldiers look like child’s play.
Heavy fighting at Battle of the Somme
Several months later Francis Pegahmagabow is deployed to the Battle of the Somme. Here he is engaged in heavy fighting. He has been set up in a sniper position and is picking off enemy German soldiers left and right.
He starts to reposition when he is shot. Francis Pegahmagabow is knocked down by the impact of a bullet through the leg. He has to crawl back to the trenches through fallen allies and muddy earth. Bullets whiz over his head. He makes it back to the trench, drops down, and receives medical attention.
As soon as he recovers from his gunshot wound, Francis Pegahmagabow immediately requests to be returned to the battlefield. His request is granted much to the dismay of the enemy. His next battle after recovering from his gunshot wound is where he receives his first Military Medal.
First Military medal at the Battle of Passchendaele
After his recovery Francis Pegahmagabow is deployed to the Battle of Passchendaele in November 1917. The allies desperately need to capture the Passchendaele ridge for a strategic advantage. Around 20,000 allied soldiers crawl from the crater to crater. The soldiers need to be coordinated so that the attack on each flank can happen at the appropriate time.
Francis Pegahmagabow sprints across the battlefield. He dives behind cover whenever possible and crawls through the mud to reach the next crater. Grenades detonate in every direction.
Shrapnel flies through the air. The bullets from entrenched machine guns cause the ground to explode all around him. But Francis Pegahmagabow is on a mission. He has to relay information on enemy troop movements to his commanders.
He runs from one side of the battlefield to the other, stopping only to gaze into his scope and note important information on the enemy. He risks his life to make sure that the allied forces have the reconnaissance necessary to win the battle.
Francis Pegahmagabow only stops to observe the enemy, but if an opportunity presents itself he takes the shot. Each time he lets loose a bullet, he adds one more kill to his total body count. But sniping is secondary on this mission.
He needs to get his observations back to the commanders. He stops, takes a shot. Crouches behind the remains of a truck, takes another shot. Dives into a crater, peers out, takes a final shot.
Each one hits its mark. Eventually, Francis Pegahmagabow makes it back to the command post with all of his vital information. The Allies take Passchendaele ridge, but not before losing 16,000 out of the 20,000 allied soldiers in the battle.
After Passchendaele, Francis Pegahmagabow is awarded his first medal with a citation saying that he did excellent work to keep in touch with the flanks, and advising command of units he had seen.
He also played a pivotal role in guiding relief support across the battlefield. Reinforcements were supposed to be sent to one of the flanks, but a mistake had been made and the soldiers were out of position. Francis Pegahmagabow took it upon himself to lead the reinforcements to the correct area of the battlefield, which helped secure victory.
Francis Pegahmagabow got a pneumonia infection
Unfortunately after all his hard work Francis Pegahmagabow is awarded something other than just a medal. He comes down with Pneumonia. Pneumonia, mixed with the inhalation of small amounts of poison gas, causes Francis Pegahmagabow to be hospitalized in England at the end of 1917. He suffered from chest pains the rest of his life.
But little pneumonia and poison gas won’t stop the deadliest sniper of World War I. As soon as he is well enough to return to duty, he asks to be re-deployed. Francis Pegahmagabow is sent back to battle to rack up more sniper kills.
He finds himself at the Battle of the Scarpe in August 1918, where he receives the second bar to his Military Medal. This part of his story is especially crazy, because it involves the Allies firing on their own men.
Francis Pegahmagabow provides sniper support at the Battle of Scarpe
Francis Pegahmagabow is providing sniper support to the rest of the allied forces at Scarpe. This will be his final battle of the War, and after it is over, Francis Pegahmagabow will be confirmed as the deadliest sniper of World War I.
The allied forces push forward to the enemy line, but they are running dangerously low on ammo. If they run out of bullets, they will either be pushed back and the battle will be lost, or surrounded and massacred. Francis Pegahmagabow does the only thing he can, be a hero.
Francis Pegahmagabow recognizes the danger of being surrounded by the enemy. He knows if the battalion does not secure more ammunition, it will be over for all of them. He takes it upon himself to make sure this does not happen.
Francis Pegahmagabow goes over the top of the trench, barely avoiding the spray of heavy machine gun and rifle fire. He moves from dead soldier to dead soldier collecting ammunition. He secures rounds from both allied and German soldiers.
Knowingly that the battalion needs ammo, and a lot of it, so he is not picky about where he is grabbing it from. Miraculously, he is able to bring back sufficient ammunition to allow the battalion to push forward, and capture the enemy line.
Saving his allies from heavy friendly fire
Before Pegahmagabow’s battalion can celebrate, tragedy occurs. Artillery starts detonating all around them. Except this is not enemy artillery, it is allied friendly fire. The artillery barrage is supposed to be supporting the battalion as they move up the battlefield. The idea is to blow the enemy to smithereens, not the allied forces.
Unfortunately, the artillery does not receive word that the allied forces have reached and taken the enemy line, so shells continue to rain down on Francis Pegahmagabow and his battalion.
Francis Pegahmagabow runs back to his commanding officer, dodging friendly artillery shells along the way. The C.O. cannot get in contact with the artillery line, and therefore, the firestorm continues.
In a moment of clarity Francis Pegahmagabow knows what he has to do. He sprints back towards his battalion, passing into the firing zone again. He later recalled watching his “comrades going up in pieces, shell after shell.”
Francis Pegahmagabow makes it to the middle of the battalion and pulls out a flare gun he had secured. He fires the white burning flare into the air. It arches like a shooting star across the sky. Moments later the artillery fire stops. The flare signaled the allied artillery that the German line had been secured, and they could cease firing.
After the battle was over Pegahmagabow had secured the last of his 378 confirmed kills. We know his hunting and camouflage skills helped him become the most deadly sniper of World War I, but was there more to his story?
He had not been trained specifically as a sniper by the Canadian Army, so what made him so deadly? Well, maybe it had something to do with the supernatural. Pegahmagabow carried spiritual items with him during battle. One of these items was a medicine bag given to him by an elder Indian woman before the war.
Power of the Ojibwe Spirits
Pegahmagabow stated that the bag was made of “skin tightly bound with a leather throng. Sometimes it seemed to be hard as a rock, at other times it appeared to contain nothing. What was really inside I do not know. I wore it in the trenches.” Word of his connection to the spirit realm spread throughout his battalion. He was sometimes asked to call on the spirit world of the Ojibwe people.
One occasion that he was asked to call on the Ojibwe spirits was when his battalion was trapped in the trenches, and mustard gas was closing in on all sides. Soldiers began to pray and write letters home to loved ones as death seemed imminent.
If they tried to go over the wall they would be shot by the enemy. If they stayed where they were, they would be poisoned by mustard gas. It was recounted that a general gave Francis Pegahmagabow a cigarette, and knowing he had called on the supernatural before in dire situations, asked if he could do anything to save the men.
Pegahmagabow lit the cigarette and invoked the spirits of the wind. Tabaco was often used by the Ojibwa for ritualistic purposes, in this case communicating with the wind gods. He asked the wind spirits to swiftly blow the advancing gas away. To everyone’s surprise, the winds changed, and the gas was blown back towards the German trenches.
This was not the only story of the supernatural that was associated with Francis Pegahmagabow. On a different mission, rain and bad weather had halted an Allied advance. Before they could attack the German lines, they needed dry conditions that would allow the soldiers to cross into No Man’s Land without slipping or getting stuck in the mud.
Some of the other members of the battalion asked Pegahmagabow if he could call on the Ojibwa spirits to improve the weather. One of the officers gave Pegahmagabow some tobacco. He used it to invoke the sky spirits, asking them for pity and to improve the weather for him and his comrades.
Accounts from other soldiers say that moments later the rain slowed and the sky brightened. It would seem the gods favored Pegahmagabow, perhaps that is one of the reasons he was such an effective sniper. It never hurts to have the gods on your side.
Francis Pagahmagabow was the most decorated sniper in WWI
World War I came to an end and Francis Pegahmagabow returned home as the most highly decorated Indigenous soldier in Canadian military history.
But his greatest legacy may be what he did after the war. Upon coming back to Canada, Pegahmagabow became a vocal advocate for Indigenous peoples’ rights.
He was elected chief of what is today the Wasauksing First Nation and became a strong advocate for his people. He worked with the federal government to move towards equal rights and treatment for Indigenous peoples.
He passed away in 1952 at the age of 64, and although he didn’t live to see all of his dreams for the Indigenous people of Canada come true, he was vital in laying the groundwork for equality.
Featured image: Francis Pegahmagabow, by Canadian government, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons