Until this week, Canada’s most-decorated war hero has lain without a public marker. Buried at Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery in a crypt with “Smith” marked on the door (his in-laws’ name), William George Barker was a Victoria Cross winner and First World War pilot. His state funeral in 1930 was the largest in Toronto’s history, with 50,000 people attending, including political and military leaders and an honour guard of 2,000 men. Fellow flying ace, contemporary and friend Billy Bishop once called Barker “the deadliest air fighter who ever lived.”
While Bishop’s name is still synonymous with his exploits, for a long time Barker was all but forgotten. Even to his grandson, who was born two decades after Barker died, the war hero “only lived in this formal military portrait hanging in grandma’s living room, and a row of impressive medals beneath it,” says Ian Mackenzie, who lives in Vancouver. After a citizen-led movement to commemorate him, a newly unveiled monument and plaque at Mount Pleasant Cemetery recognizes Barker as “the most-decorated war hero in the history of Canada, the British Empire, and the Commonwealth of Nations.”
Born in a log cabin in Dauphin, Man., in 1894, Barker—the oldest of nine children—grew up on a farm. “He was a bit reckless, with a happy-go-lucky streak,” says Wayne Ralph, his biographer. When the Great War broke out, Barker, who was in his last year of high school, enlisted. After training as a machine gunner and serving in the trenches of Belgium, he volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps, first as an observer, then as a pilot.
Stories about Barker’s military service are legendary. Wounded by artillery fire in 1917, he was sent to England to teach novices—an assignment he apparently didn’t appreciate. “He said to the Brits, ‘I came to fight,’ ” says Toronto pollster John Wright, who spearheaded the campaign to have him commemorated. According to the story, Barker buzzed his plane over Piccadilly Circus in London, performing a low-level aerobatics display. On Christmas Day in 1917, he and another pilot launched a surprise attack on a German airfield in Italy. “Reportedly, he took a card on which he’d written ‘Merry Christmas’ and threw it down on the field after the attack,” Ralph says. This incident is fictionalized in Ernest Hemingway’s story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”; the Barker-inspired character is called a “bloody murderous bastard.”
His most daring exploit came on Oct. 27, 1918, two weeks before the end of the war. Flying a Sopwith Snipe over France, he attacked and shot down a German two-seater at about 22,000 feet. Momentarily distracted, he was ambushed by about 15 enemy aircraft. Barker was shot through the elbow, incapacitating his left arm, then shot twice more, through the legs. “He lost control of the plane, and started to spin downwards, and they were following him,” Ralph says. “He kept recovering the aircraft, and each time, did damage to them.” Barker crash-landed his plane. Its fuselage is now on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, along with the Victoria Cross he was awarded for this action. Barker is just one of seven Canadian aviators ever to receive the Victoria Cross, which is the military’s highest honour.
Barker downed a total of 50 enemy aircraft, and during his last 12 months of combat, not one pilot under his command was lost to the enemy. He returned home a celebrity, and stayed in the spotlight. In 1919, Barker flew in an air race from Toronto to New York and back, becoming the first Canadian pilot to carry international air mail. He was the founding acting director of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and in 1927 was named the first president of the Toronto Maple Leafs. With Bishop, another Victoria Cross winner, Barker co-founded Canada’s first commercial airline and launched the Canadian International Air Show at Toronto’s national exhibition; Barker even married Bishop’s cousin.
Despite their close friendship, in some ways the men were strikingly different. “Bishop was the son of a lawyer,” and belonged to a different social class than Barker, Ralph says. “Bishop was at ease in this social circle, but Barker struggled to fit in.” Barker’s wartime injuries continued to afflict him. “He started to drink,” he says, and may have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. For such a gifted pilot, who had survived so many dangers, Barker’s death at age 35 was sudden and tragic. Flying in a demonstration over the air station in Rockcliffe, he lost control and crashed into the icy Ottawa River. As the Great War faded into history, Barker’s legend was increasingly obscured. (Bishop is remembered in the play Billy Bishop Goes to War, and the Toronto airport that bears his name.)
The new monument that marks Barker’s resting place was cast from a Sopwith Snipe propeller, “the plane he flew on that last flight,” Mackenzie says, jutting upwards from a granite block. He, Wright and others hope this commemoration will reinstate Barker’s place in Canadian history. “Most people who fight in a war are scared to death,” Ralph says. “But there are some people who, the tougher it gets, the more they shine. Barker was that kind of guy.”