Skip to content

Red Deerians appear in History Channel episode about Black soldier from Olds

Michael Dawe and Linda Baggaley help tell story of Private Samuel Daniel Watts
Private Samuel Watts worked in Olds before enlisting to fight in the First World War. He was killed in battle in France in 1917. His great-great-granddaughter from Calgary is now searching for his memorial medallion. (Contributed archival photo).

Two Red Deerians are helping a Calgary woman reconnect with the history of her great-great-grandfather, a Black soldier who worked in Olds before enlisting in the First World War.

The story of Stephanie Watts’ search for her ancestor Samuel Watts’ ‘Death Penny’ memorial was filmed by a Vancouver production company last March.

Red Deerians Michael Dawe and Linda Baggaley will be seen helping to unravel this century-old tale when the first episode of Our War airs on Friday at 7 p.m. on The History Channel.

Dawe, a Red Deer historian and city councillor, was familiar with the name of Samuel Daniel Watts, one of very few Black Canadian soldiers who fought on the front lines during the Great War. (Due to prejudice, most of these men had been kept in non-combat roles.)

The Texas native had immigrated to Alberta by 1904 to escape from discriminatory Jim Crow laws in the U.S. He worked as a camp cook in Olds, but was a talented musician and composer — his composition Remember Me in Flanders was printed in the Advocate in 1916 after he enlisted.

Watts was also a principled, brave man. Dawe said he was already in his mid-30s and married with three sons when he signed up for the war in Europe in 1916. No doubt, Watts felt a sense of duty to fight for the country that allowed him opportunities for a better life, he added.

The local historian learned first-hand information about Watts while attending a Legion event in the early 1980s. Vernon McDougall, of Penhold, had also served in the 187th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force with Watts, who had effectively saved his life.

McDougall revealed to Dawe that he hadn’t wanted to go on an enemy trench raid early in the Battle of Hill 70 in France in 1917.

Watts told him, “I’ll go for you this time, and you can go for me next time…”

But there would never be a trade-off because Watts was killed during that night’s raid — one of 9,000 Canadian casualties from that battle. He is buried in Lapugnoy Military Cemetery, near Lens.

Stephanie Watts got in touch with Dawe after learning of his encounter with McDougall through an article in the Advocate. She told him she has been trying to track down a bronze memorial that had been given to her great-great-grandfather’s family after his death. It had his name engraved on it.

In 1980, this eight-inch medallion had inexplicably turned up in the garden of a house in Red Deer. Dawe said the homeowners had no idea how it got there. Watts’ home had burned down in the late 1960s. The plaque could have been caught up in the rubble removed from the property and taken to another site, he supposed.

Stephanie is now on a quest to find this British Empire-issued memorial, called a ‘Death Penny,’ because of its resemblance to a coin. For many years, it had stayed with the family that found it but was eventually sold to a collector in Ontario, who then traded it to an unknown collector in Alberta.

Vancouver-based film company Lark Productions heard about Stephanie’s quest and filmed her search in Red Deer for an episode of Our War.

Auctioneer Linda Baggaley, of Bud Haines/ Ward’s Auctions, appears in the episode with Dawe while local pianist Tina Cassel plays one of Watts’ original, upbeat compositions, which he wrote for his British-born wife, Margaret Forshaw.

Baggaley referred Stephanie to militaria experts in Winnipeg, who produced another ‘Death Penny’ memorial. So far, Stephanie hasn’t yet located her great-great-grandfather’s plaque, but Baggaley hopes that someone who sees Friday’s episode of Our War on The History Channel will realize they have his medallion hanging from a chain, somewhere.

“They probably don’t know what they’ve got…”

Stephanie told filmmakers that restoring his memorial to her family would mean a tangible link to her great-great-grandfather, whom she only knows through photographs.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Lana Michelin

About the Author: Lana Michelin

Lana Michelin has been a reporter for the Red Deer Advocate since moving to the city in 1991.
Read more