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Soldier honoured 90 years after falling to sniper’s bullet

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Tom Slater and Tom St. Amand

Wheatley Drive in Sarnia is named for Canadian army Private George Wheatley, but the honour didn’t come about until long after his death in the First World War.

Wheatley was 35 when he enlisted with the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force in 1915.

His was a well-known pioneer name in this area. John Wheatley, the family patriarch, emigrated from England to Froomfield in 1837 and generations of family members, including George’s father, Thomas Coulson Wheatley, settled around Blackwell as landowners and market gardeners.

Before enlisting, George Wheatley had moved to the Peace River area in northern Alberta. Hoping to attract settlers to the west, the government was offering land at reasonable prices to young Canadian men, and Wheatley seized the opportunity.

Starting from scratch, he became a rancher and farmer, but when the war erupted he sold his cattle and enlisted in Edmonton in December of 1915.

Private Wheatley and the 102 Battalion were deployed to the front lines in France 10 months later. His short stint was indicative of the war’s brutality.

A month into the fighting, Wheatley was shot in the nose and hand. After convalescing for a month, he rejoined the 102 Battalion.

Many of its members had been assigned temporarily to 182 Tunnel Company, Royal Engineers. Their task involved repairing and building defensive positions for the upcoming April offensive at Vimy Ridge.

It was dangerous work and done at night to avoid enemy fire. On Jan. 16, 1917, during an artillery barrage, Private Wheatley went “up top” to take compass readings to determine the path of the next section of an underground tunnel.

A German sniper spotted him and shot the 37-year-old. His body was buried the next day at the Villers Station Military Cemetery in France, and his name is engraved on the Sarnia cenotaph in Veterans Park.

Wheatley Drive was named in his honour through a series of events many years later.

It began when the Canadian government declared 2005 “The Year of the Veteran” to recognize their service and sacrifice.

A special 25-cent coin was minted and Canadian Forces members wore commemorative insignia pins.

In light of this, City Hall asked contractor Louis Bratanek if he would consider naming a street he was developing off Michigan Avenue after a local fallen soldier.

Bratanek agreed, and when he read the list of Sarnia’s fallen and spotted the name “G. Wheatley” he knew he’d found his street name.

The developer had no idea who G. Wheatley was, but he recognized the surname. His father had bought a farm in Blackwell from Abigail Wheatley, a market gardener, more than three decades earlier.

Bratanek correctly assumed George and Abigail were somehow related. In fact, Abigail Wheatley was the soldier’s niece and just a teenager when her uncle was killed nine decades earlier.

For Sarnians, and especially members of the Wheatley family, Louis Bratanek’s kind gesture in 2005 helps keep alive the memory, bravery and service to country of Private George Wheatley.

And Wheatley Drive is now one of five city streets with signs that contain an embossed red poppy, a visual reminder to residents they are named for fallen veterans.

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