November 15, 1918: Flight Cadet William Tupper “Billy” Beck

Beck Flight Cadet William Tupper headstone

Date of Birth: July 15, 1897 at Antigonish, Antigonish County

Parents: Clarence L. and Janet A. (Tupper) Beck

Siblings: Brother Robert; sisters Marian & Eleanor

Marital Status: Single

Occupation: Dry Goods Clerk

Enlistment: December 29, 1915 at Halifax, NS

Units: No. 7 Stationary Hospital (Dalhousie University), Canadian Army Medical Corps; Royal Flying Corps/Royal Air Force

Service #’s: 522122 (CAMC); 435304 (RFC)

Ranks: Private & Flight Cadet

Previous Military Service: None

Next of Kin: Clarence Levere Beck, New Glasgow, NS (father)

Date of Death: November 15, 1918 near Ismailia, Egypt

Final Resting Place: Ismailia War Cemetery, Moascar, Egypt

William Tupper “Billy” Beck was born at Antigonish on July 15, 1897, the son of Clarence L. and Janet A. (Tupper) Beck. Clarence, a New Glasgow native, was a son of William J. Beck, Lyon’s Brook, Pictou Co., NS, and grandson of Nicholas Beck, Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire, Scotland. As a child, Nicholas immigrated with his family to Lyon’s Brook, Pictou County, where his father established a farm. He eventually moved to Halifax, where he worked in a dry goods establishment. Nicholas later returned to Pictou County and opened his own successful dry goods business, eventually retiring to the Lyon’s Brook family farm.

Nicholas’ son, William J., followed in his footsteps. He first resided at Mulgrave, where he worked in a store, but later moved to Antigonish, where he established his own business on the corner of Main & Court Streets. William later relocated to the corner of Main and Hawthorne Streets before finally opening a store at the corner of Main and Sydney Streets.

William’s Main Street business prospered during the 1850s and he became a prominent member of the Antigonish business community. He established residence on Main Street, adjacent to the Court House, a structure that is still standing. William later moved to Church Street, where he erected a fine home later owned by Dr. Francis Murphy. On April 29, 1854, he married Mary Jane Harrington, daughter of Aaron Harrington, Antigonish.

William also joined the pre-Confederation militia, as Nova Scotian colonial regulations at that time required all able-bodied men to enrol. Antigonish County was divided into four townships—Arisaig, Antigonish, St Andrews’ and Tracadie—each with four registered volunteer regiments. William joined the Antigonish First Regiment of Infantry, where he served as Major.

As a result of his long service, William became known locally as “Major Beck.” Other noted citizens involved with the regiment were its Lieutenant Colonel—and future “Father of Confederation”—William Alexander Henry, Major Thomas M. King, Captains Robert N. Henry, Francis S. Cunningham, Adam Kirk, Hugh MacDonald, and William’s brother-in-law, Clarence N. Harrington.

In 1863, William suffered a setback when his store on the corner of Main and Sydney Streets burned to the ground. Fire-fighting efforts at the time consisted of a “bucket brigade,” with no other equipment available. William rebuilt his store and became a prominent figure in the establishment of the Antigonish Fire Rescue Company. He also enticed leading merchants and rate payers to support the business, obtaining the funds required to purchase a hand-drawn, hand-operated pumper. The device was ordered in 1864 and arrived in early 1865. Known at the time as a “Honeyman Tub,” it is currently on display at the Antigonish Heritage Museum. The village of Truro later consulted with the Antigonish organization and purchased a similar, horse-drawn pumper in 1868.

At the time of its purchase, the Antigonish hand-pumper was housed on the east side of Court Street, near the former County Jail, in a structure marked as “Engine House” on contemporary maps. William not only started the Fire Brigade; he headed the organization for approximately 10 years. When William J. Beck passed away on October 30, 1881, his youngest son, Clarence L., became involved with the Fire Brigade, probably as a result of obtaining his father’s shares in the Company. When the Town of Antigonish incorporated in 1889, the newly elected Town Council assumed responsibility for the fire brigade’s operation and it ceased to be a private operation.

Clarence continued to operate the family business in Antigonish and subsequently married Janet Tupper, a Pictou County native. While Billy Beck was born at Antigonish in 1897, Clarence moved the family back to Pictou County in the late 1890s, possibly to assume operation of his grandfather’s store. Local advertisements identified the business as C. L. Beck Dry Goods.

On October 29, 1915, Billy Beck, a young lad with fair hair who was 5’ 8” tall and weighed 140 pounds, traveled to Halifax and enlisted with the Canadian Army Medical Corps’ No. 7 Stationary Hospital (CSH), organized and recruited by Dalhousie University. The unit’s 162 personnel departed from Saint John, NB, aboard SS Metagama on January 1, 1916 and landed at Plymouth, England.

Following its overseas arrival, No. 7 CSH assumed responsibility for Shorncliffe Military Hospital, an 800-bed facility that serviced Canadian troops stationed at nearby military camps. In early spring, the unit moved to France, where it took over a 400-bed facility at Le Havre, France, and established a second 400-bed hospital at nearby Harfleur.

Billy did not travel to France with the unit. Afflicted with myalgia after arriving overseas, he was admitted to Shorncliffe Hospital on April 16, 1916. He made a full recovery and joined the unit at Le Havre on June 16. Six weeks later, he was admitted to hospital with inflamed tonsils, but once again recovered and returned to duty.

Billy served with No. 7 CSH for almost 18 months, the only incident of note occurring on December 12, 1916, when the young Private missed roll call and was subsequently confined to quarters for seven days for being “absent without leave.” Billy received 10 days’ leave on September 30, 1917. After returning to duty, as was the case with many young CAMC male recruits, he grew weary of the hospital routine and sought an opportunity to serve in a more active role.

On November 26, 1917, Billy briefly returned to CAMC Shorncliffe before he was “struck off strength” and posted “on Command” to the Personnel Supply Park, Royal Flying Corps (RFC), Farnborough, where the RFC had operated a base since 1912. After five months’ training, Billy was posted to Alexandria, Egypt, and sailed from Marseilles, France, on April 27, 1918. Earlier in the war, a huge British Imperial force had successfully repelled a Turkish advance on the Suez Canal and subsequently pushed the Turks out of Palestine, protecting a vital link between Britain and its eastern colonies of India and Australia.

On April 1, 1918—around the time that Billy completed his training—the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service joined to form the Royal Air Force (RAF). One month after arriving in Egypt for service with the RAF, Billy proceeded to Heliopolis, outside Cairo, for further instruction. Upon achieving the grade of Flight Cadet on September 25, he was posted to the Royal Air Force’s No. 18 Training Depot Station, Moascar, Ismailia, Egypt, located along the Cairo – Port Said Road. He immediately commenced training in Armstrong Whitmore aircraft, possibly a Model F.K.8. Nicknamed “The Big ACK,” Armstrong Whitmore produced approximately 1,200 of the two-seater planes, each equipped with a Beardmore 160 HP engine, dual controls and two fuel tanks.

On the morning of November 15, 1918, 2nd/Lt. E. B. Ward first completed a flight in AW # 5035 from 6:45 to 7:40 a.m., with passenger 2nd/Lt. J. T. Molteno aboard. The plane was almost brand new, having recorded only 36 hours of flying time and 39 hours of running time on its engine. After AW # 5035 safely landed, RAF Captain H. R. Gardner detailed Flight Cadet Oscar E. Oberhuber of Malta, a pilot with 44 hours of solo and dual flying time, to take the plane up for “passenger flight practice.” Flight Cadet William Tupper Beck volunteered for the role of passenger and, with Capt. Gardner’s approval, climbed into the rear seat. At this point, Billy had accumulated a total of 32 “solo and dual” flying hours.

Oberhuber asked George Edge, the aircraft mechanic/engine fitter, which fuel tank Lt. Ward had used. When Edge indicated that he had used the rear tank, Oberhuber stated that he would use the front tank and made the appropriate adjustments before take-off. The plane taxied about 200 yards before commencing its take-off run. Witnesses later reported that the engine began misfiring badly, but the aircraft managed to reach an altitude of approximately 100 feet. As Oberhuber attempted to make a turn and return to the runway, the engine stalled and the aircraft plunged to the ground. While support crew immediately attended to the two passengers and hastily transported them to hospital, both passed away from their injuries shortly after admission.

A Court of Inquiry, assembled the same day under orders from Major C. W. Anstey and presided over by Captain. D. H. Rylands, concluded that the accident was the result of engine failure caused by lack of fuel pressure from the petrol tank. Flight Cadets Oscar Oberhuber and William Tupper Beck were laid to rest in Ismailia War Cemetery, about one kilometre northwest of Ismailia town centre, along the Port Said -Cairo Road.

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