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Thursday, 7 August 2014

Twitter Feed and Research Update

As you can see along the right side of this blog post, I have created a Twitter account with the handle @brucefmacdonald .  As we mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War's events, I plan to post tweets related to the stories of Guysborough County's First World War veterans.  The first tweets (August - December 1914) will focus on the war's early events and the County's first enlistments, while later tweets will honor the 131 veterans who lost their lives during or shortly after the war, from causes related to their service.  All tweets will carry the hashtag #guysboroveterans .

My research into the stories of Guysborough County's 131 war dead is steadily progressing.  I expect to complete profiles of the 71 veterans who died from 1915 to 1917 before year's end and hope to have a manuscript ready for publication sometime early in 2015.  I will provide further details on the blog later this year.

Something that may be of interest is CBC Radio's re-broadcast of the First World War Series, "The Bugle and The Passing Bell", first aired in 1964.  Each program combines the actual voices of veterans relating their stories, supplemented by actors reading from soldiers' diaries and letters.  The series provides a chronological overview of Canadian soldiers' war experiences.   The episodes air weekly on Thursday mornings at 9:30 am Atlantic Time.  All episodes are also available online at The Bugle and The Passing Bell immediately after broadcast.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Lance Corporal John Michael Fogarty: A Siberian Expedition Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: January 24, 1886*

Place of Birth: Hazel Hill, Guysborough County

Mother's Name: Catherine 'Kate' Horne

Father's Name: John Fogarty

Date of Enlistment: April 16, 1918 at Halifax, NS (attestation with Canadian Expeditionary Force);

November 15, 1919 at Halifax, NS (attestation with Permanent Force of Canada)

Regimental Numbers: 3181730 (first attestation); 2779985 (second attestation)

Rank: Lance Corporal

Forces: Canadian and Siberian Expeditionary Forces; Permanent Force of Canada

Units: 1st Depot Battalion Nova Scotia Regiment; 260th Infantry Battalion; Canadian Military Police Corps (CMPC)

Location of service: Canada and Siberia

Occupation at Enlistment: Fisherman

Marital Status at Enlistment: Married

Next of Kin: Isabelle 'Belle' Fogarty, Hazel Hill, Guysborough County (wife)

* Michael's birth date is taken from 1901 census records.  The 1891 census states that Michael was 5 years old at that time.  The 1911 census gives his birthdate as January 1885.  His 1918 attestation papers record Michael's year of birth as 1885, while his 1919 enlistment papers list his year of birth as 1886.


John Michael Fogarty was the oldest son and second of nine children born to John and Kate (Horne) Fogarty of Hazel Hill, Guysborough County.  In 1909, Michael married Isabelle 'Belle' Jollimore of French River, PEI.  Their first child, James, was born there in October 1910.  Sometime after 1911, the couple returned to Hazel Hill, where Michael worked in the local fishery and three more children - daughters Laura, Mary and Hattie - joined the family.

After the outbreak of war in Europe, two of Michael's younger brothers enlisted for service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  James Alexander 'Jim' joined the 25th Battalion at Halifax on February 11, 1915, serving with distinction in Belgium and France and rising to the rank of Sergeant before a serious combat wound in January 1918 ended his military career.  Ernest Vincent enlisted with the Divisional Cycle Platoon at Regina, Saskatchewan on November 25, 1916, but was later transferred to the 28th Battalion.  Twice wounded in France, he returned to the front each time, serving overseas until his unit returned to Canada in May 1919.

Like so many of his generation, Michael was eventually drawn to military service.  While his family circumstances made such a choice difficult, the example set by his younger brothers may have prompted him to do so.  Whatever his motivation, on November 27, 1917, Michael enlisted with the 94th Regiment, a northern Nova Scotia militia unit based at Pictou.  Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, the 94th was instructed to secure the Commercial Cable Company's strategically important Hazel Hill telegraph facilities.  Its presence in the local community may explain Michael's decision to join the unit.

On February 24, 1918, Michael was officially transferred to the 1st Depot Battalion, Nova Scotia Regiment, where he trained alongside much younger men who had been conscripted under the Military Service Act (MSA).  Michael officially enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force on April 16, 1918.  While military officials used the standard conscription form for his attestation, the line reserved for his MSA number states "not applicable", indicating that he was not drafted into service.

While Michael may have anticipated following his younger siblings to the Western Front, his military career took a dramatically different direction.  Perhaps due to his age, he remained in Canada for six months as many of his younger Depot Battalion comrades were shipped out to England.  As summer gave way to autumn, Michael was assigned to the 260th Battalion, one of two units designated for service with the Siberian Expeditionary Force (SEF).  He travelled by train to British Columbia, where SEF personnel prepared for deployment at several training camps near Vancouver and Victoria.

Michael and Belle's oldest daughter Laura with her husband, Bob Roberts.
 On October 11, 1918 - the day on which he departed for Siberia - Michael was officially transferred to the 260th Battalion.  Prior to leaving Canada, he assigned $ 15 of his monthly pay to his wife Belle, who also received a monthly separation allowance of $ 30 while he served overseas.


The year 1917 was one of "crisis and pessimism" for the Allies fighting the German forces on the Western Front (France and Belgium).  In March 1917, a revolution overthrew Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and established an ineffective Provisional Government that accelerated the disintegration of the Russian Army on the Eastern Front.  Despite the Canadian Corps' successful capture of Vimy Ridge (April 1917) and Passchendaele (November 1917), Allied offensives on the Western and Italian Fronts failed to break the stalemate with Germany or Austria-Hungary in either sector.

The collapse of a Russian offensive on the Eastern front resulted in a second uprising in which the Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Lenin, overthrew the fragile Provisional Government in November 1917.  Fierce opponents of the war, Lenin's socialist government negotiated a peace treaty with Germany, ending fighting on the Eastern Front in March 1918.  As a result, Germany was able to transport the bulk of its Eastern Front troops to France and Belgium, where it launched a massive Spring Offensive in an effort to win the war on the Western Front.

In the meantime, Russia was plunged into civil war as groups opposed to the Bolsheviks refused to accept its socialist government.  Its most prominent foes were the Cossacks of the Don River region and a number of White Russian Generals, spread from northern Russia to Vladivostok, who remained loyal to the Provisional Government. 

As early as December 1917, the Allied Supreme War Council pledged its support for Russian forces committed to continuing the war against Germany on the Eastern Front.  As Russia disintegrated into civil war in early 1918, Allied governments saw an opportunity to re-establish a two-front conflict by supporting forces opposed to the Bolshevik government.  They were also concerned that large stockpiles of Allied war materials stored at Murmansk, Archangel and Vladivostok might fall into Bolshevik hands. 

In response to these concerns, Japanese and British naval cruisers sailed into Vladivostok's Golden Bay in January 1918, while the "Czecho-Slovak Legion", a military force loyal to the Allied cause, seized control of the strategically important Trans-Siberian Railroad from the Ural Mountains to Vladivostok.  Small parties of Allied forces also landed at Murmansk and Archangel and guarded supply depots in both locations.

Archangel and Murmansk, Russia.
 On June 28, 1918, the Czecho-Slovak Legion overthrew the local Bolshevik government and seized control of Vladivostok.  By the end of July 1918, White Russian opponents of the Bolshevik government assumed control of the city.  Meanwhile, hopeful of re-establishing an Eastern Front in the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Western Allies formulated plans for a multi-national Siberian expedition aimed at overthrowing the Bolshevik government and replacing it with one supportive of Western interests.

By August 1918, Allied governments agreed to dispatch troops to Murmansk, Archangel, the Caspian Sea and Vladivostok, in an effort to topple Russia's Bolshevik government.  When Great Britain formally asked Canada for a contribution, the Canadian government approved the formation of the Siberian Expeditionary Force (SEF) on August 12, 1918.  The proposed contingent consisted of more than 4000 personnel and included the 259th and 260th Infantry Battalions, the 20th Canadian Machine Gun Company and a mounted squadron of Royal North West Mounted Police, in addition to support personnel.

The 259th Battalion consisted of two companies each from Ontario and Quebec, the latter mainly conscripts from Montreal and Quebec City.  In fact, only 378 of its soldiers were volunteers, a situation that later generated a troubling incident.  The 260th Battalion drew its personnel from across Canada - one company each from Atlantic Canada, Manitoba and British Columbia, with a fourth from Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Canadian authorities selected Victoria, BC as the SEF's assembly point and established training camps at New Westminster and Coquitlam.  Troops from across the country converged on Victoria's Willow Camp as the Spanish flu epidemic - transported from Europe by returning Canadian soldiers - swept across the country and was carried west by members of the 259th Battalion making their way to British Columbia.  Seventy-five of its soldiers were hospitalized with the illness, prompting authorities to place SEF soldiers under quarantine and ban all public meetings in Victoria.

On October 3, 1918, an advanced party consisting of Headquarters, administrative, medical, logistics and food services staff assembled at Victoria.  Also attached to the group was a detachment from the 260th Battalion selected for Base Guard duty.  Two Guysborough County veterans were amongst the soldiers chosen for this assignment.  Fellow Hazel Hill native James Edward Feltmate, age 25, the son of Abner and Agnes (Grover) Feltmate, accompanied Michael Fogarty as the advanced party prepared to depart for Siberia.

Map of key locations in Western Allies' Russian missions, 1918-19.

On October 11, 1918, the SEF advanced party, consisting of 62 officers and 618 other ranks (OR), boarded the SS Empress of Japan at Vancouver, BC and sailed for Vladivostok, Russia.  Within twenty-four hours, the challenges of crossing the Pacific Ocean in autumn became apparent as the SEF Headquarters war diary reported: "Weather fine but quite rough, about 30 % of the troops are sea-sick."  Calmer seas prevailed on October 14 and more men were "on deck" as officers organized sports and concerts to occupy their time.

The passage to Russia was not without tragedy.  On October 22, 1918, Headquarters' war diary reported that Pte. Edward Biddle, Base Coy., died of pneumonia following a case of influenza.  The first of the force's 14 casualties - all but one due to illness - Biddle was buried at sea later that day as the "weather became rough and a cold… [and a] heavy sea blew up in the afternoon."  Similar conditions prevailed for several days before the October 24, 1918 war diary entry mercifully reported: "Land in sight on our starboard off and on all morning.  Passed through the Straits of Hagodadi before midnight."

Two days later, two Russian torpedo boat destroyers met the Empress of Japan at 6 am and escorted the vessel into port at Vladivostok.  A Czech Guard of Honor welcomed the Canadians as the SEF's other ranks (OR) occupied temporary quarters in sheds along the quay, while its officers remained on the vessel for their first night in Russia.  The following day - October 27, 1918 - the "weather [was] fine but much colder" as the troops marched off to temporary billets.  The Headquarters war diary lamented a significant lack in manpower for guard duty and work parties, in addition to insufficient storage space for supplies, as the officers set about preparing for the arrival of its remaining personnel.

On October 29, 1918, officers found a suitable location for Base Headquarters: "A building known as the Pushkinsky Theatre… consisting of a small theatre and several billiard and card rooms, has been found to be available for offices… and a guard has been placed over the building."  The task of finding appropriate space for barracks proved more difficult as refugees fleeing the civil war filled many unoccupied buildings.  Headquarters War Diary commented: "The best accommodation has been taken by the Japanese and Americans, making it necessary to arrange to billet Canadian troops outside of town."

Within several days, officers succeeded in securing accommodations for 2800 men and 400 horses, although the building's windows needed replacement and most of its metal fittings had been "stolen by Chinese".  Work parties set about building stoves out of brick and constructing makeshift stovepipes out of corrugated iron sheets in preparation for the coming winter season.  The war diary noted that "the supply of wood is short [and]… everything is very dear", due to shortages caused by the civil war.

On November 5, 1918, Private Michael Fogarty was placed on command to Force Headquarters as a "Base Guard".  One month later, he was attached to Base Headquarters "for rations and quarters".  While in Siberia, he was promoted to the rank of Corporal and remained at Base HQ for all but the last nine days of his service.

Michael and Belle's second daughter, Mary Fogarty McCarthy.
A November 12, 1918 telegram from the War Office interrupted preparations for the SEF's impending arrival: "News received that Germany has accepted the terms of the Armistice and that hostilities on the Western Front ceased."  Three days later, a group of Canadians participated in a celebration described in the Headquarters War Diary:

"All the Allies in Vladivostok took part in a parade through the streets. commencing at 11 AM, and a march past the Allied Commander in Chief….  The parade consisted of troops from the British, French, Italian, American, Czecho, Roumanian, Serbian, Russian, Japanese and Chinese Armies."

While the Armistice was welcome news, it raised significant questions regarding the Siberian expedition's future.  The British government believed that the mission should continue as planned, but the Canadian government, sensitive to public opinion that all Canadian soldiers should return home, contemplated evacuating the advanced party.  Rivalries among White Russian Generals for control of the region further complicated the situation.  By month's end, Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, former Commander of the Czar's Black Sea Fleet, seized control of the Siberian capital of Omsk and declared himself "Supreme Ruler of All Russia".  The coup's implications for the SEF's mission were unclear.

In the interim, as there was little likelihood of Allied forces engaging in offensive action, Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden decided that the SEF mission should continue at least until the spring of 1919 and therefore its remaining personnel would proceed to Vladivostok as planned.  SEF Headquarters was informed, however, that Canadian troops were not to move inland nor participate in military operations without the express approval of the Canadian government.

The SEF's first British troops - 32 officers and 924 OR of the 1st 9th Hampshire Regiment - arrived from India aboard SS Dunera on November 26, 1918.  Two days later, the War Office notified Headquarters that "for the present no British or Canadian troops are to go west of the Urals."  A second vessel, the SS Monteagle, arrived at Vladivostok on December 5, 1918 with the first group of Canadian troops - 30 officers, 395 OR and 287 horses, in addition to three Canadian Red Cross officers and one matron.   

Three days later, Canadian Brigadier-General J. H. Elmsley, SEF Commander, authorized the transfer of Lt.-Colonel T. S. Morrissey, eight officers and 47 OR to Omsk.  Their task was to provide administrative services for British troops that followed them to the Siberian capital later in the month.  The Omsk mission proved to be Canadian soldiers' furthest inland advance during the Siberian mission.

Michael and Belle's youngest daughter, Hattie Fogarty Donnelly.
The departure of the second group of SEF soldiers from Canada was marred by controversy.  On December 21, 1918, a small group of the 259th Battalion's French Canadian conscripts refused to leave their barracks, when ordered to do so.  Officers instructed their comrades to remove their belts and whip the mutineers into order.  Soldiers then fixed their bayonets and marched the defiant individuals through the streets of Vancouver at knifepoint and onto the waiting transport ship.  The following day, the SS Teesta departed for Siberia.

SEF Headquarters' War Diary recorded the mission's second casualty on December 30, 1918, when Pte. William J. Henderson (attestation 2772673) died of spinal meningitis.  Two days later, the New Year arrived with ferocity, as described in the day's diary entry:

"Very stormy and cold.  Blizzard blowing from early morning hours till about 5 P.M. when wind slowly quieted down.  Fairly calm towards midnight."

The diary also reported "several cases of frost-bite" amongst a group of soldiers sent to unload a recently arrived supply vessel.

On January 12, 1919, SS Teesta arrived in Vladivostok with 22 officers and 564 OR of the 259th Canadian Rifles, 11 officers and 183 OR of the 20th Canadian Machine Gun Company, and a small group of support personnel.  Officers aboard the vessel reported that Rifleman Harold Leo Butler (attestation 2768761) of the 259th Battalion "died en route and was buried at sea", thus becoming the mission's third reported casualty.

Three days later, the SEF's remaining Canadian personnel arrived aboard SS Protesilaus - 15 officers and 474 OR of the 259th Canadian Rifles, 39 officers and 981 OR of the 260th Battalion, and the mission's remaining administrative staff.  Once again, a soldier - Rifleman F. J. Kay (attestation 3139773) of the 259th Battalion - was reported to have died at sea.

By month's end, SEF Headquarters received notice that the Imperial War Cabinet had decided to continue the Siberian mission a least until the Allied governments meeting at the Paris Peace Conference agreed upon a course of action with regard to Russia.  In the meantime, the vast majority of SEF personnel remained at Vladivostok, occupying their time with sentry duty and administrative tasks.  Quartered in barracks at Second River and Gornstai Bay, off-duty soldiers spent their spare hours playing hockey, soccer and basketball leagues, producing two brigade newspapers, and watching movies in a makeshift theatre.  Occasionally, small groups of soldiers received one-day's leave to Vladivostok, where they frequented the Chinese bazaar and Russian baths.

On February 1, 1919, Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden informed SEF Headquarters that Allied leaders had agreed to the early withdrawal of Canadian troops from Siberia.  In the meantime, SEF Headquarters reported increasing Bolshevik activity in the area and two more Canadian soldiers died of pneumonia by month's end.  On March 1, 1919, Prime Minister Borden formally informed Headquarters that "arrangements will be made for the return from Siberia of the Canadian troops early in April."

Map of Vladivostok area (Source: Moffat).

March proved to be the SEF's worst month for casualties, as seven soldiers succumbed to illness - four cases of pneumonia, one each of perio-carditis and spinal meningitis, and one with no recorded cause - while an eighth soldier, Lieutenant A. H. Thring, was accidentally killed.  The war diary recorded the expedition's final casualty from toxaemia on April 5, 1919.  In the meantime, the war diary reported fears of an impending Bolshevik uprising in Vladivostok.  Increasing tensions between the troops and civilian population prompted officers to order soldiers to carry arms with them at all times. 

The mission's only opportunity for military action occurred on April 12, 1919, when Bolsheviks surrounded the village of Shkotova, north of Vladivostok, jeopardizing the city's coal supply.  Brigadier-General Elmsley immediately dispatched a company from the 259th Battalion to the area.  Upon arriving one week later, the soldiers discovered that the Bolsheviks had withdrawn, and the company returned to Vladivostok on April 21, 1919.

That same day, the SS Monteagle departed Vladivostok for Vancouver, with 1080 Canadian soldiers on board.  The evacuation commenced as Bolshevik supporters laid siege to the city, threatened the lives of Allied and White Russian officers, and vandalized vehicles and supplies.  On May 9, 1919, Private Michael Fogarty left Siberia on the SS Empress of Japan, the same vessel that had carried him to Russia six months previously.  The last major detachment of Canadians - 1491 all ranks - boarded the SS Empress of Russia on May 19, 1919 and sailed for home.

On June 1, 1919, Brigadier-General Elmsley and a small group of officers dedicated a monument to the SEF's fatalities at Marine Cemetery, located on a hillside overlooking the Churkin peninsula.  Four days later, the last Canadian SEF members boarded the SS Monteagle and sailed for Victoria.

The remaining British forces departed from Siberia by summer's end, followed by American forces in autumn 1919.  The final members of the ill-fated Siberian mission left Russian soil in March 1920.  Seven months after the last Canadian soldiers left Vladivostok, Bolshevik forces seized control of the city.  Hampered by the end of hostilities on the Western Front and further hindered by lack of consensus amongst participating Allied countries, the Siberian Expedition can only be described as a complete military failure.


On May 21, 1919, Michael Fogarty and his fellow passengers aboard the SS Empress of Japan arrived at Vancouver.  Michael made his way by train to Halifax, where he was officially discharged from the 260th Battalion on May 29, 1919.  Three days later, he was transferred to Headquarters Staff, where he served in an unspecified capacity throughout the summer months.  On October 31, 1919, Corporal Michael Fogarty was officially discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Michael and Belle's son, James Edward, served overseas during the Second World War.
Michael briefly returned to his wife and children, who were living at French River, Prince Edward Island.  A family disagreement prompted him to return to Halifax, where he enlisted with the Permanent Force of Canada as a "Special Guard" with the Canadian Military Police Corps (CMPC) on November 15, 1919.  The following day, Michael was promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal, based on his previous military experience.  While working in Halifax, he assigned $ 6 of his monthly salary to his wife, Belle.

Throughout the winter of 1919-20, Michael served with the CMPC at Halifax, where its members were responsible for maintaining order and discipline amongst armed forces personnel stationed in the city.  Throughout 1920, the CMPC slowly reduced its operations as the vast majority of military personnel returned to civilian life and municipal police forces assumed its duties.  As a result, Lance Corporal Michael Fogarty was formally discharged from military service on March 4, 1920.

Sadly, Michael and Belle parted ways after his discharge.  His younger brother, Ernest, had returned to Western Canada after being released from military service in May 1919.  It appears that Michael joined him in Saskatchewan after leaving the CMPC, as the 1921 Canadian census identifies 35-year-old 'Michael Fogarty', a native of Nova Scotia, living as a boarder in the Maple Creek, Saskatchewan home of John J. Richardson.

Ernest eventually moved to Detroit, Michigan, but Michael spent the remainder of his years in Western Canada.  On April 29, 1953, he died at age 68, from complications due to high blood pressure, at Drumheller, Alberta.  Having resided in the community for six months, he was laid to rest in St. Anthony's Catholic Church Cemetery, Drumheller.

Michael Fogarty's headstone - Drumheller, Alberta.


Canadian Army Military Police, 1914-1920 - A Brief History. Canadian Military Police Museum.  Available online.

Isitt, Benjamin.  The Siberian Expedition.  Legion Magazine, November 22, 2008.  Available online.

Moffat, Ian C. D.. Forgotten Battlefields - Canadians in Siberia, 1918-1919.  Canadian Military Journal, Autumn 2007.  Available online.

Service file of Lance Corporal John Michael Fogarty, number 3181730.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 3165 - 24.  Attestation papers available online.

War Diary of Siberian Expeditionary Force General Staff.  RG9, Series III-D-3, Volumes 5056 & 5057, Reel T-10950, File: 959.  Available online.

War Diary of Siberian Expeditionary Force Headquarters.  RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5056, Reel T-10950, File: 957.  Available online.

The Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group's website contains links to Siberian Expeditionary Force war diaries that are available online.

A special thank you to Michael's grand-daughters, Patsy (Donnelly) Wooten, Lower Sackville, NS, Ann (Donnelly) and her husband, David Collier, Lakeside, Halifax County, who provided valuable information and family pictures for this post.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Pte. Amos Cashin: A Forestry Corps Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: January 16, 1898

Place of Birth: West Port Felix, Guysborough County

Mother's Name: Suzanne Meagher

Father's Name: William Cashin Jr.

Date of Enlistment: July 3, 1916 at Halifax, NS

Regimental Number: 1033073

Rank: Private

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force

Units: 237th Battalion; 97th Battalion; No. 23 Company, Canadian Forestry Corps; Royal Canadian Regiment

Location of service: England, France & Belgium

Occupation at Enlistment: Fisherman

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Mrs. Suzanne Cashin, West Port Felix, NS (mother)


Denis Amos Joseph Cashin was the fifth of six children - five boys and one girl - born to William and Suzanne Cashin of West Port Felix, Guysborough County.  As was the custom in his small coastal community, Amos went to sea at an early age, working on inshore fishing vessels that made occasional visits to Halifax.

Within months of the Britain's August 4, 1914 declaration of war on Germany and Austria-Hungary, the provincial capital was abuzz with military activity.  A key Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) port, Halifax also became a departing point for thousands of Canadian infantrymen headed to England.  Sometime during the conflict's early months, Amos became part of the war effort when joined the crew of the RCN patrol ship 'Speedy', although he did not formally enlist with the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve.

Throughout the winter of 1915-16, military recruitment reached a fever pitch across Nova Scotia as authorities organized and trained no fewer than five infantry battalions for overseas service.  As the majority of RCN vessels operated out of Halifax, Amos and other young men from the Port Felix area were caught up in the excitement.  On July 3, 1916, Amos and his older brother Dennis enlisted with the 237th Infantry Battalion at Halifax.

Pte. Amos Cashin (left) and Pte. Arthur Freeman Levangie.
Two other Port Felix natives joined the same unit. Arthur Freeman Levangie attested with the 237th at Saint John, NB one week prior to the Cashin brothers, while Neil David enlisted at Halifax on August 1, 1916.  While they served together for the next three months, the quartet parted ways shortly after they arrived in England.  At war's end, only the Cashin brothers returned home to Port Felix.


The 237th Battalion was one of several "American Legion" units organized across Canada in early 1916, with the goal of attracting young Americans for overseas service.  The battalion established its headquarters in Sussex, NB, but Amos's enlistment indicates that recruitment efforts extended into neighbouring provinces.  Partly due to the controversy surrounding the recruitment of foreign nationals from a neutral country, military authorities dissolved most "American Legion" battalions before they departed for England.  Shortly after the four Port Felix natives enlisted with the 237th, the unit was disbanded and its personnel absorbed by the 97th Battalion, an "American Legion" unit that managed to avoid a similar fate.

Initially organized in Toronto, the 97th Battalion had relocated to Camp Aldershot, NS for training in June 1916.  Its proximity explains why the 237th recruits were transferred to the unit on September 15, 1916.  Three days later, the Cashin brothers, Neil David and Arthur Levangie boarded the SS Olympic with their new unit for the journey to England.  Upon disembarking at Liverpool on September 25, 1916, however, the 97th was plagued with problems.  A number of its American enlistments deserted upon landing, and its Commanding Officer was accused of embezzlement, charges that were later disproved.

Seeking to avoid further controversy, British authorities dissolved the 97th Battalion on October 31, 1916 and transferred its personnel to existing units.  The four Port Felix recruits accompanied a large group of the 97th's personnel to the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR)/Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) Depot at Seaford, England, where they awaited further orders.

Within hours of arriving at Seaford, the Port Felix lads' military paths began to diverge.  On November 1, 1916, Neil David was transferred to the 7th Reserve Battalion, where he spent the winter awaiting an overseas assignment.  On April 25, 1917, he was transferred to the PPCLI and served at the front with the veteran unit throughout the summer months.  Neil was killed in action at Passchendaele on October 30/31, 1917.  Arthur Levangie was also transferred to the PPCLI on December 13, 1916.  He and Neil never reunited, however, as Arthur was killed in action at Vimy Ridge on April 9/10, 1917.

Amos's brother, Pte. Dennis Cashin.
Amos's brother Dennis became the third to depart Seaford when he was assigned to the 2nd Labour Battalion on January 15, 1917.  Later re-designated the 12th Battalion Canadian Railway Troops, Dennis served with the unit behind the front lines throughout the war.  The last to receive an active assignment, Amos was transferred to No. 23 Company, Canadian Forestry Corps, Smith's Lawn, Windsor Great Park, Surrey, England, on February 12, 1917.


On February 16, 1916, the British government formally asked Canada to provide a corps of men to cut and process timber in England.  The following month, the Canadian government created the first of several units for "harvesting and processing timber resources overseas".  By year's end, over 3000 Canadian lumbermen enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces' Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC).  Eleven Companies were operating in Britain, while three units had crossed the English Channel for deployment in the forests of France.

Lumber was a basic necessity on the Western Front.  CFC Companies produced beams and board lumber for dugout and trench construction, 'sleepers' for small, medium and regular gauge railways, telegraph poles, pickets (stakes similar to fence poles) for trench revetment, and scrap wood for fuel.  Company personnel carried out the entire process - harvesting logs, transporting them to mills, manufacturing and shipping the finished products.

Amos's unit - No. 23 Company CFC - organized in England in February 1917 and was assigned to the Central Group, one of four CFC Districts established in France.  Given the task of harvesting forests to the west of Paris - particularly the Normandy region - Central Group arrived in France in mid-December 1916, establishing its headquarters at Conches-en-Ouche.  By the end of January 1917, four CFC Companies consisting of 40 officers, 700 'other ranks' (OR) and 133 horses were harvesting and milling lumber in the District.

On February 23, 1917, Private Amos Cashin crossed the English Channel to Havre, France with No. 23 Company CFC.  Its personnel departed for the Central Group on March 2, 1917, arriving at Conches-en-Ouche the following day.  By month's end, Amos and his comrades were harvesting and milling timber in the forests near Rouvray, approximately 40 kilometres northeast of District Headquarters.

The size and scope of Central Group's operations grew steadily throughout the first half of the year, consisting of 12 Companies with a total of 79 officers, 2118 OR and 551 horses by June 30, 1917.  As a result, authorities created two separate Districts within the Central Group.  No. 1 District, officially authorized on July 26, 1917, initially contained four Companies and assumed responsibility for forestry operations in the Alçenon area.  No. 2 District, consisting of 92 officers, 2396 OR and 1029 horses, was created on October 1, 1917 and operated in the areas of Conches-en-Ouche and Rouvray.  Amos's unit was part of the second, larger district's operations.

While CFC soldiers were not exposed to combat, their daily work was nevertheless demanding and hazardous.  Personnel worked six days a week year-round, regardless of weather conditions.  The District's war diaries recorded at least two fatalities during its first year of operation.  On July 22, 1917, Private Arthur Martin (attestation number 904302), No. 38 Coy. CFC, was killed in a "lorry accident near Sées, France".   Private Thomas Sheppard (attestation number 754884), No. 15 Coy. CFC, was killed at Lyre "while driving a logging truck.  Two logs rolled off the truck[,] carrying Sheppard with them, one log landed on top of him, and crushed his skull."

While not as harsh as typical Canadian winters, the weather nevertheless turned "cold and clear" by year's end, with occasional snowfall during the months of December 1917 and January 1918.  Central Group Headquarters' war diary reported a "general thaw and transport difficulties" on January 10, 1918, describing conditions three days later as "fine - sun brilliant - much milder."  Other than a brief cold snap in early March 1918, the winter was considerably less challenging than what Amos and his comrades may have anticipated, based on their experiences at home.

As was the case in the war's first years, the arrival of spring brought a significant increase in combat.  While CFC's Central Group operated at a considerable distance from the front lines, the launching of a major German 'Spring Offensive' in March 1918 soon impacted its operations.  As German forces made initial gains in several sectors along the Western Front, Allied units hastily set about constructing a network of new trenches behind existing front lines as 'fall back' positions in the event of retreat.  As a result, on March 25, 1918, Central Group received an urgent request for 300,000 pickets - a key component of trench revetment - for each of the next two weeks, with an additional 100,000 required for the third week.

Typical trench revetment using pickets and boards.
Increased picket production was not the only impact on CFC Central Group's operations.  On March 28, 1918, its Headquarters "received [a] telegraph with instructions… to get one Company ready to move on short notice with tools for making pickets, also tools for 200 men, extra tents, rations for 5 days, and [to] have all available pickets and shovels assembled with [the] Company."  Commanders were requested to "advise by wire if [the] Company can be ready to move tomorrow by motor lorries, also have as many pickets and shovels [ready] as you can supply."

Central Group's officers selected Amos's unit for the assignment.  No. 23 Company's officers received orders to "prepare to move at a minute's notice.  They were to 'stand to' with tools for making pickets, also 50 shovels, 30 picks and 5 days' rations."  No. 2 District also received orders for an additional three Companies to "prepare to move into [the] Army area [behind the front lines]" with the same equipment as No. 23 Company.  All four units were ready to move by 3:00 pm March 28, 1918.

The following day, Amos and his comrades travelled to nearby Rouen, where they were "equipped with gas masks and steel helmets".  No. 23 Company CFC departed for Lucheux, France on March 30, 1918, where its personnel immediately set to work, assisting labor and infantry units in frantically constructing new trenches.  The fact that Central Group's officers simultaneously met "to discuss formation of two Battalions of Infantry from the Group" reflects the seriousness of the situation.

Amos's unit returned from Lucheux on April 7, 1918 and resumed its work at Rouvray.  While
Central Group's officers commenced "musketry practice in each District" two days later and received instructions on April 12, 1918 "to start training 1200 men in this Group", the orders were rescinded the following day and personnel once again turned their focus to timber and lumber production.  This was not the last time that events at the front impacted Amos's war experience.

Weather in the Central Group area became "very hot" by mid-May 1918.  The German offensive continued to affect operations as Headquarters issued frequent "air alarms" in late May and early June, warning of potential bombing raids.  Authorities issued similar warnings in late June and early July, but no attacks materialized.  During this time, 60 men - 20 from each of three Companies - commenced an Infantry Training Course at Central Group Headquarters, a reminder that CFC personnel were not exempt from military service.

Central Group CFC celebrated Dominion Day with a July 1st sports competition at Conches-en-Ouche.  No. 2 District's war diary commented: "All… companies in the District were represented and a party of American Doctors and Nurses from the American Hospital at Évreux were visitors."  One week later, "trial mobilization of No. 2 Company of [the] proposed New [Infantry] Battalion took place", indicating that preparations for military service at the front continued.

A party of Canadian journalists visited No. 2 District's Conches forest operations in late July, while No. 23 Company relocated to Forêt du Bord by month's end.  Headquarters Staff attended a commemoration service marking the fourth anniversary of the British declaration of war on August 4, 1918.  Four days later, Allied forces launched a major offensive against German forces at Amiens, France.

In response, German aircraft once again conducted bombing raids behind Allied front lines.  Authorities issued "air alarms" on several occasions throughout the month, while No. 2 District's war diary's August 13, 1918 entry described a raid in which "hostile aircraft dropped four bombs about three miles from 34 Company's operations at Beaumont-le-Roger."  The following day, the diary reported:

"19 Company's operations in Dreux Forest was bombed by hostile aircraft at 11:45 pm.  Seven bombs were dropped beside their Railroad.  There were no casualties."

While the threat of aerial bombardment receded by month's end, another danger surfaced on August 17, when "fire broke out in [the] forest behind Conches on the Rouen Road."  Personnel succeeded in dousing the blaze by 7:00 pm, although the  "fire started again" the following day before it was permanently extinguished.

Central Group Headquarters' September 1, 1918 war diary entry reported August production statistics for each District, the first such data in its records.  Amos's No. 2 District produced 15,173 tons of sawn lumber, 6162 tons of round lumber, and 10,191 tons of byproduct for a total in excess of 31,500 tons.  During the same period, the District shipped 10,268 tons of sawn lumber, 1682 tons of round lumber and 487 tons of byproduct.  

In mid-September 1918, Central Group's Commanding Officer inspected a 10-hectare pine forest near Bernay and concluded: "On account of the urgent demand for telegraph poles [I] consider that we should make application for this plot."  Production totals for the month were somewhat lower at 28,991 tons, but shipments rose considerably, exceeding 25,000 tons.

By early October 1918, the Allied offensive commenced almost two months earlier was progressing favourably, although at considerable cost.  A dramatic rise in casualties forced military authorities to identify all potential sources of reinforcements.  On October 3, 1918, CFC Central Group Headquarters received orders to dispatch three officers, six non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and 150 OR from each of its two districts to the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Center (CCRC) at Aubin-Saint-Vaast, near Hesdin, France. 

The NCOs and men were "to be selected from those who have the most Infantry training, and who are Category 'A'. "  The NCOs would remain with the men at the CCRC, while the officers were to return to their CFC duties.  "Other Ranks [are] to be fully equipped, less rifles and ammunition."

Dennis Cashin's First World war helmet.
Upon receiving instructions, No. 2 District officers brought "190 men… into HQ the same day and prepared [them for military service]."  Private Amos Cashin was amongst the individuals chosen for service at the front.  His selection is not surprising, considering his age and time spent training with the 237th and 97th Infantry Battalions.  No. 2 District's war diary described the last-minute routine as the group prepared to depart for Aubin-Saint-Vaast:

"The morning was taken up with kit inspection and Medical inspection.  Only 133 men were fit for the line.  The draft paraded at 11:30 am.  The OC [Officer Commanding] addressed the men and… thanked them for their good work with the Forestry Corps and assured them that he knew they would give just as good account of themselves in the line.  They proceeded by lorry to Rouen."

On October 4, 1918, three officers, six NCOs and 150 OR departed No. 1 District CFC Central Group at Alçenon for CCRC Aubin-Saint-Vaast at 6:00 pm.  Thirty minutes earlier, three officers, six NCOs and 133 OR from No. 2 District left Conches-en-Ouche for the same destination.  The day after arriving at CCRC with the latter group, Private Amos Cashin was transferred to the Royal Canadian Regiment.  Amos was about to commence the final - and most perilous - period of his military experience.


Initially formed on December 21, 1883 as part of the newly created Canadian Permanent Force, the Royal Canadian Regiment was originally called the "Infantry School Corps".  As its name suggests, its primary role was to train officers and non-commissioned officers who in turn acted as instructors at Militia Camps across Canada. 

In 1892, the regiment changed its title to "Canadian Regiment Infantry".  The following year, Queen Victoria officially approved its formation, thus permitting the addition of "Royal" to its name.  At the same time, the "Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry" officially adopted Victoria's cypher - VRI - and Crown as its insignia.  After the withdrawal of Imperial troops from Canada in 1902, the unit shortened its name to "Royal Canadian Regiment" (RCR) and its Companies, previously stationed in several locations across the country, all relocated to Halifax.

The only group of "regular troops" available in Canada when Britain declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary on August 4, 1914, the RCR was sent to Bermuda, where it relieved the British garrison and remained on duty for eleven months.  In August 1915, the RCR proceeded to France by way of England, landing at Boulogne on October 31, 1915 and moving into the front lines at Messines, Belgium with the 1st Canadian Division shortly after its arrival on the continent.

In early 1916, the RCR was assigned to the newly formed 3rd Canadian Division's 7th Brigade, where it fought alongside the PPCLI, 42nd (Royal Highlanders of Canada - Montreal, also known as the "Black Watch") and 49th (Edmonton Regiment) Battalions for the duration of the war.  The RCR served on rotation in the Belgian sector near Ypres until September 1916, when it followed the Canadian Corps southward into France and participated in attacks at Courcelette (September 1916) and Regina Trench (October 1916).

Having sustained significant losses in the two engagements, the RCR moved north to Neuville-Saint Vaast, France, where it reorganized and served on rotation throughout the winter of 1916-17.  The following spring and summer, the RCR fought with the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge (April 1917), Avion (June 1917) and Hill 70 (July 1917) before relocating to Belgium for the Corps' successful attack on the village of Passchendaele (October/November 1917).

Returning to France for the winter of 1917-18, the RCR played a significant role in the Allied forces' late summer offensive, seeing action at Amiens (August 1918), Monchy (August 1918) and Cambrai (September 1918).  The battalion endured significant losses in the last engagement, where 3 officers and 310 OR were killed in action, 16 officers and 185 OR wounded, and 53 OR missing.

Badly in need of reorganization, the RCR retired to a rest camp near Queant, France on October 1, 1918.  Twelve days later, a party of "51 OR reinforcements from CCRC" - a group that included Private Amos Cashin - arrived in camp.  The new recruits trained with the battalion for ten days before moving to the "forward area" near Cantaing-sur-Escaut, southwest of Cambrai, on October 27, 1918.

For the next ten days, personnel continued training while providing work parties for local road construction.  On November 6, 1918, the RCR marched in heavy rain through the recently liberated village of Valenciennes, where the "canal bridge had been blown up by the enemy in retreat, [along with] practically every cross-road and bridge along the way."  The following day, with German forces in retreat, the PPCLI - one of its 'sister' 7th Brigade battalions - advanced rapidly toward the city of Mons, Belgium, the RCR following in close support. 

Amos's son Ernest, a Second World War veteran.
The location of the British Expeditionary Force's first major action in August 1914, Allied commanders considered the liberation of Mons a significant objective.  On November 9, the PPCLI reached Jemappes, on the city's western outskirts, and received orders to attack the following day.  The RCR was part of the action as the battle unfolded in the early hours of November 10, 1918.  Its war diary provided a description of its role:

"The morning was misty and no trouble was experienced until the mist cleared, when we found that the high ground north of Ohlin, the railway banks and canals north of Mons and the bridge crossing into Mons on the Mons-Ohlin road were heavily manned by machine guns."

Officers called in artillery fire on key German positions as action by several RCR Companies prevented the destruction of railway tracks and bridges across the city's canal.  The following day - November 11, 1918 - 'A' Company of the 16th Battalion 'Canadian Scottish' accompanied the 42nd Battalion Royal Highlanders of Canada into Mons from the south, connecting with Allied forces from the north in the early morning hours.

At 9:00 am, RCR officers received news of the ceasefire to be implemented two hours later.  The battalion's war diary entry acknowledged the location's historical significance:

"Thus for us the war ended in almost exactly the same ground that the British Army had made their first stand in 1914.  Our men were in Mons.  One platoon of 'A' Company… had been the first to reach the square in the morning and the platoon commander had inscribed his name in the 'Golden Book of Mons'."

The following day, Amos and his comrades moved into billets within the city.  In the ensuing days, personnel participated in thanksgiving parades and church services while awaiting further orders.  On November 27, 1918, the RCR provided 76 OR "to line the streets" as King Albert I of Belgium visited the newly liberated city.  Meanwhile, the men took part in recreational football matches, training competitions, route marches and classes on returning to civilian life.

On December 11, 1918, the RCR relocated to Bourgeois, where training and recreational activities continued.  Over the next several weeks, small groups of OR received several days' leave to nearby Brussels.  The men celebrated Christmas 1918 with an open air church service and dinner at Bourgeois before relocating to Estaimbourg at month's end.  Sometime during his stay in Belgium, Amos assisted a Roman Catholic priest in the re-interment of Canadian soldiers buried in makeshift cemeteries on the battlefields where they had fallen.

At 9:45 am February 1, 1919, RCR personnel clambered aboard German box cars for the journey to Havre, France.  Upon arriving in the early morning hours of February 3, the men made their way to the Canadian Embarkation Camp.  Three days later, the unit boarded the SS Mons Queen for the voyage to England.  The war diary described the poignant event:

"As the Battalion reached the boat the Band played 'Tiperrary' and when everybody was on board and the boat ready to leave the bugler blew the last post as a tribute to the men who were left behind on the battlefields."

Upon landing at Weymouth, England at 11:30 am February 7, 1919, the RCR marched to a nearby rest camp.  The following day, personnel travelled by train to Bramshott, where all ranks underwent dental and medical examinations and completed the required discharge documents.  Personnel then received eight days' leave, a final opportunity to take in the sights before leaving England.

The RCR departed for Canada on March 1, 1919.  Upon landing in Halifax eight days later, the men spent several days in camp awaiting the much-anticipated end of their military careers.  On March 15, 1919, Private Amos Cashin was formally discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  He later received the British War and Victory Medals in recognition of his overseas service.


Upon returning to civilian life, Amos remained in Halifax, where he found employment as an "oil worker" at a local refinery.  Like many returning soldiers, he was eager to settle down and start a family.  On July 2, 1919, Amos married Beatrice Smith, a native of Port Felix whose family had relocated to Halifax.

Amos Cashin (right) with grandson Kenny (left) and son Ralph.
The newlyweds eventually returned to their home community, where they raised a family of five boys and three girls while Amos earned a living in the inshore fishery.  One of their sons, Ernest, served overseas with the Canadian Army during the Second World War. 

Amos was an active member of the Royal Canadian Legion and proudly participated in Remembrance Day ceremonies well into his later years. Amos Cashin passed away on December 30, 1985 and was laid to rest in St. Joseph's Cemetery, Port Felix.



Hyatt, Glenn E..  97th Battalion, The Lost Legion - American Volunteers for the CEF.  Over There: The Illustrated Journal of the First World War, Autumn 1996.  Available online.
Service file of Amos Cashin, number 1033073.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1563 - 18. 

War Diary of Central Group Headquarters, Canadian Forestry Corps.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5016, Reel T-10867-10868, File: 751.  Available online.

War Diary of No. 2 District Headquarters, Canadian Forestry Corps.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG9, Series III-D-3, Volume 5017, Reel T-10868, File: 755.  Available online.

War Diary of the Royal Canadian Regiment, Canadian Expeditionary Force.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG9, Series III-D-3, Volume 4911, Reel T-10703, File: 345.  Available online.

A special thank you to Amos's grandson Gary Cashin and great-niece Cynthia Creamer, who provided photographs and information on Amos's family and post-war life.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Pte. Norman Burton 'Burt' Williams: A 25th Battalion Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: December 4, 1894*

Place of Birth: Cole Harbour, Guysborough County

Mother's Name: Georgina Harrigan

Father's Name: Elisha Williams

Date of Enlistment: March 31, 1915 at Halifax, NS

Regimental Number: 415443

Rank: Private

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force (Infantry)

Units: 40th Battalion; 17th Reserve Battalion; 25th Battalion

Location of service: England, France & Belgium

Occupation at Enlistment: Labourer

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Mrs. Georgina Williams, Stellarton, NS (mother)

*: Date of birth recorded in 1901 and 1911 censuses.  Burt's attestation papers give his year of birth as 1895.

Norman Burton 'Burt' Williams was the second of ten children born to Elisha and Georgina (Harrigan) Williams of Cole Harbour, Guysborough County.  To support his growing family, Elisha worked as a fisherman and cook on the coastal schooners, travelling on occasion as far as Gloucester, Massachusetts.  The couple's three oldest children - Burt, his older brother James 'Jim' Elisha and younger brother Courtney - spent their youth in the small fishing village.  As the years passed, seven more siblings arrived before Elisha sold the Cole Harbour property and relocated the family to Stellarton, Pictou County around 1912.

Pte. Norman Burton 'Burt' Williams
Burt attended school until Grade 6, joking in later life that he was expelled for constantly fighting.  After working in the fishery during their early years, Burt and Jim found employment in the coal mines when the family settled in Stellarton.  On at least one occasion, Georgina rushed to the mine upon hearing of a cave-in and was relieved to find her boys unharmed.  At her insistence, the brothers left the mines to work for local farmers, Burt delivering milk by horse and wagon with younger brother Courtney often tagging along for the ride.

After the outbreak of war in Europe, the large numbers of fit males living in mining communities drew the attention of military recruiters.  Oldest brother Jim was the first to enlist, joining the 25th Battalion on November 18, 1914.  A later medical examination detected the presence of pleurisy, likely caused by exposure to coal dust, and Jim was discharged before the unit departed for overseas in May 1915.

Perhaps inspired by Jim's example, Burt enlisted with the 40th Battalion at Halifax on March 30, 1915.  Built upon the Halifax Rifles militia unit, the 40th was officially authorized on January 1, 1915 and established detachments across the province in search of recruits.  Determined to join Burt in uniform, Jim enlisted with the same unit at New Glasgow on May 1, 1915.  Ten days later, the Williams brothers made their way to Camp Aldershot, where the 40th assembled before relocating to Camp Valcartier, Quebec on June 21, 1915 for training.

Younger brother Courtney didn't want to be left behind.  Initially rejected by the 25th Battalion in March 1915 as 'medically unfit', he successfully enlisted with the 40th at Camp Aldershot on August 12, 1915 and joined his siblings at Valcartier shortly afterward.  Unfortunately, Courtney suffered from a "chronic cough" and was discharged a second time for health reasons on October 15, 1915. 

Three days later, Burt and Jim boarded the SS Saxonia at Quebec City and departed Canada, arriving in England on October 25, 1915.  Shortly after landing, the 40th was disbanded and the majority of its personnel transferred to the 17th Reserve Battalion.  Burt was 'taken on strength' by this unit on November 3, 1915. 

Back home in Stellarton, Courtney was determined to join his brothers overseas.  He travelled to North Sydney shortly after returning from Valcartier and enlisted with the 2nd Canadian Pioneer Battalion on November 14, 1915.  Courtney's unit arrived in England in December 1915.  For the next two months, all three Williams brothers were together on English soil.

Sometime after Burt's enlistment, his sister Esther sent him a small rosebud with a note, "For good luck, Essi".  Burt carried the precious gift with him throughout his military service and carefully preserved it after the war.  Today, it is amongst the family's most treasured mementos of Burt's military service.

Health issues eventually terminated Jim's military career.  Shortly after arriving in England, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and admitted to hospital.  After a lengthy period of treatment, Jim was discharged as 'medically unfit' on November 27, 1916 and returned home to Stellarton.

Pte. James Elisha 'Jim' Williams
 In the meantime, Burt was transferred to the 25th Battalion - Jim's initial unit - on February 3, 1916.  Officially authorized on November 7, 1914 and recruited province-wide, the 25th departed Halifax on May 20, 1915.  Shortly after arriving in England, the unit was assigned to the 2nd Canadian Division's 5th Brigade, alongside the 22nd (Quebec's 'Van Doos'), 24th (Montreal's Victoria Rifles) and 26th (New Brunswick) Battalions. 

The 25th crossed the English Channel in mid-September 1915 and one week later deployed in the Kemmel Sector of the Ypres Salient.  Its personnel spent the winter of 1915-16 on rotation in Belgium, receiving limited exposure to full-fledged combat.  The arrival of spring weather soon provided the men with more than they may have desired.

Private Burt Williams crossed the English Channel to the Canadian Base Depot (CBD) at Havre, France on February 5, 1916.  Nine days later, he was briefly admitted to Isolation Hospital for unspecified reasons - likely a case of measles - and spent the remainder of the month awaiting further orders.  Finally, on March 9, 1916, he left CBD Havre and reported to the 25th in the field. 

Two days prior to Burt's departure for the front, Courtney's unit landed at Havre and made its way into the front lines near Ypres, Belgium on the same day as Burt's departure.  While there is no record of an encounter, the two brothers may have briefly met before leaving for their respective assignments.  Several months later, their paths would cross once more on the outskirts of Ypres.

The 25th Battalion was serving on rotation in trenches near Locre, Belgium at the time of Burt's departure from Havre.  The unit moved into Divisional Reserve on March 15, 1916, its war diary recording the arrival of 40 'other rank' (OR) reinforcements - a group that included Burt - four days later.  The following day, the soldiers returned to the front line.  The war diary described Burt's first full day in the trenches: "Machine gun and rifle fire active….  A few bombs and grenades fell into our front line.  7 O. R. wounded."

Both sides exchanged machine gun and rifle fire daily, with occasional sniper and artillery fire throughout the tour.  Each night, personnel conducted patrols into 'No Man's Land', venturing as far as the German wire.  A man who delighted in relating a good story, Burt later described the 'reputation' he earned amongst his comrades.  Apparently, soldiers on his patrol were often wounded or killed, leading one soldier to speculate that Burt 'had a pact with the devil' and refuse to accompany him, even if it meant risking court martial.

Burt's first 'tour' ended on March 27, 1916 as the battalion moved into Brigade Reserve, relocating to billets at Berthorn on April 1.  While Burt had only recently arrived, the bulk of the battalion's personnel had served on rotation without a break since arriving in Belgium and enjoyed a ten-day break before returning to the line on April 12, 1916.  The following day, German forces heavily bombarded their trenches in preparation for a subsequent infantry attack that was "repulsed... with Machine guns and bombs[,] leaving a great many dead and wounded". 

The 25th suffered 8 OR killed and 6 wounded in the April 14, 1916 assault, the highest single-day casualties since arriving at the front.  The war diary reported a total of 18 OR killed, 42 wounded and 2 officers evacuated with 'shell shock' during the tour as personnel retired to reserve positions later that night.  The statistics reveal the increasing intensity of fighting brought on by the arrival of spring.  Burt's combat experience was just beginning.

Personnel endured daily artillery shelling when they returned to the line on April 25, 1916.  Significant numbers of casualties occurred daily, reaching a peak of 30 OR wounded and 1 killed on the tour's third day.  Six OR were wounded on May 1, the tour's last full day.  Burt was amongst the casualties, admitted to No. 67 Canadian Field Ambulance on May 2, 1916 suffering from a gunshot wound to his scalp and a 'superficial' wound to his left wrist.  Fortunately, neither injury was serious and two days later he was discharged to duty.

Combat at the front intensified with each passing week.  The 25th's May 10th diary entry commented: "All ranks confined to dugouts during the day.  All work being done at night, on account of shell fire and sniping."  On June 1, the unit was "holding front line trenches at St. Eloi" in the aftermath of major fighting there earlier in the spring.  The men retired to Brigade Reserve at Dickebusch before returning to the line at Zillebeeke on the night of June 8/9, 1916.  By day's end, fourteen OR were wounded in a heavy artillery bombardment.

The following day, German forces "bombard[ed] all day and night with HE's [high explosives], Minnenwerfers [trench mortars], etc..  Machine gun, rifle fire very active."  One officer and 12 OR were killed, while 2 officers and 44 OR were wounded in the shelling.  Burt and his comrades were relieved on the night of June 11/12, arriving at rest camp "very fatigued after having undergone a particularly heavy bombardment."

Two days later, the 25th received orders to relocate to Hill 60, entering the front line shortly after arriving.  On June 16, 1916, the war diary reported: "Great action on [our] front [and] also on our left.  Numerous HE's, whizzbangs, trench mortars, etc. being thrown over, we however came through without any casualties."  The following day, the battalion was not so fortunate as 8 OR were killed and 47 wounded in continued shelling.  Casualties declined on the third day - 10 OR killed and 7 wounded - but artillery fire was no less intense.  The battalion was relieved on June 20, 1916 and retired to rest camp after one of its most challenging tours.

As summer arrived, Burt and Courtney received sad news from home - their mother Georgina passed away on June 4, 1916.  Years later, Burt described a chance encounter around this time with his younger brother, whose unit was serving in the same sector: 

"Courtney… was with the Engineers.  They used to build trenches….  When we came out [of the line] we had eight days [rest] and that's when I met him.  'Courtney, what are you doing here?' I said.  'Boy, I wish I could get out of this.  I'd do anything to get out.'  But there he was and he had to stay."

Neither brother could have imagined that this would be their last conversation.  On the night of July 12/13, 1916, Courtney was killed by rifle grenade fire while working in the front trenches near Ypres.

Throughout July and August 1916, the 25th Battalion served on rotation in the Hill 60 sector.  The war diary described summer's most notable event, which took place on August 14, 1916:

"His Majesty the King [George V], Prince of Wales and Staff walked through our camp at about 4:15 pm.  The Commanding Officer met the party and walked through with the King, who showed keen interest in the training which the men were undergoing, asking many questions of the C. O..  The battalion was carrying with [its] schedule and as the King walked through the camp, all ranks lined the road and cheered the King lustily."

By early September 1916, the 25th was on the move to the Somme region of France, arriving at Pozières on September 14.  The following morning, the battalion participated in a full-scale attack on nearby Courcelette.  The unit's war diary described its performance on the battlefield:  "The 25th Battalion moved forward as though on General Inspection.  The young soldiers behaving like veterans going through very heavy artillery barrages without a quiver." 

The battalion consolidated the newly captured position over the next two days before being relieved on the night of September 17/18.  Its casualties at Courcelette represent the 25th's most significant losses since landing on the Continent - 5 officers and 31 OR killed; 8 officers and 183 OR wounded; 4 officers and 73 OR missing.  On the morning of September 21, the unit mustered only 21 officers and 549 OR.

Burt Williams (back left) and comrades at East Sandling, England (1917).
Burt was amongst the soldiers wounded in the initial advance at Courcelette.  He was admitted to the 8th Canadian Field Ambulance on September 16, 1916, suffering from shrapnel wounds to his right knee, arm and head.  The following day, Burt was transported to a nearby Casualty Clearing Station and evacuated to No. 1 Canadian General Hospital, Étaples for treatment.

Burt was discharged to CBD Havre on October 6, 1916, but was re-admitted to No. 7 Stationary Hospital on November 4, 1916, complaining of pain in his leg and chest.  He was evacuated to England via the hospital ship Warilda on December 15, 1916 and admitted to 2nd General Hospital, Bristol the following day.  After a further six weeks' treatment, Burt was transferred to the Bearwood Canadian Casualty Hospital, Wokingham.

Documents from Bearwood's medical records provide details of Burt's condition at the time of admission.  A February 22, 1917 report described three small scars across the back of his left thigh.  While staff assessed his present condition as "fit", Burt complained of stiffness in his wounded leg.  The Proceedings of a Medical Board held at month's end concluded:  "Wounds healed - no disability.  Complains of pain in chest - shortness of breath - lungs negative - heart very rapid and irregular - pulse 140."  Despite these disconcerting cardiovascular symptoms, the Report concluded that Burt was "fit for duty".

Burt was discharged from hospital on February 27, 1917 and placed 'on command' to 2nd Canadian Convalescent Depot, Hastings.  He returned to the 25th Battalion's list of available personnel on March 10, 1917 but was destined to remain in England for a considerable period before returning to the front.  On March 31, 1917, he was awarded a 'Good Conduct' stripe in recognition of his devotion to duty.  Six weeks later, Burt was transferred to the 26th Reserve Battalion at Hastings, England.

Burt spent the summer of 1917 in England awaiting orders to return to the front.  On October 15, 1917, he was transferred to the 17th Reserve Battalion, the unit that serviced the 25th Battalion and other Maritime units at the front.  After a lengthy winter and spring in England, Burt finally received orders to return to the Continent on June 1, 1918.  The following day, he landed in France for the second time, remaining at CBD Havre for two weeks before relocating to the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Centre on June 17, 1918. 

Four days later, Burt left to rejoin the 25th Battalion in the field, reaching its camp on June 23, 1918.  Twenty-one months had passed since his departure, leaving one to wonder how many familiar faces remained.  In his absence, the unit had fought with the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge, France (April 1917) and Passchendaele, Belgium (October - November 1917) and was deployed in the Mercatel sector, south of Arras, France, at the time of his return.

The 25th was relieved on the night of June 26th, 1918 and retired to support positions with a trench strength of 21 officers and 625 OR.  Burt was immediately put to work as the battalion provided trench repair parties "building Lewis Gun emplacements, shelters, etc.."  The unit was relieved in support on June 30, 1918 and retired to billets at Bellacourt.  The following day, personnel participated in Canadian Corps sports competitions as part of Dominion Day festivities.

The timing of Burt's return coincided with a scheduled period of rest and training in the Arras area, interspersed with recreational diversions.  The battalion returned to the trenches near Bois de Blangy-Tronville in the evening hours of August 5, 1918.  Its personnel remained in this location for two days before moving to "jumping off" positions near Cachy in preparation for a scheduled attack.  The war diary listed the restrictions enforced prior to battle: "No whistling or singing was allowed and all ranks were forbidden to enter any village.  The importance of secrecy was appreciated by the men, who acted accordingly."

Burt was about to participate in a significant event - the launching of a major Allied offensive that would eventually end the war.  The massive military operation commenced at Amiens in the early hours of August 8, 1918.  The war diary noted that "a thick mist hung over the ground" as the attack opened with an artillery barrage at 4:20 am.  The 5th Brigade moved out at 5:20 am, the 25th in support of an attack led by the 24th and 26th Battalions. 

The Brigade quickly captured its initial objective, a position 1000 yards beyond the village of Guillacourt.  The war diary described the difficulties the soldiers encountered on the battlefield: "The mist and smoke was so thick that it was impossible to proceed other than by compass, [which] was also difficult at times owing to the obscurity of all land marks."  The 25th assumed positions in the newly consolidated line, sustaining significant casualties by day's end: 2 officers killed and 5 wounded; 6 OR killed, 102 wounded and 3 missing.

On August 9, 1918, the 25th received orders to continue the attack.  Burt and his comrades proceeded "over the ridge in front of Caix" at 1:00 pm in the face of "[a] light artillery barrage and strong enemy machine gun fire".  Approximately 250 German soldiers holding the front line were taken prisoner as the advance continued, facing resistance "from large numbers of enemy machine gun posts". 

The battalion succeeded in capturing the village of Vrély with the assistance of several tanks and occupied nearby Méharicourt by 5:00 pm as personnel "dug in" and set about consolidating the line.  The 25th suffered significant casualties in the day's advance: one officer wounded; 6 OR killed and 152 wounded. 

Once again, Burt was amongst the wounded carried to a field ambulance station for treatment.  He was transported to 12th General Hospital, Rouen on August 11, 1918 with shrapnel wounds in his left knee.  Medical records describe his condition and treatment at the time:

"Small puncture wound of left patella, swelling and redness.  Small amount of fluid in joint - operation same day - small f. b. [foreign body] removed from pre-patella bursa.  Bursa opened throughout by longitudinal dimension." 

Three days later, Burt was 'invalided' to England, crossing the Channel aboard the hospital ship Western Australia.  On August 16, 1918, he was admitted to Lord Derby War Hospital, Warrington with a "clean gutter wound over [his] knee".  Burt spent seven weeks at Warrington before being transferred to the Military Convalescent Hospital, Bramshott on October 5, 1918.  A medical report on his condition at the time concluded: "Left knee healed, heart and lungs negative.  No evidence of disability."

Burt was discharged to 2nd Canadian Convalescent Depot, Bramshott on October 11, 1918.  He returned to the 17th Reserve Battalion on November 29, 1918, but the Armistice signed earlier in the month ensured that his days at the front were over.  Burt remained in England throughout the winter of 1918-19.  He was briefly admitted to hospital for treatment of jaundice on March 20, 1919 and discharged after twelve days.  On April 9, 1919, he reported to Military District 6, Rhyl and awaited orders to return to Canada.

Burt boarded SS Cassandra for the journey home on May 2, 1919, arriving in Halifax after a twelve-day passage.  Burt was officially discharged from military service, with official permission to wear three 'wounded stripes, on May 19, 1919 and returned to the family residence in Trenton, NS.

Discharged soldiers found it difficult to find work in the post-war years.  Burt fished at White Head before travelling west on the harvest train with his brother Charlie in 1921.  The trauma of his war experience made it difficult to adjust to civilian life.  Burt suffered from nightmares and on at least one occasion, in the midst of a dream, attempted to choke Charlie, whom he had mistaken for a German soldier.

After returning to Canada, Burt met Leata Jamieson, the daughter of family friends Alex and Cynthia Jamieson of Peas Brook, Guysborough County.  Leata had moved to New Glasgow, where she lived with her sister while working at a local confectionary store.  Their courtship was interrupted by the death of Burt's father, Elisha, who passed away on November 28, 1921.  Burt sold the family home and arranged accommodations for several young siblings before returning to Cole Harbour in search of work.

Burt and Leata eventually married at Trenton on May 29, 1924.  As local work was still scarce, the young couple decided to try their luck in the United States.  Insistent on residing as close as possible to her Nova Scotian family, Leata preferred a move to Maine.  On a casual visit to Detroit, Michigan, however, Burt secured employment at the River Rouge Ford Motor Company plant and Leata reluctantly agreed to settle there.

Burt's initially installed wooden floors on rail cars.  A casual encounter with a stranger at work one day led to a new assignment.  Burt, always one for conversation, described his Nova Scotian roots, familiarity with ships and the sea.  Impressed, the man asked if Burt could drive.  When Burt answered yes, the gentleman requested that he take him somewhere.  When Burt objected that he'd be fired for doing so, the man responded: "No, you won't; you'll be working for me."  Thus began Burt's employment as one of Henry Ford's chauffeurs.

The years that followed produced both friendship and humorous experiences that Burt related whenever opportunity arose.  Mr. Ford often slipped out of the office for drives in the countryside.  On one occasion, police pursued Burt for speeding on the city's outskirts.  Mr. Ford responded, "If you stop, you're fired".  Burt replied that he had no choice.  Upon pulling over, both Burt and Mr. Ford stepped out of the car.  Burt's driving offence was quickly forgotten as Mr. Ford offered to build a new substation at the location, which was a considerable distance from police headquarters.

On another country excursion, Burt stumbled upon fourteen acres of land with an old farmhouse and shed.  Perhaps the rural setting reminded him of his Guysborough roots.  Burt bought the property, built a chicken house and barn, and raised a family of four children - two boys and two girls - with Leata in their new home.

Leata & Burt Williams in their later years.
During the Second World War, Burt assumed responsibility for security at Ford Motor Company's plants, becoming an American citizen on April 26, 1948.  He and Leata also purchased six cottages on Lake Huron at East Tawas, Michigan, living in one during the summer months while renting the others.  Burt spent many an evening beside the campfire enthralling his audience with ghost, pirate and seafaring stories recalled from his Nova Scotian childhood.

Burt retired from Ford Motor Company after thirty-five years' employment.  He and Leata spent the summer months at the cottage in between trips to Nova Scotia to visit relatives.  The couple wintered in Arizona with their daughter Norma, returning to their Michigan home each spring.

In his later years, Burt was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or 'Lou Gehrig's disease').  Perhaps its most difficult impact was the loss of his speech.  Burt died peacefully at his Michigan home on January 21, 1979, his wife of 55 years at his side.  He was laid to rest in Cadillac Memorial Gardens, Westland, Michigan.


Service file of Private Norman Burton Williams, number 415443.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 10378 - 8.  Attestation papers available online.

War Diary of the 25th Battalion CEF.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 4933, Reel T-10735, File: 417.  Available online.

A special 'thank you' to Burt's daughter, Norma Williams Harrelson, Tucson, Arizona, who provided extensive information on Burt's life in addition to family photographs.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Sapper Howard Alphonsus Dort: A 'Tunnelling' Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: December 29, 1891*

Place of Birth: Queensport, Guysborough County

Mother's Name: Marjorie Perio

Father's Name: Elijah Dort

Date of Enlistment: May 2, 1916 at Halifax, NS

Regimental Number: 488326

Rank: Sapper

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force (Canadian Engineers)

Units: Composite Battalion; 23rd Reserve Battalion; 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company

Location of Service: England, France & Belgium

Occupation at Enlistment: Lumberman

Marital Status at Enlistment: Married

Next of Kin: Mrs. Georgina (Sharp) Dort, 36 North Albert St., Amherst, NS (wife)

*: Date of birth as recorded on attestation papers.  Howard's 1914 marriage certificate gives his age as 25, suggesting that his year of birth as 1888 or 1889.  The family is not listed in the 1891, 1901 or 1911 Guysborough County censuses.

Howard Alphonsus Dort was born at Queensport, Guysborough County on December 29, 1891.  Little is known of his early life, other than his parents' names as recorded on his marriage license.  Howard was working as a lumberman in Amherst, NS when he married his first wife, Georgina Sharpe, on November 18, 1914.  Georgina subsequently gave birth to two daughters, Gertie and Annie Amilia, prior to Howard's enlistment with the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Howard Alphonsus Dort with his second wife, Erma (c. 1947).
According to documents in Howard's service file, he was placed on the Halifax Composite Battalion's payroll on September 15, 1915.  Formed from Maritime militia regiments to assume the duties of the Royal Canadian Regiment after its departure for Bermuda in September 1914, the Composite Battalion provided the garrison and guards for the city's various military installations and strategic locations.

Amongst its duties was supervising a small group of prisoners of war held at the Citadel and a Detention Barracks on Melville Island.  In March 1915, increasing numbers of POWs prompted military authorities to establish an Internment Station at Amherst, where two and a half Composite Battalion companies supervised German naval personnel captured at sea and civilians suspected of supporting Canada's 'enemy combatants'.  While his file provides no description of Howard's duties, he may have worked as a guard at the Amherst Internment Station.

Demand for reinforcements at the front increased as the war in Europe entered its second year.  In response, the Composite Battalion provided two 'drafts' for overseas service.  The first group of 100 men departed Halifax in January 1916, followed by a second group of 56 men in June 1916.  Perhaps enticed by appeals for enlistments, Howard attested for overseas service on May 4, 1916.  He was not part of the second group of volunteers, but departed from Halifax aboard the SS Scandinavian with third group on August 8, 1916.

Upon arriving in England ten days later, Howard was taken on strength by the 23rd Reserve Battalion at Dilgate.  The fact that he resided in a coal mining area may have influenced the direction of his military career.  Perhaps Howard had previously worked at a local mining operation.  Whatever the reason, on October 13, 1916 he was assigned to the Canadian Engineers Tunnnelling Brigade at Crowborough, England.

Howard was briefly hospitalized on October 31 for unspecified reasons and spent the month of November awaiting transfer to an overseas unit.  On December 4, 1916, he was selected for service with the 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company and proceeded across the English Channel to the Canadian Base Depot (CBD) at Le Havre the following day.  One week later, Howard reached his new unit in the field.

A strategy that originated in ancient times as a siege warfare tactic, tunnelling was ideally suited for the 'static' trench combat that emerged on the Western Front in 1915.  The proximity of the front lines and geological conditions prompted both sides to construct elaborate tunnels in three sectors: the northern front from Ypres, Belgium to Armentières, France; the central sectors from Armentières to Arras; and the southern sectors of the Somme battlefield.

In February 1915 - the same month during which British engineers detonated the first mine at Hill 60, near Ypres, Belgium - Imperial authorities approved plans to create nine companies dedicated to tunnelling beneath German front lines.  A total of twelve units were in operation by year's end, with an additional unit created in 1916.  Each Company consisted of 5 officers and 270 'sappers', assisted by parties of infantrymen who provided manual labour.

The following year, the Canadian government organized three tunnelling companies for service at the front.  The 1st and 2nd Tunnnelling Companies were recruited in Eastern and Western Canada respectively and arrived at the front in the spring of 1916.  While preference was given to men with mining experience, individuals with no such background also served in tunnelling companies.  By year's end, a total of 30 Allied tunnelling companies - including units from New Zealand and Australia - were operating in France and Belgium.

Unlike its two counterparts, 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company was formed from existing mining sections within the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions.  As these men were already overseas, the unit was the first to serve at the front, deploying at St. Marie-Cappel, France in January 1916.  Its initial assignment involved the construction of mines beneath the German front line near Wulveringhem, Belgium.  Utilizing two existing shafts dug to a depth of 60 feet, the Company completed 900 feet of underground 'galleries' before turning the site over to the 175th Company Royal Engineers and relocating to Hill 60 in March 1916.

Upon reaching its new location, 3rd Tunnelling undertook construction of a deep offensive system called the 'Berlin Sap'.  Commencing in the support trenches, the network of tunnels reached a depth of 100 feet from the surface "a short distance outside [the] enemy front line".  At the time of the Company's arrival, personnel dragged 'spoil' - the earth removed to create the galleries - by hand up a 400-foot incline.  3rd Tunnelling's engineers quickly installed a gearless windlass track and utilized 'trucks' capable of carrying 30 to 40 sacks of earth to remove spoil more efficiently.

The Company also created two offensive galleries, one below the center of Hill 60 and the other beneath a high mound called 'the Caterpillar'.  Upon completion, personnel placed 70,000 pounds (32,00 kilograms) of ammonal explosive beneath the Caterpillar at a depth of 110 feet and a distance of 500 feet from the access shaft.  A second charge of 54,000 (24,200 kilograms) pounds was placed beneath Hill 60 at a depth of 90 feet.  Sappers "loaded and tamped" both charges in October 1916.  During construction, the Company detected an underground German gallery that penetrated to 100 feet inside the Allied front line.

3rd Cdn. Tunnelling Co. officers, May 1918 (Source: War Diary)
By November 1916, Company personnel were badly in need of rest, "owing to trying conditions under which the men were living" - a camp that was "practically in the front line [with] dugouts [that] were small and without much head cover".  Having suffered significant casualties due to the location's proximity to the front, 3rd Tunnelling relinquished the site to the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, which subsequently detonated a 'camouflet' in the German gallery, destroying it before it could be utilized.  The two mines planted by 3rd Canadian Tunnelling beneath German lines lay dormant until detonated the following summer as part of an attack on Messines Ridge.

At the time of Howard's arrival on December 12, 1916, 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company was stationed near Ypres, Belgium, where it was responsible for maintaining front line facilities "from River Lys to Louvre". Throughout the winter months, its personnel worked on three major projects: construction of a machine gun subway system; digging a shaft and gallery at a site called Seaforth Farm; and building an underground Headquarters bunker.  The Company was also responsible for monitoring and maintaining existing underground facilities, particularly repairing damage inflicted by artillery fire.

British, New Zealand and Australian infantry units occupied the trenches maintained by the Company, as the Canadian Corps spent the winter of 1916-17 in the Somme region of France.  Casualties were light throughout Howard's first months, due mainly to a lull in fighting brought on by the weather.  The Company's war diary reported 2 officers and 24 'other ranks' (OR) sick and 4 OR wounded for the month of December.

Galleries dug under No Man's Land also served as 'listening posts' for monitoring German activity.  The Company's January 6, 1917 war diary entry described sappers in one shaft hearing "noises which sounded like [the] ringing of an electric bell.  Sounds have been constantly reported from this post.  It is probably under a deep enemy dugout."

Enemy artillery and trench mortar fire at work locations occurred regularly.  On January 22, 1917, for example, "a slight amount of gas entered galleries from gas shells.  Men were withdrawn and were asked by infantry to hold [positions in the] front line.  Galleries were cleared of gas [that] same night."

Throughout the month, personnel completed a vertical shaft to a depth of 95 feet, in addition to 6' by 3' subways at the machine gun emplacements, where work advanced at an average of 15 feet each day.  The war diary described the difficulties of disguising the spoil brought to the surface at worksites during wintertime:

"It is essential that our own work on the surface here be well screened as snow lying on the ground shows up everything that is not covered.  Constant supervision is necessary in the disposal of bags at night.  We have now filled up most of the holes and old trenches closest to the work."
Once completed, the machine gun emplacement was outfitted with bunks and interior fittings to accommodate the gunners stationed there.

As winter gave way to spring, artillery activity in the Company's sector increased noticeably.  For example, the war diary's March 16, 1917 entry reported: "Enemy shelled [one location] continuously from 9 pm to midnight with trench mortars and gas shells.  No casualties owing to the prompt use of box respirators which were worn by our men for four hours."

By early April, Company personnel had constructed 296 feet of gallery at the bottom of the Seaforth Farm shaft, advancing at a rate of 10 feet per day.  The "heavy ground" required significant reinforcement, prompting the men to install 4' 6" I-beam legs and 9" x 3" timber caps and sills to prevent collapsing.  At mid-month, sappers began work on a deep dugout system large enough to accommodate a Brigade and a Battalion Headquarters. 

By month's end, the gallery at Seaforth Farm extended to almost 600 feet, with the Company "doing a lot of deep dugout work as well as mining".  Casualties remained light as the war diary listed 1 OR killed, 1 wounded, 1 death from natural causes, 1 case of shell shock and 10 sick during April.

On May 11, 1917, the Company was ordered to seal the shaft at "Seaforth Farm [and cease work at the location]… on account of not having sufficient time to complete it before commencement of operations."  Personnel concentrated on an "extensive dugout system at Hill 63 [, which was] progressing favourably."  The war diary described precautions taken there in the event of an underground collapse:  "We are placing an emergency store of timbers, rations and tools so that in case of a cave-in or blow, the men will be able to dig themselves out, and at most keep alive until rescued."

Plan for Ploegsteert Brigade HQ (Source: War Diary, April 1917)
By the end of May, the Company had completed 2650 feet of 6' 6" tunnelling beneath Hill 63, "to be used by the infantry as shelters from shell fire".  The war diary reported: "We are rushing everything to completion…. [We have] already rationed [the facility] for a five-day bombardment and… are ready for the coming offensive."  Casualties remained low as 1 officer was wounded, 1 OR killed, 7 wounded and 10 sick during the month's operations. 

In early June, Allied forces completed preparations for a major attack on Messines Ridge, a strategic area of high ground on the outskirts of Ypres occupied by German troops.  In fact, the 3rd Tunnelling Company had placed two of four large mines beneath enemy lines beneath Hill 60 prior to Howard's arrival.  The Company's war diary described its role in the June 7th assault:

"In conjunction with the attack on Messines Ridge: At 3:10 AM we exploded two mines… in front of Ploegstreet Wood.  All four blows [detonated beneath German lines] were successful, an average of about 40,000 pounds of ammonal in each at [an] average depth of 70 feet." 

Tunnelling companies detonated a total of 19 mines as Allied infantry advanced toward the ridge under cover of artillery fire.  In fighting that lasted more than a week, British, Australian and New Zealand units succeeded in dislodging German forces from the strategic ridge, a success greatly aided by the painstaking work of Allied tunnelling companies.

A summary of the Company's work 'in the line' since its inception, attached to the June 1917 war diary, made the following claim: "The credit of the Hill 60 blows on 7/6/17… rests largely with the 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company, even though the mines were actually sprung by others."  While justifiably proud of its contribution, the report also acknowledged that the detonation of the Messines mines marked the "practical termination of mining on the Second Army front."

With the arrival of summer, Howard and his comrades spent considerable time laboring above ground, primarily on road construction and repair.  Within twelve hours of the Messines mine detonations, personnel began work on the Wulveringhem - Messines Road in anticipation of the Ridge's capture.  Construction of a "double width" road measuring 18 feet proceeded for several days.  Shell craters posed the greatest challenge - one measured 60 feet wide and 25 feet deep, while a second stretched for 40 feet and reached a depth of 20 feet.

Small Company work parties put down two wells for drinking water, as "the enemy poisoned all the water in Messines before he retired with arsenic".  Work was "greatly hindered by [artillery] shelling" as the men toiled in the open for the first time since Howard's arrival.  Month-end casualty statistics reflect the work's precarious nature: 2 officers wounded, 2 OR killed, 23 wounded and 1 case of 'shell shock'.

Throughout the summer months, small of officers and OR received several days' rest on a rotating basis at a camp near Malhove, France.  Personnel completed work on a Headquarters dugout at Messines, constructed dugouts in the newly captured line, and salvaged supplies and material from the old trenches.  The men loaded the recycled items onto lorries, which then transported them to supply dumps.  "If they are careful to work when there is no aerial observation", the war diary commented, "they are immune from shell fire."

In mid-August, Howard and his comrades returned to the perilous task of road repair.  The war diary noted: "Work can only be carried out at night and the early morning on account of the enemy observing and shelling the working parties."  In early September, 3rd Tunnelling relocated to the Ypres-Menin Road area, where it assumed responsibility for constructing and maintaining the sector's dugout systems in addition to local road repair. 

The new location proved just as treacherous as the Company's previous assignment.  On three consecutive days in late September, German artillery shells struck lorries working on road construction, killing 4 and wounding 2 OR.  In total, the war diary reported 3 officers wounded, 6 OR killed and 38 wounded, the Company's "effective strength" standing at 19 officers and 494 OR at month's end.

Roadwork continued into October, as did German artillery fire and mounting casualties.  Crews repaired shell craters "as quickly as possible", but poor road conditions from continual bombardment frequently prevented lorries from transporting the required material to work sites.   At mid-month, the war diary identified another peril: "The enemy are putting over much mustard gas mixed with phosgene.  Our men are continually working in the gas shelled areas."  Several days later, a "bomb [dropped] from [an] enemy aeroplane" killed one and wounded two, while a fourth sapper was gassed.  Altogether, the war diary reported: "Nearly 50 cases of gas are being treated in our camp hospital."

Meanwhile, other sappers were "kept busy cleaning out and repairing entrances and passages damaged by enemy shelling."  As month's end approached, the diary lamented: "A large number of men are reporting sick - largely due to the effects of bad weather and being gassed."  Casualties reached the highest monthly total since Howard's arrival: 1 officer wounded and 1 gassed; 7 OR killed, 19 wounded, 27 gassed and 1 missing.

Map of St, Yves Machine Gun Emplacements (Source: War Diary, April 1917)

On November 1, 1917, as soldiers of the Canadian Corps attacked nearby Passchendaele Ridge, their tunnelling countrymen were building an underground complex at Hooge.  Heavy shelling continued throughout the month as the sappers constructed, repaired and expanded their sector's dugouts.  Casualties for the month were less severe but still well above the levels recorded during Howard's first months at the front: 1 OR killed, 1 officer and 10 OR wounded, and 14 OR gassed.

As winter set in and combat activity declined, military authorities granted small groups of OR two weeks' leave to England.  Having served at the front for twelve months, Howard was amongst those selected for a welcome break, departing on December 7 and rejoining the Company on December 23, 1917.  Two days after his return, personnel enjoyed a lavish Christmas dinner, "which included turkeys given by the New Zealanders and Roast Pork provided by our canteen, with vegetables, fruit, nuts and plum pudding and a canteen of beer or stout or bottle of ginger ale for every man."

Over the next several weeks, Harold and his fellow sappers continued work on underground dugouts, constructing over 900 feet of galleries.  Artillery fire decreased significantly as the year drew to a close: "Enemy very quiet.  No shelling on either side."  December casualty figures - 6 OR wounded, 12 sick - reflect the seasonal lull in combat as both sides settled in for another winter in the trenches.

Two days into the New Year, a dugout where personnel were working suffered a direct hit from a German artillery shell. While there were no casualties, "one man was entombed for nearly an hour."
 Work continued on the underground complex, the men pouring concrete floors in the officers' quarters and constructing new subways to machine gun emplacements, in addition to building six dugouts in other locations.

In February 1918, 3rd Tunnelling began construction of a new underground Corps Headquarters near Westoutre.  Artillery fire gradually increased as the project extended into the following month.  On March 21, 1918, the Company received word of a major German infantry attack at Cambrai, France.  While sappers commenced work on a Royal Flying Corps dugout near Locre, the massive German spring offensive soon impacted their activity.

On March 25, 1918, the Company received orders to "withdraw all men at once from work and mobilize at once ready to move."  That same day, 3rd Tunnelling assumed responsibility for the sector previously serviced by the 2nd Canadian Tunnelling Company.  The war diary commented on the challenge created by the increased workload: " We have now such a large front and [a] comparatively small company that we are only able to carry on a few of the most important jobs.  The remainder is mostly maintenance work."

The following month, the situation worsened as German forces expanded their offensive to areas adjacent to the Belgian border.  On April 9, Company officers received orders to prepare an evacuation plan.  The following day's diary entry contained an alarming tone: "The military situation is intense.  Enemy are advancing on Bailleuil [, France]".  The Company received orders to relocate at 9:30 pm, and immediately set charges to demolish its supply dumps in the event of retreat.

On April 12, the proximity of advancing German infantry dramatically impacted the Company's activity:  "All available men working on the Corps line of trenches just behind Bailleuil and in front of [Saint-Jans-Cappel].  Before we had time to complete three trenches they are being occupied by the Infantry and Machine Gunners who are expecting an attack."  Personnel completed almost one and a quarter miles of front line trench that day, while a small party placed demolition charges beneath the canal bridges at St. Omer, France. 

The following day, trench construction continued as 3rd Tunnelling's men "had only a light screen of Infantry between them and the advancing Germans[;] consequently they had to stand to for over 4 hours and dig the line at the same time."  The men were eventually relieved of infantry duty and returned to their labours, completing 51 fire bays and practically all communication trenches, in addition to one machine gun emplacement, by day's end.

For the next several weeks, personnel hastily constructed networks of trenches behind Allied front lines.  The war diary's April 14, 1918 entry described one consequence of the furious pace of activity:
"Men now digging a line of trenches north west of Méteren.  The French authorities are evacuating civilians from the farms between Méteren and Berthen.  They are leaving their cows, pigs and horses in the fields and on account of the trenches being dug with all speed, this livestock is, unfortunately, being wired into No Man's Land."

The following day, work continued on the Berthen trenches as Allied forces "started to evacuate the Ypres Salient".  All dugout work was discontinued as the Company focused all resources on trench construction, completing "practically a mile of line… on April 17."  The fluid situation led to "the Company… shaking down and becoming more of a mobile unit."

Map of Ploegsteert Charges, Messines Ridge (Source: War Diary, April 1917)
Construction on a new sector of line from Caestre to Hazebrouck, France commenced on April 18.  Throughout this time, personnel were "accommodated wholly by Tents and Tarpaulins… encamped in a green pasture.  [Despite the time of year,] the weather [was] cold with severe snowstorms."  While the majority of personnel focused on trench construction, a small detachment remained at Hooge, Belgium, prepared to detonate charges beneath strategic roads if required.

The Company's April 21 diary entry reflects the surreal absurdity of working in a combat zone: "The town of Caestre was heavily shelled.  We have a good Baseball field in the meadow and the men enjoyed a splendid Baseball Game after their return from work."  In between such recreational diversions, personnel continued construction of the Castre - Hazebrouck line.

When German forces captured Kemmel Hill on the morning of April 26, "the situation in the Ypres Salient… became untenable and the demolition charges [set] under the Menin Road… were successfully blown.  The [Hooge] detachment withdrew in good order and with no casualties."  On the last day of the month, 3rd Tunnelling relocated to a new camp one-half mile north of Sainte-Marie-Cappel, where Harold and his comrades commenced work on a new line of trenches in the direction of Cassel.  Considering the circumstances, April's casualties were surprisingly light: 1 OR killed, 2 wounded and 12 sick.

During the early days of May, both sides engaged in a "heavy artillery duel" in the Kemmel Hill sector near Heuvelland, Belgium, but "no infantry action developed.  The situation remains unchanged."  On May 3, the Company war diary described the implementation of a welcome new routine: "Arrangements have been made for 15 % of the Company to have a rest daily.  The men will be free and able to leave camp for the whole day on Pass."  Meanwhile, work continued on the Sainte-Marie-Cappel - Cassel trenches, the front line nearing completion and efforts focusing on communication and support trenches.

On May 12, 3rd Tunnelling surrendered the newly constructed Sainte-Marie-Cappel line to a Royal Engineers Company as personnel participated in a rare afternoon of sports "much enjoyed by all ranks".  The men rested the following day before establishing a new camp at Godewaersvelde on May 14.  The following day, a large group commenced work on a new section of line at Boechèpe, while another party constructed a new Brigade Headquarters at Borré. 

On May 20, two sappers were killed by artillery fire at Boechèpe and the Company's medical officer was evacuated "due to [a] nervous breakdown".  Work continued at this location throughout the following week, despite the ever-present danger of shelling.  The Company war diary noted a major development on May 27, 1918:

"The enemy attacked at Soissons[, France] and advanced 7 kilometres.  He also attacked east of Ypres and took Ridge Wood and Scottish Wood.  A heavy gas barrage was put down on the French and [the British] 6th Division.  The trenches we are digging were gas shelled and the [Artillery] Batteries nearby had a hot time of it."

The May 29, 1918 war diary provided an update on the German advance:  "Word has been received that the enemy has taken Soissons.  3 OR wounded by enemy shell fire while working on Trenches."  While Allied forces eventually halted the German 'Spring Offensive', Sapper Howard Dort was not present to witness the event - he was one of the three OR wounded by artillery fire that day at Boechèpe.

Howard was admitted to No. 3 Casualty Clearing Station on May 29, 1918, suffering from shrapnel wounds to "both thighs, left foot and right arm".  Four days later, he arrived at No. 8 Stationary Hospital, where staff treated his wounds and evacuated him to England on June 4, 1918.  The following day, Howard was admitted to Graylingwell War Hospital, Chichester, where he spent four months recovering from his injuries.

A Case History report compiled in January 1919 provided details on his condition.  Howard had received an eight-inch wound on his left thigh three inches above the knee joint, and a second, six-inch wound on the thigh's posterior surface.  Surgeons removed a "small piece of shrapnel, subcutaneously placed on [the] inner surface of the thigh" and reported a "large mass of tissue torn away from the outer side of [the] thigh by [the] missile".  The resulting wounds were quite septic, requiring nine subsequent procedures to drain infection.

The exploding shell casing also inflicted major damage to Howard's left foot.  Surgeons amputated the index toe, while the remainder of his foot was badly deformed, "three outer toes being flexed and two raw surfaces between [the] great and third toes".  There was considerable "tenderness and swelling" in this area, in addition to "stiffness" and "lessened flexion" of the toes.

Damage to Howard's "external popliteal [nerve] high up" resulted in a "marked foot drop".  He therefore "[had] to wear [a] boot with [a] dorsal spring."  Doctors also described "marked limitation of movement at [the left] ankle….  No nerve suture was done….  Muscles of leg much atrophied….  Also has impaired function [of the right] Hip to slight degree."

On October 8, 1918, Howard was transferred to Granville Convalescent Special Hospital, Buxton, where he rested for almost two months.  He was discharged to No. 5 Canadian General Hospital, Kirkdale on November 30, 1918 as preparations for his return to Canada commenced.  After a final Christmas season overseas, Howard departed England on December 29, 1918 aboard SS Araguaya.

Map displaying Camp Hill Hospital's location (c. 1918)
Upon arriving at Halifax on January 10, 1919, Howard was admitted to Camp Hill Hospital, where medical staff completed a thorough examination of his condition.  He was assessed as Category E - unfit for further military service - and transferred to the local 'Casualty Company' on March 1, 1919.  Doctors once again summarized his medical condition on July 28, 1919.  Standing 5' 9" and weighing 142 pounds at the time, the report commented:

"Has to wear a spring on dorsum of foot so as to walk.  Has complete loss of all sensation on outer side left leg from external malleolus [ankle bone] to head of fibula."

While 'foreign bodies' had been removed from the upper third of his thigh, Howard experienced "constant pain at [the] hip, [which became] worse when walking."  He was "unable to walk without a cane and cannot walk over one mile without resting, owing to pain in [his] left foot and thigh.  Left foot and leg always cold, skin is white and glossy.  Hair and skin dry."

The report also stated that Howard had been hospitalized in France for seventeen days in October 1917 for treatment of 'trench foot', although his service file contains no record of this occurrence.  He was also gassed in March 1918 but did not report to hospital.

Howard was released from the Casualty Company on August 1, 1919.  Three days later, he was officially discharged from military service and returned home to his wife and young daughters in Amherst.


Howard's wartime injuries made physical labor difficult, thus limiting employment opportunities.  He therefore received a small veteran's pension from the Canadian government, while working at small jobs in the Amherst area.  For a period of time, the family lived in Glace Bay, where son Malcolm recalls Howard describing his work on water and sewer lines below the town's streets.

Howard and Georgina had three more daughters during the post-war years, the first of whom was born in late 1920.  At age 51, Georgina suffered a heart attack and died at Amherst on October 24, 1946.  Howard subsequently married Erma McFarlane, a native of Woodstock, NB, raising a family of one daughter and three sons with his second wife.  The family resided for a time at East Hampton, NB as Howard worked at the Irving Oil refinery in nearby Saint John.  Daughter Joyce recalls her father contracting a serious case of blood poisoning while working at the facility.

An excellent baker, Howard was also handy around the house, on one occasion building a fancy crib for his son Paul.  At times a stern disciplinarian, daughter Joyce recalls that Howard exhibited many of the symptoms associated today with post-traumatic stress disorder, not a surprising development considering the circumstances of his war service.

The family eventually returned to Nova Scotia, taking up residence Oxford.  In his later years, Howard suffered from the effects of coronary disease.  He passed away as a result of cardiac failure on May 13, 1956, and was laid to rest in Pine Grove Cemetery, Oxford, NS.


Service Record of Sapper Howard Alphonsus Dort, number 488326.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150: Accession 1992-93/166, Box 2609 - 52.  Attestation papers available online.

War Diary of 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company, CEF.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5003, Reel T-10850, File: 686.  Available online.

A special thanks to two of Howard's children, Joyce (Dort) Whitton (Calgary, Alta.) and Malcolm 'Mack' Dort (Ottawa, Ontario), who provided a copy of Howard and Erma Dort's wedding picture, along with to information on Howard's life after the war.