This blog post is the fifth in a series, summarizing the information available on the life and First World War service of Guysborough County's 25 No. 2 Construction Battalion enlistments. Readers are asked to notify the blog author if there are any errors, or if a reader has additional information on any of the men profiled in these posts.
13. Private James William Desmond:
According to his military service file, James William Desmond was born at Guysborough, NS, on August 1, 1897. At the time of his enlistment, James identified his grandmother Mrs. Samuel Desmond—Sarah Byard—as his next of kin. Sarah, a daughter of Samuel and Mary Byard, married Samuel Edward Desmond, son of Richard and Amelia Desmond, in a ceremony held at Guysborough on January 7, 1874. Samuel earned his livelihood at sea, his marriage license listing his occupation at the time as “mariner.”
Official documents recorded the family surname in several ways—Desmall (the couple’s marriage certificate), Dissmond (1881 Canadian census), Dismal (1891 Canadian census) and Disney (1901 Canadian census). By 1911, official documents used the modern spelling “Desmond,” which appears throughout James’s service file.
Available census records indicate that Samuel and Sarah Desmond had two children—a son Frank, born on July 3, 1881, and a daughter Gertie, born on June 15, 1885. While James referred to their mother Sarah as his grandmother, available documents fail to prove that either one was James’s parent.
Frank eventually married, although no official record can be located. He settled at North Sydney around 1908 and found work in the local coal mines. Frank died at Harbour View Hospital, North Sydney, on June 6, 1922, at age 42. The cause of death was listed as “broken back,” perhaps the result of a mishap at work, although his death certificate makes no mention of an accident.
Frank’s sister Gertie married James Godfrey Skinner, son of Godfrey and Nancy Ann (Armsworthy) Skinner, at Guysborough on June 8, 1905. According to the couple’s marriage license, Gertie was born at Boston, MA, suggesting that Sarah may have accompanied Samuel on his sailing voyages. At the time of the 1911 census, James and Gertie had two children, James (July 1903) and Sarah Ellen (November 1905). Sadly, Gertie passed away at Guysborough on March 17, 1913, the result of tuberculosis.
On August 18, 1916, James Desmond enlisted with No. 2 Construction Battalion at its Pictou, NS headquarters. He stood five feet four inches and weighed 135 pounds at the time. While James claimed to have been born on August 1, 1897, making him 19 years old at the time, later documents in his service file suggest that he was likely born in 1900.
James departed for overseas with No. 2 Construction Battalion on March 25, 1917, and arrived in the United Kingdom two weeks later. On May 17, he departed for France with a contingent of 525 No. 2 Construction personnel and reported to the Canadian Forestry Corps’ Jura District, near the Swiss border, shortly afterward. For the remainder of the year, James worked alongside CFC personnel, harvesting, processing and shipping timber in the heavily forested area.
In December 1917, James was one of 180 No. 2 Construction men transferred to No. 1 District, Alençon. The majority were men from the Caribbean Islands or southern United States. CFC officials were concerned that the colder winters in the Jura District might negatively impact their health. The group was attached to CFC’s No. 54 Company and worked in the forests of Normandy, where winters were much milder, for the remainder of their time in France.
James was hospitalized on several occasions during his time at Alençon. In late March 1918, he was briefly admitted to No. 10 General Hospital, Rouen, suffering from “debility.” Discharged after three days, he returned to duty, only to be re-admitted for treatment of bronchitis in late April. Discharged to No. 5 Convalescent Depot, Rouen, on May 5, he spent six weeks recuperating before reporting to Canadian Base Depot, Étaples, on June 13.
Two days later, James was admitted to No. 7 Canadian General Hospital, Étaples, for treatment of “ICT [inter-connective tissue wound] left hand.” Released to No. 14 Convalescent Depot one week later, he once again returned to Base Depot, Étaples, on July 6, only to be re-admitted to hospital for treatment of “periostitis”—inflammation of the connective tissue that surrounds bone—on July 15.
Following two weeks’ treatment, James was discharged to a convalescent depot on August 1 and returned to Base Depot one week later. He rejoined his No. 2 Construction mates at Alençon on August 17 and was attached to No. 43 Company, CFC. For reasons that are not explained in his service file, James was assigned to “detention hospital” at Alençon on November 2, and was transferred to a second “detention” facility at Conches four days later.
When the November 11, 1918 Armistice brought fighting to an end, timber harvesting ceased in all CFC districts and harvested logs were processed before personnel dismantled the sawmills. While his service file does not provide a date for James’s hospital discharge, he returned to the United Kingdom with his No. 2 Construction mates on December 14, 1918, and departed for Canada aboard SS Empress of Britain on January 12, 1919. The vessel docked at Halifax, NS, after a nine-day crossing. On February 15, 1919, James was discharged from military service and returned home to Guysborough.
James’s post-war days was short-lived. On August 12, 1919, he passed away suddenly at Guysborough. According to his death record, he was 19 years old at the time of his death and had been ill with tuberculosis for one month. The register identified James’s occupation as “soldier” and mysteriously listed his marital status as “widower.” More perplexing was an entry that identified James’s father as James Ryan, who was also the informant. Available documents do not provide any information on James Ryan, keeping the identity of James Desmond’s parents an unsolved mystery.
14. Private Alexander Elms:
According to his military attestation, Alexander Elms was born at Big Tracadie, Guysborough County, on February 28, 1889. Alex identified his mother, Mary Elms, Tracadie, as his next of kin. Mary Jane Elms was born at Tracadie on October 30, 1870, the daughter of Joseph and Jane Elms, who were married at Tracadie in February 1864.
The 1891 Canadian census identifies Alexander, age two, as the “son” of Joseph Elms, age 64, farmer, and his wife Janie, age 50. Also in the home at the time were three of Joseph and Jane’s children—Henry, age 23; Alex’s mother Mary, age 20; Henrietta, age 19, and Freeman, age 17. One decade later, the 1901 census identifies Henry as the head of a household that included his mother Jane and his siblings Annie and Freeman. Mary and Alex no longer reside there and do not appear elsewhere in 1901 or 1911 Nova Scotia census data.
Alex Elms attested for service with No. 2 Construction Battalion at Halifax, NS, on August 29, 1916. At that time, he gave his address as 131 Albemarle St., Halifax. Alex stood almost five feet 11 inches and weighed 162 pounds at the time, considerably larger in both categories than many of his comrades. Other than a brief hospitalization at Truro in early December 1916 for treatment of “Bell’s paralysis,” Alex spent the winter of 1916 - 17 training and working alongside his fellow No. 2 Construction recruits.
The unit departed for overseas aboard SS Southland on March 25, 1917, and disembarked at Liverpool, UK, two weeks later. Alex was admitted to Canadian Military Hospital, Eastbourne, for treatment of measles on April 21, but was discharged on May 5. Twelve days later, he was part of a large detachment of No. 2 Construction men that departed for France for service with the Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC).
Upon landing on the continent, the group made its way to the Jura District of France, where several CFC companies harvested and processed timber in in a mountainous, forested area adjacent to the Swiss border. In late December 1917, Alex was part of a detachment transferred to No. 1 District, Alençon, approximately 200 kilometres west of Paris, where No. 2 Construction personnel worked in the Normandy forests alongside several CFC companies.
With the exception of 14 days’ leave to the United Kingdom in mid-September 1918, Alex remained at Alençon for the duration of his time in France. Harvesting operations ceased following the signing of the November 11, 1918, Armistice and CFC units processed the remaining logs at their sawmills before ceasing production. On December 14, all No. 2 Construction personnel on the continent were transferred to the United Kingdom and posted to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot, Bramshott. One month later, Alex and his mates departed for Halifax, NS, aboard SS Empress of Britain.
Alex was discharged from military service at Halifax on February 13, 1919. A “Form of Affidavit” signed the following day registered the marriage of Alexander Elms, Big Tracadie, bachelor and “soldier,” age 31, to Bessie Blackburn, Halifax, NS, a 28-year-old spinster. Unfortunately, the document provides no further details on either party’s family background.
According to his discharge papers, Alex returned to Upper Big Tracadie. Nova Scotia marriage records for the year 1920 include a marriage license for Alexander Elms, bachelor, labourer, age 31, born and living at Big Tracadie, son of Joseph Elms and Mary Ann [sic] Elms, and Rosie Jane Ash, age 26 domestic, widow, born at Guysborough, living at Upper Big Tracadie, daughter of Ruben Pelley and Sarah “Sadie” Dorrington. The wedding ceremony took place at Tracadie on February 12, 1920, with Joseph A. Desmond, Upper Big Tracadie, and Mrs. Michael R. Elms, Upper Big Tracadie—the wife of another No. 2 Construction soldier—as witnesses.
At the time of the 1921 Canadian census, 33-year-old Alex was living at Upper Big Tracadie with his wife, 27-year-old Rose Jane, and their young daughter Sophie. Also residing in the household were lodger Freeman Ash, age 27, labourer, and “servant” Gussie Ash, age 19. Tragically, Rosey Jane passed away at West St., Antigonish, on March 16, 1926, after a two-month battle with cancer and was laid to rest at Tracadie. Her husband Alex was informant on her death certificate.
A 1930 Province of Nova Scotia death certificate records the passing of Alexander Elms, Monastery, NS, at Camp Hill Hospital, Halifax, on January 19, 1930. Details on the document indicate that Alex had been at Camp Hill for three months and identified the cause of his passing as “chronic nephritis with heart failure.” Unfortunately, the document does not include his parents’ names, and gives his marital status as “single.”
Curiously, the birth date listed on the form—March 14, 1897—corresponds with that of another No. 2 Construction enlistment, Alexander Benjamin Elms [see below]. As Camp Hill was a military hospital, admission was restricted to veterans. It is quite possible that authorities obtained the birth information from the incorrect service file. Library & Archives Canada’s Canadian Expeditionary Force database identified only two “Alexander Elms” as having served during the First World War, both No. 2 Construction Battalion enlistments. Alex’s death certificate does not provide a place of interment.
15. Private Alexander Benjamin Elms:
Sometime prior to 1913, Benjamin Sr. passed away. On July 16, 1913, Sarah married William Simons, a 60-year-old widower and native of Bermuda, in a ceremony held at Antigonish, NS. While William was residing at Hopewell, Pictou County,at the time of the wedding, the couple eventually relocated to Willow St., Truro, NS, where Sarah’s son Alexander Benjamin enlisted with No. 2 Construction Battalion on August 8, 1916.
Ben stood five feet nine inches and weight 148 pounds at the time of his enlistment. Apparently an exuberant 19-year-old, he was sentenced to one week’s detention for “insubordination” on October 17, 1916. Ben spent the winter of 1916 - 17 at Truro, where he was admitted to hospital on March 17, 1917 for treatment of frostbite. He was discharged to duty on March 25 and immediately joined his comrades aboard SS Southland at Halifax for the journey across the North Atlantic.
The vessel arrived at Liverpool, UK, on April 7 and No. 2’s Construction’s personnel made their way by train to camp in southern England. On May 17, Ben was among the 525 No 2 Construction men who crossed the English Channel to France and made their way to the Jura District of France for service with the Canadian Forestry Corps.
Ben remained at Jura throughout his time in France. Briefly hospitalized for treatment of “PUO”—a “fever of unknown origin”—on June 27, 1918, he was discharged to duty after a three-day stay. Granted leave to the United Kingdom on July 4, he rejoined his comrades in France on July 21 and returned to work alongside CFC personnel.
In mid-October 1918, Ben was hospitalized for treatment of a bacterial infection. Discharged to duty in early November, he returned to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot, Bramshott, UK, with his comrades on December 14, 1918, but was re-admitted to hospital in early January 1919. As a result, he was not among the No. 2 Construction men who returned to Canada aboard SS Empress of Britain in mid-January.
Ben was discharged from hospital in mid-February and returned to Canada aboard SS Lapland several days later. The vessel arrived at Halifax on March 1, 1919. While awaiting his discharge, Ben fell ill and was admitted to hospital on March 20. Medical records indicate that he was suffering from an “attack of [a] severe type” of smallpox at the time. Ben spent three weeks in hospital before being transferred to the Casualty Company on April 8, 1919. Six days later, he was discharged from military service and returned home.
On September 1, 1920, Alexander Benjamin Elms married Margaret Johanna Clark, a 21-year-old spinster and daughter of William Clark and Sarah Williams, in a ceremony held at Upper Big Tracadie. The following year’s Canadian census lists Benjamin Elms, age 31, labourer, living at Big Tracadie with his wife Margaret, age 22. Also in the home are Ben’s niece, Mary B. Elms, age 20, what appears to be her daughter Mary, age one, and Ben’s half-sister Georgia [possibly the “Georgina” from the 1901 census records] Morris, age 30.
No further information is available on Ben’s post-war life. He passed away in 1984 and was laid to rest in Tracadie United Baptist Church Cemetery, where a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone marks his final resting place.