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E-mail: brucefrancismacdonald@gmail.com

Thursday, 31 December 2015

William Lewis "Bill" Jamison: A 42nd Battalion Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: April 27, 1892*

Place of Birth: Queensport, Guysborough County, NS

Mother: Cynthia Feltmate (1870 - 1918)

Father: Alexander Jamison (1859 - 1942)

Occupation: Fisherman

Marital Status: Single

Enlistment: April 4, 1916 at Guysborough, NS

Regimental #: 901984

Rank: Private

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force (Infantry)

Units: 193rd Battalion; 42nd Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada)

Service: England, Belgium & France

Next of Kin: Alexander Jamieson, Queensport, Guysborough County, NS (father)

* Date of birth obtained from the 1911 census. Bill’s attestation papers list his birth year as 1893.
Two of Bill’s younger brothers, Allan Alexander (DOB October 26, 1894) and John Charles “Charlie” (DOB June 19, 1897) enlisted under the Military Service Act at Camp Aldershot, NS in May 1918 and departed for England on August 2. Charlie subsequently served with the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR) in France and Belgium during the war’s final days. Allan was discharged at Halifax on January 2, 1919, while Charlie received his discharge on July 15, 1919.

*****

William Lewis “Bill” Jamison was the third of 10 children born to Alexander and Cynthia (Feltmate) Jamison of Queensport, Guysborough County. The second oldest of the couple’s sons, Bill worked in the local fishery in the years prior to the First World War.

Private William Lewis "Bill" Jamison.
In Nova Scotia’s rural communities, the opportunity to enlist for military service did not arise until the spring of 1916, when several battalions launched campaigns seeking recruits for the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade. Despite a lack of military experience, Bill was among the young men who responded, enlisting with the 193rd Battalion at Guysborough on April 4, 1916. So began a journey of almost three years, replete with remarkable and unexpected experiences.

*****

The 193rd (Blue Feather) Battalion was authorized on January 27, 1916, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel John Stanfield, Member of Parliament for Colchester. Headquartered at Truro, NS, the battalion initially focused on recruitment in the Cumberland and Colchester areas. The following month, however, Lt.-Col. Stanfield received notice of the193rd’s assignment to the newly created Nova Scotia Highland Brigade, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Alison Hart Borden. As a result, its recruitment area expanded to include northeastern Nova Scotia’s remaining four counties—Pictou, Antigonish, Guysborough and Hants.

For the first time since the war’s outbreak, military recruiters visited the province’s smaller towns and communities. Their arrival in Guysborough County in late March and early April aroused considerable interest in such places as Sherbrooke, Canso and Guysborough town. Caught up in the campaign’s excitement, Bill attested for overseas service and commenced training with a small detachment at nearby Guysborough town.

On May 23, 1916, the 193rd Battalion mobilized at Camp Aldershot, NS, where its recruits passed the summer in training, alongside their comrades from the Highland Brigade’s three other units—the 85th (Nova Scotia Highlanders), 185th (Cape Breton Highlanders) and 219th Battalions. The camp’s population rose to the size of a small town, as over 7000 men received instruction in trench warfare, bayonet fighting and bomb throwing and participated in route marches in the summer heat.

With the arrival of autumn, the Brigade’s Officers and “other ranks” (OR) made final preparations for departure. On October 12, Bill was among the 193rd’s 1024 OR who travelled to Halifax by train and boarded SS Olympic for the journey to England. One week later, the vessel sailed into Liverpool Harbour, its passengers disembarking on October 19 and making their way to Witley Camp, Surrey for further training.

Initially slated for service with a 5th Canadian Division scheduled to deploy at the front in the spring of 1917, the Highland Brigade fell victim to the war’s rising human cost. Significant Canadian casualties in two battles in the Somme region of France—Courcelette (September 1916) and Ancre Heights (October - November 1916)—forced military officials to dissolve several of the newly arrived units and assign their personnel to existing units in the field. By year’s end, two of the Brigade’s battalions—the 193rd and 219th—met such a fate.

As a result, Private Bill Jamison was transferred to the 42nd Battalion on December 5, 1916. He crossed the English Channel to France the following day and awaited further orders at the Canadian Base Depot (CBD), Le Havre. On December 30, he departed for the forward area, arriving in the 42nd Battalion’s camp on January 2, 1917.

*****

Authorized on November 7, 1914, the 42nd Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada) was the second of three battalions recruited by the 5th Battalion, Royal Highlanders of Canada, a Montreal militia unit affiliated with Scotland’s famous “Black Watch.” While the term was not part of its official title, soldiers and the public commonly used the expression when referring to the 42nd and its “sister” RHC units, the 13th and 73th Battalions.

The 42nd departed for England on June 10, 1915 and landed in France on October 9. Its personnel made their way northward into Belgium, providing work parties for trench repair in the Ypres Salient for two months before being assigned to the 3rd Canadian Division’s 7th Infantry Brigade. Its soldiers entered the line for their first tour of duty near Dranoutre, Belgium on January 7, 1916, serving alongside their Brigade mates—the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR), Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), and 49th (Edmonton) Battalion—for the war’s duration.

After eight months in Belgium, the 42nd followed the 3rd Division to France’s Somme region, seeing action at Courcelette on September 15 and 16, 1916. The battle inflicted an astounding 436 casualties on its ranks, only 266 soldiers “all ranks” reporting for roll call following the battle. The unit spent the next several months in the Courcelette area, training, providing work parties and serving a regular rotation in the line while gradually rebuilding its ranks.

On January 2, 1917, a group of 250 “other rank” (OR) reinforcements arrived in the 42nd’s camp at Neuville-Saint-Vaast, France. Private Bill Jamison was among the new recruits, along with at least one other Guysborough County native, Kendall Bright of Sherbrooke. The young soldiers had little time to adjust to their circumstances, as the 42nd returned to the trenches five days after their arrival.

Wintertime tours were much less eventful, due largely to cold, damp conditions. Personnel focused mainly on trench construction and repair during Bill’s first tour, the 42nd’s war diary reporting only five wounded during its days in the front line. The battalion completed a regular rotation throughout the remainder of January and February, retiring to support positions or retiring to Brigade Reserve for rest and training when not occupying the front trenches.

Shortly after the Brigade withdrew to Divisional Reserve in early March, Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden observed its soldiers as they trained over “taped trenches.” Upon returning to the line on the night of March 22/23, German forces detonated a mine beneath a 30-yard sector of the 42nd’s trenches at 3:00 a.m.. Its soldiers managed to hold the resulting crater despite heavy enemy fire, suffering only light casualties under difficult circumstances as they rebuilt trenches and saps in the gap created by the explosion.

After a brief break from the line in early April, two Companies returned to the forward area on the night of April 5/6 as the Canadian Corps prepared for its attack on Vimy Ridge. Two nights later, the remaining Companies joined their comrades in the line, the unit’s Officers “getting platoons into their proper places for moving into their assembly trenches and [distributing]… material to be carried over with the attacking waves. By Sunday midnight [April 8], final preparations were completed, and the men were waiting [sic] the order to move out.”

Bill was among the 42nd’s 722 soldiers “all ranks” who moved into the assembly trenches at 4:00 a.m. April 9, PPCLI to their right and the 102nd Battalion (Northern British Columbia) to their left. All were in position within 45 minutes and awaited the opening barrage, scheduled for 5:30 a.m.. The unit moved forward as planned, following a “creeping [artillery] barrage” across No Man’s Land and up the ridge toward the German front line. According to the unit’s war diary, conditions were far from ideal: “Visibility was very low, [and] the men had to advance in drizzling rain, changing to sleet.”

While the unit captured its initial objective by 8:15 a.m., the 102nd failed to keep pace on its left flank, subjecting the 42nd to “sniping and rifle fire” from an elevated position known as Hill 145. By 10:10 a.m., Officers estimated initial casualties at 20 “all ranks” and reported difficulty evacuating the wounded: “After three different calls for stretchers none have arrived yet.”

Commanders delayed plans to launch an attack on points of resistance along the ridge, subjecting the 42nd’s ranks to heavy shelling as they “dug in.” Fortunately, the war diary reported only one “direct hit” on the battalion’s position as its men settled in for the night. The following morning, 25 wounded soldiers still awaited evacuation due to a “scarcity of stretchers.” By mid-day, the unit received confirmation that Hill 145 had been secured as its soldiers continued to consolidate the newly captured position.

At 5:45 a.m. April 11, “what was left” of the 42nd’s “D” Company was relieved in the line, the remaining Companies withdrawing as the day progressed. As personnel retired to billets at Villers au Bois, the war diary summarized its losses—five Officers killed, died of wounds or wounded; 291 OR killed or wounded.

Sometime during the first day’s fighting at Vimy Ridge, Bill received a severe shrapnel wound and may have been amongst the soldiers awaiting evacuation at day’s end. He was admitted to No. 1 Canadian Field Ambulance (CFA) on April 11, suffering from a “gaping wound [to his] r. [right] buttock.” Evacuated hours later to No. 2 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), Bill’s “wound laid freely open, extending over whole of [his] R. buttock and round to his pubis. Clean.” Medical staff also noted that he was suffering from “trench feet,” although noting that there were “no wounds” from the condition.

Surgeons at No. 2 CCS performed initial surgery on Bill’s wound and evacuated him to No. 2 Canadian General Hospital, Boulogne on April 13. After one week’s rest, Bill crossed the English Channel aboard the hospital ship Princess Elizabeth and was admitted to Bradford War Hospital the following day. On May 7, Bradford surgeons performed an “ether operation” in which they “scraped… and treated… [a] large raw surface 9 “ x 6 “ at back of rt. buttock…. Raw edges trimmed, undercut a little, and stitched together with deep silk.”

Bill spent the next six weeks recuperating from his wound and surgeries. During his time at Bradford, he was officially posted to No. 1 Quebec Regimental Depot until fit for duty. On June 23, Bill was discharged to the Canadian Convalescent Hospital, Woodcote Park, Epsom, where he received physical therapy and massage. He remained there until August 3, at which time he was attached to No. 3 Canadian Corps Depot (CCD), Shoreham.

Transferred to No. 2 CCD Seaford in mid-October, Bill returned to regular duty with the 20th Reserve Battalion on November 2. He formally returned to the 42nd’s ranks on January 26, 1918 and crossed the English Channel to the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Centre (CCRC) at Le Havre, France three days later. On March 9—exactly eleven months after being wounded at Vimy Ridge—Bill departed CCRC for the forward area, arriving in the 42nd’s camp one week later.

At the time of Bill’s return, the 42nd was completing its first tour of 1918 in trenches near Vimy, France. The unit “stood to” on March 28 as German forces launched “Operation Michael—the much-anticipated “spring offensive” intended to bring the war to a conclusion—to the south of its position, attacking British forces from Oppy to the Scarpe River. The 42nd’s light casualties for the month—one Officer wounded (gas), one OR killed and 16 wounded—indicate its sector’s limited activity.

The 42nd continued to serve in the Vimy area throughout the month of April, a rotation that lasted a total of 55 days. Its war diary once again reported light casualties—two Officers wounded, five OR killed, two OR died of wounds, 25 wounded to hospital, six wounded but remaining at duty, and 10 OR missing—as “the longest continuous tour which the Battalion had ever done in the front line” came to an end.

Personnel spent the months of May and June in camp near St. Hilaire, the soldiers training in the morning and participating in sports and recreational activities for the remainder of the day. The 42nd returned to the line at Neuville-Vitasse on the night of June 28/29, once again experiencing little action in its sector. The unit relocated to Dury, south of Amiens, at the end of July, its furthest point south since landing in France. Its war diary described the local response to its arrival: “Much interest was displayed by the French troops and civilians in the Highland dress of the Battalion.”

Private Bill Jamison wearing 193rd Battalion uniform.
Total casualties continued to be light, the war diary reporting only two OR killed, one Officer and 10 OR wounded in its end-of-month summary. However, the unit’s good fortune would soon end, as Allied Commanders prepared to launch a massive counter-attack on German forces, a plan in which the Canadian Corps would play a prominent role.

The 42nd suffered a major blow on August 3, prior to the offensive’s launch, when its Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Bartlett McLennan, DSO, was “killed [by German shell fire] while making a personal reconnaissance of the country over which the Battalion was to attack some days later.” McLennan had joined the unit as a Junior Major upon its formation and served with the unit since that time. Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie, Canadian Corps Commander, attended his funeral the following day, along with the battalion’s pipe band and a firing part of 40 OR.

Bill and his comrades spent the following days preparing for the offensive’s commencement, scheduled to take place at Amiens in early August. Personnel moved to Gentelles Wood on the night of August 7/8, “the tremendous amount of troops, transport, tanks, guns and other machinery of war which was passed on the road up making… progress very slow.”

The attack commenced the following morning along a 20-mile front, the Canadian Corps occupying a central position and given the task of capturing a section of the main rail line between Amiens and Paris. With French troops to their right and the Australian Corps to their left, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions occupied forward positions, the 4th Division held in reserve and slated to pass through the 3rd Division’s line as the attack progressed.

The 42nd was one of three Brigade battalions scheduled to participate in the initial assault, to be launched without preliminary artillery bombardment to preserve the element of surprise. At precisely 4:20 a.m. August 8, the 3rd Division’s 9th Brigade launched the attack, the 42nd and its Brigade mates assuming their “jumping off” positions at 6:00 a.m. and moving out at 8:20 a.m., despite a “heavy mist which hung over everything.”

Its soldiers reached their objective two hours later, the 4th Division passing through their lines as scheduled at 2:00 p.m.. Casualties were light, considering the scale of the assault—12 OR killed, two OR died of wounds, two Officers and 29 OR wounded in the morning attack. Bill and his comrades rested in nearby Claude Wood on the following day, moving forward to the newly-captured village of Folies that evening. German aerial bombardment killed three and wounded 12 OR on August 10, with the 42nd returning to the newly established front line at Parvillers the following day, occupying trenches that were part of the British line prior to the German Spring Offensive.

On the night of August 13/14, the battalion participated in a 10-hour assault on the German line, its war diary describing “hand to hand fighting during which the attack was many times pressed home with the bayonet.” Personnel retired on the night of August 15/16, having sustained significant losses at Amiens—two Officers and 30 OR killed, 10 OR died of wounds, five Officers and 101 OR wounded.

Two days later, French Premier George Clemenceau and British Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, reviewed the 7th Brigade’s troops and acknowledged their key role in the fighting at Amiens and Parvillers. The 42nd relocated to Manin on August 23, its soldiers scheduled to re-enter the line at Arras for their second major engagement of the month. At 3:00 a.m. August 26, the 42nd assumed reserve positions prior to the attack, moving forward at 10:00 a.m.. The RCR’s inability to keep pace hindered the unit’s advance as heavy German shelling in late afternoon inflicted several casualties.

The attack continued the following day, the 42nd occupying positions in the newly established line on the night of August 27/28 and securing a salient that jutted for 500 yards into German lines. Heavy fighting took place later in the day as personnel once again moved forward, capturing a sector of enemy trench. Upon relief later that night, personnel retired to billets near Arras.

Their progress in previous days was remarkable, when compared to months of stalemate—the 7th Brigade had advanced 9,000 yards along a 3,000 yard front that gradually expanded to 7,000 yards over four days, crossing five German defensive lines and capturing six French villages. The 42nd’s war diary reported three Officers and 60 OR killed, 12 OR died of wounds, 12 Officers and 225 OR wounded in the fighting at Arras.

Bill and had endured two major engagements in less than a month, but there was little time to rest and recover, as the 42nd returned to the line west of Cognicourt on the night of September 5/6. The 42nd relocated to positions near Canal du Nord, a strategic waterway, three days later. The men dug in along a reverse slope in clear view of the enemy, rendering daytime movement impossible. In fact, German forces attacked their line twice on September 10, personnel repelling both assaults.

The 42nd was relieved on the night of September 11/12 and spent the following week in Divisional Reserve, its soldiers training and resting after a challenging month in the line. A group of 78 much-needed reinforcements arrived in camp during the week, the battalion relocating to Danville on September 19 for a second week of training. One week later, the unit returned to the forward area, in preparation for the attack on Canal du Nord.

The assault commenced at 5:20 a.m. September 27, the 3rd Division in support as the remaining three Canadian Divisions advanced on the German line north of Moeuvres. The 7th Brigade was the first 3rd Division unit sent forward following the initial attack, the 42nd once gain in reserve as its three “sister” battalions entered the fray. Bill and his mates crossed the canal via an infantry bridge in early afternoon, spending the night in the open amidst a heavy gas shell bombardment as “the men… [were] compelled to sleep with their Box Respirators adjusted.”

At 7:00 a.m. the following day, the 42nd’s soldiers assumed positions behind a railway embankment east of Bourlon Wood. The battalion once again remained in reserve as the 7th Brigade’s remaining units advanced, encountering “heavy opposition.” The soldiers spent the day sheltered behind the embankment, receiving orders to capture the railway embankment and establish a bridgehead on the St. Quentin Canal the following day.

The 42nd’s war diary described the situation at daybreak on September 29: “The morning was fine with a heavy ground mist which prevented any visibility…. It was feared that direction might be difficult to maintain.” The attack nevertheless proceeded as scheduled, slowed by “a withering fire from Machine Guns at point blank range… [that] caused very severe casualties.”

In the face of fierce resistance, four groups of soldiers managed to cross the Douai-Cambrai Road and establish a post. Despite a supporting artillery bombardment at mid-day, the battalion was unable to advance further, its soldiers digging in behind whatever shelter was available. The assault resumed the following morning, once again progressing slowly in the face of significant fire. The unit finally captured the high ground near the embankment on October 1, retiring from the line later that night.

The 42nd’s casualties at Canal du Nord were considerable—six Officers and 55 OR killed, 11 Officers and 221 OR wounded. Bill, however, once again emerged unscathed, although Sherbrooke native Kendall Bright was amongst the wounded evacuated for treatment, after exposure to poison gas. The unit’s remaining personnel camped at nearby QuĆ©ant, training and resting in the aftermath of their third major engagement in two months.

HRH Edward, Prince of Wales, paid an informal visit to the 42nd’s camp on October 17, while the following day 20 OR received one week’s leave, “a considerable increase on the recent allotment which the Battalion had been receiving.” Three days later, the 7th Brigade moved to the Auberchicourt area, the 42nd entering billets at Somain. On October 25, the unit received word that one of its OR, Private Thomas Dineson, a native of Rungsted, Denmark, had received the Victoria Cross “for extreme gallantry in action at Parvillers on August 11/12.”

The following day, Bill departed the 42nd’s camp to receive instruction in Lewis Gun operation, rejoining the unit on November 17. During his absence, the 42nd trained at Harnon and QuiĆ©vrechain, France for ten days, crossing the frontier into Belgium on November 8 and moving onto Jemappes the following day. Its war diary recorded the response to their arrival in Belgium: “Throughout the whole march the streets were lined with cheering civilians who gave the Battalion a tremendous reception.”

On November 10, the 42nd relieved PPCLI in the front lines and “commenced to press the attack on Mons [Belgium] from the Western and Southern outskirts[, penetrating] the city in the neighbourhood of the Railway Station at 0100 Hours on the 11th.” Afternoon shelling of its transport lines inflicted “most unfortunate casualties,” an artillery shell striking the battalion farrier’s shop, killing two and wounding 10, four of whom later died of wounds.

At 9:00 a.m. November 11, the 42nd’s Officers received notice of the 11:00 a.m. Armistice. After receiving the keys to the city from the Mayor in a ceremony held in Grand Place as the ceasefire took effect, three of the unit’s Companies remained at outposts along the forward line of advance. Upon relief late in the day, all personnel retired to billets at Caserne d’Infantrie, Mons.

The 42nd remained in the Belgian city, Bill rejoining their ranks on November 17. The soldiers participated in daily parades and followed a regular training syllabus that included route marches, although the war diary noted: “Steel helmets and small Box Respirators were packed and turned in to Quarter Master’s stores.” The unit’s football team also played a series of matches against other units, winning all three contests.

The battalion billeted at Mons into the following month, its soldiers lining both sides of Grand Place on December 5 as HM King George V passed through the city, accompanied by Edward, Prince of Wales, and Prince Albert, who later assumed the throne as King George VI. The soldiers attended parades and educational classes each morning, while participating in recreational activities in the afternoon and evening.

Bill and his comrades departed Mons on December 11, marching to billets at Nivelles for two days before moving onto Genval, Belgium on December 15. The war diary mentioned one significant location along its route: “On the march up we passed through the historic battlefield of Waterloo.” In subsequent days, soldiers received two-day passes to Brussels in small groups.

Bill was more fortunate than his comrades, receiving a 14-day leave to the United Kingdom on December 14. Meanwhile, the battalion celebrated Christmas with dinner in two local halls, its Quarter Master purchasing sufficient turkey to feed the entire unit.

On December 27, the 42nd proceeded westward on foot, finally encamping at Nechin on January 3, 1919. Bill rejoined his comrades the following day, as classes and training resumed and pre-discharge medical examinations commenced. Officers also began preparations for the unit’s return to England. Personnel departed Belgium by train on February 3, spending an uncomfortable 48 hours in box cars before disembarking at Le Havre.

Private Bill Jamison wearing 42nd Battalion Glengarry.
The 42nd bid adieu to France on February 7, crossing the English Channel and landing at Weymouth the following morning. The soldiers then travelled by train to Bramshott, arriving in camp late in the day. Formal medical boarding examinations commenced two days later and continued throughout the month. On March 1, the battalion entrained for Liverpool and boarded RMS Adriatic for the voyage home.

Bill disembarked at Halifax eight days later and awaited final processing. His medical report described a “transverse scar” eight inches long on his right buttock, concluding that he was “otherwise healthy.” Upon receiving his discharge on March 27, Bill returned home to Queensport. In the years subsequent to the war, he received British War and Victory medals in recognition of his overseas service.

*****

Bill quickly settled into civilian life, marrying Reta Rhynold, also a native of Queensport, on October 13, 1919 The couple subsequently raised a family of six children, three boys and three girls. “Soldier Bill”, as he was locally known, fished on a smack with his older brother, Aldrige, and worked as keeper of the Queensport Light. Bill also maintained a hobby farm, working in the woods and snaring rabbits each winter.

A very particular man, Bill maintained a neat and tidy appearance throughout his adult years. In later years, declining health required admission to a nursing home at Hazel Hill. Bill also developed a toe infection, a problem attributed to his “trench foot” while in France, and underwent a partial leg amputation. After a period of time in hospital at Canso, Bill Jamison passed away on June 27, 1973 and was laid to rest in St. James Church Cemetery, Half Way Cove.

*****

Sources:
 
Service file of Private William Lewis Jamison, number 901984. Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 4787 - 6. Attestation papers available online.

War Diary of the 42nd Infantry Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada), CEF. Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Colume 4938, Reels T-10743 & 10744, File: 433. Available online.

Harry's 85th Diary

I'm pleased to announce the launch of a new blog, Harry's 85th Diary, containing the personal entries of Henry Harris "Harry" Murray. A native of Stellarton, NS, Harry enlisted with the 85th Battalion on September 29, 1915. At the time, he was a member of the renowned Stellarton Band, which had affiliated with the 78th Regiment Pictou Highlanders, a local militia unit, in 1905.

The entire band, less two members, joined the 85th's ranks and formed the nucleus of its bank. Harry kept a diary of his daily activities from January 1 to March 22, 1916. The entries provide a glimpse into a soldier's training experiences prior to departing for England. It also outlines the band's activities, particularly its participation in a March 1916 recruiting tour of the mainland.

85th Battalion Band, Halifax Armouries (no date)
One Guysborough County native, Truman Bishop Davidson of Isaac's Harbour, 223064,was a member of the 85th's illustrious band. Truman is among the 72 individuals profiled in my recent book, First World War Honour Roll of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, Volume I: 1915 - 1917. He died of sickness at Rouen, France on August 1, 1917.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

First World War Honour Roll of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, Volume I: 1915 - 1917

I'm pleased to announce that First World War Honour Roll of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, Volume I: 1915 - 1917 is now available.
Copies can be purchased online at Bantry Publishing, and are also available at the following locations:

1. Canso Co-op, 111 Water St., Canso, NS

2. Days Gone By Bakery, 143 Main St., Guysborough, NS

3. Sherbrooke Public Library, 11 Main St., Sherbrooke, NS

4. Celtic Sisters Gift Shop, 13138 - 104 Trans-Canada Highway, Auld's Cove, NS

5. Downtown Book Exchange, 168 Provost St., New Glasgow, NS

6. The Made In Nova Scotia Store, 324b Main St., Antigonish, NS

7. Antigonish 5 to $1.00 Store, 245 Main St., Antigonish, NS

8.Antigonish Heritage Museum, 20 East Main St., Antigonish, NS

Contact bruce@bantrypublishing.ca for further information.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Research & Blog Update

During the past month, I have concentrated on final edits to the manuscript for my upcoming book, First World War Honour Roll of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, Volume I: 1915 - 1917. As a result of the time required to complete preparations for publication, I was not able to research and write a soldier’s story for the blog. I expect that the situation will be much the same next month.

At present, I anticipate submitting a manuscript for publication sometime in October 2015, and expect to have a final product available for purchase in mid- to late November 2015. For further updates on the book’s progress and information on purchasing a copy once it is available, please visit Bantry Publishing’s website. I will also post an update on this blog, once the book has been completed.

After almost four years, it is becoming increasingly challenging to find suitable individuals to profile. Many of Guysborough’s veterans served with the same battalions and I do not want the stories to become repetitive. I can therefore no longer commit to writing a new story each month, and plan to research and post stories as opportunities arise. There are several possibilities that require additional research and information. I hope to post a new story to the blog before year’s end, at the latest.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Private John Angus McNeil - A Gallipoli Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: October 15, 1877*

Place of Birth: Malignant Cove, Antigonish County, NS

Mother: Sarah Grant

Father: Donald “Brown” McNeil

Occupation: Sawmill Hand

Marital Status: Single

Enlistment: October 20, 1914 at Wellington, North Island, New Zealand

Regimental #: 8/1304

Rank: Private

Force: Australia & New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC)

Unit: Otago Regiment, 1st New Zealand Expeditionary Force

Service: Egypt & Turkey

Next of Kin: Sarah McNeil, Malignant Cove, Antigonish County, NS (mother)

* John Angus’s birth date is based upon 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911 Canadian census data. His New Zealand service file lists his date of birth as October 20, 1880.

Author's Note: While John Angus McNeil has no connection to Guysborough County, I am posting his story on this blog for two reasons. No Canadian Expeditionary Force units served at Gallipoli, making John Angus's military experience quite unique. John Angus was also the first Antigonish County native to die from injuries sustained in combat during the First World War.

*****


John Angus McNeil was the second of six children—four sons and two daughters— born to Donald “Brown” and Sarah (Grant) McNeil of Malignant Cove, Antigonish County, NS. Donald passed away around 1886 and the couple’s two youngest children—daughters Catherine and Isabelle—died before 1891, leaving Sarah to care for four young boys.

The McNeil family home, Malignant Cove, NS.
While Sarah’s eldest son, John Joseph, remained at Malignant Cove, the three others ventured westward sometime before 1911. John Angus worked as a foreman in a Vancouver Island logging camp, while his youngest brother, William Bernard—known to family as “Willie B.”—was employed as a labourer in the same camp. Alexander, the third sibling, toiled as a logger on nearby Thurlow Island.

Sometime after 1911, John Angus made his way to New Zealand, where he hoped to establish a sheep farm. In the meantime, he worked as a sawmill hand for a Mr. H. Moss at Hekein, Otago Province, South Island.

Shortly after the outbreak of war in Europe, two brothers enlisted for military service. Willie B. led the way, attesting with the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) at Camp Valcartier, QC on September 23, 1914. Two days later, in distant New Zealand, John Angus completed his military medical examination. On October 20, he formally attested for overseas service with the Otago Infantry Reinforcements at Trentham, Upper Hut, Wellington Region, North Island, New Zealand.

Alexander eventually followed his brothers into uniform, joining the 102nd (Comox-Atlin) Battalion at Vancouver, BC on March 13, 1916. None of the McNeil boys had prior military experience. In the months subsequent to their enlistment, they participated in some of the war’s bloodiest battles. At war’s end, only two returned home to Canada.

*****

On August 7, 1914—three days after Great Britain declared war on Germany—the government of New Zealand offered to raise and equip an Expeditionary Force. Military personnel immediately set about recruiting an Infantry Brigade, consisting of four 1000-soldier battalions.

In keeping with the country’s political structure, authorities raised one battalion from each of the country’s four provinces—Auckland, Canterbury, Otago and Wellington. Each unit, in turn, consisted of four Companies, named after territorial regiments in existence at the time.

The New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) mobilized at Tahuna Park, Dunedin, South Island. More than 60 % of its recruits had no prior military experience and the time frame for departure did not allow for a comprehensive training program. Ships transporting the first group of recruits—360 Officers and 8067 “other ranks” (OR)— departed New Zealand on October 16, arriving at Hobart, Australia five days later.

The vessels moved onto Albany, Western Australia, where they connected with the Australian Expeditionary Force (AEF) on October 28. The two Forces departed for Europe on November 1, stopping for supplies at Colombo, Sri Lanka after two weeks at sea. The convoy departed on November 17, arriving at Aden, Yemen eight days later and proceeding through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal.

While British authorities initially intended to have the soldiers train and winter in England, climate considerations resulted in an alternative plan, which was conveyed to the convoy on November 28. The two Expeditionary Forces received orders to disembark in Egypt, where they would train until called to service on Europe’s Western Front. The convoy sailed into Alexandria, Egypt’s harbour on December 2, its passengers disembarking and establishing camps on the outskirts of Cairo.

Meanwhile, military authorities in New Zealand set about recruiting reinforcements for the units already on their way to Europe. John Angus McNeil was amongst the men who volunteered for service with this second group, which trained at Trentham, Upper Hut, for almost three months.
The second New Zealand contingent departed on December 14 aboard HM New Zealand Transport No. 14 and made its way to the Middle East. Its 34 Officers and 1189 OR—a group that included Private John Angus McNeil—disembarked at Alexandria, Egypt on January 29, 1915 and marched to the New Zealand camp at Zeitoun, on the outskirts of Cairo.

Several significant developments took place during John Angus’s voyage to Egypt. On December 18, 1914—two weeks after the arrival of the initial New Zealand and Australian Expeditionary Forces—Great Britain formally proclaimed Egypt a British Protectorate, creating the likelihood of a Turkish military response. Meanwhile, the inexperienced soldiers feverishly prepared for combat on the Western Front, struggling to cope with desert conditions that were “warm by day and cold by night.”

In January 1915, British military authorities formally announced the formation of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), consisting of two divisions. The 1st Division was entirely Australian in composition, containing the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Australian Infantry Brigades. The 2nd Division was a combination of New Zealand and Australian units, consisting of the New Zealand Infantry Brigade—including John Angus’ Otago Regiment—the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, Australian 1st Light Horse Brigade and the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade.

Before month’s end, ANZAC received its first assignment, relocating several units to the Suez Canal in support of Indian troops defending the strategic waterway. Turkish forces launched a series of attacks along the canal on February 3 and 4, but were forced to retreat after the defenders held the line. Otago Regiment was amongst the soldiers assigned to reserve positions, but none of its personnel were involved in the fighting.

A third group of New Zealand reinforcements—62 Officers and 2147 OR—arrived at Suez on March 26. The following day, the entire New Zealand & Australian Division paraded for inspection, a force of almost 12,000 men (approximately 450 Officers and 11,400 OR). John Angus and his comrades continued to train in the intense heat, completing route marches while carrying their 70-pound packs while awaiting orders to move out.

Meanwhile, British military officials formulated plans for ANZAC’s deployment. Rather than assigning its units to the European theatre’s Western Front, authorities decided to strike a blow against the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish government controlled the Dardanelle and Bosporus Straits, a strategic water passage connecting the Aegean and Black Seas and a vital route for shipping supplies to Russia, Britain and France’s ally on the Eastern Front.

The Ottoman Turks entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary on October 31, 1914. Their considerable military forces represented another foe for the Russians, already struggling to cope with Austro-Hungarian and German units. Turkish involvement also denied Britain and France access to the Black Sea.

In late March 1915, ANZAC commanders received orders to prepare for departure as part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF), a 50,000-strong contingent created to undertake “operations against Turkey.” Its ranks also included the 29th British Division, British and French naval forces.

The MEF’s target was the Gallipoli Peninsula, located on the northern side of the Dardanelles’ western entrance. Allied control of the area would provide a base from which to seize control of the entire water passage and possibly end Turkey’s involvement in the war. In the short term, the action would force Turkey to defend its own territory, reducing the number of troops available for deployment on the Eastern Front.

ANZAC troops entrained for Alexandria on April 9, the first vessels departing the following day for the MEF’s designated assembly point at Mudros, on the island of Lemnos, Greece. John Angus and his Otago Regiment comrades made the journey aboard the Annaberg, one of several Turkish vessels anchored in Alexandria Harbour and seized by Britain when ANZAC units landed in Egypt.

Otago’s officers described the Annaberg’s condition as “filthy beyond description, and abominably louse-ridden.” The soldiers endured three days on board before anchoring in Mudros Harbour, where military commanders laid out their plan—several “simultaneous attacks” on the Gallipoli Peninsula, design to “mislead” Turkish forces.

The peninsula contains three major geographic features. Sari Bair, a mountain 970 feet in height, overlooked Suvla Bay, while 600-foot Achi Baba dominates Cape Helles, the peninsula’s southern tip. The Kilid Bahr plateau, 700 feet above sea level, stretches between the two points.

ANZAC forces received instructions to land at Suvla Bay, approximately nine miles from the peninsula’s southern tip, with the goal of capturing Sari Bair. The action was designed to distract Turkish forces on the peninsula’s tip by “threatening their rear and their communications.” The Australian Division would lead the way ashore, followed by the Australia-New Zealand Division.

Meanwhile, British and French forces would simultaneously attack Achi Baba. Once each secured its objective, the groups would advance toward one other, securing the Kilid Bahr Plateau. An Anglo-French naval bombardment would support the entire operation. If successful, Allied forces would control the peninsula’s entire tip and with it a significant portion of the Dardanelles.

Given the scale of the operation, Turkish forces had “sufficient warning” and “ample time” to implement an “elaborate and effective system of defence.” In fact, an Anglo-French naval squadron shelled the entrance to the Straits in late February and early March, destroying several fortifications. The Turks successfully blocked a March 18 attempt to “force the Narrows”, destroying five French and British vessels in the process.

The Gallipoli Peninsula’s geography also posed considerable challenges for an invading force. Steep cliffs with little beach frontage dominate its shoreline, making the task of landing troops very difficult.

Upon arriving at Mudros, MEF soldiers rehearsed disembarkation over the vessels’ sides and conducted regular training and route marches ashore, while living on board ship. After almost two weeks of preparations, the MEF departed Mudros on April 24. In the early hours of April 25, Australian forces came ashore at Gabe Tepe, south of Suvla Bay, a location known today as Anzac Cove.

As daylight broke, transports carried the New Zealanders past the peninsula’s extremities to the waters off Gaba Tepe. John Angus and his mates clambered over the side onto destroyers that conveyed them closer to shore, where barges towed by steam picket boats carried them into shallow waters. The smaller vessels maneuvered to within 300 yards of the landing point, the soldiers jumping into the sea and scrambling ashore as the barges ran aground.

The first New Zealand soldiers landed at 9:30 a.m. April 25, the Otago Battalion coming ashore at 2:30 p.m. amidst artillery fire that was “continuous[,]… becoming increasingly heavy” throughout the afternoon. All personnel—25 Officers and 912 OR—were ashore within 90 minutes, the unit’s companies forming up “under the shelter of the steep ledges which overhung the beach.” The precarious situation required the deployment of all available reinforcements in the firing line immediately upon landing.

Map displaying April 25, 1915 MEF landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Despite suffering considerable casualties, Otago Regiment assumed positions on nearby Plugge’s Plateau. Wounded soldiers were evacuated no further than the beach, as Turkish fire prevented access to offshore vessels. Personnel held the line into the following day, despite ferocious enemy fire and lack of artillery support. Meanwhile, artillery units landed the New Zealanders’ howitzers—the only guns deployable ashore—only with considerable effort.

On April 27, Turkish forces launched repeated attacks on the invading forces, in an effort to push them into the sea. ANZAC units successfully repelled all assaults, while working parties behind the line established field dressing stations, supply and ammunition dumps and constructed communication trenches and dugouts along the ridge’s steep slopes. By month’s end, the invading force was well established, but limited manpower prevented further progress inland.

While Otago Regiment played a minimal role in the early days’ fighting, the unit nevertheless reported 18 killed and 60 wounded by month’s end. Its soldiers participated in their first offensive action on the evening of May 2, spearheading an attempt to push further inland. The action resulted only in “exceedingly heavy” losses, the Corps reporting 800 casualties. Otago Regiment “suffered badly, losing practically half its strength in both Officers and men.” Its 4th Company was particularly hard hit, reporting 155 casualties amongst its 200 soldiers.

The Regiment’s personnel retired to general reserve on the beach to recover. Three days later, the New Zealand Infantry Brigade—including Otago Regiment—relocated to Cape Helles, at the peninsula’s southern tip. A total of 88 Officers and 2724 New Zealanders disembarked in the early hours of May 6, occupying reserve positions as British and French forces attacked the Turkish line in the afternoon.

The Brigade’s soldiers moved into support trenches the following day, making last-minute preparations to enter the fray. Commanders held Otago Regiment in reserve, due to the significant losses sustained earlier in the month. When the remaining New Zealand Brigade units moved forward in attack on May 8, heavy Turkish machine gun fire checked their progress and caused numerous casualties. When a second advance later in the day also failed, Otago Regiment moved forward in support of the Auckland Battalion, holding the line into the early hours of May 12.

The fighting at Cape Helles inflicted 800 New Zealand casualties, 102 of whom were Otago soldiers. Fortunately, a much-needed reinforcement draft of 900 “all ranks” had arrived on May 8, providing working parties for road construction, unloading ammunition and supplies while preparing for service in the line.

News of a May 19 Turkish attack on ANZAC’s positions forced the New Zealand Brigade to hastily return to Gaba Tepe. Upon reaching their comrades in the early morning hours of May 20, the New Zealanders discovered that Australian forces had successfully repelled the assault, allowing their units to retire to General Reserve for rest and reorganization.

On May 24, at Turkish initiative, both sides observed a ceasefire from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., allowing each to bury its dead and remove wounded soldiers between the opposing trenches. An estimated 3,000 Turkish soldiers had been killed in the earlier attack, their remains decaying in the heat.

After one month on the peninsula, ANZAC forces found themselves in a precarious position, occupying a “pronounced salient” protruding into Turkish-held territory and clinging to a narrow strip of land approximately one mile across at its widest point. Their backs to the sea, the soldiers endured constant Turkish fire. Significantly outmanned and outgunned, they faced the daunting prospect of dislodging the enemy from well-fortified positions on higher ground.

In subsequent days, both sides feverishly tunnelled toward their opponents’ trenches, seeking to eavesdrop on enemy activities. On May 29, Turkish forces detonated an underground mine and seized a portion of the ANZAC line before being driven back.

At month’s end, the New Zealand Brigade returned to action, relieving the 4th Australian Brigade in a section of the front line. Otago Regiment initially occupied reserve positions, the Brigade’s battalions interchanging locations weekly during a month-long deployment.

On June 4, Otago welcomed a reinforcement draft of four Officers and 239 OR, its soldiers remaining in the trenches until the Brigade was relieved on June 26. Four days later, Turkish forces launched a massive, early morning attack on the Australian section of the line. Fighting continued until dawn, the Aussies managing to hold hold their positions despite the all-out assault.

ANZAC forces faced considerable challenges as the beginning of their third month at Gaba Tepe. The soldiers endured searing daytime heat, followed by cold nighttime temperatures. As the Corps possessed no “Pioneer” units, infantrymen in reserve carried out all construction and labour tasks, leaving no time for rest when not in the line. Dysentery became a common affliction as the summer heat bred massive numbers of flies in the latrines.

Their situation becoming increasingly untenable, MEF officials recognized the need for decisive action leading to a final outcome. Such a plan, however, required additional manpower. The Expedition had requested two fresh Divisions in May, receiving a British commitment to send three Divisions as soon as possible, the first expected to reach Mudros on July 10.

In the meantime, MEF’s commanders set about devising a plan of attack involving an offensive along the ANZAC front, combined with a second landing at Suvla Bay, north of Gaba Tepe. “One strong thrust forward”, it was hoped, would result in Allied control of the peninsula and create a more manageable situation.

ANZAC forces immediately prepared to accommodate the required troops, concealed from enemy observation under terraced bivouacs in gullies along the slopes. Personnel also constructed hidden artillery positions, completing all work under cover of darkness throughout the month of July.

On the night of August 5/6, John Angus and his Otago Regiment comrades were amongst the ANZAC forces making final preparations for an attack, scheduled for the following night. The objective was to secure a line along the Sari Bair Ridge, allowing for a subsequent advance on the city of Maydos—known today as Eceabat—and the Narrows below. Three strategic ravines provided access for the attack, commanders planning to seize control of the summit before daylight.

The attacking force consisted of 37,000 soldiers and 72 artillery guns, supported by two naval cruisers, four monitors and two destroyers. Commanders divided their troops into two groups. The first, consisting of the Australia-New Zealand and 13th British (Imperial) Divisions, 29th Indian Infantry Brigade and Indian Mountain Artillery Brigade, would carry out the assault on Sari Bair. The second group, consisting of the 1st Australian Division, two Australian Light Horse Brigades and two British Imperial battalions, would hold existing ANZAC positions and deliver a frontal assault from that line.
Territory Captured in August 7, 1915 Offensive
(Source: Strategic Maps of Gallipoli, Gallipoli and the Anzacs)

The Otago Regiment was assigned the task of spearheading the advance up Chailak Dere, one of the three ravines leading to the ridge. While its soldiers and the column on its right made significant progress, the advance to its left was “seriously retarded”, thus preventing a final assault on Sari Bair before daybreak. Throughout the day, the two advanced columns held onto their gains, their soldiers increasingly exhausted and fighting sleep depravation as they prepared to resume the attack at nightfall.

Following a one-hour artillery bombardment of the ridge, the assault resumed at 4:15 a.m. August 8. On this occasion, Otago Regiment remained in reserve as advancing units succeeded in gaining a foothold on Chunuk Bair to the right. The center and left columns, however, made little progress.

Throughout the second day, Wellington Battalion—one of Otago’s Brigade mates—held the line with no food or water, nor means to evacuate its wounded. Its soldiers struggling to deepen their makeshift trenches, the unit was reduced to “almost negligible” strength by the time Otago relieved its personnel in Chunuk Bair’s forward trenches after nightfall.

Military commanders planned to attack on the main section of Sari Bair Ridge from Otago’s trenches the following day. While Turkish forces assaulted a portion of the unit’s line during the night, its soldiers held firm. As daylight broke on August 9, Turkish forces massed to the right of the New Zealand line as the enemy launched a second assault on Otago’s position. Once again, the New Zealanders held their ground, sustaining heavy casualties in the fighting.

While Otago’s remaining personnel launched the third attack on Chunuk Bair later that morning, the 6th Ghurka Battalion captured an adjacent portion of the ridge, only to be driven back by a desperate Turkish counter-attack. A second advancing column also failed to make progress, resulting in a loss of momentum. As Otago and the Wellington Mounted Rifles struggled to hold onto their gains, the collapse of the advance to their left meant that they were on their own, lacking both support and reinforcements.

By this time, ANZAC units had been fighting almost continuously for more than 48 hours. Commanders issued orders for their relief at 8:00 p.m. August 9, replacing all personnel with reinforcements by 2:00 a.m. August 10. Otago Regiment retired to reserve positions “a mere fraction of its original strength” as the battle raged into its fourth day.

At daybreak August 10, a massive Turkish counter-attack, supported by all available reserve units, recaptured the forward positions lost in the previous day’s fighting. The assault reached its peak at 10:00 a.m., waning as ANZAC units in turn resisted with all available manpower, thus avoiding a complete defeat.

The loss of the captured Chunuk Bair section sealed the assault’s fate. Attacking units sustained an estimated 12,000 casualties and, while they had advanced the line considerably, failed to achieve their objective, effectively sealing the fate of the entire Gallipoli campaign.

The Otago Regiment sustained 17 Officer and 300 OR casualties during the attack. Only four of its Officers emerged from battle unscathed, the unit reporting its August 16 strength at 360 “all ranks”. Private John Angus McNeil was amongst the fortunate soldiers who emerged from the battle without injury. He had survived almost four months on the slopes of Gallipoli, but would not live to complete another.

The much-desired “definitive victory” now apparently unattainable, ANZAC forces faced several challenges in the days following the August attack. Having advanced considerably up the slopes toward the ridge, personnel now faced the task of transporting water and supplies to troops in the line, a journey so arduous that the soldiers carrying the valuable liquid consumed significant quantities along the way.

Evacuating wounded soldiers posed a second major problem. Medical facilities and resources struggled to keep pace with the mounting casualties. Many wounded lay stranded on the slopes gained in the attack, unable to retreat for treatment and awaiting the arrival of stretcher-bearers increasingly overwhelmed by the arduous journey.

In the attack’s aftermath, units reported a dramatic increase in the number of sick and diseased personnel, due to physical and mental exhaustion. Poor living conditions and lack of proper nourishment also contributed to the soldiers’ declining health.

After August 10, ANZAC units assumed a defensive position, defining and consolidating the newly established line, reorganizing and burying their dead. On August 20, Otago’s soldiers returned to the “Apex”—the furthest point of permanent penetration into Turkish territory in the August 7 attack—the position now a pronounced “salient” jutting into the Turkish line.

Over the next several days, ANZAC units attacked three positions in succession—Kaiajiki Dere, Hill 60 and Susuk Kuyu—in an effort to gain ground east of Suvla Bay. Otago’s soldiers took part in the first two assaults, while the New Zealand Mounted Rifles continued the attack on Hill 60 on August 27. By month’s end, casualties sustained in the fighting forced military commanders to reduce the severely depleted Otago Regiment from four to two companies.

By that time, John Angus was no longer amongst its ranks. Wounded during the one of the tour’s attacks, he was evacuated for military treatment, arriving at 5th Indian General Hospital, Alexandria, Egypt on August 30.

Documents describe John Angus’s condition as “dangerously ill” at the time of arrival, as he was suffering from a “GSW [gunshot wound to his] Right Thigh with Fracture.” Despite medical intervention, Private John Angus McNeil “died of wounds received in action in 5th Indian Hospital” on September 2, 1915.

*****

John Angus’s Otago comrades remained at Gaba Tepe in the weeks following his death. Finally, on September 14, the exhausted New Zealand Infantry Brigade withdrew to Mudros for a much-needed rest. At the time of departure, Otago Regiment’s ranks consisted of 130 soldiers. The Brigade subsequently returned to “Anzac Bay” on November 9, holding the line for one month as authorities pondered the expedition’s future.

Private John Angus McNeil's grave, Chatby Military Cemetery, Alexandria, Egypt.
(Photograph courtesy of the War Graves Photographic Project)
 
On December 8, MEF commanders received orders to evacuate all forces from the Gallipoli Peninsula. The circumstances dictated that the operation be carried out in complete secrecy and with considerable deception, as Turkish detection would have produced a devastating counter-attack.

The final MEF soldiers departed Gallipoli’s shores on the night of December 19/20, 1915, retreating to Egypt. The New Zealand Infantry Brigade spent several months reorganizing before travelling to France with ANZAC and entering the trenches of Belgium’s Ypres Salient in April 1916.

Private John Angus McNeil was laid to rest in Chatby Military Cemetery, Alexandria. In the years following the war, his mother, Sarah, received a Memorial Plaque engraved with his name and a war pension payment of 39 pounds per annum. While there is no record of their issue, his mother, Sarah—designated his next of kin—was entitled to receive the British War, Victory and 1914-15 Star service medals awarded to Imperial soldiers who served at Gallipoli.

John Angus’s brothers saw action on the Western Front during some of the war’s fiercest fighting. Willie B. was gassed during the Second Battle of Ypres (April - May 1915), recovered and returned to the front line. Before war’s end, he advanced to the rank of Company Sergeant Major, the Canadian army’s highest non-commissioned rank. Both Willie and Alexander subsequently returned home, although not without further drama for their mother.

Sometime in 1918, Sarah received a letter from Canadian military officials, notifying her that Willie B. had been killed in combat. Having experienced her share of grief through the loss of four family members, Sarah refused to accept the news. In her heart, she believed that Willie was alive. Several weeks later, her faith was confirmed when she received a letter from her youngest son. A subsequent investigation determined that the erroneous report was a case of mistaken identity.

After the war, Alexander once again ventured west, this time accompanied by his older brother, John Joseph. Alexander settled in Seattle, Washington, while John Joseph established residence in Ladysmith, BC. Only Willie B. remained home, marrying into a local family and spending his remaining years on his Malignant Cove farm.

*****
Sources:

Byrne, A.  E.. Official History of the Otago Regiment, N.Z.E.F. in the Great War 1914-1918. 1921: J. Wilkie & Co., Ltd., Princes Street, Dunedin, NZ. Electronic copy available online.

Service file of Private John Angus McNeil, number 8/1304. Archives NewZealand, Wellington, NZ.

A special thank you to Catherine MacGillivray, Maryvale, NS, who contributed newspaper clippings and genealogical information on the McNeil family.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Private Henry Scott Hart - A 193rd Battalion Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: March 24, 1896

Place of Birth: Canso, Guysborough County, NS

Mother: Ella Blanche Smith

Father: Major George Wilberforce “Will” Hart

Occupation: Insurance Clerk

Marital Status: Single

Enlistment: March 20, 1916 at Truro, NS

Regimental #: 901389

Rank: Private

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force (Infantry)

Units: 193rd Battalion; 17th Reserve Battalion; 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders)

Service: England & France

Next of Kin: Major George W. Hart, Canso, Guysborough County, NS (father)

Scott’s older brother, Levi Martin “Lee” Hart, enlisted with the 152nd Battalion at Weyburn, SK on June 5, 1916 and was killed in action at Vimy Ridge, France on April 9, 1917 while serving with the 5th Battalion (Western Cavalry).

*****

Henry Scott Hart was the fourth of six children—three sons and three daughters—born to George Wilberforce “Will” and Ella Blanche (Smith) Hart of Canso, NS. A native of Guysborough County, Will served with the 66th Regiment, Princess Louise Fusiliers, rising to the rank of Major before retiring to Canso, where he established a mercantile business. Will and Ella’s first two children—Levi Martin “Lee” and Louisa—were born while the couple resided in Halifax, the remaining four arriving after they moved to Canso.
Private Henry Scott Hart.
The second of Will and Ella’s three sons, Scott left school at age 12 after completing Grade 6. Despite his limited schooling, Scott’s letters to his family during military service display competent writing skills and he was an avid reader throughout his life.

Sometime after 1911, Scott took up residence on Victoria St., Truro and commenced employment with W. P. King & Company, a local insurance broker. A town of considerable size in comparison to Canso, military recruiters seeking enlistments for Nova Scotia’s earliest infantry battalions visited Truro. The 106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles), authorized on November 8, 1915, actually established its headquarters in the town. Scott attempted to enlist with the unit the following month but was declared medically unfit, due to poor eyesight.

Undaunted, Scott attempted to enlist with the 193rd Battalion, authorized on January 27, 1916 and also headquartered at Truro. On this occasion, he passed the initial medical examination and formally attested for overseas service on March 20, 1916. Subsequent correspondence with his parents, however, indicated that Scott continually worried that his vision problems would prevent service at the front.

On April 4, Scott informed his older brother, Lee—now a real estate agent in Weyburn, SK—of his enlistment. Perhaps spurred on by Scott’s example, Lee joined the 152nd Battalion at Weyburn on June 5, 1916. While the siblings communicated by letter during subsequent months, they were not destined to meet again face to face.

Meanwhile, Scott wrote to his mother, Ella, on May 17, informing her that he was spending considerable time at “A” Company’s Truro headquarters, while still working in King’s insurance office. He had received his Balmoral cap but was uncertain as to when the battalion would relocate to Camp Aldershot, near Kentville, NS. When the 193rd received orders to report to Aldershot for training at month’s end, Scott became a full-time soldier.

 *****

Initially conceived as a Cumberland - Colchester County unit, the 193rd Battalion became part of the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade in February 1916, at which time its recruitment area expanded to include the remaining parts of northeastern Nova Scotia—Hants, Pictou, Antigonish and Guysborough Counties. Boasting a complement of 1459 “all ranks”, its four Companies reported to Aldershot for a summer of intense training. The Camp also hosted soldiers from the Brigade’s three other units—the 85th (Nova Scotia Highlanders), 185th (Cape Breton Highlanders) and 219th (Annapolis Valley and South Shore) Battalions.

Throughout his time in service, Scott corresponded regularly with his parents and on occasion with his younger sister, Elsie. An August 23 letter to Will stated that he was “feeling well these days, [having] marched 21 miles last Wednesday with no ill effects.” As the battalion’s impending departure for England drew near, however, Scott was admitted to Rockhead Military Hospital, Halifax for treatment of tonsillitis.

A letter to Will, written on September 12, expressed a mixture of frustration and concern with his circumstances:

“I am still here at the hospital and nothing has been done for my throat yet…. I feel anxious to get back to Aldershot before the Battn [sic] moves [to Halifax) but Gov’t [sic] employees take thier [sic] time. At any rate, I am warm, dry and well-fed and receiving $1.00 per day so ‘I should worry’ for a week or so. There are some troopships in now, one anchored right off the hospital. I wish I was aboard and am a little afraid that I may miss the 193rd[’s departure].”

A second letter, dated September 29, reported little progress in resolving Scott’s situation:

“I am going out in a day or two. I’m very much disgusted at their methods of doing business down here and am going back without having my tonsils removed. Am afraid that the Battn. [sic] will go over without me if I wait any longer…. Had a letter from Lee to-day, telling me about the same re: his expected move…. He ought to be well on his way by now. He will likely come to Halifax to embark. Western Battns. farther away than Camp Hughes {Manitoba] are passing by every few days. Hope I’ll not be rejected when it comes to the final exam, however I can’t help that.”

Scott’s closing comments reflect his ongoing fear that health concerns might prevent overseas service. As for Lee’s departure, his unit actually broke camp two days prior to Scott’s letter. Lee managed to make his way to Mulgrave, where he met with his parents and several other family members before reporting to Halifax for departure. Will and Ella later made their way to the city and watched from the dock as their first-born departed for England on board SS Missanabie.

In early October, Scott was discharged from Rockhead without having his tonsils removed and made his way back to Aldershot, where he described the 193rd’s final preparations for departure in an October 6 letter to Will:

“We are busy filling in our trenches and cleaning up to move…. We will likely leave for Halifax Wednesday and if you can manage as you did with Lee it might appeal to you as best. Would like to see mother and you before I leave, altho [sic] I think I’ll be rejected in England on account of my feet [Scott had developed a boil on his ankle several weeks earlier, while training].”

In the end, Scott passed the final medical examination and was amongst the 193rd soldiers boarding SS Olympic at Halifax, NS on October 12. Six days later, the vessel arrived in England and Scott followed the battalion to Witley Camp, Surrey. He updated his parents on his circumstances in a letter dated October 21:

“Arrived in due course and little the worse for wear considering. Proved a much better sailor than I expected. Things are rather strange here and in some ways out of date but the camp is good and I anticipate being pretty comfortable here…. The ‘warmth’ of the English climate is decidedly chilly so far and I am somewhat disappointed. Have not been out of camp yet but hope to go out tomorrow and see what is going on.”

Scott was fortunate enough to obtain a six-day pass to London, describing his visit in an October 28 letter to Ella:

“Saw quite a lot of the city this morning…. We were lost for an hour or so at times but managed to get home again without asking the way. Am a little disappointed that the streets are so narrow and that there seems to be a lack of sky scrapers to match the Yankees’ but am perfectly satisfied with the ‘Bobby’ [-] he is the last word in dignity and impressiveness. Our N. S. police would fade into insignificance alongside of him. His attitude and expression as he halts the traffic has the Sergeant-Major ‘skeen a mile’ [sic] and I watch him with awe. The buildings altho [sic] not so awfully high go down into the ground quite a piece and are artistic and solid looking…. Sometimes the number in one row is quite impressive.

“Saw some of the Home Offices of the big Ins. [sic - Insurance] Companies this morning, which was interesting. The streets are crowded with motors and big horses and in and out among them the inevitable donkey…. The streets are all darkened at night and it is wonderful how accidents are averted but the drivers are very skilful and seem to get along.”

The 193rd’s soldiers and their Highland Brigade comrades trained at Witley Camp throughout the remainder of the year, rumours constantly circulating as to their departure for the front. Significant Canadian Corps casualties at the Somme during the autumn of 1916, however, created an urgent need for reinforcements and raised questions as to the future of battalions arriving in England at that time.

Scott speculated on the 193rd’s fate in a December 5 letter to Will, written after two week’s quarantine due to a case of chicken pox in its ranks. He hoped to leave for France within a week, and was “taking [his] final shooting or rather musketry training now, expect to complete it tomorrow.” The Highland Brigade “seems to be broken up” as military officials contemplated dissolving some of its battalions and reassigning their soldiers to existing units. Scott adopted an objective perspective on the 193rd’s fate:

“It would be nice to go as a unit in some ways but I think it unwise from a military standpoint to put a lot of raw men into battle together when they could be mixed with veterans just as well as not… I applaud the War Office’s action in drafting us and feel sure that more boys will go back [home] because of it.”

Concerns about his vision still weighed heavily on Scott’s mind:

“Am a little afraid that I won’t see the front. The eye test is severe and I’ll likely get guard duty in England or France for a while at least, but hope to pass.”

The battalion spent another two weeks in quarantine as a result of a second chicken pox case in early December, being released from barracks just prior to the Christmas holiday. By that time, Scott had received news of Lee’s deployment with the 5th Battalion (Western Cavalry) in France, commenting that he “heard from him frequently.”

By year’s end, military officials decided to dissolve the 193rd, immediately transferring its most “battle ready” soldiers to several units at the front. Remaining personnel were assigned to the 17th Reserve Battalion, the unit that serviced Nova Scotian battalions at the front. Scott officially joined the 17th on January 23, 1917 and continued training, in hopes of selection for a future reinforcement draft.

A March 22 letter to his sister, Elsie, described Scott’s military routine:

“I am drilling pretty hard, have been marching 15 miles a day with pack and rifle to the ranges for the last two weeks and am feeling a great deal stronger… but don’t seem to get any fatter…. Most of the time off parade is taken up cleaning up for the next one and when I crawl into my bunk I don’t spend much time in congitation [sic - cogitation]. We have to get up at 6:30 in the morning (5:30 while going to the ranges) and between fixing up beds and blankets and equipment, shaving, washing and shining we are pretty well occupied until ‘cook house’ at 7:00 a.m.. I usually do my shining and shaving the night before and that eases matters a little. Our parade hours are 7:45 to noon and 1 to 5. I get pretty tired of it all and wish I could get away to France quick… but the discipline is good for a lazy man and so ought not to hurt me.”

Scott remarked that he was awaiting receipt of a new pair of “Kitchener” boots that would require “breaking in” before he’d be considered for “overseas service”. The new equipment must have arrived shortly afterward, as Scott was assigned to the 85th Battalion on April 21. He crossed the English Channel to the Canadian Base Depot (CBD) at Le Havre, France the following day, describing the experience in a later letter to Will:

“After a very enjoyable trip across the [English] Channel (more enjoyable than comfortable as we were pretty crowded)… we disembarked and marched to the Canadian base…. We were paid 25 francs at the base and issued with the final equipment, etc. [and] left the next day for ‘up the line’…. [We] had quite comfortable coaches and spent a couple of pleasant days in the train. France is very beautiful and the weather was fine[,] it hardly seemed possible that we were actually going to war. After we got to the rail-had we had a little walk around in a village[,] after which we marched to the Battn. [sic] billets.”

On April 25, Scott found a few minutes to update Ella on his progress:

“I’ve not been up to the firing line yet but I’m at the ‘front’ all right. We are billeted in a village or what must have been a village sometime in the past, perhaps it got hit by a cyclone or was wrecked in the war of 1870 [Franco-Prussian War]; I understand that there was some damage done at that time…. On the way over I met a chap from Lee’s Company and asked him to let Lee know that I was on my way to the 85th. I think I have a very good chance of seeing him.”

Unbeknownst to Scott, his elder brother had been killed on April 9, during the opening moments of the 5th Battalion’s advance at Vimy Ridge. It would be another month before Scott received the news in a letter from his parents. Meanwhile, he arrived in the 85th’s camp the following day. After more than one year’s training, Private Scott Hart was about to enter the trenches of the Western Front for his first “tour”.

*****

The 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) was authorized on September 25, 1915, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Allison Hart Borden. Within one month of its creation, the unit mobilized at Halifax, its ranks 200 men “over strength”. Training continued at the Halifax Armouries and on the nearby Commons throughout the autumn and winter of 1915-16.

Nova Scotian recruitment activities expanded in early 1916 with the formation of the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade, an idea first proposed by Lt.-Col. Borden. In May 1916, the 85th joined its Brigade mates at Camp Aldershot for a summer of intense training. The four battalions boarded SS Olympic at Halifax on October 12, arriving in England six days later. While military authorities dissolved two of the Brigade’s battalions—the 193rd and 219th— during the winter of 1916-17, its two remaining units—the 85th and the 185th (Cape Breton Highlanders)—were maintained.

As the Brigade’s senior unit, the 85th’s soldiers had 16 months’ training under their belt as they crossed the English Channel to France on February 10, 1917. After completing preliminary tours in the trenches near Gouy Servins and Bouvigny, France, the unit moved into “reserve” positions in support of the Canadian Corps’ scheduled attack on Vimy Ridge.

As an inexperienced unit, the 85th’s soldiers were assigned a variety of “non-combat” duties—carrying ammunition, constructing dugouts, maintaining communication trenches—during the April 9, 1917 assault. As the battle unfolded, however, German soldiers tenaciously clung to Hill 145, the ridge’s highest and most strategic location. In the early evening, two of the 85th’s Companies received orders to move forward and executed a successful attack on the position without the benefit of artillery support.

The 85th’s performance at Vimy Ridge demonstrated its readiness for combat. Shortly after retiring from the firing line on April 14, the battalion was assigned to the 4th Canadian Division’s 12th Brigade, in place of the 73rd Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada), which was dissolved on April 19 to provide much-needed reinforcements its two “sister” units, the 13th and 42nd Battalions. The Nova Scotia Highlanders subsequently served alongside the 38th (Ottawa), 72nd (Seaforth Highlanders of Canada) and 78th (Winnipeg Grenadiers) Battalions for the war’s duration.

At the time of Scott’s arrival on April 26, the 85th was deployed in the Zouave Valley, France, its soldiers occupying a section of the front line along the Lens - Vimy Railway. The unit was relieved two days later and moved into Brigade Support on the outskirts of Givenchy. During the afternoon, five of “D” Company’s soldiers were killed by an artillery strike, the first casualties recorded after Scott’s arrival.

Private Henry Scott Hart - 193rd Battalion Portrait.
Over the following days, the unit’s soldiers provided work parties for front line and road repair, its war diary commenting: “No training possible at all here [Givenchy] as billets are under direct observation so that there can be no movement by daylight.” Scott described his initial experiences in a later letter to Will:

“[I] had a couple of days rest before we went into the actual firing line. Of course[,] the billets are in the firing zone and exposed to artillery fire, if the enemy likes to bombard them. I was actually in the line three days. Went in on the night of April 30th, the next day I spent cleaning out German dug-outs and burying ‘Heinies’ taken from therein. We rested the next day… [and] tried to dig trenches the next night… It’s a funny feeling crouching down in a shallow trench[,] trying to dig out a little mud and chuck it out without attracting attention and every few minutes comes the ‘tack-tack-tack’ of a machine gun and up will go a German star shell for another look. The display is very beautiful and awe-inspiring and to add to the splendour, there were some large fires in nearby cities behind the enemy lines.”

Scott followed the 85th into the front trenches during the night of May 2/3, in relief of the 78th Battalion. The process was not without incident: “During the relief the enemy shelled the vicinity heavily with whizz-bangs [artillery shells].” While a subsequent war diary entry stated that “no casualties resulted”, Scott’s correspondence with Will indicates otherwise:

“I was hit at 3.30 a.m. in the morning [May 3], didn’t know I was hit at the time, had a severe pain in my side and shoulder but thot [sic] I was only bruised as I had been half buried a few minutes before by a shell; however[,] I found on enquiry that I was wounded and beat it for a dressing station.”

Scott was admitted to No. 8 Canadian Field Ambulance (CFA) and subsequently transferred to No. 12 CFA and No. 22 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) before day’s end. The following day, 2nd Ambulance Train transported him to No. 35 General Hospital, Calais, France, where he was admitted for treatment of shrapnel wounds to his back.

On May 5—his first full day in hospital—Scott wrote to his parents, informing them of his situation:

“I was slightly wounded. I got two little bits of shrapnel in my back on the morning of the 3rd and a pretty good shaking up but there is nothing to be alarmed at…. Can move myself around in bed but can’t sit up very well. Am getting the very best of care possible.”

After recovering sufficiently to travel, Scott was invalided to England on May 14 and admitted to General Military Hospital, Colchester the following day. Medical records describe the extent of his injuries at the time of his arrival:

“GSW [gunshot wound] Back, penetrating lung…. Small wound penetrating back lt. [left] chest, haemoptysis [coughing up blood] 5 days duration. X-ray does not show any F.B. [foreign body].”

The day after admission, Scott wrote his parents, providing a more detailed account of his condition and the circumstances in which he was wounded:

“I am feeling pretty good now and I think I would be able to walk around, and hope to be up soon. My wounds are small and give practically no pain. I was hit by shrapnel in the back (was not running away, ‘Heinie’ slipped a shell over behind me), two entrances, one on each side. The one on the right side is just a skin wound and better already[,] the other no deeper and will take a little while longer to heal…. Neither one gives me much discomfort and I move all around the bed.”

Still unaware of Lee’s death, Scott planned to write his brother, describing his situation.

Ten days later, Scott received a visit from a local Red Cross volunteer, who informed the family that he was up and out of bed, “looking well and in no pain. The bullet which entered his back, also touched his left lung, but we know how thankful you must be to know that he seems to be progressing satisfactorily.”

Before month’s end, Scott told Will that he expected to move to a convalescent home in a few days and was “coming along fine”. After rising early, he passed the day on the hospital grounds, “which are very beautiful…. My wounds are practically healed now but my left chest where one piece of shrapnel penetrated is still sore and it will take a month or so to fix me up again.”

Scott was discharged to the Canadian Divisional Convalescent Hospital, Woodcote Park, Epsom on May 31. That same day, letters from home finally caught up to him and Scott learned of his older brother’s fate. He described his feelings in a letter to his parents, written the following day:

“I feel absolutely stunned and don’t know what to write… but we must keep thru [sic] it all the thot [sic] uppermost in our minds that he died as behooved a Christian and a gentleman—in defence of the principles in which he believed and for which he voluntarily offered to make the supreme sacrifice if necessary.”

By coincidence, Scott received his wounds“at Vimy, about six miles from Fresnoy and about 1 to 2 miles (likely) from where Lee was killed.”

As the days passed, Scott slowly recovered his strength, writing to Will and Ella on June 10:

“[I am] feeling much better now and am wearing my uniform again insted [sic] of Hospital ‘Blues’. Was out to the town of Epsom (about 2 miles away) today for the second time. So you can see I’m pretty strong again.”

The following day, an earlier ailment returned as Scott was “transferred to Orpington [Military Hospital, Orpington, Kent] for removal of tonsils.” A medical report shortly after his arrival indicated that he was suffering from a sore throat, cough with phlegm and “poor” lung expansion. Scott had also lost weight during his hospitalization. His tonsils were “enucleated” and a subsequent test of his sputum showed no signs of tuberculosis.

Medical personnel at Orpington also conducted a series of X-rays, successfully locating “two minute particles of metal above the eleventh rib 1/2” from the vertebral articulation” and a “piece of foreign matter of low density 1/4” x 1/4” about 1 1/2” above” the first objects. Scott provided an update on his circumstances in a July 25 letter to Will:

“I am feeling much better as the days go on. I feared for a while that I might have to have an operation to remove some particles of shrapnel from my chest, but the danger is completely past now. I think I have a couple of more weeks rest and then I’ll be able to go back to duty again, but there is a chance that I would have to go on Active Service again.”

In mid-August, Scott penned a note to his sister, Elsie:

“The doctors here are of the opinion that I will not have to have any more metal removed. I never had any taken out of my left side and the wound on the right was only superficial and was cured in about 2 weeks. There are still two minute particles and one small piece (1/2 in. x 1/4 in.) of shrapnel in my left chest but the doctors here have decided that they will give me no trouble…. I feel no pain, am not even sore in any place, in fact I never felt better in my life; except that I’m soft.”

By this time, the likelihood of his returning to the line appear to have diminished considerably: “I’m told that I won’t likely be classed fit for General Service while I have a piece of Krupps steel in my person.” In the meantime, Scott was “working in the Medicine room… ward”, where he was “ learning a lot about sterilization, drugs and dressing wounds.”

Before month’s end, hospital personnel assessed Scott’s condition as “Improved, Class C”—free from serious illness and fit for home garrison service— and discharged him to the Canadian Convalescent Home, Bromley, Kent. Scott described his new surroundings in an August 29 letter to Will:

“It used to be a Hotel and a pretty swell one…. We have a fine billiard table, a couple of pianos, books, etc. and are allowed out from 2 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. so manage to pass the time pleasantly…. [The] Hotel Chef is still on the job and consequently our food is well cooked. I have had bad cooking so much since I joined the Army that I appreciate his work.”

During Scott’s recovery, a Medical Board regularly assessed his condition, placing him into one of several categories. On September 18, Scott updated Will on the most recent report:

“[I] had a ‘Medical Board’ and am classified ‘B 3’ - Clerical Work in England or France. I will probably stay in England but would just as soon go to France [as] it would be interesting over there and amounts to precisely the same thing as far as hazard is concerned. I am not able to carry a pack or do manual labor and had I not been rated as a Clerk I would have been invalided to Canada.”

A second Medical Board, convened at Bromley on September 25, described Scott’s condition at the time: “Soldier feels well except for slight pain or soreness in left chest after exertion, shrapnel still in chest.” While he had a “slight cough”, his lungs were “normal and healthy”. The Board concluded that Scott was “not likely to be raised in category inside of six months” and classified him as “C III”—“Fit for temporary Base Duty.”

Scott remained at the Canadian Convalescent Hospital throughout the following month, taking the opportunity to visit the nearby towns of Catford and Lewisham. He described several recent experiences in an October 2 letter to Elsie:

“I can always go down… [to Catford and Lewisham] for an evening if I find the time hanging on my hands, heavy. We are in the period of the harvest moon just now and are having an air-raid nearly every night. ‘Fritz’ was over the last three nights in succession and I expect he’ll come tonight again. They give him a pretty hot reception and the sky is very pretty with bursting shells from the ‘anti-aircraft’ guns. He has to pass right over us to get to London so we see all the fun. At the same time we are in practically no danger as he does not waste his bombs on a small town.”

Scott was discharged from hospital on October 30 and reported to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot. Apparently, military authorities had decided not to assign him to clerical duties in England or France, as five days later he was transferred to the Canadian Discharge Depot, Buxton, where he awaited “embarkation to Canada.”

Scott departed England shortly afterwards, arriving in Halifax on November 14 via SS Olympic and immediately proceeding to the Military Hospital Convalescent Center’s “B” Unit. Before day’s end, he sent a telegram to Will: “Arrived Hfx the morning more later love to all, H. Scott Hart.”

A Medical Board convened at Halifax described Scott’s disabilities: “GSW [gunshot wound] back puncturing left lung. Weak eyes.” He still experienced pain in his side when breathing deeply or after exertion. His eyes also caused severe pain when reading. While there was a small scar three inches below his left scapula, “no physical signs [are] evident. Shrapnel still present.” Scott wore glasses and had experienced visual difficulties previously, “but not to [the] same extent”.

The Board assessed Scott’s “degree of incapacity” as 30 %, stating that it was due to his military service and “indefinite” in duration. As a result, the Board concluded that Scott was “permanently unfit for Military Service” and recommended placement in a Convalescent Home, pending discharge.

After a brief visit to Canso, Scott was admitted to Camp Hill Hospital, Halifax as an “in-patient” on December 1. Five days later, Scott and his hospital mates gathered in their ward’s Common Room in the morning, having just finished breakfast. According to an account provided by family, Scott was standing near a window when he heard a whining rush of wind. Familiar with such sounds from his days in the firing zone, he instinctively covered his face with his hands and dove for cover.

A massive, explosive force struck the building, knocking out its windows. Remarkably uninjured, Scott managed to get to his feet and clamber through the debris into the street. His immediate thought was the safety of family members who lived nearby—Reuben Proctor, an uncle by marriage, lived at 192 Gottingen Street, close to North Street Station. As he made his way toward the neighbourhood, he recognized none of the familiar landmarks.

When Scott arrived at Reuben’s house, he found the structure completely flattened and apparently empty. Searching among the rubble, he came across his cousin, Ralph, who was attempting to get the family car out of the garage. Amazingly, the structure had not been damaged in the blast. Upon retrieving the vehicle, Ralph and Scott made their way along the streets, where passable, and were soon commandeered to carry wounded civilians to a first aid station hastily erected on the Commons.

All day long, the cousins made trips from the devastated areas along the waterfront to the Commons. Late in the afternoon, the sound of a baby’s cries drew them into a damaged building. Scott entered the premises and found a severely injured, five-month-old infant. As he carried the baby from the house, it died in his arms. Exhausted from the day’s physical and emotional toll, Scott collapsed on the sidewalk.

Ralph managed to load Scott into the car and the pair drove to their maternal grandmother’s home on Edward Street. They found the house intact, having sustained only a few broken windows. Mrs. Martin Smith—Ella’s mother—and her daughters, Olive and Claudia, put an exhausted Scott to bed.

Meanwhile, in Canso, Ella and her daughter, Narrie, were cleaning up after breakfast as the day began. The dishes and windows suddenly rattled, a tremor shook the floor, and the faint echo struck their ears. When news of the Halifax explosion reached the community shortly afterward, Ella frantically attempted to contact Scott and her Halifax family, without success.

For two days, the fate of her son, mother, sisters and in-laws remained unknown. Finally, a telegram arrived at the Hart household late in the afternoon of December 8: “Reuben badly cut rest of us virtually uninjured scott [sic] quite safe city virtually wrecked.” Scott carried the memory of that experience—particularly the baby’s death in his arms—for the remainder of his days.

Scott remained in Halifax following the explosion, awaiting a final decision on his future. A Case History Sheet, dated February 28, 1918, summarized the results of his most recent medical examination. Scott still experienced chest discomfort—a “dull pain over 5th rib (rt.)”—although there was no tenderness to pressure. The pain worsened after physical exertion. Doctors also noted that Scott had a “marked myopia.”

A final medical report, dated March 2, remarked that his “eyes are quite comfortable” when Scott wore his glasses. The report concluded:

“No muscular weakness can be demonstrated. This man has also a well marked myopia, which is corrected by glasses, and which does not contribute to his incapacity to any appreciable extent.”

While the report recommended that Scott be retained for military service at home, superior officers apparently did not concur. On March 13, 1918, Private Henry Scott Hart was discharged at Halifax, “being no longer physically fit for war service.”

*****

Despite an offer of employment in Halifax, Scott returned home to Canso, where he bought some cattle and—following in his father’s footsteps—operated a local general store. On January 10, 1933, he married Mary Casey, a native of Port Felix. Together, they raised a family of five children—four sons and one daughter—in their Canso home. His children have fond memories of a kind, patient father who possessed a dry sense of humour and a gigantic heart.

Mary and Scott Hart at daughter Phyllis's wedding.
Scott’s business venture struggled through the Great Depression’s hard times and he eventually accepted a position as Canso’s town clerk and magistrate. His eldest son, Sidney, eventually assumed control of the business, Scott returning to assist after he retired from his municipal position.

As a former soldier who had lost an older brother in combat, Scott was particularly interested in preserving the memory of those who served and assisting veterans who had returned to civilian life. He played a prominent role in the establishment of the Royal Canadian Legion’s Canso Branch, serving as its first President. His wife, Mary, was active in the Ladies’ Auxiliary, later earning the organization’s Meritorious Service Award.

An avid reader, Scott obtained a personal set of law books and quickly earned a local reputation as a “self-educated lawyer”. Residents regularly visited the Hart home in search of legal advice or information. All who called upon Scott received a most cordial welcome.

Scott became a respected member of the community, easily identified by his daily attire of shirt, tie and hat. His daughter, Phyllis, reports that he even kept a can of salmon in reserve for Roman Catholic visitors who might happen to arrive at mealtime on a Friday!

Henry Scott Hart passed away at Aberdeen Hospital, New Glasgow, on August 30, 1974, five months past his seventy-eighth birthday. He was laid to rest in Fourth Hill Cemetery, Canso.

*****

Sources:

Service file of Private Henry Scott Hart, number 902389. Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 4118 - 46. Attestation papers available online.

War Diary of the 85th Canadian Infantry Battalion. Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 4944, Reel T-10751-10752, File: 454. Available online.

A special thank you to several of Scott Hart’s descendants and relatives who provided valuable resources and information for this post. His daughter, Phyllis Hart Kupsch, Drayton Valley, AB contributed a post-war photograph and information on Scott’s post-war life. Relatives Jean (McPhee) Doane, South Maitland, NS, Diana (Bushell) Geil, London, ON and Andrea (Geil) Lee, Markham, ON graciously provided access to the Hart family correspondence.