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Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Private Dennis Simon Levangie - A Canal du Nord Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: April 30, 1889

Place of Birth: Port Felix, Guysborough County, NS

Mother: Bridget Gerroir

Father: Philip Levangie (Levandier)

Occupation: Stoker

Marital Status: Single

Enlistment: March 20, 1918 at Halifax, NS

Regimental #: 3181772

Rank: Private

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force (Infantry)

Units: 1st Depot Battalion, Nova Scotia Regiment; Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR); 2nd Battalion (Eastern Ontario)

Service: England & France

Next of Kin: Philip Levangie, Port Felix, Guysborough County, NS (father)

* The 1891, 1901 and 1911 Canadian census records and Dennis’ service file list the family surname
as “Levangie”, while 1921 census records the surname as “Levandier”.

*****
 
Dennis Simon Levangie was the second of three children—two sons and one daughter—born to Philip and Bridget (Gerroir) Levangie of Port Felix, Guysborough County. According to family sources, Dennis spent several years in Boston, Massachusetts prior to the First World War. The 1911 Canadian census lists Dennis as a boarder in the New Glasgow, NS household of Ellise Gerrior—possibly a relative of his mother’s—while working in a local paint shop. It is not known whether he resided in the United States prior to or after this time.

Dennis (left) and Nellie Levangie with their youngest son Earl in Port Felix (1956).
Shortly after the outbreak of war in Europe, Dennis relocated to Halifax, where he worked for three years as a stoker on a Canadian naval ship. While his military attestation papers list his address as “Hopper Barge # 2, HMCS Dockyard, Halifax”, Dennis did not formally enlist in the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve. As a result, he was amongst the many young men of his generation deemed eligible for conscription after the Canadian Parliament passed the Military Service Act in August 1917.

The Canadian government commenced registering eligible males before year’s end and began “calling up” conscripts in January 1918. Dennis received his medical examination at Halifax on March 19, 1918 and completed his enlistment papers the following day. In less than three weeks, he was on his way across the North Atlantic Ocean, departing Halifax aboard SS Metagama on April 7 and arriving at Liverpool, England 12 days later.

Dennis was immediately assigned to the 17th Reserve Battalion—the unit that serviced Nova Scotian battalions at the front—and reported to Bramshott Camp. He spent the summer months in England, crossing the English Channel to the Canadian Base Depot (CBD) at Le Havre, France on September 5. Dennis was initially assigned to the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR). Within less than one week, however, he was transferred to the 2nd Battalion and left to join his new unit in the field on September 11.

*****
 
The 2nd Battalion (Eastern Ontario) was formed at Valcartier, QC in August 1914. It drew its initial members from local militia units across the entire province of Ontario and parts of Quebec. The unit boarded SS Cassandra at Quebec City on September 22, 1914 and sailed to the Gaspé Peninsula, where the vessel lay at anchor awaiting further orders. The ship finally departed for overseas on October 3 as part of the First Canadian Contingent, arriving at Plymouth, England on October 25.

The unit spent several months training in England, during which time it was assigned to the 1st Canadian Division’s 1st Brigade, alongside the 1st (Ontario Regiment), 3rd (Toronto) and 4th (Central Ontario) Battalions. The 2nd Battalion officially “mobilized for war” on February 8, 1915, crossing the English Channel to France with its Brigade mates.

The battalion first entered the trenches near Armentières, France on February 19. Shortly afterward, its personnel relocated to Belgium’s Ypres Salient, receiving their first major combat experience during the Second Battle of Ypres (April 22 - May 25, 1915). An astounding 543 of its soldiers were killed or wounded during the month’s fighting.

After rebuilding its ranks, the 2nd served on rotation in the Ypres Salient for fifteen months, following the Canadian Corps south to the Somme region of France in the autumn of 1916. During the following year, its soldiers fought at Vimy Ridge, France (April 1917) and Passchendaele, Belgium (November 1917), returning to France for the winter of 1917-18.

After Allied forces successfully withstood the massive German “Spring Offensive” (March - April 1918), the 2nd Battalion was amongst the Canadian units launching a major counter-attack at Amiens, France on August 8, 1918. Before month’s end, its soldiers once again saw action during the battle of Arras (August 26 - September 3).

Hard-hit by two major engagements in such a short time period, the 2nd retired from the firing line on September 4, relocating to Agnez-lès-Duisans, France for re-organization and training. On September 10, a group of 45 “other ranks” (OR) reinforcements arrived in its camp. Five days later, the unit relocated to Croissilles, its war diary observing: “From 9:30 [p.m.] to the early hours [of the morning] enemy machines were dropping bombs in the vicinity of the camp.”

The battalion spent the following day preparing to return to the line, once again enduring considerable German fire: “At night the enemy put over a large number of gas shells, and in addition, bombs were dropped by him. Hot and misty during day, heavy thunderstorm at night.”

2nd Battalion CEF badge.
On September 17, personnel engaged in Lewis Gun, musketry and anti-gas training as three new OR joined the battalion. Two days later, a larger party of 30 OR reinforcements arrived in camp. Private Dennis Levangie was amongst the 33 new arrivals and settled into the daily training regimen as the 2nd prepared to return to the line later in the month.

After a break for Divine Services and baths on September 22, the 2nd’s soldiers practiced attack strategies and carried out physical training the following day and attended an evening band concert. Meanwhile, the unit’s Officers visited the front area in preparation for their next assignment—an attack on the strategic Canal du Nord, on the outskirts of Cambrai, France.

During the subsequent days, “special attention was paid to the different battle formations, intervals, time, etc..” At 7:30 p.m. September 26, personnel moved off to the Assembly Area in preparation for combat. Its war diary reported “very little hostile shelling…[,] the move completed without casualties.”

Each soldier was outfitted with two bottles of water, two sandbags, 220 rounds of ammunition and two days’ rations in preparation for the following morning’s attack. The 1st Brigade’s orders instructed its battalions to “break the enemy defensive line on the Canal du Nord, east of Inchy[-en-Artois], and advancing northeast, establish a position on the high ground which runs north from the north-eastern spur of Bourlon Wood, astride the Arrras-Cambrai Road.” Dennis was about to receive his first combat experience on the Western Front.

Plans for the initial stage “resembled a trench to trench attack, but the nature of the ground and the incomplete conditions of the enemy defensive lines seemed to determine that the attack would very rapidly develop into open warfare fighting.” The 2nd Battalion was assigned a reserve role, following the advancing 4th and 1st Battalions until the latter had captured its second objective. At that point, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions were scheduled to attack the third objective and “exploit to the Yellow Line.”

Light rain fell during the night, but conditions “became clear during the morning.” At precisely 5:20 a.m. September 27, the supporting artillery barrage “fell exact to the second and the attack commenced.” The unit’s war diary described the battle’s opening moments: “The intensity of our fire and the vigorous shelling of hostile battery positions permitted only a feeble retaliation. Battalion moved forward in ‘Diamond Formation’ by Companies at 10 minutes interval commencing at 6:40 a.m..”

A report appended to the month’s war diary provided a detailed description of the day’s fighting, observing that “Bourlon Wood could be distinctly observed” as the soldiers advanced. No. 1 Company set the pace, the whole battalion managing to cross the canal “without heavy loss” and gathering in a 2nd Assembly Area, in preparation for the attack’s second phase.

By 9:00 a.m., “the advance was… being harassed considerably by enemy shelling and machine gun fire…. The battalion however passed through the 4th [Battalion], on its objective, following closely upon the heels of the 1st. The shelling and machine gun fire increased in intensity and casualties were numerous.”

The 2nd’s soldiers moved forward at 10:00 a.m. as planned, “leap-frogged through the 1st Battalion and continued [the] advance.” In response, German forces established themselves along a railway embankment. The report described the ensuing fighting:

Canal du Nord today (April 2015).
“On the low ground west of the Railroad[,] the Battalion was suffering severe casualties by the infernal machine gun and trench mortar fire. This affected No. 1 Company particularly, who, having no Officers [remaining], and very few N. C. O.’s [non-commissioned officers,] were in a difficult situation.”

The ferocious fire stalled the unit’s progress until the 72nd Battalion—on its right flank—finally caught up to the advance and sent one of its Companies across the railway embankment. Its soldiers “enfiladed [the German] guns and permitted the advance to continue.” The 2nd’s soldiers moved forward at 12:30 p.m., No. 3 Company passing through No. 1, which retired to reserve.

At 6:00 p.m., approximately 200 German soldiers assembled for a counter-attack but were quickly dispersed with Lewis Gun and rifle fire. Fifty minutes later, the battalion received orders to “stand fast on their objective, and move forward the following day.” The remainder of the night passed quietly, allowing all wounded soldiers were evacuated for treatment by 10:00 p.m..

At 6:00 a.m. the following morning, the 4th Canadian Division passed through the 2nd Battalion’s outpost line and resumed the attack. The unit reported 15 field guns, 14 machine guns, two trench mortars and 75 prisoners captured in the previous day’s action. Its casualties consisted of one Officer killed and 15 wounded, while 24 OR were killed and 175 wounded during the September 27 advance. After spending the day “reorganizing and equipping”, the 2nd Battalion retired to reserve positions on September 29.

Dennis was amongst the 175 OR wounded during the fierce fighting at Canal du Nord. After receiving initial treatment at a regimental aid post and field ambulance, he was admitted to No. 33 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) on October 1, suffering from a gunshot wound to his right arm and shoulder. Hospital records described his condition: “Bullet entered arm near shoulder, came out past chest opp. [opposite number] 10 rib.” Dennis reportedly “spit… blood for eight days… [and] blood was drawn off [his] chest twice.”  He also experienced shortness of breath, constant pain on his right side and rapid pulse.

The following day, Dennis was transferred to No. 7 General Hospital at Le Tréport, near Étaples, where he remained for 10 days before being evacuated to England. On October 13, Dennis was admitted to Nell Lane Military Hospital, Didsbury, Manchester, where he continued his recovery. Dennis was transferred to Woodcote Military Convalescent Hospital, Bear Wood, Epsom on November 2, where medical records reporting a full recovery by month’s end: “Feels fit. G. C. [general condition] good. Cat. [category] A.”

The November 11, 1918 Armistice meant that Dennis’ days at the front were over. He was formally discharged from hospital on December 4 and assigned to the 6th Reserve Battalion, Witley Camp, one week later. Dennis reported to Military District 6, Kemmel Park, North Wales, on December 27, “pending return to Canada.”

On January 9, 1919, Dennis boarded SS Olympic for the journey home. Upon arriving in Halifax eight days later, he reported to a local “Casualty Company”. On February 16, Dennis was formally discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force, listing his intended address as 2 Hurd St., Halifax as he returned to his pre-service occupation of “stoker”.

*****
 
The 1921 census lists Dennis residing in his parents’ Port Felix home with his younger brother, James. He may have briefly been home for a visit, as provincial records indicate that on July 26, 1921, he married Nellie George, a native of Queensport, Guysborough County, in a ceremony held at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, Halifax. The couple eventually returned to Port Felix, where they raised a family of seven children—four sons and three daughters.

Remembered by his family as a “joker” with a great sense of humour, Dennis worked at the local Co-op store and did carpentry jobs in the area to support his growing family. During the Second World War, he once again enlisted, although age made overseas service impossible. Instead, he served as a military driver in the Halifax area.

Dennis' First & Second World War service medals.
In his later years, Dennis suffered a stroke and endured a lengthy hospitalization. He passed away at Camp Hill Hospital, Halifax on September 9, 1974 and was laid to rest in Gates of Heaven Cemetery, Lower Sackville, NS.

*****
 
Sources:

Service file of Private Dennis Levangie, number 3181172. Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 5605 - 22. Available online.

War Diary of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Battalion. Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 4914, Reel T-10706, File: 355. Available online.

Special thanks to Dennis’ grandson, Captain Douglas Levandier of Oromocto, NB, who contributed background information, the post-war photograph and picture of Dennis’ medals.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Lieutenant Catherine Nichols Gunn - A Nursing Sister's Story

Date of Birth: December 6, 1886

Place of Birth: East River St. Mary's, Pictou County, NS

Mother: Margaret McInnis

Father: William Gunn

Occupation: Nursing Sister

Marital Status: Single

Enlistment: January 1, 1917 at Calgary, AB

Regimental #: None (Commissioned Officer)

Rank: Lieutenant

Force: Canadian Army Medical Corps

Units: No. 1 Canadian General Hospital; No. 8 Canadian General Hospital; No. 3 Casualty Clearing Station; No. 2 Stationary Hospital

Service: England & France

Next of Kin: William Gunn, East River St. Mary's, Pictou County, NS (father)

None of Catherine's siblings enlisted for military service during the First World War. Neil—the oldest child—was born at East River St. Mary's, Pictou County, on June 23, 1882. He married Elizabeth "Libbie" (Mitchell) Fraser, daughter of Alex and Marie Mitchell, at Sherbrooke, NS on October 6, 1906. The couple was residing at Cleveland, Richmond County at the time of Neil's death on December 15, 1951. Neil was laid to rest in Aspen, Guysborough County.

*****

Catherine Mary Nichols Gunn was the third of seven children—four boys and three girls—born to William and Mary (McInnis) Gunn of East River St. Mary's, Pictou County. Catherine left home sometime before 1911, making her way to Seattle, Washington, where she completed a professional nurse's training program.

Lieutenant Catherine Nichols Gunn.
After she returned to Canada, as with so many of her generation, the outbreak of war in Europe impacted Catherine's life. She served as a Nursing Sister at a Temporary Military Hospital in Lethbridge, AB, before being "taken on strength" by the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) at Calgary on December 15, 1916.

Two and a half weeks later, Catherine attested for overseas service with CAMC. She departed Canada on February 3, 1917, arriving in England after a ten-day voyage. Four days later, Catherine commenced work at the Canadian Red Cross Hospital, Taplow, Warthanger, the first of several postings during her overseas service.

*****
As Canadian soldiers entered combat on the Western Front in late 1914 and early 1915, the Canadian Army Medical Corps developed a system to provide treatment for wounded and sick soldiers. Each battalion contained a Regimental Aid Post, staffed by its Medical Officers and Orderlies, providing immediate assistance on or near the battlefield. Once evacuated, a wounded soldier might be admitted to an Advanced Dressing Station—depending on the nature of his wounds—before proceeding to a Field Ambulance for assessment and further treatment.

Usually under cover of darkness, horse-drawn and motorized ambulances evacuated wounded soldiers to a Main Dressing Station, the first location at which medical treatment was recorded. Soldiers not requiring additional care made their way to Corps or Divisional Rest Areas for recovery. The remaining patients were transported to a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), where they awaited evacuation to hospital.

CCS staff provided basic surgical treatment where necessary, usually evacuating patients to hospital by ambulance train within four days. CAMC operated two categories of hospital, distinguishable only in size and hence mobility. Stationary Hospitals initially housed 200 patients, while the larger General Hospitals accommodated 520 patients. By the end of 1915, CAMC officials doubled the bed capacity of both facilities. In total, CAMC staffed and operated four Casualty Clearing Stations, 11 Stationary and 16 General Hospitals in France and England by war's end, in addition to several Special Hospitals and Convalescent Depots.

Shortly after Britain declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary on August 4, 1914, Waldorf Astor, son and heir of William Waldorf Astor, invited the Canadian Red Cross (CRC) to build a hospital on a portion of the family's Cliveden Estate, west of London, England. Initially named "Duchess of Connaught Hospital" in honour of Patricia, daughter of Canada's Governor-General, the facility opened its doors to patients in March 1915. The CRC initially staffed and equipped the hospital, which later adopted its name.

Canadian Red Cross Hospital, Taplow, England.
 The facility consisted of five pairs of wards, connected in a "butterfly pattern" by a central corridor that contained a large serving kitchen. A broad veranda on its southern side accommodated beds out of doors during the summer months, while windows allowed ample ventilation for indoor patients. The Astor family paid the cost of constructing permanent staff quarters—mostly small cottages—on the grounds. The hospital accepted its first Canadian patients in April 1915, primarily victims of the April 24 gas attack during the Second Battle of Ypres.

On April 27, No. 1 CGH's war diary recorded the arrival of its first significant convoy of 160 patients, "nine or ten simple fractures of the leg. An unusually high number of other fractures were from 3 to 4 weeks old and in bad position[,] requiring operative interference to rectify."

During its first full month of operation, staff performed 78 surgeries, including 23 "incisions and drainage of wounds", 18 "removal of shrapnel", 11 "delayed union of fibula and suture with kangaroo tendon."

Nursing Sister Catherine Nichols Gunn reported for duty to the Canadian Red Cross Hospital on February 17, 1917. An assignment in England was routine practice for new arrivals, as the patients provided experience in treating a variety of combat wounds. As might be anticipated, the workload increased with the arrival of spring and the resulting upsurge in fighting.

In May 1917, the hospital received 356 admissions—295 surgical and 61 medical—some patients arriving only three days after being wounded. The first convoy "after Vimy Ridge" involved a large number of rifle bullet cases, while succeeding convoys "contained terrific shell and shrapnel wounds of all kinds." Medical officials reported all wounds "in good condition on arrival. Wounds were well dressed."

The list of major surgeries performed during the month sheds light on the variety of injuries treated, as well as the required medical and nursing care—51 incision and drainage, 17 shrapnel removal, 13 excisions of scar and secondary nature, 20 "reamputation" of legs, arms or fingers.

CRC Hospital Ward, Taplow, England.
 Some Nursing Sisters remained in England for the war's duration, while others moved on to facilities closer to the front lines. Such was the case for Catherine, who spend almost five months at CRC Hospital before receiving a transfer to No. 1 Canadian General Hospital on July 9, 1917. The following day, she proceeded to Folkestone, England for passage across the English Channel and reported to the hospital's facility near Étaples, France upon arrival.

*****
No. 1 Canadian General Hospital (CGH) initially assembled at Valcartier, QC and crossed the North Atlantic to England in October 1914 as part of the First Canadian Contingent. From October 20, 1914 to May 13, 1915, the unit operated a hospital on Salisbury Plain, catering to the medical needs of the Canadian soldiers encamped nearby. After crossing the English Channel, No. 1 CGH established a 1,400-bed facility—expandable in the event of a "super crisis" to 2,230 patients—at Trouville, near Étaples, France. Its patients were housed in canvas tents, a practice that quickly proved ill-suited to the coast's unpredictable weather.

The unit's July 9, 1917 war diary provided a description of the circumstances greeting Nursing Sister Gunn at the time of her arrival:

"Weather… bright and warm. The hospital grounds are looking very beautiful at this season of the year. The labours of the early spring are rewarded by the sight and fragrance of the many varieties of flowers which transform the central pieces of ground and beautify the spots for the patients who come to us."

Eight CAMC Nursing Sisters—a group that included Lieutenant Catherine Nichols Gunn—reported for duty on July 11, at which time the hospital contained 1,206 patients. The war diary described Catherine's first month at the facility as "fairly quiet…. Brilliant weather has prevailed most of the time, long warm days; cloudless blue skies; while the nights have been cool and refreshing."

During Catherine's first month in France, No. 1 CGH received a total of 1,356 "sick" and 872 "wounded" patients, 1,778 of whom were transported to England for further treatment. A total of 332 soldiers were discharged to a nearby Convalescent Depot, while 241 returned "to duty". Only eight of its patients died after arriving at the hospital. A new Canadian Red Cross 52-bed ward opened on August 1 as 948 admissions temporarily pushed numbers to 2,054 beds. The "sudden influx of patients… made the hospital very busy" for the first two weeks, numbers declining to 1,500 by mid-month.

While its coastal location provided beautiful summer weather, it also exposed the unit to occasional, intense storms. On August 29, for instance, heavy wind and rain damaged the "flys" [sic] of several tents, forcing the transfer of some patients to other wards. "Approximately 450 beds were temporarily rendered useless… from the effects of the storm."

A September 4 local air-raid revealed the dangers of operating a hospital approximately 80 kilometres of the front lines: "Bombs were dropped in the neighbourhood, but happily no damage was done in this Unit, although the throb of the engines could be distinctly heard as the Planes passed overhead. Casualties were reported from an adjoining hospital."

Late summer and early autumn statistics reveal a dramatic increase in the number of wounded admissions. In August, 1,453 "sick" and 3,282 "wounded" soldiers reported to the facility, while 1,446 "sick" and 2,173 "wounded" patients arrived the following month. The unit's October 4 diary entry described preparations for a final influx of patients before the "fighting season" concluded: "The last two days have been chiefly occupied in evacuating as many patients as possible, consequent upon an order received to have all available beds ready."

Map of No. 1 CGH, Etaples (Source: War Diary).
The orders were part of preparations for Canadian Corps' "New Push" at Passchendaele, Belgium. The first wounded soldiers—"some of the lighter cases"—arrived at No. 1 CGH the following day, when staff processed 474 admissions and administered 198 X-rays. As the fighting progressed, the pace accelerated as described in the October 11 diary entry:

"The last few days have been very busy owing to the heavy convoys and evacuations. The weather has been very unpropitious, and the tents have proved very unsatisfactory for these cold and wet days… [making the work] much heavier than would be necessary with Huts… and [favourable] working conditions."

On October 24, the situation worsened as "a very heavy wind and rain storm passed over the camp… inflicting such damage to some of the tents as to render them uninhabitable." While staff enjoyed "a perfect autumn day" at month's end, the clear night resulted in another air raid, the unit once again reporting neither damage nor casualties.

No. 1 CGH's October statistics—1,432 "sick" and 2,331 "wounded" admissions— indicate a third successive month of challenging work. A total of 3,204 patients were evacuated to England, 694 to Convalescent Depots, and 235 "to duty". The unit recorded 47 deaths—the highest number since Catherine's arrival—while medical personnel completed 824 surgeries, 1,260 X-rays and 6,784 dressings.

On November 11, the unit war diary noted a welcome development—construction of the first wooden huts, intended to gradually replace the facility's tent wards. Stormy weather during the month's last week forced the evacuation of two wards and confirmed the wisdom of such a change: "During these storms[,] which occur from time to time[,] the administration of the Hospital becomes very difficult[,] owing to the number of beds rendered vacant."

The unit's month-end statistics—1,365 "sick" and 975 "wounded" admissions—reflect the significant decline in combat brought on by winter's arrival. On December 2, staff welcomed the opening of the first of 20 wooden huts, each containing 52 patient beds. The December 16 diary entry reflected the change in seasons:

"Snow began to fall about 2 p.m. and continued steadily all afternoon. Towards evening there were three to four inches on the ground. When evening fell it was still falling."

The following day, "a wintery scene was presented to us this morning for the earth was covered with a mantle of snow." By coincidence, the entry's only other item of interest stated that Nursing Sister C. N. Gunn was "invalided [and] transferred to Villa Tino Hospital.

*****
On December 17, 1917, Nursing Sister Catherine Gunn was admitted to No. 24 British General Hospital, Étaples, with "ICT [inflammation of connective tissue] Finger". Amongst the hospital's various facilities was Villa Tino, a large château in the nearby Le Touquet forest where No. 24 CGH operated a "Sick Sisters' Hospital".

Medical records describe Catherine's condition upon admission:

"[Patient] suffering from a whitlow [infection] of index finger, right. It had been incised before admission but it still spread up the finger to palm and back of hand… [and] had to be further incised. It had now healed but she still requires a further period rest before she will be fit for duty."

Catherine spent six weeks recuperating at Villa Tino. On February 2, 1918, a Medical Board examined her case, observing: "The flexor tendon has been involved and the finger is stiff. She is also debilitated." The Board recommended three weeks' sick leave to England before a return to duty. Nine days later, Catherine was discharged from hospital and crossed the Channel to England.

Sick Sisters' Hospital, Villa Tino, France.
On March 5, Catherine "returned [to No. 1 CGH] from… sick leave to the U.K.." By that time, the facility's transformation from tents to physical structures was "nearing completion as the Hut Wards continue to grow in numbers." Nine days later, the last of the new wards opened.

Before month's end, a dramatic increase in workload would severely test Catherine's recuperation and her colleagues' stamina. While the hospital contained 615 patients at the time of her return, numbers soon rose with the arrival of several convoys, "all of which have been chiefly Gas cases, symptoms showing that Mustard Gas has been used." By March 20, the facility housed 1,142 patients, its war diary reporting: "All available beds are being prepared in anticipation of the expected German Spring Offensive."

By coincidence, the much-anticipated attack commenced the following day, amidst "glorious spring weather." The war diary's March 22 entry described its immediate impact:

"Convoys pouring down the line with the casualties of yesterday, which were very heavy. The majority of the cases having come direct from the field of battle without having passed through a CCS [casualty clearing station], owing to the latter places having been shelled, and compelled therefore to withdraw. Many of the patients are walking cases, but there are also many heavy stretcher cases."

The influx continued the following day:

"The convoys still pour in during the day and night and all ranks are working at very high pressure in order to cope with the great influx of patients. A day and night staff are working in the operating theatre[,] thus enabling the many cases for operation to be dealt with as expeditiously as possible."

The frenetic pace continued for a third day: "Our casualties are very heavy and the Hospitals are working twenty-four hours a day to meet the emergency." Patient numbers climbed to 1,654 by day's end and continued to rise throughout the month, reaching 1,983 by March 28.

The March 31 diary entry provided an explanation for the rapid increase in numbers:

"Owing to the pressure and the British line falling back many CCS were temporarily disbanded, consequently much of the work done by these Units fell to Base Hospitals. In order to cope with the rush, which has, so far, been the heaviest in the history of the Hospital[,] the operating theatres have been constantly in use during the twenty four hours of the day, with a special staff for day and night."

Authorities assigned staff from No. 8 Stationary Hospital to No. 1 CGH, to assist with its workload. Its month-end numbers reveal the demands on its service. A total of 1,466 "sick" and 2,820 "wounded" patients were admitted to the facility, while staff performed 823 operations and recorded 53 deaths.

The frenetic pace continued into the following month, the war diary's April 4 entry finally proclaiming: "A relief after the very busy strain of the last fourteen days was experienced to-day, no convoys being received." While patient numbers climbed to a record 2,218 by April 16, the workload gradually diminished as the German Spring Offensive slowly ground to a halt. The war diary's April 22 entry observed: "The last two days have been fairly quiet, owing to the lull in operations at the front."

Month's end statistics reflect the offensive's impact: a total of 1,810 "sick" and 3,363 "wounded" admissions, 119 deaths and 1,014 surgeries, the highest numbers since the hospital's arrival in France. While bed numbers remained well above 2,000 during the first two weeks of May, they gradually declined by mid-month as patients were evacuated to England or nearby Convalescent Depots.

No. 1 CGH marked the third anniversary of its arrival in France on May 14, 1918. Two days later, "enemy aircraft passed over the camp at noon today." While no bombs were dropped, the incident was an omen of events about to unfold on the tranquil hospital grounds. The detailed May 19, 1918 diary entry described the incident that forever marked No. 1 CGH's overseas service:

"At the close of what had been a peaceful Sunday evening enemy aircraft came over the camp in large numbers… at 10:00 p.m.. The hospital was wrapt [sic] in slumber, when the planes were immediately overhead. The raid was obviously planned to take place in relays, and during the first stage the part that suffered most was the sleeping quarters of the personnel, particularly that of the N. C. O.'s and men. A number of bombs, incendiary and high explosive, were dropped in the midst of the men's quarters. Fires were immediately started which offered a splendid target for the second part of the attack. The scene was immediately converted into a conflagration and charnel house of dead and wounded men. Bombs were also dropped on the Officers' and Sisters' quarters, buildings being wrecked. The south east part of the Sisters' quadrangle was completely blocked by a bomb, the inmates being killed and wounded. While the work of rescuing the wounded was going on[,] the enemy continued to drop bombs. Two of the hospital wards received direct hits and patients were killed and wounded. The portion of the Staff and personnel that had escaped injury immediately attended to the needs of those who had been hit…. The devotion to duty, with absolute disregard to personal safety, that was exhibited by all ranks is very highly commendable."

In a separate entry appended to the monthly diary, the hospital's Matron commented on the Nursing Sisters' response to the raid:

"The Sisters in quarters behaved splendidly, no noise or confusion, simply lay under beds or got what protection they could from shrapnel and falling debris. The Sisters on duty all praise to them for coolness, unselfish devotion to their duties."

One Officer, one Nursing Sister, 51 "other ranks" (OR) and eight patients were killed in the air raid, while one Officer, seven Nursing Sisters, 45 OR and 31 patients were wounded. One Nursing Sisters died of wounds on the day following the incident, as personnel buried their fallen comrades in Étaples Cemetery.

Nursing Sisters visit the grave of one of their fallen comrades.
Work parties immediately engaged in "sand-bagging the wards and making preparations for protection against enemy aircraft", while small groups of Nursing Sisters slept outside in a nearby forest, awaiting completion of a bomb-proof, underground shelter. A second, two-hour air-raid struck nearby Étaples on the night of May 30, but "no damage was done to this hospital." Earlier that day, a third Nursing Sister died of wounds received in the May 19 air raid.

On the last day of the month, "another very heavy air raid took place at 10:00 p.m… [in] three relays… [and] lasted two and a half hours." Wards "A" and "B" were "disabled", although "sand-bagging" saved the lives of several patients. The war diary commented: "Much damage of a minor nature in the form of broken windows was done…. One patient was dangerously wounded, but happily no other casualties were reported." The hospital's Administration block was struck and the laboratory was "rendered temporarily useless."

The unit's month-end statistics reflect a significant decline from the previous month's heavy workload, due in large part to the air raid. A total of 620 "sick" and 881 "wounded" patients were admitted for treatment, the diary noting that "no patients have been received since May 20."

On June 2, No. 1 CGH authorities received orders to transfer their remaining patients to other hospitals and evacuate the district. Personnel immediately commenced dismantling the facility, which had only recently reached completion. Two days later, the war diary reported the successful evacuation of all patients. General Arthur Currie, Commander of the Canadian Corps, visited the facility the following day as medical staff prepared to relocate to other medical units.

On June 6, Nursing Sister Catherine Gunn—having endured both air raids without injury—was temporarily attached to No. 8 Canadian General Hospital. Initially staffed by the University of Saskatchewan, No. 8 CGH operated as a Stationary Hospital at Shorncliffe, England and Saint Cloud, near Paris, France from September 1915 to July 1916 before being expanded to "general hospital" capacity.

Despite its status, the hospital contained significantly fewer patients than No. 1 CGH's facility. Its June 1918 statistics recorded 555 admissions, 1,007 discharges and four deaths. At month's end, its staff provided care for 69 patients, a combination of British Imperial and French soldiers, its sole Canadian patient having been discharged by month's end. Given its suburban location, it is not surprising that the hospital treated 233 civilians during the month.

As of July 1, the 520-bed facility's Staff consisted of 22 Medical Officers, 46 Nursing Sisters, 160 OR and four civilians. CAMC Matron-in-Chief Margaret Macdonald, a native of Bailey's Brook, NS, paid an informal visit to the facility on July 5, the only notable event mentioned in the month's war diary. The pace was no doubt a welcome change for Catherine and the thirteen other No. 1 CGH Nursing Sisters who were temporarily attached to the unit.

During the month of July 1918, No. 8 CGH received nine Canadian, 206 British and 67 French soldiers, discharging a total of 382 patients. At month's end, a total of 58 soldiers remaining in its care. The unit also treated 110 civilian cases and reported no deaths during the month.

Artist's depiction of No. 8 CGH, Saint Cloud, France.
The only notable event of Catherine's third month at Saint Cloud occurred in the early morning hours of August 12, when fire destroyed one of the hospital's marquee tents occupied by unit personnel. Fortunately, the war diary reported no injuries. Five days later, Catherine relocated to a Nursing Sisters House at Abbeville, northwest of Amiens, France and officially ceased to be attached to No. 8 CGH on August 27. Catherine served with No. 5 CCS at Bailleulval, near Arras, France throughout the month of September before receiving a transfer to No. 2 Stationary Hospital on October 3.

Recruited mainly from Ontario, No. 2 Stationary was the first Canadian unit to arrive in France, establishing operations at Le Touquet, near Étaples, on November 27, 1914. The unit moved northward to Outreau, southwest of Calais, in October 1915, remaining in this location throughout its overseas service. At the time of Catherine's arrival, No. 2 Stationary's 20 Medical Officers and 54 Nursing Sisters operated a 600-bed facility, largely servicing the medical needs of British soldiers.

During October 1918, No. 2 Stationary admitted 2,222 patients and discharged 2,147 to other facilities or to duty. The unit reported 33 deaths, and 350 occupants—including 20 Canadian soldiers—at month's end. A local influenza epidemic forced officials to restrict staff movement, in an effort to prevent the sickness from being transferred to patients.

On November 11, No. 2 Stationary staff received news of the impending Armistice early in the day. Personnel went about their daily business until "shortly before 5 p.m. [when] the area broke forth into celebration. We did some cheering and flew all the flags available." After the brief festivities, it was back to daily routine.

Three days after the Armistice, Catherine returned to No. 1 CHG, which had re-established facilities at Trouville, near Le Havre, France. The unit's staff of 27 Medical Officers, 41 Nursing Sisters and 228 OR assumed operation of a 1,400-bed facility, administering care to a combination of Canadian, American and mainly British soldiers. The unit's war diary stated "…nothing of special interest to report on the hospital's work during the month", recording 1,018 admissions, 808 discharges, no deaths and a total of 954 patients remaining at month's end.

For the following four weeks, Catherine worked at Trouville until symptoms of her earlier ailment returned. On December 17, she was admitted to No. 3 CCS at Le Quesnoy, west of Arras, for treatment of "whitlow" of the right index finger. Catherine spent three months at No. 3 CCS before travelling to Boulogne, France on March 13, 1919. She crossed the English Channel to Shorncliffe ten days later and was immediately admitted to No. 11 Canadian General Hospital, Moore Barracks, Shorncliffe, for further treatment.

A Medical Case Sheet included in her service record described her finger as being "in [a] position of complete flexion…[;] extension [was] impossible." On May 8, Catherine was transferred to the Canadian Red Cross Officers' Hospital, North Audley St., London West, where staff described her situation at admission: "Stiff finger following infection." Three days later, Colonel J. A. Gunn—no relation—performed surgery: "Scar tissue excised, flexor tendon lengthened [and] sutured with linen. Finger put up in fully extended position."

Staff subsequently applied a regimen of "passive movement and massage" to assist Catherine's recovery. By May 21, staff reported that "[her] finger [was still] slightly swollen". Catherine made steady progress, allowing doctors to report on June 10: "Wound healed. Having massage and passive movement. To duty."

Upon discharge from hospital, Catherine reported to No. 12 Canadian General Hospital, Camp Witley, Bramshott for duty. Two weeks later, she relocated to No. 16 Canadian General Hospital, Orpington, Kent, where she remained for three weeks before departing for Canada on board HMS Adriatic on July 28, 1919.

Catherine landed in Halifax on August 9 and was officially discharged from military service three days later. She listed her address as 2707 Wolfe St., Calgary, AB, indicating plans to return to the city where she had enlisted with CAMC more than two and a half years earlier. Several years after the war, Catherine received British War and Victory service medals, in recognition of her overseas service with the Canadian Army Medical Corps.

*****
Upon returning to Calgary, Catherine resumed her civilian health care career. In 1922, she joined the Calgary Health Department, where she worked as a Public Health Nurse. Catherine never married, devoting the next 30 years to serving the health needs of children and families in the city's north-central area before retiring in 1952.

Children from CN Gunn Elementary on the occasion of Catherine's 91st birthday.
The Calgary Board of Education publicly acknowledged her dedication to the community in 1972, naming a new elementary school located at 6625 - 4 Street N. E. in her honour. The facility continues to operate today, servicing the educational and developmental needs of children from Kindergarten to Grade 6.

Catherine Nichols Gunn passed away at Calgary, AB on May 11, 1979. Her remains were transported to Nova Scotia, where she was laid to rest in the Gunn Family Cemetery, East River St. Mary's, Pictou County.

Gunn Family Memorial Stone, Aspen, Guysborough County.
 *****
Sources:

O' Leary, Michael. "Researching Canadian Soldiers of the First World War, Part 13: Evacuation to Hospital." The Regimental Rogue. Available online.

Service file of Lieutenant Catherine Nichols Gunn. Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 3886 - 31. Attestation papers available online.

Sickness and Convalescence. The Fairest Force - Great War Nurses in France and Flanders. Available online.

War Artists: No. 8 Canadian General Hospital, Saint Cloud. Archives of Ontario, Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, Ontario. Available online.

War Diary of 1st Canadian General Hospital, CAMC. Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5034, Reel T-10924, File: 851. Available online.

War Diary of 2nd Canadian Stationary Hospital, CAMC. Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5033, Reel T-10922-10923, File: 843. Available online.

War Diary of 8th Canadian General Hospital, CAMC. Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: Rg9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5036, Reel T-10926, File: 857. Available online.

War Diary of 15th Canadian Field Hospital [Duchess of Connaught Red Cross Hospital], Taplow. England. Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Colume 5036, Reel T-10927, File: 860. Available online.

Portrait of Nursing Sister Catherine Nichols Gunn courtesy of Colin MacKay, Riverton, Pictou County. Picture of Nursing Sister Gunn's grave site courtesy of Jennifer MacKay, Truro, NS. Photograph of Catherine's 91st birthday obtained from Glenbow Museum, Calgary's online archives.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Private Alexander Angus Fraser - An Inverness County Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: July 6, 1888

Place of Birth: Port Hastings, Inverness County

Mother's Name: Margaret McKillop

Father's Name: Angus Fraser

Date of Enlistment: July 14, 1915 at Vernon, BC*

Regimental Number: 442380

Rank: Private

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force (Infantry)

Unit: 54th Battalion (Kootenay)

Location of service: England, France & Belgium

Occupation at Enlistment: Miner

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Angus Fraser, Port Hastings, Inverness County (father)

* Alex's military record indicates that he initially joined the 54th Battalion at Camp Vernon, Kaslo, BC on May 31, 1915 and was assigned to "A" Company.  He officially attested for overseas service with the battalion at Camp Vernon, BC on July 14, 1915.

Author's Note:  A busy April 2015 schedule and delays in obtaining supporting information for several incomplete profiles made it impossible for me to post a Guysborough County soldier's profile.  Alex Fraser's story, researched and written for a family member, provides a most appropriate replacement.

*****

Alexander Angus Fraser was the second youngest of 11 children born to Angus and Margaret (McKillop) Fraser.  The family initially resided on a farm at Lower South River, Antigonish County, where nine of Angus and Margaret's children — five girls and four boys — came into the world.

Alexander Angus Fraser, Port Hastings, NS.
In the late 1880s, the Frasers relocated to Port Hastings, where Angus worked as a telegraph lineman.  Alex was the first of two children born in their new home, followed a year later by a daughter, Agnes.  Tragically, Margaret died of a heart attack on January 25, 1894, at the young age of 44 years.  Angus never remarried, entrusting the care of his youngest children to their older siblings.

Alex remained in the local area into early adulthood.  According to 1911 census records, he was living with his father and older brother, Archibald in Port Hastings, the trio working as telegraph linemen.  His younger sister Agnes, her husband Archibald McIsaac, and their your son, Fraser, also resided in the family home.


Sometime after 1911, Alex headed west, eventually finding employment at a mining camp in British Columbia's Kootenay district.  After the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914, the province's abundant supply of able-bodied, young men attracted the attention of military recruiters.  Caught up in the wave of excitement, Alex enlisted for service with the 54th Battalion at Kaslo, north of Nelson, BC, on May 31, 1915.

*****

The 54th Battalion (Kootenay) was authorized on May 1, 1915 and recruited its ranks from British Columbia's southern interior communities.  Its personnel spent more than a year in training at nearby Camp Vernon before traveling across the country by rail and departing for England on November 22, 1915.

Military authorities assigned the 54th to the 4th Canadian Division's 11th Brigade, along with the 75th (Mississauga), 87th (Canadian Grenadiers) and 102nd (Northern BC) Battalions.  Alex and his comrades spent nine more months training at Camp Bramshott, England and were no doubt impatient to see action at the front after such a lengthy wait.

Their opportunity finally came in the early days of August 1916, when the 54th received orders to break camp.  On August 7, Canada's Minister of Militia, Sir Sam Hughes, and British Minister of Munitions, David Lloyd George, reviewed 990 of its "other ranks" (OR) in "brilliant weather" at Hankley Common, north of Bramshott.  That same day, the unit's war diary reported: "Preparations for departure overseas are going on rapidly."

On August 13, the 54th's 34 Officers and 1111 OR entrained at Liphook for Southampton, arriving in the early afternoon.  Alex followed his chums up the gangway onto SS Connaught for the passage to France, arriving at Le Havre in the early morning hours of August 14.  The men disembarked at 7:00 a.m. and marched to a nearby rest camp.

Alex Fraser (center) and co-workers, Kootenay, BC mining camp.
The following day, personnel completed a short route march and gas drill.  Twenty-four hours later, they boarded train cars at Le Havre and made their northward toward the Belgian frontier.  Upon arriving at Houpoutre, Belgium at 8:30 p.m. August 17, the men marched to nearby Wippenhoek, where they set up tents in a camp that the war diary described as "very dirty".

Two days later, the first group of personnel — the Officer Commanding (OC) and 200 OR from "A" Company — "left for 48 hours duty in the trenches (24 hours instruction and 24 hours taking over Front Line) with 24th [Victoria Rifles, Montreal] and 25th [Nova Scotia] Battalions."  Over the following three days, each of the 54th's remaining three Companies left camp for similar tours.

The unit's war diary recorded its first casualties — one OR killed and five wounded — on August 21, as the 54th received orders to enter the front trenches in three days' time.  "A" and "B" Companies departed camp at 5:00 p.m. August 24, relieving the 25th Battalion and joining the two remaining Companies already deployed in the "South Centre, Sub-Sector, St. Eloi", near Ypres, Belgium.

Alex and his comrades received a blunt introduction to the perilous Belgian trenches.  The unit's war diary described "heavy bombardment on [the] afternoon of [the] first full day", although casualties were "very slight, there being only five wounded."  Personnel experienced heavy shelling once more on August 28 before being relieved two nights later and retiring to Brigade Reserve.

The 54th provided work and carrying parties for the 11th Brigade's front line units for several nights, returning to the firing line at St. Eloi on September 6 for five days before once again retiring to Brigade Reserve.  On September 16, Alex and his chums moved out to rest billets on farms near Westoutre, having completed their first rotation on the Western Front.

Two days later, the soldiers exchanged their Canadian-manufactured Ross Rifles for British Lee-Enfields.  Initially designed for target shooting, the Ross's lengthy barrel made it difficult to manoeuvre in cramped trenches.  Its tendency to overheat and jam when fired repeatedly made it most unpopular amongst Canadian soldiers, who were delighted to dispose of the unreliable weapon.

The 54th departed the Ypres area on September 20, making its way to St. Omer, France.  Personnel encamped at nearby Mentque-Nortbécourt for training on September 21, remaining in the small village for almost two weeks.  The unit moved out by train to Doullens on the night of October 3/4 and marched to billets at Gézaincourt in "very wet" conditions.  The following day, the battalion continued on to Harponville, where its soldiers established camp and resumed training in preparation for deployment on the battlefields of the Somme.

Private Alexander Angus Fraser.
Alex and his comrades marched out to "The Brickfields", near Albert, France, on October 10, moving forward to "advance positions" at 3:00 p.m. the following day.  "B" and "C" Companies entered the trenches in front of the village of Courcelette during the evening of October 13, while "A" and "D" Companies assumed support positions.

Personnel endured considerable artillery shelling for several days, the Companies briefly exchanging positions before being relieved in the early morning hours of October 17 and retiring to "bivouacs".  The men once again provided work and carrying parties for front line duty over several days.  Small groups also assisted in "clearing [the] battlefield and carrying wounded" as their Brigade mates launched an attack on German positions at a strategic location known as Regina Trench.

The 54th returned to the front line on the night of October 23, enduring particularly heavy artillery fire for three days before once again retiring to support positions.  Alex and his mates were no doubt relieved to withdraw to billets at Albert on October 30 for a brief rest.  It was back into the line on the night of November 2/3, the unit's personnel occupying sections of the newly captured Regina Trench and the "Old Front Line".

The men laid out stakes for a new section of front line trench, withdrawing to Brigade Support the following night.  The 54th provided work parties for trench construction for one week amidst "very wet" conditions, withdrawing to billets at Albert on November 11 as Canadian units captured several more positions along the German Regina Trench defensive line.

On November 13, the 54th commenced preparations to return to the trenches as part of an operation slated for two days hence.  The attack was subsequently rescheduled for the early hours of November 18.  In the interim, the men endured consistent artillery shelling as they awaited orders to move forward.

Alex and his comrades returned to the front trenches on November 17, "all Companies [digging an] Assembly trench in preparation for [the scheduled] attack."  The weather the following morning — November 18, 1916 — was particularly uncomfortable: "Very cold and commenced snowing in early morning, which later turned into rain."  Preparations for the assault nevertheless proceeded as 12 Officers and 500 OR gathered in two trenches about 100 yards in front of Regina Trench.

Alex's older brother, Frank, served overseas with the American Expeditionary Force.
A routine, fifteen-minute artillery bombardment commenced at 5:45 a.m., the "real barrage" resuming at 6:10 a.m..  The 54th's war diary described the ensuing attack:

"The Battalion moved out from the trenches and formed up close behind the barrage, opening out into four waves as the barrage advanced.  Rate of advance of barrage, 50 yards every two minutes.  The objective, Desire Support Trench, was taken according to program and a line established 100 yards beyond it."

One German Officer and 51 OR were taken prisoner in the attack.  The battalion held and consolidated the newly captured position until relieved in the early morning hours of November 20, its war diary praising its soldiers' performance: "The operation was conducted with great precision and exactly in accordance with orders received, the men showing the greatest intelligence, endurance and courage."

The 54th's success at Regina Trench was overshadowed by its human cost.  Two of its Officers were killed and 11 wounded in the attack.  The impact on its OR was even more devastating: 42 were killed, 160 wounded and 23 missing in the battle's aftermath.

Private Alexander Angus Fraser was amongst the 42 OR killed in action at Regina Trench on November 18, 1916.  His remains were laid to rest in Adanac Military Cemetery, Miramount and Pys, France.  Several years after the war, Alex's father, Angus, received his British War and Victory Medals, in addition to a Memorial Plaque and Scroll bearing his name.
Alex's CEF Death Certificate.
The loss of Angus's youngest son was only one of several tragedies to strike the Fraser family during the war years.  Colin — the older brother closest in age to Alex — died unexpectedly in Spokane, Washington in 1915.  An older sister, Florence, passed away at Creignish, Inverness County on February 6, 1917, nine days shy of her thirty-sixth birthday. 

Angus's health was no doubt affected by the loss of three adult children.  He passed away at Port Hastings, Inverness County on January 13, 1920 and was laid to rest beside his wife, Margaret, in Creignish Catholic Cemetery, Inverness County.

*****
Sources:

Service Record of Private Alexander Angus Fraser, No. 442380.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 3274 - 22.  Attestation papers available online.

War Diary of the 54th Canadian Infantry Battalion, CEF.  RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 4942, Reel T-10748-10749, File: 445.  Available online.

Photographs and family information courtesy of Debbie Helm, Antigonish, NS, great-niece of Alexander Angus Fraser.





Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Gunner George Edward Croft - A "Siege Battery" Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: August 5, 1897*

Place of Birth: Gegogan, Guysborough County

Mother's Name: Bessie Jack

Father's Name: Edward George Croft

Date of Enlistment: January 20, 1917 at Halifax, NS

Regimental Number: 2163305

Rank: Gunner

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force (Artillery)

Units: 1st Reinforcement Draft, No. 8 Siege Battery, Royal Canadian Garrison Artillery (RCGA); No. 9 Siege Battery, RCGA

Location of service: England & France

Occupation at Enlistment: Labourer

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Edward Croft, Gegogan, Guysborough County (father)

* Date of birth obtained from 1901 census and family genealogy records.  George's attestation papers list his year of birth as 1898.

George's youngest sibling, Harold Reginald Croft, was born on October 20, 1917, eight months after George's departure for England.  Harold enlisted with the Canadian Armed Forces during the Second World War and was a member of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion.  He was amongst the first paratroopers dropped behind German lines at Caen, France on the night of June 5/6, 1944, as part of the Allied D-Day invasion of Normandy.  Although wounded in action, he returned to active duty before fighting came to an end.  After returning to Canada, Harold relocated to Boston, MA, where he married and raised a family of three children.  Harold passed away on July 25, 2007 and was laid to rest in Easton, MA.

*****

George Edward Croft was the oldest of nine children — five boys and four girls — born to Edward and Bessie (Jack) Croft of Gegogan, Guysborough County.  Edward supported his growing family by fishing out of Gegogan Harbour and harvesting timber in the Liscomb area.  He was also known locally for his finely constructed rowboats.

Some time after the outbreak of war in Europe, young George relocated to Halifax in search of employment.  He enlisted for service with the Royal Canadian Garrison Artillery (RCGA) — a non-permanent, active militia unit — on October 27, 1916.  George's cousin, Percy Ellis Croft, likely accompanied him to Halifax, as Percy joined the militia unit three days prior to George's enlistment.

Gunners George Edward (standing) and Percy Ellis Croft.
The Gegogan boys spent the next several months training with the RCGA at Halifax Citadel.  On January 9, 1917, Lieutenant H. H. Lawson, an RCGA Officer, wrote the following letter to George's mother, Bessie:

"Mrs. Croft:

"Your son is in my company and I have been talking to him about going overseas.  He tells me he wants to go very much but that you don't wish him to go, so I thought I would write you about it.

"We are sending 50 men overseas in 2 or 3 months.  They will probably train in England for 6 months or so.  Nearly all the men in his company are going and it would be nice for your son to go over with his friends.

"Thousands of mothers have let their sons go overseas, so don't you think it is your turn now?  His cousin [Roy] wants to go too so I am writing his mother as well.

"Siege Artillery is the best part of the army to be in and by far the safest.  There are not very many casualties in siege artillery because their guns are over a mile behind the trenches and so the men live very comfortably.

"Please talk the matter over with your husband because your son wants to go very badly and doesn't think he should stay when nearly all his friends here are going.

"Remember he wouldn't be going for 2 or 3 months. I hope you will agree to let him come with us — he will be well looked after.  Please answer as soon as you can."

Apparently, both mothers agreed to Lt. Lawson's request.  George attested for overseas service with the 1st Reinforcement Draft, No. 8 Siege Battery, RCGA on January 20, 1917.  Eleven days later, Percy Ellis Croft enlisted with the same unit.  The cousins and their colleagues boarded SS Southland at Halifax on February 17, 1917 for the trans-Atlantic voyage, arriving at Liverpool, England after 10 days at sea.

On February 28, George and Percy reported to Siege Depot C, Royal Garrison Artillery, Stowlangtoft, east of Cambridge, England.  After completing the required training program, the cousins made their way to the Royal Canadian Artillery Reserve Brigade at Shorncliffe on May 25, but as fate would have it they soon parted ways.  The day following the cousins' arrival at Shorncliffe, Roy was "taken on strength" by the 23rd Battery, Reserve Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery.

Before year's end, Canadian military officials received notice that Roy had misrepresented his age at enlistment by one year.  Declared a "minor" as he would not reach the minimum requirement for service at the front — 19 years of age — until May 15, 1918, Roy was assigned to the Canadian Artillery Reserve Depot at Étaples, France.  Several subsequent health issues prevented him from serving with a front line unit during the war's remaining months.

Meanwhile, George passed the summer at Shorncliffe, finally receiving a transfer to the Canadian Reserve Artillery's 2nd Brigade on October 17, 1917.  The following day, he proceeded across the English Channel to Boulogne, France.  Before month's end, however, illness delayed George's journey to the front.  Upon reporting to No. 3 Australian Casualty Clearing Station on October 29, he was diagnosed with a bacterial infection.

On November 2, George was transferred to No. 51 General Hospital, Étaples, France for treatment.  He was discharged from hospital on December 15 and immediately reported to the Canadian Base Depot at Étaples.  One week later, he joined No. 9 Siege Battery, RCGA in the field.

*****

When Great Britain declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary on August 4, 1914, the Royal Canadian Garrison Artillery (RCGA) immediately mobilized at forts in the Halifax area and assumed responsibility for the strategic harbour's defence.  Its personnel could not proceed overseas, as no other troops were available to replace them.  As time passed and the possibility of coastal attack diminished, Halifax became a bustling departure point for troop transport vessels and thus still required a defensive presence.

In mid-1916, Lieutenant-Colonel S. A. Heward, Acting Commander of Halifax Citadel, proposed recruitment of a Siege Battery from RCGA ranks.  Military officials agreed, on condition that Heward recruit and train men to take their place at Halifax's forts.  The resulting unit — No. 9 Siege Battery, Canadian Field Artillery (CFA) — consisted of Officers and men belonging to the Royal Canadian Garrison Artillery.  The majority of its initial "other ranks" (OR) personnel came from No. 1 and 2 Companies RCGA, Halifax, supplemented by a small number from No. 5 Company, Esquimault, BC, while RCGA Halifax provided all of the unit's Officers.

No. 9 Siege Battery departed for England on September 27, 1916.  Upon arrival, the unit was equipped with six-inch howitzer guns.  It personnel consisted of six Officers, a Warrant Officer, seven Staff Sergeants, and 144 OR.  The unit spent the winter of 1916-17 in England, departing for France on March 22, 1917.

The battery initially deployed at Mont. St. Eloi, France during the Battle of Arras (Vimy Ridge), and saw action at Cabaret Rouge, Angres and Hill 70 (Lens) in subsequent months.  During its time in France, the unit reportedly fired more rounds, received more shelling, and was the closer to the German front line than any other siege battery on the Western Front.

No. 9 Siege Battery relocated to Belgium for the Canadian Corps' attack on Passchendaele Ridge (October - November 1917).  Upon being relieved on December 13, its personnel retired to Ham-en-Artois, France, 60 kilometres from Ypres, Belgium, for a period of rest and training.  Nine days later, Gunner George Edward Croft arrived in camp.  On December 26, the battery relocated to Villers-au-Bois, France, where training continued until January 10, 1918.

The following day, No. 9 Siege Battery relieved No. 6 Canadian Siege Battery, assuming operation of two guns at Angres and four guns at Petit Vimy, France.  According to the unit's war diary, its initial assignment was "wholly counter-battery", targeting German artillery positions.

In subsequent days, the unit executed all of the typical siege battery "shoots".  When subjected to hostile artillery fire, infantry units in the front line placed an "SOS" call, requesting retaliatory fire on the active gun positions.  The battery's guns also conducted routine "harassing fire" on specific enemy locations, such as roads and supply lines.  On occasion, its guns carried out "targeted shoots", in which observation balloons or aircraft directed fire.

January 13, 1918 — George's third day "in the line" — provides an example of a routine day.  According to No. 9's daily war diary, its guns responded to one "SOS" call, firing four rounds, while "several shoots of neutralizing fire were carried out on Hostile Batteries, about 150 rounds being expended."  Personnel also carried out "harassing fire" on specific targets from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m..  In return, German artillery shelled the battery position and vicinity from 12:00 to 4:00 p.m., but inflicted neither casualties nor damage.

The January 21 diary entry described a common problem caused by the howitzer's powerful recoil: "Concrete gun pits giving trouble.  Roofs cracking up under concussion, causing guns and slides to be filled up with debris…[;] all guns put out of action for 24 hours to enable repairs to be effected."  The following day, personnel were back in action, launching neutralizing fire on hostile batteries, along with harassing fire on "enemy roads, dugouts and train movement".

On January 30, the battery conducted a relatively new tactic: "Our first attempt at a shoot by 'sound ranging' was carried out, and reported on as very successful.  At least 6 O. K.'s being noted.  A total of 60 rounds were fired."  Four days later, the unit relieved No. 326 Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, at Cité de Colonne, assuming responsibility for two guns at the new location, in addition to a pair at nearby Maroc.

Australian unit operating 9.2" Mark I Howitzer at Fricourt, Somme (August 1916)
Over the following three weeks, personnel conducted "neutralizing fire", airplane-coordinated shoots, harassing fire and occasional "SOS" shoots.  On February 11, "a wire-cutting shoot was carried out… but the result was unsatisfactory on account of the high wind."  For the first time since George's arrival, the battery fired "10 rounds of Gas shells" on February 19, followed by another 20 rounds three days later.

No. 9 Siege Battery was relieved on February 25, at which time personnel returned to billets at Thèlus and resumed operation of gun positions at Petit Vimy.  Once again, the battery was its Brigade's most advanced unit and thus called upon to fire at the most distant targets.  The location placed its personnel in a vulnerable position in the event of a German attack, as Vimy Ridge's steep slopes — located behind its gun emplacements — made rapid evacuation difficult.

The unit's March 1 diary entry described an unusual assignment:

"An enemy position in [a] House… was successfully engaged.  A total of 15 rounds were fired, and the house was reported demolished by F. O. O. [forward observation officer].  Much work carried out in building of alternative defensive position[s along the Arras - Bethune Road and at Carency], in preparation for an anticipated enemy offensive."

Meanwhile, its guns conducted routine "shoots".  On March 4, for example, the unit launched neutralizing fire on hostile batteries in the morning, responded to "SOS" calls near Avion and Lens, and carried out neutralizing and harassing fire in the evening.  By day's end, the war diary recorded an addition to its arsenal: "Two howitzers arrive from O. O. Calais, and put into Rear Position.  Battery now complete as a 6-gun unit."  Five days later, the new guns registered their first shots on enemy targets, firing a total of 29 rounds.

No. 9's proximity to the German front line made it more vulnerable to enemy shelling.  Within days of the unit's return to the Vimy area, the war diary reported the first of several such instances: "During the night the enemy fired a few gas shells into and near the battery position."

Meanwhile, the arrival of spring brought increased activity along the entire front line.  On March 11, the battery fired 200 rounds with the assistance of airplane observation and another 500 with ground observation.  In response, "the enemy scattered HE gas and shrapnel in the vicinity of battery position.  No damage and no casualties."

The following day, No. 9 Siege Battery's guns executed a 200-round "airplane shoot" on hostile batteries, in addition to neutralizing fire on other heavy batteries.  German guns replied with approximately 250 rounds of 5.9 artillery shells in the vicinity of No. 1 gun, although the unit's war diary once again reported no damage or casualties.

As the days passed, heavy exchanges of fire became the norm, reaching a peak toward month's end.  German forces launched their anticipated "Spring Offensive" on March 21, targeting a section of the line south of the battery's location.  One week later, there was considerable activity in the battery's sector, its guns responding to two "SOS" calls near Oppy, launching 50 rounds of harassing fire on enemy roads, and conducting neutralizing fire on German gun positions.

That same day — March 28 — the war diary noted a marked increase in German artillery fire: "Thèlus (billets) was very heavily shelled throughout the day, as was Vimy and Petit Vimy and roads Arras-Lens."  By month's end, fierce artillery shelling became the daily norm, although the unit still managed to avoid casualties and damage to its equipment.

Under such daily bombardment, however, it was only a matter of time before the enemy registered a successful strike.  The first such incident occurred on April 3: "During the morning the enemy carried out what appeared to be an observed shoot on our position….  No. 4 Gun Pit was damaged, and the gun was temporarily put out of action.  No casualties."

Later events suggest that George was amongst the gunners assigned to this position.  No doubt, the gravity of the situation registered with the unit's Officers, if not its OR.  If German guns succeeded in calibrating its location, the safety of the personnel manning its gun emplacements was in jeopardy.
Two days after the successful strike on No. 4 Gun Pit, the battery launched a massive response:

"At 11:30 p.m. we commenced a heavy gas bombardment with H.E. [high explosive] and gas shells.  This bombardment was maintained throughout the night.  We fired 600 gas shells and 128 H.E. shell [sic].  Our rear position maintained harassing fire on enemy roads, light railways, etc. during the day and night and fired 153 [rounds] of gas shells into Chez Bon-Temps, in conjunction with… gas bombardment orders."

The shelling continued until 11:30 a. m. the following morning, at which time the unit resumed its normal routine.  Meanwhile, German guns continued their search for the unit's gun emplacements.  On April 13, the unit's war diary reported a "few [enemy] rounds close to No. 1 Gun.  No damage."
April 15, 1918 began as another routine day in the line.  No. 9's guns launched 30 rounds of harassing fire on various hostile batteries from 6:00 to 7:00 a.m., two shoots of neutralizing fire — 55 rounds — during the night, and 50 rounds of harassing fire on enemy targets.  A mid-afternoon incident, however, overshadowed the day's offensive fire:

"At about 10 a.m. the enemy commenced shelling our position… firing about 20 time [sic] H. E., apparently for ranging.  At 2:30 p.m. he commenced a heavy bombardment on [the] same location, and fired about 200 rounds.  One shell burst in No. 4 Gun Pit, in which Lieutenant Mackenzie and gun crew were working."

While the war diary reported "no material damage", the unit incurred casualties in the line for the first time since George's arrival.  Lt. Mackenzie suffered shrapnel wounds, while Bomber J. T. Wentzell was instantly killed.  Amongst its OR, three "gunners" were severely wounded and later died, while three others received shrapnel wounds.  "Gunner Croft" was one of the three wounded OR immediately evacuated for medical treatment.

*****

No. 9 Siege Battery continued to serve in the line for the remainder of the war, recording a total of one Officer and 67 OR fatalities during its entire war service.  While such numbers are tragic, they do bear testimony to Lt. Lawson's January 1917 letter, emphasizing the relative safety of artillery service, in comparison to front-line infantry duty.

Such assurances, however, were little comfort to George, as he was admitted to No. 57 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) on April 16, suffering from "sw [shrapnel wounds] head and 1st and 2nd fingers l. [left] hand".  According to his Field Hospital Card, metal fragments had penetrated the left hand's first, second and third fingers.  While several pieces were removed, they caused an intense infection that required an immediate operation for drainage at No. 57 CCS.

Telegram notifying parents of George's hospitalization.
Two days later, George was transferred to No. 12 General Hospital (St. Louis, MO), Rouen, where surgeons completed five more surgeries on his left hand.  Luckily, the shrapnel had merely grazed his forehead, inflicting only a superficial wound.  His hand, however, did not fare as well.  Following the last of his surgeries at No. 12 General, doctors noted a "marked deformity and complete absence of finger function", despite satisfactory healing of the wounds.

On June 20, George was evacuated to England aboard the hospital ship Aberdonian and admitted to 3rd Western Hospital at Cardiff, Wales the following day.  Medical records describe his condition at the time:

"Head wound healed.  Many incised wounds of left hand and wrist.  No acute infection now.  FB: Needle diagonally across palmar surface of metacarpal [bone] of middle finger."

A subsequent surgery at 3rd Western removed the "half needle" of metal from George's middle finger.  He spent 49 days at the Cardiff facility before being transferred to No. 16 General Hospital, Orpington on August 8.  A medical report at the time of his transfer described his left hand in detail:

"Scar of incision extending from joint of metacarpal 1/3 and distal of forearm to between the index and middle finger on the dorsal surface of left arm.  Scar of incision on lower third of solar surface, limited movement of the radius carpal [wrist] joint, ankylosis [joint stiffness] of metacarpal joint in small finger and thumb."

George was discharged from 3rd Western on September 4 and made his way to Granville Canadian Special Hospital, Buxton, Derbyshire, for further assessment and physiotherapy.  The condition of his left hand was not promising:

"Movement of wrist and fingers very slight.  Sensation lost in index and second fingers, muscles of hand and fingers quite wasted.  Other systems normal."

After almost two months' treatment at Granville, George was transferred to No. 5 Canadian General Hospital, Liverpool, where medical staff reported little sign of progress in his hand: "Voluntary movement slight only in little finger and thumb… considerable atrophy of muscles."

George spent four weeks at No. 5 Canadian General before he was "invalided" to Canada via HS Araguaya.  Upon arriving at Halifax on December 7, 1918, he was admitted to Camp Hill Hospital.  Medical staff described a scar on the back of George's left hand and lower forearm, in addition to impaired movement of his entire hand.  He had no use of the three middle fingers, very little use of his small finger, and only one inch of flexion in his thumb.

Despite several months' treatment, George was unable to flex or extend his remaining fingers and reported no sensation whatsoever in the first and second digits.  The left hand's muscles had "wasted" and two fingers had "ankylosed".  Medical authorities concluded that the shrapnel wounds had inflicted a "permanent" disability.  George was given six months to consider a complete amputation of his left hand, an option he later rejected.

After eight months at Camp Hill, Gunner George Edward Croft was formally discharged from military service as "medically unfit" on August 16, 1919.  Several years later, he received the British War and Victory Medals, in acknowledgement of his overseas service.

*****

Within months of his discharge, George settled into civilian life.  On March 10, 1920, he married Hilda Maude Penney, a native of Cape Sable Island, Shelburne County, in a ceremony held at All Saints Anglican Cathedral, Halifax.  "Best man" as the ceremony was none other than Percy Ellis Croft, the young cousin who had accompanied George across the Atlantic to England.  The following year, the couple welcomed their first child, Douglas Reginald Croft, into the world.  Maude subsequently gave birth to two daughters, Phyllis and Joyce.

Meanwhile, George was ordained as a minister and served as Pastor of Yarmouth and Halifax area congregations, before settling in Pleasant Valley, near Brookfield, Colchester County.  He operated a small farm and subsequently opened a general store in Brookfield.  In later years, George worked as a "tallyman", grading and tagging wood for Brookfield Lumber and Building Supply Ltd..

In their later years, the couple relocated to Barry Street, Truro, where George passed away at home on June 26, 1976.  He was laid to rest in nearby Watson (Salmon River) Cemetery, Truro, NS..

*****
Sources:

Hunt, M. S..  "9th Canadian Siege Battery, CEF."  Nova Scotia's Part in the Great War - 1920.  Manotick, ON: Archives CD Books Canada, Inc., 2007.  Available online.

Service file of Gunner George Edward Croft, No. 2163305.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 2149 - 18.  Available online.

War Diary of No. 9 Canadian Siege Battery, Royal Canadian Garrison Artillery.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG9, Militia and Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 4977, Reel T-10805, File: 576.  Available online.

A special thank you to Cam and Janet Cruickshank of Halifax, NS, who provided photographs, letters and information on George's family and post-war life.  Cam and Janet also obtained information from George's only remaining sibling, Violet, Halifax, NS, and his daughter, Joyce Cameron, Bass River, NS.