This blog post is the first of a series of posts, summarizing the information available on the life and First World War service of Guysborough County's 24 No. 2 Construction Battalion enlistments. Readers are asked to notify the blog author if there are any errors, or if a reader has additional information on any of the men profiled in these posts.
1. Private Thomas Ash Jr.:
According to his military enlistment papers, Thomas Ash Jr. was born at Big Tracadie, Guysborough County, on December 25, 1898. A medical document in his service file gives the date as September 8, 1898. At the time of the 1901 census, the Ash family consisted of parents Thomas Sr. (January 8, 1862) and Sarah Jane (maiden surname Day, DOB July 5, 1875) Ash, their five sons—Norman (January 4, 1899), Thomas Jr. (May 4, 1897), James (August 8, 1896), Freeman (September 4, 1893) and Ernest (March 5, 1892)—and Thomas Sr.’s mother Sarah (June 10, 1820).
Over the following decade, four more children—Redmond (March 1903), Rebecca (August 1904), Clara (December 1906) and Mary Ann (June 1908)—joined the family. A fifth child, Adelia “Delia” (December 1891), was not listed in the 1901 census but was part of the household in 1911.
Thomas Sr. passed away at Upper Big Tracadie on January 25, 1911. Only 49 years of age at the time, he had suffered from “dropsy” (acute swelling of extremities, due to fluid retention) for eight months prior to his death. The symptom suggests that he was suffering from either kidney failure or congestive heart failure. Thomas Sr.’s passing left his widow Jane with the challenge of supporting a large family on the family farm, with the help of her oldest sons.
On September 22, 1916, 17-year-old Thomas Ash Jr. attested for service with No. 2 Construction Battalion at Truro, NS. At the time of his enlistment, he stood five feet ten inches and weighed 160 pounds, a sturdy constitution in comparison to many of his comrades. Thomas was briefly hospitalized with tonsillitis in mid-December, but fully recovered. He departed for overseas with the unit on March 28, 1917, and disembarked at Liverpool, UK, nine days later.
Thomas was one of the 495 No. 2 Construction “other ranks” who crossed the English Channel to France on May 17, 1917, in the company of 11 officers. Three days later, the group arrived in the Jura district of eastern France, near the Swiss border, where the men were attached to No. 5 District, Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC) for duty.
Thomas worked in the Jura District without incident throughout the summer on 1917. On October 25, he was hospitalized for what appeared to be influenza. Medical records briefly summarized his medical history at the time: “Began feeling weaker in October and soon after face, hands and feet became swollen. Has severe occipital headache. Previous to this time he had good health.”
While Thomas improved sufficiently to be discharged to duty after six days, his recovery was temporary. On November 21, he was admitted to hospital at Champagnole, where doctors determined that he was suffering from “nephritis acute” (kidney disease). His headache had returned and he was also experiencing the severe back pain associated with a kidney ailment.
Thomas remained in the Jura District hospital until late February 1918, when he was transferred to No. 8 General Hospital, Rouen. Doctors there attributed the cause of his illness as “exposure” to damp, cold working conditions. On March 3, 1918, Thomas was invalided to the United Kingdom, where he was admitted to Chester War Hospital. At the time of Thomas’s arrival, the hospital reported no outward symptoms, other than weakness and diminished urine output.
Thomas received a treatment regimen that included bed rest, a milk diet, and administration of “iron mist.” On July 29, he had recovered sufficiently to be transferred to Kings Canadian Red Cross Special Hospital, Bushy Park, Hampton Hill. Thomas spent almost two months at the facility before departing for Canada aboard HMT “K” on September 24.
The vessel docked at Quebec on October 7 and Thomas made his way to Nova Scotia by rail. Upon arriving at Halifax, he was admitted to Pine Hill Hospital and remained under medical care throughout the autumn and winter of 1918-19. A note on his medical file, dated January 8, 1919, summarized his situation at admission: “Has been under treatment since February 1918. Feels well now. Is anaemic. Some puffiness under eyes and feet swell if he walks much. Tongue badly coated.”
In mid-March 1919, medical staff noted that Thomas “has improved considerably in the last two months.” Discharged from hospital on March 21, 1919, he was released from military service one week later and returned home to Big Tracadie. At the time of the 1921 Canadian census, Thomas was living at home with his widowed mother Jane, brother Redmond, and sisters Clara and Delia, who had married the previous year. Also residing in the house was Delia’s one-month-old daughter, Evangeline Cox.
Sometime after 1921, Thomas relocated to Sydney, where he went to work in the local coal mines. On December 14, 1926, he married Elena Gero, daughter of John J. and Annie (Sheppard) Gero. At some point after their marriage, the couple returned to Big Tracadie, where Thomas operated a farm. Thomas and Elena, welcomed a daughter, Marion Lahaina—their only child—on January 24, 1931.
The health issues that plagued Thomas during his time overseas resurfaced several years after his daughter’s birth. He passed away at Upper Big Tracadie on January 29, 1935. The doctor who completed the death certificate identified the cause of death as “dropsy,” the same condition that had claimed his father’s life almost exactly 24 years previously. Considering Thomas Jr.’s prior medical history, the most likely cause of death was kidney failure, which would directly connect his passing to his time in uniform. Thomas Ash was laid to rest in Sunnyview Cemetery, Tracadie.
|Pte. Thomas Ash's headstone, Sunnyview Cemetery|
2. Private John Joseph Backus:
According to his First World War attestation papers, John Joseph Backus (Bacchus) was born at Goldenville, Guysborough County, on December 20, 1876. A medical document completed prior to his discharge recorded his date of birth as December 24, 1868, while the Canadian census conducted in April 1871 lists John’s age as one year old at the time. This information suggests that John’s year of birth was likely 1869 or 1870.
John’s parents, Joseph Backus and Annie Williams, raised a large family in the small mining community near Sherbrooke—William (c. 1862), John (c. 1869), Elizabeth “Libbie” (c. 1871), Margaret (c. 1872), Carrie (c. 1878), Eva (c. 1882), Harriet (c. 1884) and Ruth (c.1886). John appears to have travelled extensively during his younger years. On January 15, 1897, he married Mary (Burk) Murphy, a native of Utica, NY, at Boston, MA. Records state that it was the second marriage for both participants. (The identity of John’s first wife is unknown, but this marriage appears to have produced two daughters, later identified in his military service file.)
On September 16, 1916, John enlisted with the No. 2 Construction Battalion at Montreal, QC. His attestation papers list his occupation at the time as “teamster and vetinary [sic - veterinary],” suggesting extensive experience working with horses. The “Particulars of Family” form in his service file indicates that John was a widower, with two adult daughters—Gertrude, age 24 years, and Maud, age 26 years.
Following his enlistment, John travelled by rail to Truro, NS, where he joined No. 2 Construction’s ranks. He spent the autumn and winter of 1916-17 in Nova Scotia, departing for overseas with the unit on March 28, 1917, and arrived at Liverpool, UK, 12 days later. On May 17, John landed in France with a detachment of 495 No. 2 Construction “other ranks” and 11 officers, all of whom proceeded to No. 5 District, Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC), which operated in the Jura District of eastern France, close to the Swiss border.
Given John’s age—he was at least 40 years old at the time of his enlistment—and background, he most likely tended to the horses that were a vital resource in the harvesting of timber. Each CFC site contained a large stable, where the animals received daily care and were closely monitored for illness or injury.
On December 30, 1917, John was part of a group of 180 “other ranks” (OR) and two officers that departed from Jura and reported for duty with Central Group CFC, No. 1 District, Alençon. A total of nine CFC companies logged the Normandy forests in the District. The camps were quite diverse, containing a mixture of white CFC personnel, black No. 2 Construction men, several groups of Russian reinforcements, and German POW work parties.
John remained at Alençon for the duration of his time in France. He enjoyed a 14-day leave in September 1918 and returned to the United Kingdom with the unit on December 14, 1918. Hospitalized with pleurisy on January 1, 1919, he spent two weeks under medical care. As a result, John did not travel to Canada with his No. 2 Construction mates, who departed on January 12. Instead, he returned aboard HMTS Aquitania six days later and was discharged from military service at Halifax on February 19.
John returned home to Goldenville, and was still residing there at the time of the 1921 census, which identifies him as a 53-year-old, widowed labourer, living by himself. In mid-November 1922, his military service medals were dispatched to his Goldenville address.
On December 6, 1922, John married Eliza Janette Ash, daughter of Joseph and Julia (Reid) Ash, Boylston. The couple took up residence at Goldenville. Eliza passed away at Aberdeen Hospital, New Glasgow, on July 9, 1932. According to her death certificate, Eliza was a widow at the time of her passing, meaning that John passed away sometime between the couple’s December 1922 marriage and Eliza’s July 1932 death. No documented record of his passing can be located.
|No. 2 Construction Battalion Badge|
3. Private David George Borden:
David George Borden was born at Tracadie, Guysborough County, on April 2, 1882, the son of George and Lydia (Clyke) Borden. David was living in Sydney at the time of his December 6, 1901 marriage to Ida Bowen, a 27-year-old widow and daughter of George and “Mrs. L.” Brown, as identified on the couple’s marriage license. By 1911, David and Ida had relocated to Truro, where they were residing with a daughter Pearly at the time of the Canadian census.
David was one of No. 2 Construction Battalion’s early recruits, attesting for service with the unit at Halifax on August 29, 1916. At the time, he identified his mother Lydia, Leeman’s Lane, Truro, as his next of kin. According to his service file, David’s father George was deceased at the time of his enlistment.
David spent an uneventful autumn and winter at Pictou and Truro training with the battalion. On March 16, 1917, he was admitted to General Hospital, Truro, for treatment of rheumatism, but was discharged in time to join his comrades aboard SS Southland as they departed for overseas before month’s end.
On April 7, 1917, David arrived at Liverpool, England, and spent six weeks in the United Kingdom with the unit before departing for France with approximately 500 of No. 2 Construction’s personnel. Over the ensuing 20 months, he worked alongside Canadian Forestry Corps personnel in the Jura District of France. During that time, David received a 14-day leave to Paris in February 1918 and was briefly hospitalized for treatment of indigestion in June 1918.
David returned to the United Kingdom with his unit on December 14, 1918, and departed for Canada one month later. He was officially discharged from military service at Halifax, NS, on February 15, 1919, and gave his intended place of residence at Mill St., Truro, where his wife Ida resided during his time overseas.
Sometime after returning to civilian life, David relocated to Saint John, NB, where the 1921 census listed him as a “lodger” in home of Nettie Johnson. Ida later followed him to the city, where she passed away on March 3, 1937. Several years after Ida’s passing, David married Rita Mae Berryman, daughter of Henry Berryman and Minnie Jarvis, Yarmouth, NS, in a ceremony held at Calvary United Baptist Church, Saint John, NB, on May 18, 1946.
David George Borden passed away Saint John General Hospital, NB, on June 7, 1958. According to his death certificate, he had been employed as a “fireman” at the Saint John Armouries until 1954. He was laid to rest in Cedar Hill Cemetery Extension, Saint John. NB.
|Pte. David Borden's Grave Marker|
A special thanks to Candace McGuire and the staff of Cedar Hill Cemetery Extension, Saint John, NB, for providing a photograph of David Borden's grave marker.