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Friday, 25 November 2011

Pte. Robert Burns - My Great Uncle's Story

Today, I am posting what is the first of a series of biographies of various Guysborough County World War I veterans.  Each month, I plan to choose a soldier for whom I have gathered sufficient information to present a summary of their life and wartime experience.   Several will be veterans to whom I have a personal connection through family, marriage or personal acquaintance with living relatives.  Others will be chosen in an effort to represent the variety of veterans' military experiences or the particular nature of their stories.  I hope that you find them informative, and that I do justice to the stories of their lives.

The following post describes the life and brief military career of Pte. Robert Burns.  I have chosen to begin with this posting for several reasons.  Firstly, Pte. Burns is my great-uncle - a brother to my grandmother.  Secondly, I have over time gathered considerable information about his life and in particular the battalion in which he was enlisted.  This has allowed me to reconstruct the story with what I believe to be an accurate account of his wartime experience.  Finally, this is the 96th anniversary of Pte. Burn's death - a fitting date on which to remember and reflect upon his sacrifice.

Subsequent posts will not be as detailed as this one.  I was fortunate to have access via the Internet to the 20th Battalion's daily war diary.  That fact, combined with the brief duration of Pte. Burns' military service, made it possible to present an overview of his experience from the moment of his arrival in France to his death.  The details describing trench life also provide an appropriate background for later biographies.
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 Pte. Robert Burns (Center) 

Date of Birth: May 13, 1891(1901 census lists date as May 15, 1891) 
Place of Birth: Salmon River Lakes, Guysborough County, NS 
Mother's Name: Ellen J. (Long) (1865 - 1944) 
Father's Name: Robert E. Burns (1843 - 1919) 
Date of Enlistment: January 8, 1915 at Toronto, Ontario 
Regimental Number: 57983 
Rank: Private 
Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force - Infantry 
Regiment: 1st Central Ontario Regiment 
Name of Unit: 20th Infantry Battalion 
Location of service: Belgium 
Occupation at Enlistment: Miner 
Marital Status at Enlistment: Single 
Next of Kin: Sister Annie named on attestation papers
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Robert Burns was the third child - second son - in a family of 11 children, two of whom died in infancy.  (The second youngest child – Rose Ellen – was my grandmother.)  Two of Robert’s younger brothers also served in the Canadian military.  Edward saw service in World War I and Joseph served in World War II.

After the departure for England of the First Contingent, Canadian Expeditionary Force in October 1914, the Canadian government commenced recruitment of a Second Contingent during the winter of 1914-15.  Robert’s enlistment date – January 8, 1915 – indicates that he was part of this campaign. Like many young men of his day, Robert left Nova Scotia in search of gainful employment elsewhere.  When he enlisted in Toronto, he gave his occupation as"miner", suggesting employment in the "hard rock" mines of northern Ontario before volunteering for overseas military service. 

Unlike the First Contingent, which had crossed the Atlantic in one large convoy, the Second Contingent sailed for England in the spring of 1915 in separate, unescorted vessels.  Robert’s transport, SS Megantic, owned by the famous White Star Line, departed Montreal on May 16 and arrived in England on May 24, 1915.  Robert and his comrades spent the summer training at Shorncliffe, near the coast of Kent, England.  The 20th Battalion was amongst the units reviewed by H. R. H. King George V and Lord Kitchener, British Secretary of War, on September 2.  This must have been a remarkable experience for a 24-year-old from the heart of Guysborough County! 

The 20th Battalion departed Folkestone, England for France at 10:15 pm September 14, on board the Duchess of Argyle.  The Battalion’s war diary describes the journey as a “short, rough passage”.  The unit disembarked at Boulogne, France at 12:30 am.  Robert and rest of the battalion then marched for three miles before arriving - exhausted - at a rest camp at 2 am, September 15.

As daylight broke, the battalion continued its journey eastward toward the front on foot, with the exception of one short train ride.  By nightfall on September 16, 75 % of the battalion had arrived in Eecke, a small French town close to the Belgian border.  The daily war diary entry notes that “a great many fell out from sore feet and exhaustion”, a problem the officers blamed on “English boots [that] are made differently from the Canadian [ones]”.  Robert and his colleagues underwent additional training in the Eecke area in cloudy but warm weather, as the men regained their strength after the arduous journey from the coast.

The 20th Battalion was assigned to the 4th Brigade of the 2nd Division, and given the task of defending a section of the front line near the village of Messines, in the Ypres Salient.  By September the 2nd Battle of Ypres (April – May 1915) had resulted in small but significant changes to the combatants’ battle positions.  The Germans now held the higher ground in the regions of Passchendaele and Messines, and the battle had significantly reduced the size of the Ypres Salient held by Allied troops.  As summer gave way to fall, the two sides settled into a routine of enemy trench bombardment, sniper fire, and perilous night raids in an effort to inflict whatever damage possible - physical or psychological - on their opponents.

By late September, 20th Battalion units occupied positions along the front line in the areas of Dranoutre and St. Quentin, Belgium, southwest of Ypres.  On September 28, the battalion took its first casualties under heavy shelling – one killed and three injured.  By this time, temperatures had dropped and rain worsened the already poor living conditions in the Allied trenches.  Sniper and artillery fire were a constant danger as Robert and his Canadian colleagues attempted to repair the dilapidated trenches when weather conditions made it possible. 

Direct verbal exchanges with the enemy were not uncommon.  The September 29th War Diary entry noted a plea from the enemy, whose supply lines had been interrupted by Allied machine gun fire.  When German soldiers offered to surrender “the whole bloody trench for some bully beef [and bread]”, a Canadian soldier replied, “Sure, we’ll give you bread”.  He then emptied two ammunition clips in their direction, saying: “Take the crust first”. 

Shelling and sniper fire continued into October as living conditions became increasingly “muddy and uncomfortable”.  The unit was finally relieved of front line duty on October 2, falling back to the relative comfort of Dranoutre.  One week later, Robert was back on the front lines at St. Eloi, where the trenches were in poor condition.  Action was less intense than the battalion’s first week at the front, although sniper fire remained a constant threat. Robert no doubt took part in the battalion’s efforts to improve their living conditions.

The war diary describes considerable activity on October 13 as the men feigned an attack, complete with smoke bombs and “rapid bursts of fire”.  The Germans responded with artillery fire, including “incendiary shells” that inflicted burns on several men.  One comment of interest – underlined for emphasis – was that “the jamming of rifles was frequent”. This was a common problem with the Canadian manufactured Ross Rifles that were standard issue to Canadian troops at this time.  By the end of the day, the situation had returned to the relative calm of previous days. 

The October 14 diary entry recorded the death of a Private Mitchell from sniper fire.  Otherwise, the situation was quiet.  The following day, the battalion was relieved once again by the 21st.  The men spend the next few days training, bathing, attending religious service, engaging in football [soccer] games between rival companies, and enjoying the battalion band’s musical talents.  Despite the relative normality of life behind the front lines, the psychological impact of combat was evident in the war diary’s comment that one of its captains “was suffering from a nervous breakdown, and will not be back here for duty”.

On October 21, the men relieved the 21st Battalion and Robert returned to the front lines at Dickebusch.  Considerable aircraft activity occurred over the next few days as weather conditions were clear.  Aside from two casualties caused by enemy gunfire and the occasional artillery shell, the week passed without incident and the battalion was once again relieved on October 27.   The men spent the week repairing the condition of their reserve accommodations, which had deteriorated due to the weather and poor soil consistency.   
Robert Burns
20th Battalion was part of 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade.
Click image to enlarge.
(Source: Nicholson, G. W. L. Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919.)
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After only four days’ rest, the battalion was unexpectedly ordered back to the front lines at Dickebusch. Once again, Robert and his comrades set about improving the wretched living conditions.  As the weather was damp and cold, the men welcomed receipt of “goat skin coats and waterproof capes”, although there was a dire shortage of rubber boots.  A spell of wet weather wreaked havoc, causing trenches and dugouts to collapse due to lack of proper drainage.

The November 3rd diary entry recorded “a cessation of rifle fire” due to a “sort of mutual agreement".  This was a welcome relief to the men, considering the terrible condition of the front line’s parapet and communication trenches.  A break in the weather allowed the men to undertake much-needed repairs and commence construction of a breastwork behind the front line trenches, tasks in which Robert no doubt participated.  The battalion was once again relieved by the 21st on the afternoon of November 7.

During their week in the support trenches, the officers conducted a foot inspection.  While the “general condition of the feet is good, …there are a few who show signs of Trench Foot” from the mud, cold and water endured during the previous week.  The men participated in physical drill, machine gun and bomb training sessions, weather permitting.

On November 14, one soldier was killed and two wounded as the 20th once again relieved the 21st Battalion in the Dickebusch section of the front line.  The men continued work on the breastwork behind the front line trenches.  The war diary noted: “The front line is in very bad condition and offers very little resistance or protection”.   Under heavy shelling for several days, the battalion suffered its “worst day” of battle experience on November 17, when five men were killed and two wounded in four separate incidents.  By now, no doubt the harsh realities of trench warfare were becoming apparent to Robert and his comrades.  The battalion was relieved once again by the 21st on November 18th.

A spell of colder weather brought unexpected relief, solidifying the mud and making living conditions more bearable.  Despite frequent artillery fire, the men continued training and trench repair, before returning to the Dickebusch trenches on November 22.  One soldier was killed by sniper fire while working on the breastwork, an incident that proved to be an ominous occurrence for Robert.  Mist, fog and showers made conditions uncomfortable for the next several days.

On November 25th, the weather was “fine all day with showers at night”.  The men placed 20 knife rests along the front of “O” trenches early in the morning, an activity in which Robert may well have participated.  If so, it would be his last contribution to the Canadian war effort.  The War Diary entry tersely noted that “Pte. Burns, No. 4 was killed while on working party”, a probable victim of the deadly sniper fire that took the lives of so many Canadian soldiers.

On the following day - November 26th - the 20th Battalion was relieved by the 21st.
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Robert Burns is buried in Ridge Wood Military Cemetery, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium, 5 kilometers southwest of Ypres.  His death is commemorated on Page 7 of the First World War Book of Remembrance on display in the Parliament Buildings, Ottawa.  He posthumously received the British War Medal in recognition of his overseas service.  While records indicate that Robert was also eligible for the Victory Medal and 1914-15 Star, neither medal was issued.  His mother, Mrs. Ellen Burns, received the Memorial Cross medal in memory of her deceased son, along with a commemorative plaque and scroll sent to all families who lost a member in combat.  The location of these items today is a mystery.  Only the British War Medal has survived in the possession of Robert’s nephew, Rod MacDonald of Salmon River Lake.

Grave of Pte. Robert Burns    
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Sources: 
1.  Nicholson, Colonel G. W. L.. Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919.  Queen’s Printer, Ottawa, 1962.  Available online. 

2. Regimental Documents of Robert Burns.  Library and Archives Canada.  Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1306 - 47. 
3. War Diaries – 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion.  Library and Archives Canada.  Available online.
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