Place of Birth: Giant's Lake, Guysborough County*
Mother's Name: Flora MacLean
Father's Name: Archibald MacIsaac
Date of Enlistment: March 21, 1916 at Antigonish, NS
Regimental Number: 902010
Units: 193rd Battalion; 185th Battalion (Cape Breton Highlanders); 25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles)
Location of service: England & France
Occupation at Enlistment: Clerk
Marital Status at Enlistment: Single
Next of Kin: Mrs. Flora MacIsaac, Giant's Lake (mother)
Date of Discharge: February 14, 1919 at Halifax, NS
*: Attestation lists "Porter's River" as place of birth.
The small settlements scattered throughout the interior of Guysborough County provided numerous volunteers for military service. Alexander D. MacIsaac was a native of one such community. 'Nandy', as he was known to family members, was born at Porter's River, near Giant's Lake, Guysborough County, on July 17, 1893. His parents, Archibald and Flora, raised a family of seven children - three boys and four girls - on their family farm. An older brother, Alexander Laughlin (b. April 1, 1888), moved to Western Canada sometime before 1911, working as a storekeeper before being drafted into military service at Calgary on January 4, 1918.
The 193rd Battalion trained at Aldershot throughout the summer of 1916 before relocating to Halifax in preparation for overseas deployment. On October 12, 1916 - the same day that his promotion to Adjutant Corporal became official - young Nandy MacIsaac boarded the SS Olympic with the members of Nova Scotia's famed "Highland Brigade" for their trans-Atlantic journey. The Brigade's four battalions disembarked at Liverpool, England on October 18, travelling by train and then foot to Witley Camp, Surrey, England.
When military authorities decided to dissolve the 193rd Battalion later that year, Nandy was transferred to the 185th Battalion (Cape Breton Highlanders), one of two regiments that survived the Highland Brigade's dissolution, on December 29, 1916. He remained in England throughout 1917, training in preparation for an overseas assignment. His leadership potential soon became apparent, as he was promoted to "A/Sgt." with the pay of Corporal on November 10, 1917. Before year's end, he was granted the full pay to which his rank was entitled.
As with many other volunteers, Nandy's military career seems to have "stalled" in England. Promotions may have indicated leadership potential, but the vast majority of men who voluntarily enlisted for service had one major goal in mind - to see action on the front lines in Belgium and France. In order to hasten such a transfer, Nandy reverted to ranks "at his own request" on February 25, 1918. Four days later, he was transferred to the 25th Battalion and proceeded across the English Channel for service at the front.
On March 15, 1918, the 25th Battalion was enjoying a period of rest, recreation and training near Raimbert, France, when Pte. Alexander MacIsaac and three "other ranks" (OR) reinforcements joined the unit. One week later, officers received orders to stand by "for a sudden move to the line… owing to [an] expected attack by the enemy". The men relocated to Wailly on March 29, spending two days in support positions before retiring to billets without seeing action.
Finally, on April 5, the battalion moved into front line positions at Neuville-Vitasse with a "trench strength" of 20 officers and 668 OR. Over the next several days, both sides exchanged artillery fire, with the 25th's position "heavily shelled with gas from 4.00 am to 7.00 am" on April 8. The battalion recorded no casualties and was relieved of front line duty the following day, retiring for three days to support positions before moving into billets at Wailly for a period of rest and training.
Four days later, on April 16, Nandy accompanied the regiment into the front lines near Mercatel. The following day brought the first significant casualties since his arrival, when three OR were killed by a direct artillery strike on a machine gun placement. Otherwise, the situation was relatively quiet, with intermittent exchanges of artillery fire, the occasional gas shell and frequent enemy aircraft activity. On April 24, the 25th was once again relieved of front line duty and retired to billets at Bailleulval.
The battalion continued to serve in rotation along the Mercatel sector of the front lines throughout May and June. The only notable incident during this period occurred on June 13, when a party of 6 officers and 140 OR from the 25th raided an enemy outpost line, capturing 5 prisoners - including 2 officers - and one machine gun and killing an estimated 50 to 60 German soldiers. One officer and 1 OR soldier were killed in the raid, with 22 OR wounded and 3 missing after the encounter.
On June 30, the men retired to billets at Bellacourt for a much-deserved rest. A delegation of 200 men participated in a July 1 "Dominion Day" Canadian Corps athletic competition at Tinques, with the unit spending the remainder of the month resting, training and enjoying the occasional recreational activity near Arras, France.
Nandy and the men of the 25th returned to the trenches near Bois de Blangy in the evening hours of August 5. They remained in this location for two days before moving to "jumping off" positions near Cachy on August 7, in preparation for an attack scheduled the following day. The battalion was about to participate in the battle of Amiens, a major counterattack in response to the German "spring offensive" that had taken place earlier that same year. In retrospect, the events that unfolded over the next few days mark the beginning of the war's eventual end.
The Allied attack was carefully planned, with particular emphasis on surprising the enemy. The 25th's war diary notes that "no whistling or singing was allowed" as the men marched to their assigned location, and "all ranks were forbidden to enter any village. The importance of secrecy was appreciated by the men, who acted accordingly."
The day's war diary entry provides a sense of the challenges faced in the advance: "The mist and smoke was so thick that it was impossible to proceed other than by compass [, which] was also difficult at times owing to the obscurity of all land marks". At day's end, the battalion remained in the newly consolidated line. Its casualties were relatively light, considering the ferocity of battle. Two officers were killed and another 5 wounded, while 6 OR were killed, 102 wounded and 3 missing in the battle's aftermath.
The following day, the battalion was order to continue the attack from their positions, proceeding "over the ridge in front of Caix" at 1 pm in the face of a "light artillery barrage and strong enemy machine gun fire". Approximately 250 German soldiers holding front line positions surrendered and were taken prisoner as the advance continued. The war diary records stiff resistance from "large numbers of enemy machine gun posts", but the battalion persevered. By day's end, the unit had captured the villages of Veely and Meharicourt, with assistance from several tanks. One officer was wounded, 6 OR killed and an additional 152 wounded in the day's fighting.
Nandy and the soldiers of the 25th remained in the newly established front lines near Amiens until the night of August 16-17, when they were retired to billets at Caix. In the aftermath of the battle, Nandy found himself in a new role. On August 9, while engaged in battle near Amiens, he was officially appointed "a/L/Cpl.", with the pay of "L/Cpl". By month's end, he received an additional promotion to "Corporal". The leadership qualities apparent during his early months of training were once again being recognized on the battlefields of France.
On September 19, Corporal MacIsaac returned to the front lines with the 25th, which was assigned a sector of trench southeast of the village of Inchy-en-Artois. Two days later, an enemy attack on their right flank was "completely repulsed" and "the enemy retired to their former positions [,] leaving many dead and wounded in our hands". Heavy artillery shelling the next day was followed by a German infantry attack at 9 pm, but once again the enemy was "forced to withdraw". The war diary entry records "numerous counter-attacks" through the night, each "repulsed by our bombs and machine gun fire". Casualties were light, with only 5 OR wounded in the day's action.
Fighting intensified on September 25, with a heavy artillery barrage at 5 am followed by a German infantry "attack in force". The war diary describes the battalion's response:
"Our S.O.S. was sent up and the field guns opened up immediately. We prevented the enemy from entering our trenches and in many places our men started over the top to meet the enemy, who was completely repulsed after some heavy fighting. The enemy continued to bombard our trenches all day, lifting fire toward evening."
Later that night, the 25th was relieved by the 44th Canadian Infantry Battalion and retired to bivouac and trench shelters at Hendecourt. Six OR were killed and an additional 16 wounded in the day's fighting, relatively light casualties considering the intensity of the attack.
Once week later, the battalion was assigned a vital task in a key battle unfolded over the strategically important location of Cambrai. German troops controlled several bridges that crossed the canals around the town, and the 25th was given the objective of capturing one such position at Canal de L'Escaut. According to the war diary's October 9th entry, "at 0130… the [25th] Battalion attacked the Canal.., 'C' and 'D' Companies establishing bridgeheads…. 'A' and 'B' Companies continued the attack and reached their objective in a short time and consolidated their positions…. Casualties - 15 O. R. killed and 85 O. R. wounded."
The brief war diary description does not reveal the entire story of what transpired in those early morning hours. The men faced significant enemy resistance in establishing the bridgeheads. One Company, under the command of Captain Charles Beckett Holmes, encountered an enemy machine gun nest upon crossing the canal. The outcome of the attack hung in the balance as several soldiers advanced in the face of unrelenting gunfire.
The battalion remained stationary for one day before relocating to a new position on the front lines following an October 11 attack by the 4th and 6th Brigades. Three days later, Nandy and the men of the 25th retired to billets at Tilloy, passing the next two weeks resting, cleaning up and training in preparation for a return to action. Nandy's days on the front lines came to an end when he proceeded to England on October 25, 1918 "with a view to obtaining a commission" as an officer. The leadership skills evident throughout his service with the 193rd, 185th and 25th Battalions were thus officially acknowledged.
Nandy was posted to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot at Bramshott, where he was appointed "a/Sgt. with pay" effective immediately. His officers' training, however, was brought to an end by the November 11, 1918 armistice. On November 13, Nandy was transferred to the 17th Reserve Battalion, where he remained "A/Sgt. with pay". One month later, he was posted "on command" as Sergeant with "10 Canadian Reserves" at Bramshott. On January 12, 1919, he was transferred to CEF No. 6 D. D. Halifax and departed England for Canada on January 31 aboard the Empress of Britain. On February 14, 1919, Sgt. Alexander D. MacIsaac was officially discharged from military service at Halifax.
After his discharge, Nandy remained in Halifax, where he received his Distinguished Conduct Medal from HRH Edward, Prince of Wales, in an August 1919 ceremony. The event marked the completion of his military career. Nandy found employment in the Halifax area as a tailor and settled into civilian life. On August 24, 1924, he married Mary Teresa MacDonald, a native of Ketch Harbour who was working in the city as a stenographer. The newlyweds took up residence at Mary's 95 Jubilee Road address. Nandy subsequently opened a tailor shop under the business name "Wilmot's".
|Sgt. Alexander MacIsaac receiving the Distinguished Conduct Medal from HRH Edward, Prince of Wales|
Regimental Record of Sgt. Alexander MacIsaac, No. 902010. Library and Archives Canada.
RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 6911 - 29. Available online.
War Diaries: 25th Canadian Infantry Battalion. War Diaries of the First World War. Library and Archives Canada. RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3 , Volume 4933 , Reel T-10736. File : 419. Available online.
Photographs of Sgt. Alexander MacIsaac courtesy of his great-nephew, Mr. Neil MacIaac, Giant's Lake, Guysborough County, NS.