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Saturday, 28 January 2012

Pte. Earle Whidden Demmons - A Conscripted Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: May 10, 1894
Place of Birth: Waternish, Guysborough County, NS
Mother's Name: Mary Jane (Whidden - 1870-1930)
Father's Name: Isaac N. Demmons (1864-1936)
Date of Enlistment: June 8, 1918 at Aldershot, NS
Occupation at Enlistment: Laborer
Marital Status at Enlistment: Single
Regimental Number: 3189131
Rank: Private
Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force - Infantry
Units: 1st Depot Battalion, Nova Scotia Regiment; 17th Reserve Regiment; 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders)
Location of service: England, France & Belgium
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Earle Whidden Demmons was born on May 10, 1894, the oldest of ten children (six boys and four girls) raised by Isaac N. and Mary Jane (Whidden) Demmons in their family home at Waternish, Guysborough County.  In later years, the family relocated to the nearby community of Lower Smithfield, where Earle spent his boyhood.

View from the Demmons farm, Lower Smithfield
 Over the first two years of World War I (1914-1916), the rising number of casualties and declining number of recruits made it increasingly difficult to meet Canada's manpower needs at the front.  By the spring of 1917, it was apparent that the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) could no longer rely exclusively on voluntary enlistment.   In June 1917, the Canadian government of Prime Minister Robert Borden made the controversial decision to introduce conscription.  When the Canadian Parliament passed the Military Service Act in August 1917, Earle was 23 years of age and therefore registered for "the draft", as required by the law.

The call to military service came the following spring.  Earle enlisted on June 8, 1918 at Aldershot, NS, joining his fellow conscripts in the 1st Depot Battalion, Nova Scotia Regiment for medical examinations and basic training.  Like many other recruits, Earle assigned a portion of his monthly salary  - $10 - to his mother.  On August 2, he departed Halifax on the transport SS Ixion for the journey across the Atlantic, arriving in Liverpool, England on August 15.  The following day, Earle was "taken on strength" by the 17th Reserve Battalion based in Bramshott, England, and continued military training while awaiting assignment to a unit at the front.

Pte. Earle Whidden Demmons
 On November 16, the call to active duty came when Earle was assigned to the 85th Battalion, Nova Scotia Highlanders.  By this time, fighting had been brought to an end by the November 11 ceasefire.  Large numbers of Allied troops, however, remained at the front lines awaiting orders.  The 85th, part of the Canadian 4th Division, was initially assigned to the Allied "army of occupation" and scheduled to move into the German Rhineland as part of the ceasefire's terms.

By the time Earle reached the 85th on November 18th, the battalion was located near the Belgian town of Quivrechain.  Soldiers who had fought in the muddy front trenches now enjoyed comfortable accommodations - baths, hot meals, spring mattresses and clean linen - for the first time in months.  The regiment had driven German forces from Quivrechain on November 6 and therefore received an enthusiastic response upon arrival.  Residents organized a reception and dance for the soldiers, with the regiment's silver band and pipe band providing the music.

The battalion relocated to Hyon, a suburb of Mons, on November 20,  in preparation for its Rhineland assignment.  British commanders, however, decided to send only the first two Canadian divisions into Germany.  The 3rd and 4th Divisions - the latter of which included the 85th Battalion -  would remain in Belgium. 

The men maintained a busy daily schedule of military and physical training, supplemented by academic and vocational classes designed to prepare them for their return to civilian life.  Sports competitions within and among the various regiments, dances and concerts rounded out a busy schedule.

On November 20 -  the same day that the 85th relocated to Hyon - Earle was reassigned to the Canadian Divisional Reinforcement Centre (CCRC), a base in France where troops were held before being transferred to field units in need of manpower.  One month later, he returned to the 85th, arriving in the field on December 23.  His arrival was timely, as the battalion was preparing to celebrate its first peacetime Christmas.  A dance was held on Christmas Eve, followed by dinner at noon on Christmas Day.  Arrangements had been made for delivery of one half ton of turkeys by lorry from Paris!  Participating in such celebrations much have been a memorable occasion for Earle.

The New Year saw the battalion on the move once again, relocating to the Wavre District, approximately 30 kilometres from Brussels, on January 3, 1919.  30 men per day were granted 48 hours' leave and a pay advance of 100 francs spending money, so they could visit the Belgian capital.  The YMCA opened a cinema large enough to accommodate 500 at the regiment's camp, and nightly shows were presented to the delight of both soldiers and local residents.  On January 10, the battalion marched to the historic battlefield of Waterloo for an informative tour of the famous military site.

Pte. Earle Whidden Demmons

 Monday, February 10 marked the second anniversary of the 85th Battalion's arrival in France.  A memorial service for members who were killed in action or died of their wounds was held on Sunday, February 9, while the men were treated to a special dinner the following day.  Inspections, marches, physical training, educational classes, sports and concerts, inter-company and inter-platoon competitions continued to occupy the men's time while they awaited further orders.

Two special occasions took place during the battalion's last days in Belgium.  On March 25, the 85th was among the Allied troops inspected by Albert I, King of Belgium.  The following week, the 85th was invited to the Belgian city of Louvain.  The battalion had been the first British unit to enter the city after the armistice, and was invited to return for two days of celebration on April 3rd and 4th.  The soldiers were fed and billeted in local homes, while residents organized a concert, ball and sporting events for their guests.  Earle and his comrades no doubt felt honoured to participate in such festivities.

By April 1919, preparations for the battalion's return to Canada via England were underway, with officers and clerks drafting the necessary demobilization documents.  On April 25, the 85th began its journey home, travelling by train to the French port of Le Havre.  A select number of men crossed the English Channel to participate in a triumphal victory march through the streets of London, scheduled for Saturday, May 3.  As Earle left France for England on April 29, he may have taken part in - or at least witnessed - this massive celebration, as British and colonial troops marched past the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace.  By May 5, the entire battalion had arrived in Bramshott, England as preparations for their return to Canada continued.

On May 31, the battalion moved by train to Liverpool, where a total of 49 officers and 1180 other ranks boarded the SS Adriatic for the journey home.  The vessel entered Halifax Harbour to a rousing welcome on Sunday, June 8.  An estimated 20 000 people crowded the dock and city sidewalks as the native sons that constituted the 85th Battalion disembarked and marched through the streets of Halifax.  In the battalion's final official act of the war, its officers surrendered their regimental colours to the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia for safekeeping on June 15, 1919.  That same day, Earle and the other members of the 85th battalion were formally discharged from military service.

While Earle's military career was brief, it had been a remarkable journey.  While he had not experienced combat, no doubt he witnessed its horrors in the damage done to the areas of Belgium he visited, as well as its human toll in the cemeteries and war wounded left behind by its battles.  He also had the opportunity to visit parts of the world distant from the small community he called home, and to witness the memorial and celebratory events that marked the end of the war.  No doubt this experience made a strong impression on a 25-year-old young man, one that would remain with him for the rest of his life.
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Like many other young men of his day, Earle left Guysborough County upon his return home, in search of work.  He soon found employment as a brakeman with Canadian National Railways.  On July 16, 1931, Earle married Phoebe Elizabeth Russell, a 27-year-old schoolteacher who was born and lived in New Ross, Lunenburg County.  The couple took up residence in Bridgewater, where they lived for the remainder of Earle's life.

Earle Whidden Demmons in later life
Tragically, Earle died on February 2, 1955, the victim of a heart attack while at work on a CN train at Rockingham, near Halifax.  He was buried in a Bridgewater cemetery on February 5, 1955.  He had witnessed the remarkable aftermath of the First World War and was fortunate enough to return to the tranquility of civilian life in Canada for the remainder of his years.  In recognition of his military service in England, France and Belgium, Earle was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal.

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Sources:

Hayes, Col. Joseph.  The Eighty-Fifth in France & Flanders.  Halifax: Royal Print & Litho Ltd., 1920.  Available online.

Regimental Documents of Earle Whidden Demmons.  Library and Archives Canada.  RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 2432 - 13

Photographs courtesy of Earle Whidden Demmons' nephew, Clyde McGrath.

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