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Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Pte. Clayton R. Mills - A 'Battle of Amiens' Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: January 15, 1888

Place of Birth: Port Hillford, Guys. Co., NS 

Mother's Name: Anne Scott (McKeen) Mills

Father's Name: Robert Bruce Mills

Date of Enlistment: January 7, 1916

Regimental Number: 760760

Rank: Private

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force

Name of Units: 121st Battalion ("Western Irish") & 29th Battalion ("Tobin's Tigers")

Location of service: England, France & Belgium

Occupation at Enlistment: Carpenter

Marital Status at Enlistment:  Single

Next of Kin: Robert Mills, Glenelg, Guys. Co., NS

For many of the young Guysborough County men who enlisted in the armed forces during the First World War, the passage across the Atlantic to Europe was their first - often only - journey to locations far from their native communities.  This was not the case for Clayton Mills, who excursions to destinations far from home began several years before his military service.

Clayton was the youngest of five children born to Robert Bruce and Anne Scott Mills.  His father was a native of Indian Harbour, the son of Robert and Elizabeth (Suttis) Mills.  His mother was born at "Cross Roads", the daughter of Alex and Sarah (MacMillan) McKeen of Aspen.  The 1901 census lists his older siblings: sister Bessie (November 11, 1880), twins Sarah M. and Alexander (October 12, 1883) and brother Frank (June 23, 1886), the sibling closest to Clayton in age and a companion on some of his pre-war travels.  Sometime before 1901, the family moved to Sherbrooke, where father Robert worked at the saw mill.  By 1911, the family had relocated to the Forks (Glenelg), where Robert and Anne would spend the remainder of their days on the family farm.

This small Guysborough community, however, would not be "home" to Clayton.  Like many of his generation, he was drawn to other parts of North America in search of work.  In the pre-war years, able-bodied Maritimers boarded the "excursion train" in late summer and travelled to farms in western Canada, where they worked in the fields harvesting crops.  Most returned to their Maritime homes before winter, heading west again the following year.  Older brother Frank accompanied Clayton on several of these "excursions" - perhaps he was the first to venture west.  Clayton decided to remain out west on at least one occasion prior the war.  While the 1911 census lists Frank as residing in the family home in Glenelg, Clayton was living in a Calgary, Alta. boarding house.

"Harvest Train" Advertisement
At some point after 1911, Clayton journeyed further westward to British Columbia.  Perhaps he was seeking employment as a "carpenter", the occupation listed on his attestation papers.  It was here - in a province and city far from the small community of Glenelg - that Clayton made the fateful decision to enlist in the Canadian military.  On January 7, 1916, listing his permanent address as "General Delivery, Vancouver", he joined the 121st ("Western Irish") Overseas Battalion at New Westminster, BC.  Thus began a military adventure that lasted more than two and a half years, taking Clayton to places even further from his Guysborough County home.  Sadly, it was also a journey from which he did not return.
Clayton spent the first months of military service at Vernon Camp, BC, honing the military skills required at the front.  A medical examination conducted at the camp on July 4, 1916, confirms that he was still in Canada, but Clayton soon embarked on the long journey to the front lines.  Sometime later that summer, the members of the 121st Battalion travelled by train across Canada.  On August 14, 1916, they departed Halifax for England, docking in Liverpool ten days later.  The men were then transported to the CEF military base at Bramshott, where they continued training.

121st Battalion ("Western Irish") - Vernon Camp, BC, 1917
The 121st was one of two battalions that provided manpower for the 29th British Columbia infantry battalion.  The latter was organized and commanded by Lt.-Col. Henry Seymour Tobin, a veteran of the RCMP and Boer War, and given the nickname "Tobin's Tigers". Upon arrival in Europe, the 29th was assigned to the 6th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division and first saw action near Ypres, Belgium in October 1915.  By the time Clayton reached France, the battalion had served one year on the front lines in Belgium and France and fought in the bloody Battle of the Somme (July 1916).  No doubt, the newly arrived recruits benefitted immensely from their comrades' fighting experience.
121st ("Western Irish") Battalion Badge
The 29th Battalion reinforcements drawn from the 121st left England for France on November 28, 1916.  After several months at reserve bases in France, Clayton joined the battalion in the trenches on March 5, 1917.  While there was no "ideal time" to arrive at the front lines, the timing of Clayton's arrival proved significant.  The battalion was located near the French village of Maisnil, north of Amiens and west of Arras, in the northwest corner of France.  On March 9, Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden personally inspected the ranks of the 6th Brigade as the Canadian Corps completed preparations for a major Allied offensive.  Scheduled for early April, its objective was to capture a strategic area of high ground known as Vimy Ridge.  Held and heavily fortified by the Germans since the early days of the war, its capture would be a significant accomplishment for Allied forces and a major blow to their German enemy.

On April 3, the men of the 29th Battalion moved into their designated assembly area in preparation for the Vimy assault.   Delayed one day by uncooperative weather conditions, the Canadian Corps launched its attack on the ridge at 5:30 am April 9 - Easter Monday 1917.  The 29th Battalion was part of the third phase of attack, proceeding up the ridge four hours after the battle's commencement.  It succeeded in capturing its objective with minimal opposition and light casualties, a positive beginning to Clayton's battlefield experience.

The 29th Battalion advances at Vimy Ridge - April 9, 1917
The 29th spent the following two months on duty in the front lines near Vimy, with occasional periods of rest in nearby support positions.  After a break for training in June, it was back to the front lines for the summer months, where Clayton and his comrades manned trenches near the French city of Lens, east of Vimy.  No major military assaults occurred during this period, the only noteworthy event being a "heavy gas bombardment" in the early hours of August 11.  The men were required to wear their uncomfortable gas masks from 12:15 to 2:15 am as "chlorine, phosgene and a new kind of gas were smelt by different parties".  Fortunately, a combination of wind and early morning rain dispersed the gas and the battalion recorded no casualties.

After a break for training in September, Clayton returned to the front lines near Lens.  On October 24, the battalion moved to Cassel, northwest of Lens, and then on to Belgium, arriving at Ypres on November 3.  The following day, the men assumed positions along the front lines at Passchendaele.  The fighting at this mud-strewn battlefield had commenced in July and was over by the time of the battalion's arrival.  No doubt, Clayton and the men of the 29th were relieved to return to the more "hospitable" trenches of Lens on November 22.

Members of the 29th Battalion in France (date and location unknown)
The following month, Clayton joined all Canadian soldiers at the front in voting in the controversial Canadian wartime federal election, held on December 7, 1917.  The outcome saw the re-election of Prime Minister Borden as leader of a "Union" government committed to implement conscription. 

As there was little military activity at the front during the winter months, battle weary soldiers were often granted leave at this time.  Clayton was amongst the fortunate soldiers chosen for such a break, departing for 14 days' leave - likely to England - on December 12 and returning to the battalion on December 29.   His Christmas holiday was no doubt more comfortable than the one his comrades experienced in the front lines!

The battalion spent the first few months of 1918 in the trenches near Lens.  The lull in fighting provided time for training when weather permitted.  Clayton's dedication to his military duties is reflected in the "Good Conduct Badge" awarded to him on January 9, 1918.  The remaining winter months passed quietly.  The spring of 1918, however, would bring a return to battle as the German command put into action a bold plan it hoped would end the stalemate on the Western Front.
In early 1918, the German command saw an opportunity to "knock the Allies out of the war before the United States' forces [recent entrants in the conflict] were fully committed to battle". (Cook 383)  A December 1917 peace treaty with the new Communist government of Russia ended fighting on the Eastern Front, allowing Germany to move 33 divisions to the Western Front in support of a "spring offensive".  German ranks along the front lines  in Belgium and France swelled to 4 million men in almost 200 Divisions.

29th Battalion Badge
British, French and other Allied forces were soon aware of - and actually welcomed - the upcoming assault.  Some military commanders believed that a successful defence might mark the beginning of the war's end.  Despite this military intelligence, Allied forces were poorly prepared when the German assault was launched.

On March 21, the German offensive commenced with a massive artillery and machine gun barrage.  German forces advanced 20 kilometres into Allied-held territory over a period of three days, capturing the strategically important city of Amiens.  One reason for their success was the Allied decision to retreat in the interest of reducing the number of casualties, rather than "fight to the death" to hold ground.  This strategy proved successful as the German infantry quickly advanced beyond the point where it could be supported by artillery.  Overextended and vulnerable to counterattack, the offensive ground to a halt by late April, having failed to achieve a permanent breakthrough.  Germany suffered 800 000 casualties in the fighting, many of whom were its best trained troops.  As a result, its forces were much weaker by summer - a situation that eventually had severe consequences.

Clayton and his comrades spent March and April in the front lines southwest of Arras.  The battalion was fortunate that this location was not a major target during the German offensive.  Other than a severe gas and artillery attack on April 20, the 29th was relatively unscathed by the spring fighting and fortunate to be called into reserve on April 21.  The months of May and June were spent in the Arras area, following a rotation of front line duty, rest and training in reserve.
On July 1 - Dominion Day - the battalion participated in the Canadian Corps Sports competition at Tinquex, winning the tug of war championship.  The following day, the 6th Brigade was inspected by Lt. General Sir Arthur Currie and Prime Minister Borden at nearby Givenchy-Le Noble.  The battalion spent the remainder of the month in training before returning to reserve positions behind the front lines near Amiens.   For the men of the Canadian Corps - and for Clayton in particular - the war's events were about to take a significant turn.

The victorious 29th Battalion tug of war team at Tinquex, France - July 1, 1918
The Canadian Corps was fortunate not to have borne the brunt of Germany's "Spring Offensive".  While they endured heavy artillery bombardment, their lines were not the target of infantry assault.  Their role, however, was critical in that they held down significant parts of the Allied lines not under direct attack.  By mid-April, Canadian troops occupied one-fifth of the front trenches assigned to the British Expeditionary Force, allowing British units to concentrate on slowing and finally stopping the German offensive.  Holding such an extensive stretch of the front line was no small feat for a fighting force of 100 000 men.

The early summer months provided a much welcomed period of rest and training.  The Canadian Corps, largely intact after the spring fighting, would form a key part of an Allied counter-offensive.  Rebuilt to full strength with men drawn from reserve units in addition to the arrival of the first "conscripts", the Canadians were ready for battle by mid-summer.  Their military skills would indeed be put to the test in the remaining months of the war.

By late summer, Allied commanders had completed plans for a counter-attack.  German forces were physically exhausted, demoralized and weakened by the Spring Offensive's failure.  A major assault might - indeed, did - bring the war to an end.  The target chosen for its launch was the city of Amiens.  This battle marked the beginning of "Canada's 100 Days" - the Canadian Corps' pivotal role in the campaign that brought the war to an end.  It was also a battle that - fatally - involved Clayton and the men of the 29th Battalion.

Captured by the Germans during the Spring Offensive, Amiens was a critical railway junction between Paris and the port city of Boulogne, France.  The Germans considered the area a "quiet sector" and therefore thinly spread their defensive forces along the front lines.  The main part of the Canadian Corps, located in nearby trenches, formed for battle near Amiens in early August.  The well rested Canadians joined American and Australian forces in what was intended to be a breakthrough assault on the city. 

On the night of August 6-7, the 29th Battalion joined the rest of the Canadian Corps in positions at Tronville Wood in preparation for an attack on the village of Rosieres, adjacent to Amiens.  An officer from the battalion's Company D described "the neighbouring woods [as] a seething mass of all branches of a present-day army: infantry, tanks, cavalry, and all the auxiliary services.  In the daytime nothing could be seen… but at night all was bustle yet orderly,… just far enough behind the lines to be out of hearing of the enemy."  No doubt, Clayton and the men of the 29th experienced a sense of nervous anticipation as the time for battle approached.

The Allied attack was launched at 4:30 am August 8.  The 29th was not involved in the initial assault as Canada's 4th Brigade advanced an astonishing 13 kilometres into German territory - the greatest single day advance of the war.  However, the question remained: Could this initial success be turned into a "knockout" blow on the following day?  Several factors combined to make this unlikely.  First of all, the Germans quickly moved much needed reinforcements into the Amiens area.  The greater problem, however, proved to be a breakdown in co-ordination among Allied forces when the advance resumed on the morning of August 9.

Company B, 29th Battalion prepares for battle - Amiens, August 8, 1918
The Canadian Corps 2nd Division's 5th and 6th Brigades were scheduled to attack Rosieres at 10 am.  The 1st Division, due to advance on their right, was not prepared to attack until 11 am, and did not launch its assault until after noon.  More critically, the Australians, assigned to attack to the left of the 2nd Division, were also delayed.  As a result, the 2nd Division's men faced the unenviable prospect of advancing across the battlefield on their own, dangerously exposed to counter-attack on both flanks.  This situation would prove deadly for many of the men taking part in the assault.

The 29th and 31 Battalions were ordered to advance through the village of Rosieres and capture section of light railroad just beyond its boundaries.  To do so, Clayton and his comrades had to advance across more than1000 metres of open ground in broad daylight.  To further complicate matters, artillery fire was weak and scattered, as the guns that had supported the previous day's successes had not yet been fully relocated.  In fact, some of the shells fired in support of the August 9 attack fell behind the Allied front lines.  To make matters even worse, a detachment of tanks scheduled to advance with the ground assault failed to reach the battlefield by the appointed time.

Despite this lack of support, the men of the 29th were ordered "over the top" at 10 am April 9.  They were met with a hail of bullets from an estimated 40 Maxim machine guns located on their left flank, along with German artillery shells.  Reports from the 29th Battalion's four companies provide a sense of the battle that took place on that morning.  Company A reported that "great opposition was met from two lines of defence: riflemen and machine guns in rifle pits dug across our front which gave excellent cover to the enemy…. We found it difficult to locate the… machine guns which were often well concealed in the bushes and brush."  Company B's report described the morning's events somewhat more positively:  "The enemy continued the heavy machine gun and rifle fire until we had reached within about fifty yards of his outpost line, when a great many of them threw down their arms and ran.  Others remained in the trench, and as we came closer rushed forward with their hands up." 

The battalion's other two companies also encountered stiff resistance as they moved across the open battlefield.  An officer from Company C reported: "During the whole advance we were under heavy artillery and machine gun fire from the ridge north-east of the railroad…. We also encountered heavy machine gun fire from the town in front and from snipers in the trees."  Company D's report states: "[Upon advancing] we were immediately met with heavy machine gun fire…. our left flank was held up by machine gun nests all along the railway."  The men of the 29th pushed on nonetheless, one of its scouts observing that "our men were dropping in considerable numbers all down the line, though no hesitation was shown.  On the left in particular heavy machine gun fire was thinning our ranks…."

Destroyed German transport on Amiens battlefield - August 8, 1918
The tanks eventually reached the battlefield , overtook the advancing infantry and assisted in silencing most of the German machine guns.  By 2:30 pm, the entire village of Rosieres was in Canadian hands.  The men continued their advance for another 6 kilometres, further than any other national force involved in the day's fighting.   But this success came at a terrible price.  A total of 2,574 members of the Canadian Corps were killed or wounded in the day's fighting.  The 29th Battalion reported 159 men lost in the initial attack alone.  Pte. Clayton R. Mills, regimental number 760760, was amongst its casualties, most likely killed in the wave of machine gun and artillery fire that greeted the battalion as it advanced across the battlefield on that fateful August morning.

Gravestone of Pte. Clayton R. Mills, Rosieres Communal Cemetery, France
Amiens indeed proved to be a turning point in the war.  By the following day, battle lines once again solidified and the attack ground to a halt by August 13.  However, Allied forces had advanced more than 24 kilometres and captured almost 30 000 German prisoners in the Amiens offensive, indicating that the German army was much weaker than its spring successes had suggested.  While the Canadian Corps suffered significant casualties, its numbers were quickly replenished by 12 000 conscripts, returning wounded soldiers, and elements of the dispersed 5th Division.  Over the next three months,  the Corps spearheaded the Allied attack that resulted in the Armistice of November 11, 1918.  All of this was made possible by the sacrifice made by the men who fought and died at Amiens.

Grave of Pte. Clayton R. Mills (marked with flower), Rosieres Communal Cemetery, France
But the war was over for Clayton.  The journeys that had taken him far from his birthplace did not bring him home.  Rather, his final resting place is a small patch of foreign soil.  In the days after the battle, Pte. Clayton R. Mills was buried at Rosieres Communal Cemetery Extension, Somme, France, alongside the comrades who lost their lives in the service of their country on that fateful August day.


Cook, Tim.  Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting in the Great War 1917 - 1918.  Toronto: Penguin Group, 2008.

McWilliams, James & Steel, R. James.  Amiens: Dawn of Victory.  Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2001.

Regimental Documents of Pte. Clayton R. Mills.  Library & Archives Canada.  RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 6211 - 57.

War Diaries of the 29th Battalion.  Library and Archives Canada.  Available online.

Background information and images of Pte. Mills' grave courtesy of his nephew John Selwyn Mills, Riverview, NB.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

CEF Service and Memorial Awards

In the years during and after the First World War, the Canadian and British governments issued several medals and badges in recognition of their citizens' military service and sacrifice.  This blog post provides a brief description of each award, supported - where available - by photographs of actual service and memorial medals issued to Guysborough County veterans.

Service Medals:

The Canadian and British governments awarded medals to soldiers in recognition of their service during the First World War, based on the date and location of service.  The following service medals and badges were awarded to members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914 - 1919:

a) 1914 Star:

The 1914 Star was awarded to "all officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the British and Indian Expeditionary Forces, (including civilian medical practitioners, nursing sisters, nurses and others who were employed with military hospitals), serving in France or Belgium on the establishment of the British Expeditionary Forces between 05 August 1914 and midnight of 22/23 November 1914".  The medal is sometimes referred to as the "Mons Star".

1914 Star (Veterans Affairs Canada War Medals)
 A bar was awarded to "those who served under fire or were present in duty within range of the enemy mobile artillery in France or Belgium" during the time period for which the medal was awarded.  The issuing of the 1914 Star was authorized in April 1917, while the bar was added on October 19, 1919. 

Only a handful of Canadians attached to British units and 160 members of the 2nd Canadian Stationary Hospital serving in the British Expeditionary Force as of November 6, 1914 qualified for this award, making it the rarest of medals awarded to Canadian soldiers and military personnel during the First World War.

b) 1914-15 Star:

This medal recognized the contributions of the war's earliest military recruits.  In terms of Canadians, it was awarded mainly to military personnel who served overseas with the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions created in 1914 and 1915 respectively.  The 1914-15 Star was awarded to "all who saw service in any theatre of war against the Central Powers between 05 August 1914 and 31 December 1915 except those eligible for the 1914 Star".  As the term "overseas" applied to military personnel who served beyond the three-mile limit, individuals serving on many small Royal Canadian Navy vessels qualified for this award.

James Alexander Fogarty's 1914-15 Star

Authorized in December 1918, a total of 71,150 Canadians received the 1914-15 Star.  The medal was always issued in conjunction with the British War Medal and Victory Medal, both of which are described below.

c) British War Medal:

Authorized on July 26, 1919, the British War Medal was one of the two main service medals awarded to "all ranks of Canadian overseas military forces who came from Canada between 05 August 1914 and 11 November 1918, or who served in a theatre of war".
British War Medal of Pte. James Leo McDonald (obverse on left, reverse on right)
Royal Air Force personnel meeting the above requirements were also eligible for this award.  Navy personnel required 28 days of mobilized service or loss of life before 28 days in order to qualify.  Seamen in the Canadian merchant marine who served at sea for not less than six months, and the crews of Dominion Government ships and Canadian mercantile marine, were also eligible for the British War Medal.

British War Medal (obverse) of Pte. Robert Burns, Salmon River Lake
A total of 427,993 received this award, making it the most common medal issued in recognition of service during the First World War.

British War Medal (reverse) of Pte. James Leo McDonald, Auld's Cove
d) Victory Medal:

The second of the most common World War I service medals, the Victory Medal was awarded to "all ranks of the fighting forces, to civilians under contract, and others employed with military hospitals who actually served in the establishment of a unit in a theatre of war between 05 August 1914 and 11 November 1918 (inclusive)".  Intended to commemorate the Allied victory over the Central Powers, the medal was issued by all countries who were part of the victorious Allied war effort and is sometimes referred to as the "Inter-Allied War Medal".  All Allied Victory Medals had the same obverse design, while the reverse side was unique to each Allied country.

Victory Medal (obverse) of Pte. James Leo McDonald, Auld's Cove
The Victory Medal was always issued in conjunction with the British War Medal.  Authorized in Britain on September 1, 1919 and applicable to all Canadian military personnel, a total of 351,289 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force received this award.

Victory Medal (reverse) of Pte. James Leo McDonald, Auld's Cove
Each veteran's name and attestation number were engraved on the medal's edge, as displayed below:

e) War Service Badges:

Established in Canada by outgoing Canadian Governor-General, the Duke of Connaught, on August 16, 1916, War Service Badges were originally intended to recognize the contribution of individuals who qualified in one of three categories:

a) men who were honorably discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force, usually due to poor health or physical injury;
b) men who offered themselves for active service but were rejected for health/medical reasons;
c) men who desired to or had offered to enlist but were refused because their services in their present employment were deemed "more valuable" to the war effort.

In February 1917, a fourth class was added and the three initial categories were redefined as follows:

1. Army Class A service badges were awarded to men who served at the Front and had retired, relinquished their commission, been honouably discharged or returned to Canada on military duty.

Army Class A Service Badge of Pte. James Leo McDonald, Auld's Cove

2. Army Class B badges were awarded to individuals on active service in Britain or at the front who were discharged due to age, wounds or illness.

Army Class B Service Badge (Veterans Affairs Canada War Service Badges)
3. Army Class C badges were awarded to those not included in Class A or B who were discharged from military service for reasons other than military misconduct.  Personnel serving in Canada only were entitled to receive this badge.

Army Class C Service Badge (Veterans Affairs Canada War Service Badges)
4. Navy Class AA badges were award to individuals who served at sea, in home waters or abroad, as well as to Canadians who served in the British Navy, were residents of Canada prior to 1914, and returned to live in Canada.

Navy Class AA Service Badge (Veterans Affairs Canada War Service Badges)

Memorial Medals:

Memorial medals were awarded to the next of kin of Canadian soldiers who were killed in the line of duty during the First World War or who subsequently died of wounds inflicted in combat.  Two distinct awards fall into this category: the Memorial Cross and the Memorial Plaque and Scroll.

a) Memorial Cross:

The Memorial Cross was awarded by the Canadian government to "mothers and widows (next of kin) of Canadian soldiers who died on active duty or whose death was consequently attributed to such duty."  Created by Order-in-Council on December 1, 1919, it is also referred to as the "Silver Cross".  This medal was sent to mothers and wives whose sons/husbands met the stated guidelines.  The deceased's name and service number were engraved on the back of each medal.  Recipients were entitled to wear the medal at any time.

Memorial Cross of Pte. Clayton Mills, Glenelg

b) Memorial Plaque:

Awarded by the British government to all qualified soldiers in British and Imperial forces, this plaque was sent to the next of kin of all individuals who lost their lives while in active service during the First World War.  The 120 mm. bronze obverse bears the inscription, " He (or she) died for freedom and honour", with the name of the deceased engraved in a small, rectangular space.

Memorial Plaque of Pte. Clayton Mills, Glenelg

c) Memorial Scroll:

The Memorial Scroll accompanied each Memorial Plaque.  It consisted of a certificate displaying the emblem of King George V followed by a text passage in honor of the deceased individual, whose name and unit were printed at the bottom of the document.

Memorial Scroll

Canadian Military Medals and Decorations.  Veterans Affairs Canada.

First World War Medals.  Stephen's Study Room.

Pte. Robert Burns' British War Medal courtesy of nephew Rod MacDonald, Salmon River Lake, NS.

Pte. James Leo McDonald's war medals and badge courtesy of son Ralph MacDonald, Thorburn, NS.

Pictures of Pte. Clayton Mill's Memorial Cross and Plaque courtesy of John Selwyn Mills, Riverview, NB.

Photography of Pte. James Leo McDonald's medals courtesy of Bonnie McGrath, St. Andrews, NS.