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Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Pte. Matthew McGrath 'Mac' Manson - A Young Soldier's Story

Date of Birth:  May 30, 1899

Place of Birth: Sherbrooke, NS

Mother's Name: Agnes (McGrath) Manson

Father's Name: Francis Gilbert Manson

Date of Enlistment: August 12, 1916*

Regimental Number: 902354

Rank: Private

Force: Infantry, Canadian Expeditionary Force

Regiments: 193rd Battalion; 17th Reserve Battalion; 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders)

Location of service: Canada, England and France

Occupation at Enlistment: Teamster

Marital Status at Enlistment:  Single

Next of Kin: Francis Manson, Sherbrooke

*: Initial enlistment date of June 26, 1916 crossed off attestation paper and replaced by August 12, 1916.

The vast majority of men who volunteered for overseas service in the first two years of the war were born between 1885 and 1895, making them close to twenty years of age or older at the time of enlistment.  While it was not uncommon for young men to lie about their birth year on their attestation papers, their deployment at the front was usually delayed once their age became apparent.  Matthew McGrath Manson's story is remarkable in that he made no attempt to lie about his age when he first enlisted, several months before his seventeenth birthday.  While others born in 1899 served overseas with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, the vast majority enlisted in the last two years of the war or were "drafted" in 1918.  Matthew's decision to enlist in the spring of 1916 - at a time when there was "no end in sight" for the conflict - is a unique aspect of his story.

Matthew McGrath 'Mac' Manson was born on May 30, 1899 in Sherbrooke, the youngest of four children raised by Agnes (McGrath) and Francis Gilbert Manson.  Four other children died at birth or in infancy.  According to family sources, Agnes spent much of her time in bed while pregnant with Mac, in hope of giving birth to a strong, healthy infant.

The Manson family (l to r): Mac, parents Francis & Agnes, Kate, Ernest, & Nellie (sitting) with her son Cicero
Mac spent his childhood in the family home on Sonora Road, Sherbrooke, where Francis made his living as a carriage maker, a trade he inherited from his father.  Mac attended school in Sherbrooke, completing Grade 9 before enrolling in a course at Maritime Business College, Halifax. His older siblings - particularly sisters Ellen 'Nellie' and Katherine 'Kate' - were very supportive during his formative years.  While studying in Halifax, Mac lived with his sister Nellie, a registered nurse, and her husband, Cicero Theodore Ritchie, in their Dartmouth home.  Kate also lived in Dartmouth, where she was employed as a teacher at Hawthorne St. School.

In March 1916, Mac completed his studies and returned to Sherbrooke two months shy of his seventeenth birthday.  At this time, Nova Scotia was awash in the excitement of an enlistment campaign launched by the regiments of the newly formed Highland Brigade.  One regiment in particular - the 193rd - focused its efforts on Antigonish and Guysborough Counties, establishing offices in the small rural communities in an effort to attract young men to its ranks.

Perhaps it was the attraction overseas experience or youthful exuberance at the prospect of a military career.  It may have simply been a lack of employment opportunities.  Whatever the motivation, Mac decided to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  When the 193rd Regiment launched its recruitment campaign in his native community, Mac contacted the Sherbrooke recruiting office on April 9, 1916 and took his initial oath in the village Court House, in the presence of his sister Kate. 

Kate & Mac, May 1916
Mac's actual date of enlistment is not clear.  His attestation papers bear the date June 26, 1916, which was subsequently crossed out and replaced with August 12.  Two other documents, however, prove that Mac was actively involved in the regiment's training well before this time.  His initial medical examination, conducted at Guysborough on April 29, 1916, lists his "apparent age" as "18 years", despite the birthdate of May 30, 1899 on his attestation paper.  Conclusive proof of his military activities is contained in a letter to Kate, written in Guysborough and dated April 19, 1916, in which Mac described the regiment's early training:

"Just arrived home - was on a route march.  We marched around town once then went out to Cook's Cove….  We have great times on the marches singing and howling all the time.  We all like it fine.  We expect our uniforms on the boat.  I think we will get off for a few days when we get them.  They are a great bunch of fellows in the squad, 36 in all."

At the age of sixteen years, ten and one half months, Mac Manson's training for overseas service had commenced.  The 193rd trained in Guysborough for six weeks before "shipping out" to the military base at Aldershot on May 30, 1916.  Throughout the summer months, Mac kept family members up to date on his activities.  On July 13, he once again wrote to Kate:

"We had a route march yesterday, about 18 to 20 miles.  I stood it all right.  We started at 7:30 am and marched till 12, then started at 2 and marched till 4.  Some march, believe me, Kate….  There wasn't a bit of wind and the sun was some hot.  I sweated about a barrel."

Members of 193rd Battalion leaving Guysborough - May 30, 1916
In August, Kate traveled to Aldershot to visit with Mac and other Sherbrooke area acquaintances who had enlisted, and reported to her mother:

"[I] had a great time of it.  Took in the [Sunday] Church parade & it was the grandest thing I ever saw.  Really it was marvellous to see all those battalions forming and marching up to their places.  I cannot describe the splendour of it all.  When the pipes played you should have seen those Highlanders falling in to the music."

By October, the Highland Brigade regiments relocated to Halifax in anticipation of their transfer overseas.  On October 13, 1916, Mac's sister Nellie wrote to her mother, describing the events surrounding their departure:

"They are still in the Harbor, left the pier at a quarter to twelve this morning and sailed up the Basin.  Mac looked fine.  I could hardly believe it was him, he had even got fat since we were up to Aldershot over a month ago.  He was glad to see us, we had no trouble seeing him at all."

Kate (left) and friend visit Mac (center) and the 193rd at Aldershot, August 1916
Nellie was particularly impressed with capital city's response to the brigade's departure:

"I wish you could see the crowd of people that were there[,] thousands and thousands.  I never saw anything like it.  The Highlanders are certainly the most popular regiments that have left Halifax as yet.   Some one sent a whole car load of apples for the soldiers to eat on the way over & you should have seen the boxes of chocolates & cakes & things, the soldiers all had lots of parcels."

Mac and the soldiers of the Highland Brigade sailed out of Halifax Harbour on board the SS Olympic, White Star Line sister ship to the famous Titanic.  The regiments arrived in Liverpool, England on October 18 and encamped at Bramshott, where they spent the winter training in anticipation of a spring deployment at the front.  Unfortunately, the pressing need to reinforce existing regiments in the field led to the dissolution of two of the Brigade's four regiments - the 193rd and 219th - by year's end.  One hundred men from each regiment were transferred to the Brigade's senior unit, the 85th Battalion, Nova Scotia Highlanders.  The remaining soldiers were reassigned to the 17th Canadian Reserve Battalion, Bramshott, the unit to which Mac was transferred on January 23, 1917.

Mac spent two months with the 17th before being assigned to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot, Bramshott.  On May 18, 1917, he wrote to his mother Agnes, informing her that he was "working down at Brigade Hdqs and… kept pretty busy.  We work from 8 am till 6 pm and on one night a week but it's a good job and I like it fine." 

L to R: Guysborough recruits Mac Manson, Bert McLane & Blair Archibald
On September 11, Mac returned to the 17th Battalion, where his military training continued.  An October 20, 1917 letter to his mother described one recent experience:

"I left Bramshott a week ago Sunday.  We marched down here [Mytchett Musketry Camp;] it's between 15 and 17 miles.  I did not mind it any….  We are here shooting our musketry.  We have about a week longer and it is a dandy place, far better than Bramshott.  Wish we were stationed here.  We are right near Aldershot and it is quite a large town."

A few days later, Mac wrote again, telling his mother: "we got back here [Bramshott] Friday, marched about 19 miles….  I got along very good at shooting.  While away I made first class shoot." 

By this time, Mac had spent more than a year training in England and awaiting transfer to France.  A letter to his mother, dated November 11, 1917, provides an explanation:

"…a large draft went [to France] last night.  I tried to get on it but they would [not] let me till I got 19 and that's quite a while yet.  I would like to have went [sic], for all the boys I knew were on it…. They were a happy bunch leaving.  It was the finest draft I['ve] seen leaving yet and there were a lot of them going back for a second time, but they were in the best of cheer."

Mac (seated) and unidentified comrade
Mac was thus destined to spend at least another six months at Bramshott.  A second letter to his mother explained: "I have a permanent fatigue job and don't have to go on parade.  I am all through my training now and got to hang around here till May and I'm getting sick of sticking around here and seeing all the rest of the boys going that I know."  In a March 11, 1918 letter to his mother, Mac indicated that he was "working in the mess room now.  The hours are long but…. lots to eat, that's the main thing." 

On June 20, 1918, the call to the front lines finally came when Mac was "taken on strength" by the 85th Battalion.  He spent another month at the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Centre (CCRC) in France before joining the unit in the field on July 21, 1918.

The 85th had spent the month prior to Mac's arrival training and participating in sports and recreational activities.   On July 19, the regiment moved into Divisional Reserve at Sterling Camp, Fampoux, northeast of Arras.  The battalion's war diary describes the location as an "excellent place… built on the side of a huge railway embankment on the Lens-Arras railway, and there is lots of cover… a lake for bathing and a good indoor ball ground."  On the day of Mac's arrival, the diary entry recorded several gas shells landing near two of the battalion's companies, resulting in one "slight" casualty.  Intermittent gas shelling continued over the next two days, although there were no further casualties.

Pte. Matthew McGrath 'Mac' Manson
Mac's introduction to combat came soon after his arrival.  On the night of July 25-26, the 85th relieved the 77th Battalion in the Fampoux sector's front line trenches.  The neighbouring 10th Battalion launched a large raid on German trenches at 9 pm July 26, prompting heavy retaliatory artillery fire on the 85th's position, mainly "whiz-bangs and 5.9's, with some gas shells".  Four personnel were killed, two wounded and twenty-nine gassed in the attack.

Over the next several days, the 85th engaged in "active patrolling both by day and night - patrols consisting of one officer and from two to four other ranks."  At night, the men participated in work parties, "getting [the] line in better shape [as the] trenches [were] muddy and in poor condition."  In the midst of all these events, one wonders whether young Mac may have preferred the "humdrum" duties of his Bramshott days, but there was "no turning back".

On July 31, the 85th was relieved of front line duty and moved by light rail to Aubin.  There would be no time for rest, however, as the war diary noted a major military action was imminent:  "The whole Corps is moving in a few days…. For where - no one knows but it looks like a big scrap ahead."  Two days later, Mac and the regiment's personnel travelled by train to Hangest-sur-Somme, near Amiens, arriving at 2 am August 3.  They then proceeded to the village of Vergies in a "march [that was] very exhausting after [a] long train ride".  The battalion's war diary observed that the local people were "not as hospitable as in the North where the Canadians are better known."

The following day, the battalion began preparations for an attack "to take place in a few days" at Amiens.  The men marched 17 miles to Briquemesnil, west of Amiens, on the night of August 4-5 and then moved to Bois de Boues on the night of August 6-7.  The "entire wood, which is a large one, [was] teeming with artillery, infantry and cavalry and a large number of tanks in the near vicinity" as the Canadian Corps prepared for the attack.  Mac joined the 85th, assembling to the left of Gentilles Wood by nightfall August 7, in preparation for the following day's assault.

Christmas card sent by Mac from England
On August 8, Mac received his first battle experience when the men of the 85th advanced toward enemy positions at 12:10 pm.  Despite heavy German machine gun fire, the unit succeeded in capturing its assigned objective by day's end.  The following day, the fierce fighting continued.  The battalion's field commander, Lt. Col. J. L. Ralston, was wounded in both feet by machine gun fire while proceeding to the front line and was replaced by Major I. S. Ralston, MC. 

The 85th joined in the final assault on Amiens on August 10, advancing at 10:10 am in the face of stiff enemy resistance near Rosieres.  Major Ralston was killed by machine gun fire in the ensuing battle, but once again the battalion captured its objectives and consolidated its position on the newly established front lines.  Three days later, the 85th was relieved by the 102nd, retreating to support positions at Caix Wood.  The unit spent the next several days reorganizing after the battle, receiving 106 much needed reinforcements from CCRC.

In the short span of three weeks, Mac had received a full introduction to life at the front lines, completing a week in the trenches and participating in a direct assault on enemy positions.  It was, no doubt, a welcome break when the battalion moved into divisional reserve near Rouvroy.  The men participated in night-time work parties on nearby support and communication trenches for several days before once again moving by night march to Gentilles Wood, arriving at 2:30 am August 25.  "Several bombs dropped in close vicinity during the march but no casualties were sustained."

British soldiers check German dugout during Scarpe attack
Two days later, the 85th was once again on the move, on foot and by train, to Monchy le Proux, east of Amiens, in preparation for "future operations".  On the night of August 31 - September 1, Mac found himself back in the front lines as the regiment relieved the 2nd Canadian Infantry Battalion in preparation for an attack near Scarpe.  At 8:40 am September 1, Allied artillery launched a barrage on German positions, followed by an infantry attack led by the battalion's "C" Company.

The unit advanced approximately 150 yards in the face of heavy machine gun fire and was unable to fully dislodge the enemy from its assigned objective.  The men rested for the remainder of the night, as the attack was scheduled to resume in the morning.  Battalion strength at this time consisted of 743 "other ranks".

The following day - September 2, 1918 - the 85th was assigned the task of breaking through the Drucourt-Quant front and support lines, capturing and consolidating possession of the German positions, and establishing an outpost line.  The plan of attack called for six waves of infantry, each consisting of two lines, led by "A" and "D" Companies.  Eight tanks were to provide support, in addition to two sections of machine guns. 

The attack commenced at 5 am as scheduled.  Unfortunately, the tanks did not reach the front line in time to support the initial assault, the men advancing 600 yards before their arrival.  The war diary describes the initial assault in these words:  "In passing over the first 300 yards of the advance, the Battalion losses amounted to approximately 50 % of our total casualties throughout the whole action, both in officers and men."  Mac and the men of the 85th faced two well-armed enemy posts, supported by an estimated 18 machine guns.  Dislodging them from their positions posed a considerable challenge.

Battlefield at Scarpe, September 1918
The battalion reached its first objective by 6:15 am "after severe fighting" and achieved its second objective by 7:30 am.  Still facing considerable enemy machine gun fire, commanders requested the assistance of rifle grenadiers who provided a "smoke barrage" as cover for a final advance.  The attacking wave of infantry "suffered heavy casualties", but captured its final objective and established forward outposts by 9:30 am.  Despite a heavy artillery barrage and a large number of German infantry occupying the opposing trenches, the 85th held its ground until it was relieved that evening.  As the unit moved into Divisional Reserve, the battalion's war diary recorded the day's losses.  The 85th suffered a total of 260 casualties in the Scarpe attack - 62 killed, 162 wounded and 36 missing (believed wounded). 

In the battle's aftermath, Pte. Matthew McGrath Manson was amongst the 162 soldiers wounded in action on that day.  A September 16, 1918 letter to his mother from an unidentified acquaintance describes the circumstances:

"[Mac] was in the attack on the Arras front and was wounded just as he got about 100 yards across the Hindenburg line.  A bullet grazed his head, cut his scalp fair on the top and probably injured the skull some….  When he was struck he fell and never knew what happened.  He recovered consciousness after a minute or two, just for a second.  I asked him what he thought in the second.  He said 'he thought he was killed and that it would be pretty bad news for the folks at home'.  He then went off into unconsciousness again for about an hour.  When he woke up, our line had retreated and he was about 100 yards out in 'no man's land'.  He jumped up and to use his own description 'scratched gravel like sixty' till he got back to the line, and then the stre[t]cher bearers took him back to the [Casualty] Clearing Station [CCS]."

Medical examination at the CCS state that Mac had suffered a "GSW [gunshot wound to the] head" caused by a bullet and was experiencing weakness in his right hand.  Later medical records indicate that Mac's right leg was paralyzed for approximately 24 hours, although there was no facial paralysis.  On September 3, he was admitted to 18th General Hospital, Camiers, France.  The machine gun bullet had grazed the parietal line of his skull, but there was no puncture.  His right arm was completely paralyzed at first, but showed continual signs of improvement. 

Back of postcard informing parents of Mac's hospitalization, September 1918
On September 11, Mac had recovered sufficiently to be transferred to Brook War Hospital, Woolich, England, where he continued to improve.  It was here that he received a visit from the unidentified acquaintance - family sources believe it was a young woman whom Mac befriended during his time in England.  The September 16, 1918 letter to Mac's mother describes her visit to the hospital:

"I found him in bed but in great spirits and wondering how long they were going to keep him on his back…. He lost the use of his right arm but that will only be temporary and the use of it is beginning to come back.  It will likely be some months before the use comes back completely and as he can't be sent to France again until that gets completely well the war is likely to be over befor[e] that happens.  So you can feel easy about him after this.  It was a pretty close call just the same.  If the bullet had been an inch or even half an inch lower, it would have been the end of poor Mac."

By the first week of October, Mac was well enough to write a letter to his mother:

"Just a few lines to let you know I'm well and got to my destination.  But I don't think much of the place and don't think I will stay very long.  At least I don't want to….  I am leaving this hospital tomorrow and going to Convalescent at Woodcote Park…. I'm writing this myself.  I don't suppose you will be able to make it out.  It's awful hard for me to write on account of my arm.  I got no grip in my hand."

On October 8, Mac was transferred to the Military Convalescent Hospital, Woodcote Park, Epsom.  Medical reports describe a "superficial GSW" to the head as "healed", although Mac was still suffering from from "headache".  He spent almost three weeks at the facility before being discharged to 2nd Canadian Casualty Depot, Bramshott, on October 25.

Front of hospital postcard sent to Mac's family, September 1918
Slightly more than one month later - December 4, 1918 - Mac had recovered sufficiently to be discharged from medical care and transferred to the 17th Reserve Depot, Bramshott.  On December 15, he once again wrote home with an update:

"Just a few lines to let you know I'm OK and getting along fine and dandy.  We are having it pretty easy now since the armistice was signed.  We don't have to go on Parade at all….  There are a lot going home now [and] my turn will be coming before long to be setting sail for our home."

On January 18, 1919, Mac was "struck off strength" by the 17th Reserve Depot and transferred to the Canadian Expeditionary Force Canada.  That same day, he boarded HMT Aquitania at Liverpool for the voyage home, disembarking at Halifax on January 24.  The following day, Mac was assigned to No. 6 D. D., Halifax Casualty Company, where he remained for the next five weeks.

HMT Aquitania
Pte. Matthew McGrath Manson was officially discharged from military service on March 4, 1919.  His medical examination upon discharge describes a scar about 3 1/2" long on the left side of his head, over the parietal region.  The skull is described as "slightly grooved".  Mac was still experiencing weakness in his right hand - strength was estimated at approximately 60 % of his left hand - although flexion was "free".  He had difficulty holding a pen, buttoning his coat and performing other similar movements, and his lifting power was "limited".  Otherwise, he was in good health as he returned to civilian life at 19 years, 9 months of age.


After his discharge from military service, Mac returned to his Sherbrooke home.  Employment opportunities were scarce, although he did find work with the Department of Highways, as a mechanic and truck driver, from March 1921 to December 1922.  Like many other young men of his generation, he decided to relocate to the United States in search of employment.  Accompanied by a friend, Fred Scott, Mac travelled to Meriden, Connecticut, where his sister Nellie, her husband Cicero and children were now residing.  After several months searching for work, he landed a job with the International Silver Company, where he tended to the firm's motors and generators from November 1923 to June 1927.

Eventually, Mac decided to return to his Sherbrooke home, where he was able to secure temporary employment with the Department of Fisheries on June 20, 1927.  By year's end, his position was made permanent as Mac was named "Overseer" for the St. Mary's District, covering the area from New Harbour to Ecum Secum.  The following year, he was appointed as a Game Officer for Guysborough County, a position that included the powers of a Police Constable.

For almost thirty years, Mac worked with the Department of Fisheries, enforcing government fisheries acts and regulations in the Sherbrooke area.  He was also an avid recreational fisherman, regularly visiting his favorite salmon pools along the St. Mary's River.  Mac served as an elder with St. James Presbyterian Church and was an active member of the Sherbrooke Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.  During the Second World War, he served as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 2nd Reserve Battalion, Pictou Highlanders, for approximately three years.

Mac visits the Canadian War Memorial, Ottawa (1956)
Marriage and family also ensued, although it was some time before Mac "found the right woman".  On November 19, 1942, he married Florence Winnifred "Flo" Anderson of Boylston.  The newlyweds moved into the Sherbrooke family home where Mac's mother Agnes still resided.  (His father Francis had passed away years before, on November 22, 1920. )  Three children - Ellen Natalie Joy, Francis Gilbert Anderson and Winnifred Katherine - soon followed as Mac and Flo settled into married life.

Tragically, Mac Manson died unexpectedly of a heart attack while working at Denver, Guysborough County on November 13, 1956.  The youngest child in his family, he was survived in death by all three older siblings.  Mac was buried in Riverside Cemetery, Sherbrooke.  In January 1958, longtime friend and acquaintance, J. Edwin Fraser, presented a photograph and letter of tribute to the Royal Canadian Legion, Sherbrooke in his memory.  Mr. Fraser's words provide a fitting eulogy to a man who willingly risked his life in service of his country at such a young age:

"In his passing this Branch has lost a beloved Member, but his name will be remembered.  Although he has gone, he had left behind a Memorial not built of wood or stone, but a living Memorial built of good works, cheerfulness, self-sacrifice and service to others, and it is in the minds of those others that he has built that Memorial."



Regimental Record of Pte. Matthew McGrath Manson, no. 902354.  Library and Archives Canada.  RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 5905 - 37.  Attestation papers available online.

War Diary of 85th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force.  Library and Archives Canada.  RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3 , Volume 4944 , Reel T-10751-10752 File : 454.  Available online.

Special thanks to Mac Manson’s daughter, Winnifred ‘Winn’ (Manson) Campbell, who graciously provided access to copies of documents from Mac's regimental record, family correspondence, numerous photos and her unpublished account of Mac’s life story.

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