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E-mail: brucefrancismacdonald@gmail.com

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The 85th Canadian Infantry Battalion ("Nova Scotia Highlanders")

During the twelve months following the outbreak of the First World War, Nova Scotians enlisted with several military units, most notably the 17th, 25th, 40th and 64th Infantry Battalions. While each contained substantial numbers of "Bluenosers,” several included recruits from other parts of Canada. The 17th Battalion, for example, contained members of the Seaforth Highlanders, a British Columbia regiment. Others, such as the 40th (Halifax Rifles), were built upon pre-war militia units and did not recruit across the entire province. The 64th was a “Maritime” unit initially established at Sussex, NB. While the Royal Canadian Regiment solicited recruits in the province, it existed prior to the war’s outbreak as part of Canada’s “standing army” and was based by coincidence at Halifax.

Nova Scotia raised only two truly “volunteer” units through province-wide recruitment. The first was the 25th Battalion, authorized on November 7, 1914. While headquartered at the Halifax Armouries, the unit established recruitment offices in all of the province’s major towns and cities—Sydney, Amherst, New Glasgow, Truro and Yarmouth. The battalion departed for England on May 20, 1915 and was assigned to the 2nd Canadian Division’s 5th Brigade shortly after its overseas arrival.

The 25th’s soldiers crossed the English Channel to France on September 15, 1915 and entered the trenches of Belgium’s Ypres Salient one week later. The battalion subsequently saw action at all major Canadian Corps battles—Hill 62 (June 1916), the Somme (September - November 1916), Vimy Ridge (April 9, 1917), Passchendaele (October - November 1917) and Canada’s “100 Days” (August - November 11)— its soldiers serving with distinction throughout the war.

The 85th Canadian Infantry Battalion, officially authorized on September 14, 1915, was the second “volunteer” unit raised through province-wide recruitment. Commonly known as "The Nova Scotia Highlanders,” its Scottish connections were readily apparent. The battalion included a pipe band, its official air was the Scottish tune "The Cock o' the North,” and its motto was the Gaelic phrase "Siol Na Fear Fearail" ("Breed of Manly Men"). Under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Allison Hart Borden, the 85th established its headquarters at Camp Aldershot.

85th Battalion cap badge.
The battalion immediately launched a province-wide drive, during which each of its four companies targeting specific regions. "A" Company drew its personnel from Pictou, Colchester and Cumberland Counties. "B" Company covered the largest area, canvassing Lunenburg, Queens, Shelburne, Yarmouth, Digby, Annapolis, Antigonish, Guysborough and Inverness Counties. "C" Company’s ranks came from Halifax, Hants and Kings Counties, while “D” Company concentrated on Richmond, Victoria and Cape Breton Counties.

Within one month of its inception, military officials relocated the unit’s headquarters to Halifax, where the battalion mobilized 200 men "over strength" on October, 14, 1915. “A” Company entered quarters in the Armouries, while the remaining three companies were accommodated in huts erected on the adjacent Common. Throughout the fall and winter of 1915-16, its recruits enthusiastically trained, in anticipation of orders to proceed overseas.

In early 1916, recruitment efforts expanded to include an additional three units—the 193rd, 185th and 219th Battalions—as part of the "Nova Scotia Highland Brigade". The 85th formed the Brigade's senior unit. As subsequent events unfolded, it was the only battalion to enter service as a unit, its three counterparts eventually dissolved to provide reinforcements for other battalions in the field.

The call to overseas duty finally came more than a year after the 85th’s formation. On October 13, 1916, the 85th and its Brigade mates boarded HM Transport Olympic, ”sister" ship to the famous Titanic, at Halifax. The four battalions safely crossed the North Atlantic and disembarked at Liverpool on October 19. At the time of its arrival in England, the 85th consisted of 34 Officers and 1001 "other ranks” (OR).

The battalion spent the autumn and early winter in training at Witley Camp, Surrey, eagerly awaiting orders to depart for France. Shortly after the dissolution of the Highland Brigade in December 1916, the 85th was on the move, crossing the English Channel on February 10, 1917 and completing its final training for service in the line at Gouy Servins, Bouvigny and Bouvigny Wood, France.

In March 1917, the 85th was officially designated a “working unit” and temporarily attached to the 4th Canadian Division’s 11th Brigade. As its soldiers had no combat experience, the unit was assigned to "reserve" positions, in support of the Canadian Corps' assault on Vimy Ridge. Its soldiers were to follow the advancing units, carry ammunition, construct dugouts, establish and maintain communication trenches, clear entangled wire and guard prisoners of war as the battle progressed.

Prime Minister Robert Borden reviews 85th's ranks (France, March 1917).
Despite the 85th’s anticipated role, Lt.-Col. Borden insisted that his soldiers prepare for combat, its personnel training “over the tapes” on a model of the sector assigned to the 4th Canadian Division. Its Officers also received complete briefings on the plan of attack. As subsequent events unfolded, Borden’s directives proved invaluable on the day of battle.

As the April 9 attack unfolded, the battalion's role changed significantly. While advancing infantry units successfully captured most of their initial objectives along the well-fortified ridge, German positions in front of Hill 145—the ridge's highest and most strategically important feature—withstood the initial artillery bombardment. Emerging from their dugouts as the 4th Division’s 11th Brigade advanced up the ridge, the German soldiers held out against the 87th and 102nd Battalions and enfiladed the Canadian left flank with devastating machine gun fire.

As the overall success of the day’s assault hung in the balance, Canadian commanders hastily discussed their options. Late in the afternoon, they selected the 85th Battalion’s "C" and "D" to execute a direct assault on the strategic German position. At 6:45 p.m., the two companies advanced up the ridge without artillery cover, in the face of relentless machine gun fire. Dwindling German supplies and lack of reinforcements, combined with the determination of the assaulting troops, resulted in the position's capture and solidified the Canadian Corps’ hold on the ridge. Two decades later, the Canadian government erected the Canadian War Memorial atop the exact location where the 85th’s soldiers made their battlefield debut.

The entire 85th Battalion remained "in the line" on the newly captured ridge until relieved on April 14. Their first combat experience under their belts, the unit was permanently assigned to the 4th Canadian Division’s 12th Brigade, where it served alongside the 38th (Ottawa), 72nd (Seaforth Highlanders of Canada) and 78th (Winnipeg Grenadiers) Battalions for the remainder of the war.

85th Battalion's colours.
The 85th’s soldiers served a regular rotation in the trenches near Lens throughout the spring and summer of 1917. In October 1917, the battalion joined other Canadian personnel in Belgium’s treacherous Ypres Salient as the Canadian Corps prepared for its second major assault of the year—an attack on German positions along Passchendaele ridge.

The 85th’s soldiers participated in the third phase of the attack, carried out from October 28 to November 2, 1917. Prior to the advance, ”D” Company, consisting of Cape Breton recruits, responded to an enemy counter-attack. On the night of October 28, German infantry launched an assault during relief operations and seized a strategic portion of the front line. The 85th’s ”D” Company—the relieving unit—succeeded in recapturing the trench at a decisive point in the fighting, thus preserving the existing line.

Two days later, the 85th’s “A”, “B” and “C” Companies participated in the advance on Passchendaele village. “D” Company remained in support, entering the fight at a crucial moment and turning the tide in favour of the attacking forces. While the 85th succeeded in securing its objectives, the costs were considerable. Of the 26 Officers who entered the line at Passchendaele, 12 were killed and eight wounded, while 371 of the 662 OR who entered the trenches on October 28 were casualties by the time the battalion retired from the line on the night of October 31/November 1.

Its Passchendaele statistics represent the 85th’s greatest “single tour” losses of the entire war. Several months after the November 1918 Armistice, a group of its soldiers returned to the battlefield where so many of their comrades were killed or wounded and erected a monument in their memory. The structure remains there to this day, its plaque engraved with the names of the soldiers killed in action during the Passchendaele tour.

85th Battalion Passchendaele Memorial (April 2015)
The battalion's 1917 successes at Vimy and Passchendaele prompted other Canadian units to refer to the 85th as "The Never Fails". Throughout the following year, the unit served with distinction, participating in major battles at Amiens (August 8-11, 1918), Arras (September 2-5, 1918) and Cambrai (September 25 - October 2, 1918) during Canada’s “!00 Days.” Its performance solidified its reputation as a formidable infantry unit and reliable component of the Canadian Corps. 

Following the conclusion of hostilities, the battalion remained in Belgium until May 1, 1919, at which time its personnel returned to England. On May 3, the 85th’s distinguished brass band and a detachment of its soldiers joined thousands of British and Imperial troops in the Great March of Triumph through the streets of London. At month’s end, the battalion departed England for Canada, arriving in Halifax on June 8. An estimated 60,000 Nova Scotians crowded the city's streets to witness its homecoming parade.

85th Battalion's return to Halifax (June 1919)
While the unit was officially demobilized on the day of arrival, it took several days before all personnel were discharged. On June 15, 1919, the battalion's remaining members marched its regimental colours to Government House, where they were surrendered for posterity to the province's Lieutenant-Governor. On September 15, 1920, the 85th Battalion was officially disbanded by General Order, bringing to an end the story of its remarkable contribution to Canada's “Great War” service.
 
*****
This post was revised on October 17, 2016.

Sources:

“85th Battalion.”  Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group.  Available online.

“85th History: 85th Overseas Battalion C. E. F..”  Kintail to Cape Breton.  Available online.

http://bdbarry.tripod.com/id103.htm

Hunt, M. S.. Nova Scotia's Part in the Great War - 1920.  Manotick, Ontario: Archives CD Books Canada Inc., 2007.

For an extensive history of the 85th Battalion, refer to:

Hayes, Lt. Col. Joseph.  The Eighty-Fifth in France and Flanders.  Halifax: Royal Print & Litho Limited, 1920.

Lt. Col. Hayes was the battalion's Medical Officer and was named a member of the Distinguished Service Order (D. S. O.) in recognition of his valuable service to King and country.  The book's index lists the names and provides brief details on the service of every member of the battalion.

20 comments:

  1. Do you have any info on Pte. Robert Power, died 12-4-17, Vimy Ridge.

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    1. Roseanne, I do not have any information specific to Private Robert Power, but I have located several pieces of information online, related to his service. Contact me by e-mail at:

      brucefrancismacdonald@gmail.com

      I can provide you with links to the information.

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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. Please contact me by e-mail at the following e-mail address:

      brucefrancismacdonald@gmail.com

      If the first name is Aubrey, he was killed at Lens on March 3, 1918. The location of his grave is available at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site:
      http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/561514/MACKINNON,%20A

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  3. The Battle for History: Nova Scotia’s 85th Battalion and the Capture of Hill 145, Vimy Ridge, 1917-1943:
    http://www.journal.forces.gc.ca/Vol17/no2/page34-eng.asp

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  4. Thanks for the link, Vic — a very detailed source on the 85th's role at Vimy Ridge.

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  5. Thanks for this detailed account of the 85th Bn - well written and concise.

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  6. Thanks for the positive feedback, Peter. I'm pleased that the post's contents met with your approval!

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  7. Hello , would you have any info on a Charles Ambrose Clowery. He would have been my grandfather. Dies Feb. 21 1939.

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  8. Hello! Your grandfather's service record is available online at the following link:

    http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/personnel-records/Pages/item.aspx?IdNumber=106685

    You can download the file by clicking on the link to the right of the text, "Download digitized file - PDF format." While your grandfather enlisted with the 85th Battalion in November 1915, he was subsequently transferred to another unit in England and remained there for several months when the 85th departed for France in February 1917. He was assigned to the 4th Labour Battalion in October 1917 and crossed the Channel to France at that time. The following month, he was transferred to the 11th Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops, where he served as a "sapper," receiving a promotion to the rank of Corporal in 1918. Contact me by e-mail if you have any questions about the file's content, as I have downloaded a copy:

    brucefrancismacdonald@gmail.com

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    1. Will he be mentioned in your second book?

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    2. Janet, if you're referring to Charles Ambrose Clowery [Clowery] above, his story would not be included in my second book. I have researched only the stories of First World War soldiers born in/with connections to Guysborough County and who died during their military service, or died after discharge from causes related to their military service.

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  9. Thank you for this! I am a descendant of Captain Robert Inglis Donaldson.

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  10. You're welcome, Bob. I'm glad you found the post beneficial. Contact me by e-mail if you have any further questions about Captain Robert Inglis Donaldson's service with the 85th Battalion. My address is: brucefrancismacdonald@gmail.com .

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  11. Hi Bruce,

    My grandfather was in the 85th Battalion "C" Company. In "The Eighty-fifth in France and Flanders" by Joseph Hayes, he is listed as "J.2-10-15; (duty) Ordnance, 25-12-17". Are you able to explain the role of "(duty) Ordnance"?

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    1. Ordnance refers to the various types of ammunition that the unit would use - small arms ammunition (referred to as s.a.a.), rifle grenades, Lewis Gun (machine gun) ammunition, and any other ammunition or explosive items used by the battalion. Ordnance duty, as defined by an online dictionary, would involve the procuring, distribution, and safekeeping of ordnance.

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    2. Thank you Bruce. Presumably, he would have been in the trenches with the rest of his company?

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    3. Let me check on that. I presume that he may not have been in the line, as he would be responsible for re-supplying the soldiers in the front trenches during a tour. I have a few contacts who may be able to provide a definite answer shortly.

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  12. Is there a way to find out where battallion HQ was on Aug 18,1918 and the location of D company on that day ?

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  13. Use the link below to access the 85th Battalion's was diary and view August 1918, page 5.

    http://data4.collectionscanada.ca/netacgi/nph-brs?s1=85th+Battalion&s13=&s12=&l=20&s9=RG9&s7=9-52&Sect1=IMAGE&Sect2=THESOFF&Sect4=AND&Sect5=WARDPEN&Sect6=HITOFF&d=FIND&p=1&u=http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/archivianet/02015202_e.html&r=1&f=G

    The battalion was in Division Reserve near Rouvroy. There are map co-ordinates for the locations of Battalion Headquarters and "D" Company. I will look into where you might be able to locate a copy of the map to which the co-ordinates refer. Contact me by e-mail and I will send further details: brucefrancismacdonald@gmail.com .

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