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Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Halifax Rifles & 40th Battalion

Several of the regiments recruited in Nova Scotia during the First World War were built upon existing militia or military units.  One such example is the 40th Battalion, which grew out of the Halifax Rifles, a militia unit in existence at the time of the war's outbreak.  Created on May 14, 1860 in the aftermath of the Crimean War, the "Halifax Volunteer Battalion" was renamed the Halifax Battalion of Rifles in 1869 before being formally designated the 63rd Regiment (Halifax Rifles) on May 8, 1900.

Halifax Volunteer Battalion soldier, c. 1860
Members of the militia unit participated in several 19th century military campaigns.  A number volunteered for service with the military contingent sent to the Canadian West in response to the Northwest Rebellion of 1885.  During the South African (Boer) War (1899-1903), members of the Rifles voluntarily enlisted in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, which was actively involved in the conflict.

When Britain declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary in the summer of 1914, the Halifax Rifles responded by sending a draft of volunteers to the 14th Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment), one of the units that sailed to England in October 1914 as part of the first Canadian contingent.  The regiment's officers, however, were not satisfied with simply providing personnel for other units.  On January 1, 1915, the Canadian government authorized the creation of the 40th Battalion, under the command of Lt. Col. W. H. Gilborne (R. C. R.).  Built around military personnel enlisted in the Halifax Rifles, the newly created regiment immediately set out to raise a Nova Scotian battalion for overseas combat.

A member of the 63rd Halifax Rifles at McNab's Island camp, September 1914
 The 40th established detachments across the province - at Sydney, Glace Bay, North Sydney, Truro, Amherst, New Glasgow, Yarmouth, Lunenburg, Kentville and Digby - in addition to Halifax and McNab's Island.  After four months of recruiting, the battalion mobilized at Aldershot on May 11, 1915, where military training continued.  On June 21, the 40th relocated to Camp Valcartier, Quebec.  Prior to its departure for Europe, two "drafts" for overseas service were drawn from its ranks - 25 men to the 25th Battalion, and an additional 250 men and 5 officers to England as reinforcements.  While training at Valcartier, a third draft of 5 officers and 250 "other ranks" were sent to England.

Having spent the summer in training at Valcartier, the 40th Battalion boarded the SS Saxonia and departed Canada on October 18,1915.  Eleven days later, its 1143 personnel landed at Plymouth, England and proceeded to Bramshott Military Camp, becoming the first Canadian infantry battalion to be stationed there.  The 40th was assigned to the 9th Brigade, 3rd Canadian Division and continued its training in anticipation of deployment in France.
C. R. Fulton, Upper Stewiacke, NS (center) & J. Miller, Fogo, Nfld. (right) of the 63rd Halifax Rifles in CEF uniform
Unfortunately, the 40th Battalion suffered the same fate as most other Nova Scotian battalions.  The heavy demand for reinforcements due to significant casualties in the Third Battle of Ypres (June 2, 1916) led to the unit's relocation to East Sandling, England, where it was re-designated the 40th Reserve Battalion.  The regiment dispatched drafts of infantry personnel to virtually every component of the Canadian Corps as demand for reinforcements continued throughout the Battle of Somme (July - November 1916).

Eventually, the 40th Battalion absorbed the remaining personnel of the 64th, 104th, 106th (Nova Scotia Rifles) and 172nd Battalions.  The unit later returned to Bramshott, where it was re-designated the 216th Reserve Battalion.  When its manpower dwindled, the 216th was absorbed by the 17th Reserve Battalion.

40th Battalion Cap Badge
Over the course of the war, virtually all of the 40th Battalion's original recruits served on the front lines in France or Belgium.  Ten of its officers were killed in action, while nineteen were wounded.  Twelve officers received the Military Cross, while one was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross "for an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty performed whilst flying in active operations against the enemy".

After the end of the war, the Halifax Rifles continued to operate as a militia unit.  As time passed, its active membership dwindled, particularly in the years after the Second World War.  In 1965, the regiment was placed on the "Supplementary Order of Battle", its strength having been reduced to "nil".  The unit was reactivated as a reserve force on May 10, 2009, its personnel training to perform armoured reconnaissance.  Its resurrection is a fitting tribute to the men whose military exploits in defence of their country began with a small militia unit created in Halifax, Nova Scotia over 150 years ago. 



The Halifax Rifles (RCAC).  Wikipedia.  Available online.

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

Orders and Decorations - Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).  Veterans Affairs Canada.  Available online.


  1. Thanks for posting this information. Did the 40th Batallion serve at Vimy Ridge?

  2. Modo, the 40th Battalion was re-designated a 'reserve' battalion in mid-1916 and remained at East Sandling, England. The unit never crossed the English Channel to France and thus never saw action at the front. However, the men who enlisted with the 40th were transferred to other units and, depending on their individual war experience (i.e., whether they were wounded or killed in action prior to April 1917), would have fought at Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917 with their new unit.

  3. Thanks. I am doing research on a solider who lost his leg at Vimy Ridge, but on his gravestone it mentioned he was a member of the 40th Battalion, and yet he was part of the 25th Batallion (Nova Scotia Rifles), so I am still trying to clear that up. I'm going to continue to do more digging. Thanks for your great website and information on it. I will be certain to reference it.

  4. I expect that the soldier you are researching originally enlisted with the 40th Battalion but was transferred to the 25th Battalion sometime after the 40th landed in England. Many of the 40th's original soldiers eventually served with the 25th, as it was a Nova Scotian battalion. If you want to contact me at my regular e-mail address, I'd be happy to provide you with assistance in carrying out your research. My address is:

    1. Thank you very much. I will take you up on that offer. I will contact you sometime this upcoming week. ;-)

  5. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  6. Thanks for the positive feedback! The posts on First World War battalions are receiving considerable attention as people research their ancestors' war experiences.

  7. My grandfather, Lance Corporal Norman L Sherman, was part of the 106th battalion and I am trying to find out if he fought at Vimy?

  8. Glenna, you'd have to obtain a copy of his service record to know for sure. The chances are that he was there, as the 106th was disbanded in England and distributed to other units in France. A large number went to the 26th Battalion (New Brunswick), which fought at Vimy. Contact me by e-mail and I can provide more details:

  9. Hi granduncle was a Chaplain in the 40th...March 1940, Unknown Newspaper. Father Miles Tompkins Goes To His Reward. Rev. Miles N. Tompkins, parish priest of St. Agnes parish, New Waterford, died at St. Joseph's Hospital, Glace Bay, Tuesday forenoon, March 26 after years of ill health. He was sixty years old. The death of Father Miles touched closely a wide cross-section of the population of eastern Nova Scotia, Protestant as well as Catholic. He was known and esteemed as a priest, loved as a genial companion, and honored as a fearless "padre" in the days of the Great War. For twenty years he had fought the disease which finally stilled his rigged heart, but the tribulations of his illness could never dispel the cheerfulness which was characteristic of him, or embitter his whimsical outlook on life. A native of Northeast Margaree Father Miles was born February 20, 1880, the son of Nicholas and Sarah (Doyle) Tompkins. Receiving his preliminary education at Rossville school he entered St. F.X. In 1903, joining the Sophomore class. He took a year out to work with a lumber company in Labrador, but returned to graduate with the class of 1906. His theological studies were made at Laval Seminary, and he was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Roy at Quebec May 21, 1910. Marked for service as manager of Mount Cameron, the College farm, he went to Guelph in the fall of 1910, attending the Agricultural College, and in 1912 he received the degree of B.S.A. from Toronto University. He remained in charge of Mount Cameron until 1915 when he was appointed a chaplain with the Canadian active service forces, going overseas in October with the 40th Battalion. Members of the Knights of Columbus here bade him god-speed, presenting him with a valuable wristwatch in token of the community's appreciation of his services at St. Martha's Hospital, Mount Cameron and St. F.X. College. Padre Tompkins served with distinction in the field with the Canadian artillery, and was honored for gallantry, receiving the military cross at Buckingham Palace from the hands of King George V, February 26, 1918. He came back from overseas in the summer of 1919, and resumed his work at Mount Cameron, remaining for five years. In October 1924 he was appointed parish priest of St. Agnes, New Waterford, and he labored there with zeal until a few weeks ago when the development of his illness sent him to hospital. The funeral takes place at New Waterford Friday morning. RIP.

  10. Thanks for the post. Rev. Tompkins' story of service, religious and military, is indeed remarkable and reflects the expectations that the First World War placed on his generation's shoulders.

  11. I am looking for information on a Pte James Comeau (Como) 482048 who was killed on April 7, 1917. His war records say he was a member of the 40th Battalion and he was buried at Ecoivres Military Cemetery. I am trying to find out what battle he was killed in. Was this a battle that lead up to the larger battle for Vimy Ridge? This is for a Remembrance Day program to be held at his home town of Joggins NS at the Royal Canadian Legion. Any information would be of benefit .

  12. Hello, Dara. I can assist you in researching the story of Pte. James Comeau. Please contact me by e-mail at: . It would appear that James was killed two days prior to the attack on Vimy Ridge. His service record is available online — it will provide us with the details needed to answer your questions.