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Sunday, 30 December 2012

Sgt. Alexander D. MacIsaac - A DCM Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: July 27, 1893

Place of Birth: Giant's Lake, Guysborough County*

Mother's Name: Flora MacLean

Father's Name: Archibald MacIsaac

Date of Enlistment: March 21, 1916 at Antigonish, NS

Regimental Number: 902010

Rank: Sargeant

Force: Infantry

Units: 193rd Battalion; 185th Battalion (Cape Breton Highlanders); 25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles)

Location of service: England & France

Occupation at Enlistment: Clerk

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Mrs. Flora MacIsaac, Giant's Lake (mother)

Date of Discharge: February 14, 1919 at Halifax, NS

*: Attestation lists "Porter's River" as place of birth.

*****

The small settlements scattered throughout the interior of Guysborough County provided numerous volunteers for military service.  Alexander D. MacIsaac was a native of one such community.  'Nandy', as he was known to family members, was born at Porter's River, near Giant's Lake, Guysborough County, on July 17, 1893.  His parents, Archibald and Flora, raised a family of seven children - three boys and four girls - on their family farm.  An older brother, Alexander Laughlin (b. April 1, 1888), moved to Western Canada sometime before 1911, working as a storekeeper before being drafted into military service at Calgary on January 4, 1918.

Sgt. Alexander D. 'Nandy' MacIsaac
 Nandy was not as adventurous as his older sibling, travelling only as far as Antigonish, where he found employment as a clerk.  On March 21, 1916, he decided to enlist in the 193rd Battalion, which was canvassing for recruits across northeastern Nova Scotia.  His initial rank at enlistment -"cadet" - suggests that he had an interest in military activities, although no prior service is noted on his attestation papers.  His regimental record suggests that his superiors saw "leadership potential" in this young recruit, as he was promoted to "provisional Corporal" on June 5, 1916 and later to "Adjutant Corporal with pay" on October 12, 1916.  Subsequent service at the front would prove their judgment to be well founded.

The 193rd Battalion trained at Aldershot throughout the summer of 1916 before relocating to Halifax in preparation for overseas deployment.  On October 12, 1916 - the same day that his promotion to Adjutant Corporal became official - young Nandy MacIsaac boarded the SS Olympic with the members of Nova Scotia's famed "Highland Brigade" for their trans-Atlantic journey.  The Brigade's four battalions disembarked at Liverpool, England on October 18, travelling by train and then foot to Witley Camp, Surrey, England.

When military authorities decided to dissolve the 193rd Battalion later that year, Nandy was transferred to the 185th Battalion (Cape Breton Highlanders), one of two regiments that survived the Highland Brigade's dissolution, on December 29, 1916.  He remained in England throughout 1917, training in preparation for an overseas assignment.  His leadership potential soon became apparent, as he was promoted to "A/Sgt." with the pay of Corporal on November 10, 1917.  Before year's end, he was granted the full pay to which his rank was entitled.

As with many other volunteers, Nandy's military career seems to have "stalled" in England.  Promotions may have indicated leadership potential, but the vast majority of men who voluntarily enlisted for service had one major goal in mind - to see action on the front lines in Belgium and France.  In order to hasten such a transfer, Nandy reverted to ranks "at his own request" on February 25, 1918.  Four days later, he was transferred to the 25th Battalion and proceeded across the English Channel for service at the front.

25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) Cap Badge
Nandy spent two weeks at Canadian Base Details (CBD) in France before being transferred to the 25th in the field on March 14, 1918.  It did not take long for him to make a positive impression on his new unit.  One week after his arrival, he was awarded a "Good Conduct Badge".  As his service in France unfolded, his performance in uniform would earn additional recognition from his both commanding officers and the Imperial authorities.

*****

On March 15, 1918, the 25th Battalion was enjoying a period of rest, recreation and training near Raimbert, France, when Pte. Alexander MacIsaac and three "other ranks" (OR) reinforcements joined the unit.  One week later, officers received orders to stand by "for a sudden move to the line… owing to [an] expected attack by the enemy".  The men relocated to Wailly on March 29, spending two days in support positions before retiring to billets without seeing action. 

Finally, on April 5, the battalion moved into front line positions at Neuville-Vitasse with a "trench strength" of 20 officers and 668 OR.  Over the next several days, both sides exchanged artillery fire, with the 25th's position "heavily shelled with gas from 4.00 am to 7.00 am" on April 8.  The battalion recorded no casualties and was relieved of front line duty the following day, retiring for three days to support positions before moving into billets at Wailly for a period of rest and training.

Four days later, on April 16, Nandy accompanied the regiment into the front lines near Mercatel.  The following day brought the first significant casualties since his arrival, when three OR were killed by a direct artillery strike on a machine gun placement.  Otherwise, the situation was relatively quiet, with intermittent exchanges of artillery fire, the occasional gas shell and frequent enemy aircraft activity. On April 24, the 25th was once again relieved of front line duty and retired to billets at Bailleulval.

Mackenzie tartan (worn by 25th Battalion's pipe band)
The battalion's war diary records an interesting meeting that occurred on April 29, when the unit's officers discussed a proposal to transform the regiment into a "Highland unit", complete with the kilt.  A resolution requesting a change of name to "25th Canadian Battalion, Acadian Highlanders, Nova Scotia Regiment" and formal adoption of Highland dress was approved by both officers and enlisted men and forwarded to the authorities.  Disappointingly, the war would end before the request could be considered.

The battalion continued to serve in rotation along the Mercatel sector of the front lines throughout May and June.  The only notable incident during this period occurred on June 13, when a party of 6 officers and 140 OR from the 25th raided an enemy outpost line, capturing 5 prisoners - including 2 officers - and one machine gun and killing an estimated 50 to 60 German soldiers.  One officer and 1 OR soldier were killed in the raid, with 22 OR wounded and 3 missing after the encounter.
On June 30, the men retired to billets at Bellacourt for a much-deserved rest.  A delegation of 200 men participated in a July 1 "Dominion Day" Canadian Corps athletic competition at Tinques, with the unit spending the remainder of the month resting, training and enjoying the occasional recreational activity near Arras, France.

Nandy and the men of the 25th returned to the trenches near Bois de Blangy in the evening hours of August 5.  They remained in this location for two days before moving to "jumping off" positions near Cachy on August 7, in preparation for an attack scheduled the following day.  The battalion was about to participate in the battle of Amiens, a major counterattack in response to the German "spring offensive" that had taken place earlier that same year.  In retrospect, the events that unfolded over the next few days mark the beginning of the war's eventual end.

The Allied attack was carefully planned, with particular emphasis on surprising the enemy.  The 25th's war diary notes that "no whistling or singing was allowed" as the men marched to their assigned location, and "all ranks were forbidden to enter any village.  The importance of secrecy was appreciated by the men, who acted accordingly."

Canadian soldiers at Amiens, August 1918
The attack was scheduled to begin with an artillery barrage at 4:20 am on the morning of August 8, 1918.  "A thick mist hung over the ground" as the guns opened fire on German positions at "Zero hour".  One hour later, Nandy and the men of the 25th Battalion advanced "in support" of an attack spearheaded by two of its fellow 5th Brigade units, the 24th and 26th Battalions.  Their objective - to advance approximately 1000 yards beyond the village of Guillacourt - was achieved by noon. 

The day's war diary entry provides a sense of the challenges faced in the advance: "The mist and smoke was so thick that it was impossible to proceed other than by compass [, which] was also difficult at times owing to the obscurity of all land marks".  At day's end, the battalion remained in the newly consolidated line.  Its casualties were relatively light, considering the ferocity of battle.  Two officers were killed and another 5 wounded, while 6 OR were killed, 102 wounded and 3 missing in the battle's aftermath.

The following day, the battalion was order to continue the attack from their positions, proceeding "over the ridge in front of Caix" at 1 pm in the face of a "light artillery barrage and strong enemy machine gun fire".  Approximately 250 German soldiers holding front line positions surrendered and were taken prisoner as the advance continued.  The war diary records stiff resistance from "large numbers of enemy machine gun posts", but the battalion persevered.  By day's end, the unit had captured the villages of Veely and Meharicourt, with assistance from several tanks.  One officer was wounded, 6 OR killed and an additional 152 wounded in the day's fighting.

Nandy and the soldiers of the 25th remained in the newly established front lines near Amiens until the night of August 16-17, when they were retired to billets at Caix.  In the aftermath of the battle, Nandy found himself in a new role.  On August 9, while engaged in battle near Amiens, he was officially appointed "a/L/Cpl.", with the pay of "L/Cpl".  By month's end, he received an additional promotion to "Corporal".  The leadership qualities apparent during his early months of training were once again being recognized on the battlefields of France.

Canadian soldiers along the Arras - Cambrai road, August 1918
The 25th participated in the first three days of the battle of Arras (August 26 - September 5, 1918) before being relieved of front line duty on August 29 and retiring to billets at Achicourt.  Its battle strength had been significantly reduced as a result of the month's fighting, and much needed reinforcements arrived in small numbers throughout late August and early September.  As a result, the battalion spent several weeks resting and training as its new members were integrated into the unit. 

On September 19, Corporal MacIsaac returned to the front lines with the 25th, which was assigned a sector of trench southeast of the village of Inchy-en-Artois.  Two days later, an enemy attack on their right flank was "completely repulsed" and "the enemy retired to their former positions [,] leaving many dead and wounded in our hands".  Heavy artillery shelling the next day was followed by a German infantry attack at 9 pm, but once again the enemy was "forced to withdraw".  The war diary entry records "numerous counter-attacks" through the night, each "repulsed by our bombs and machine gun fire".  Casualties were light, with only 5 OR wounded in the day's action.

Fighting intensified on September 25, with a heavy artillery barrage at 5 am followed by a German infantry "attack in force".  The war diary describes the battalion's response:

"Our S.O.S. was sent up and the field guns opened up immediately.  We prevented the enemy from entering our trenches and in many places our men started over the top to meet the enemy, who was completely repulsed after some heavy fighting.  The enemy continued to bombard our trenches all day, lifting fire toward evening." 

Later that night, the 25th was relieved by the 44th Canadian Infantry Battalion and retired to bivouac and trench shelters at Hendecourt.  Six OR were killed and an additional 16 wounded in the day's fighting, relatively light casualties considering the intensity of the attack.

Canadian soldiers in Cambrai Square, October 1918
Following several days' rest, Nandy and the men of the 25th received orders to "stand to" on September 30 in anticipation of a "sudden move to the line".  The following day, the battalion moved back into trenches in front of Sailly.  The men encountered intermittent artillery shelling over the next several days, and "enemy bombing planes [were] active" as the men worked on trenches along an adjacent railway line at night.

Once week later, the battalion was assigned a vital task in a key battle unfolded over the strategically important location of Cambrai.  German troops controlled several bridges that crossed the canals around the town, and the 25th was given the objective of capturing one such position at Canal de L'Escaut.  According to the war diary's October 9th entry, "at 0130… the [25th] Battalion attacked the Canal.., 'C' and 'D' Companies establishing bridgeheads…. 'A' and 'B' Companies continued the attack and reached their objective in a short time and consolidated their positions…. Casualties - 15 O. R. killed and 85 O. R. wounded."

The brief war diary description does not reveal the entire story of what transpired in those early morning hours.  The men faced significant enemy resistance in establishing the bridgeheads.  One Company, under the command of Captain Charles Beckett Holmes, encountered an enemy machine gun nest upon crossing the canal.  The outcome of the attack hung in the balance as several soldiers advanced in the face of unrelenting gunfire.

Reverse of Sgt. Alexander D. MacIsaac's Medals - DCM, British War Medal & Victory Medal
Nandy was one of four men who "rushed forward… and attacked the [machine gun] post[,] killing five of the enemy, capturing eight prisoners and two machine guns."  Their daring action ensured the success of the day's attack.  In the aftermath of the battle, Cpl. Alexander MacIsaac was one of seven "other ranks" from the 25th Battalion to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, in recognition of "marked gallantry and initiative during the attack…. His fine action enabled his company to advance to their objective."

The battalion remained stationary for one day before relocating to a new position on the front lines following an October 11 attack by the 4th and 6th Brigades.  Three days later, Nandy and the men of the 25th retired to billets at Tilloy, passing the next two weeks resting, cleaning up and training in preparation for a return to action.  Nandy's days on the front lines came to an end when he proceeded to England on October 25, 1918 "with a view to obtaining a commission" as an officer.  The leadership skills evident throughout his service with the 193rd, 185th and 25th Battalions were thus officially acknowledged.

Nandy was posted to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot at Bramshott, where he was appointed "a/Sgt. with pay" effective immediately.  His officers' training, however, was brought to an end by the November 11, 1918 armistice.  On November 13, Nandy was transferred to the 17th Reserve Battalion, where he remained "A/Sgt. with pay".  One month later, he was posted "on command" as Sergeant with "10 Canadian Reserves" at Bramshott.  On January 12, 1919, he was transferred to CEF No. 6 D. D. Halifax and departed England for Canada on January 31 aboard the Empress of Britain.  On February 14, 1919, Sgt. Alexander D. MacIsaac was officially discharged from military service at Halifax.

*****

After his discharge, Nandy remained in Halifax, where he received his Distinguished Conduct Medal from HRH Edward, Prince of Wales, in an August 1919 ceremony.  The event marked the completion of his military career.  Nandy found employment in the Halifax area as a tailor and settled into civilian life.  On August 24, 1924, he married Mary Teresa MacDonald, a native of Ketch Harbour who was working in the city as a stenographer.  The newlyweds took up residence at Mary's 95 Jubilee Road address.  Nandy subsequently opened a tailor shop under the business name "Wilmot's".

Sgt. Alexander MacIsaac receiving the Distinguished Conduct Medal from HRH Edward, Prince of Wales
Sadly, Alexander D. MacIsaac's life was cut short by poor health.  After being hospitalized for nine months with a progressive brain infection, he died in hospital on February 5, 1932 and was buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Halifax.  Only his wife Mary and his six siblings survived him, as the young couple had no children.  The promotions and awards bestowed on him are fitting testimony to the leadership qualities and dedication to duty he displayed throughout his service to "King and Country".

*****

Sources:

Regimental Record of Sgt. Alexander MacIsaac, No. 902010.  Library and Archives Canada.
RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 6911 - 29.  Available online.

War Diaries: 25th Canadian Infantry Battalion.  War Diaries of the First World War.    Library and Archives Canada.  RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3 , Volume 4933 , Reel T-10736.  File : 419.  Available online.

Photographs of Sgt. Alexander MacIsaac courtesy of his great-nephew, Mr. Neil MacIaac, Giant's Lake, Guysborough County, NS.

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