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Thursday, 31 January 2013

Lance Cpl. Frank Burton 'Burt' McLane - A Sapper's Story


Date of Birth: November 29, 1897

Place of Birth: Stillwater, Guysborough County

Mother's Name: Martha A. McDaniel

Father's Name: Henry Alexander McLane

Date of Enlistment: April 1, 1916 at Guysborough, NS

Regimental Number: 901534

Rank: Lance Corporal*

Force: CEF (Infantry)

Units: 193rd Battalion; 42nd Battalion; 2nd Canadian Tunnelling Coy.; 11th Battalion Canadian Engineers

Location of service: Canada, England, Belgium & France

Occupation at Enlistment: Farmer

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Mr. Henry A. McLane (Father)

*: Rank of "Spr" ("Sapper") while serving with 2nd Canadian Tunnelling Coy.

*****
While the majority of Canadian soldiers served in infantry units in the trenches of northern France and Belgium, a small number found themselves working behind or even beneath the front lines.  Such was the case for Lance Corporal Frank Burton 'Burt' McLane, who initially enlisted in the infantry but soon found himself in circumstances he could never have anticipated.

Burt was born at Stillwater, Guysborough County on November 29, 1897, the fourth in a family of six children raised by Henry and Martha (McDaniel) McLane.  An older brother, Henry ('Harry'), joined the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) at Halifax on October 22, 1915.  Perhaps inspired by his brother's example, young Burt "answered the call" on April 1, 1916, enlisting in the 193rd Battalion at Guysborough, NS.

Sapper Frank Burton "Burt" McLane
Burt and his fellow 193rd recruits spent the summer of 1916 completing basic military training at Camp Aldersot.  On October 13, 1916, the regiment boarded the SS Olympic at Halifax, disembarking at Liverpool, England six days later.  When the 193rd and 246th Battalions were dissolved two months later, Burt was transferred to the 42nd Battalion on December 5, 1916 and landed in France the following day.  His time in the infantry, however, was short-lived.  Perhaps it was his small stature - his attestation papers list his height as 5 feet 5 inches and weight as 136 lbs..  Whatever the reason, despite a lack of mining or engineering experience, Pte. Frank Burton McLane was permanently attached to the 2nd Canadian Tunnelling Company, Canadian Engineers on January 1, 1917.
*****

The 2nd Tunnelling Company's war diary reported the arrival of nineteen 'other ranks' (OR) reinforcements - one of whom was 'Sapper' Burt McLane - on January 24, 1917.  At that time, the unit was located near Poperinge, west of Ypres, Belgium.  Burt spent the next 18 months in the field, with the exception of three days in the care of 47th Field Ambulance in mid-August 1917 for treatment of "PUO" (a fever of unknown origin").  He was granted two weeks' leave to the United Kingdom on December 21, 1917.  Upon returning to France, Burt was hospitalized for treatment of a serious infection, spending three months at 51st General Hospital, Etaples before rejoining the unit in the field on April 22, 1918.  While hospitalized, he was awarded a 'Good Conduct Badge' in recognition of his devotion to duty.

During his time with 2nd Tunnneling Coy., Burt experienced the many aspects of its work.  At the time of his arrival in Belgium, both sides were involved in extensive tunnelling operations in the Ypres area, made possible by suitable soil conditions and the proximity of enemy front lines.  On February 11, 1917, for instance, 2nd Tunnelling Company detonated a 'camouflet' - an underground explosive charge designed to destroy enemy fortifications or tunnels.  Five days later, the men completed work on a borehole that was 112 feet deep, the last 27 feet dug through blue clay.  These facts indicate that the Company was actively involved in the area's tunnelling operations.

Lance Cpl. Frank Burton McLane
While such activity might be expected of a tunnelling company, it also provided a variety of vital services for troops in the front lines.  The battalion war diary refers to several construction projects completed during Burt's service.  On April 2, 1917, the Company completed work on an infantry subway measuring three feet by five feet inside its timber supports.  The underground passageway connected Tor Top - one of two elevated heights on the Ypres Salient battlefield - to a second location named "Hedge Street".  On May 9, work was completed on an underground system at "Halfway House", and a second system was finished three days later at "Dormy House".  On June 21, the men completed construction of an underground dressing station.  Company personnel also maintained three roads leading east from St. Eloi during the month of September.

Tunnelling companies also participated in infantry attacks.  On June 7, 1917, British forces launched a major assault on German lines at Mount Sorrel.  Artillery bombardment commenced at 3:10 am, followed by an infantry advance.  The Company war diary describes the sappers' role as the day's events unfolded:

"At Mount Sorrel several of our men followed the Infantry and took possession of the underground German workings (about 1200 feet of galleries were found).  Meanwhile[,] others connected the British and German underground systems by driving a short gallery from Sudbury Listening Post; the connection was made by midday and was immediately used to bring up Infantry reinforcements.  By 7:30 am our sappers had excavated and completed an Artillery O. P. [outpost]… and by 7:30 pm a battered German dug-out had been fixed up as a Battalion Forward Commanding Station."

The Company's sappers were recalled to the front lines later in the day to assist the infantry in repelling a German counter-attack against the newly captured position.

On another occasion, ten of the Company's sappers followed a British raiding party into German lines under cover of darkness.  The men "investigated the German lines for a depth of 1400 yards opposite the Tor Top sector", working for eleven hours "under continual shell and machine gun fire.  They found a few mine and dugout entries[,] most of which had been wrecked by our artillery.  They cut all suspicious wires but found no indication of delayed action mines or traps."

Canadian Tunnelling Coy. - artists' depiction
As experienced 'diggers', sappers were sometimes called upon to rescue comrades from perilous circumstances.  On June 13, 1917, for example, enemy shelling destroyed a gallery and two machine gun posts.  One officer and 24 sappers worked for four hours, successfully digging out and reviving six trapped machine gunners.  On October 8, 1917, sappers worked all night to extinguish a fire in an infantry dugout at Larchwood, thankfully without any casualties being incurred.

A war diary passage at the end of June 1918 provides an overall snapshot of the work completed by Burt and his comrades that month:

"90 % of personnel were employed on Dugout Construction.  10 % were employed supervising Chinese labour who were occupied in Trench Digging, Construction of Barbed Wire Entanglements, and M. G. Emplacement.  Progress of work was adversely affected by an Epidemic of 'Spanish Flue' [sic] which affected the whole Personnel of the Coy."

While not directly involved in combat, the men of 2nd Tunnelling Company were nevertheless in constant peril.  In the two weeks following Burt's arrival, two battalion members were wounded by German sniper fire.  On February 15, 1917, the hazards of tunnelling became tragically apparent when a fire in an underground system at Mount Sorrel resulted in 11 deaths and 1 injury. 

On several occasions, the company was subjected to enemy attack.  On the night of March 25-26, 1917, "after heavy bombardment [the] enemy made an attack on our trenches, but was beaten back by our Lewis Guns."  Two weeks later - on April 9, 1917 - their position suffered a major assault as described in the Company's war diary:

"All afternoon [the] enemy violently bombarded our Front Line Trenches.  At 6:30 pm, he fired at least one camouflet against our Front Line Defense Galleries, rupturing 3 Listening Posts and over 140 feet of gallery.  Three of our listeners were killed.  At 7:30 pm he attacked our trenches but was repulsed.  Only 9 of the enemy reached our line, seven of these were killed and the other two wounded and taken prisoner."

Australian sapper in tunnel beneath Hill 60 - Ypres, Belgium
During the month of May, enemy soldiers launched three night raids on the Company's position, only to be driven off by Lewis Gun fire.  One raid succeeded in entering the Company's trenches, taking an infantryman prisoner.

On occasion, the Company came under direct enemy fire while working.  On July 31, 1917, a large party assigned to construct a 'diversion road' at Hooge was subjected to constant enemy artillery and machine gun fire.  The men were eventually forced to abandon their work "as [the] enemy was using the route which passed north of the Hooge craters as a target for continuous shell fire…. The Co. sustained no casualties due entirely to the sodden condition of the ground[,] which allowed H. E. [high explosive] shells to penetrate deeply before bursting."

Another incident occurred on October 15, 1917, when "during the night a gas shell penetrated Duke Street gallery: 13 of our sappers were sleeping in a dug-out nearby and next day were evacuated as gas casualties."  A month and a half later - December 1, 1917 - sappers commenced work on an underground system for the Royal Garrison Artillery.  The following day, the work site was "badly crimped in nine places by a heavy bombardment with delay-action shells".  Three infantry were killed in the assault, but fortunately 2nd Tunnelling Company suffered no casualties.

While overall statistics are not available, the Company's war diary recorded the casualties for two successive months during Burt's time with the unit.  In June 1917, 9 members were killed or died of wounds and 37 were wounded.  The following month, 5 sappers were killed, 22 wounded, 1 died of sickness, and 5 were gassed.  While not as high as infantry unit casualties, the statistics prove that Burt and his fellow sappers were in constant peril as they carried out their daily tasks.

Diagram and photograph of typical underground system
By mid-1918, changing front line conditions led British commanders to re-evaluate tunnelling companies' role in military operations.  Tunnelling required static front lines, as it was a time-consuming endeavour.  Several major offensives launched by both sides in mid-1917 and early 1918 resulted in significant shifting of the front lines.  As Allied commanders prepared to launch a major assault in response to the failed German 'Spring 1918 offensive', officials decided that the Canadian tunnelling companies had outlived their usefulness.  On July 6, 1918, 2nd Tunnelling Company was officially disbanded, its personnel divided into six parts and re-assigned to one of six Canadian Engineering battalions.  The following day, Sapper F. B. McLane reported for duty with 11th Battalion, Canadian Engineers, the unit with which he served the remainder of his time in uniform.
*****

The 11th Battalion, Canadian Engineers was located at Burbure, near Lens, France when Burt and 85 other sappers from 2nd Tunnelling Company were 'taken on strength'.  The men were organized into a separate unit - 'D' Company - and spent the remainder of the month training before being integrated into the battalion's operations.  In early August 1918, the unit relocated to Tronville Wood, where it provided support for a major infantry attack at Amiens.  Amongst its assignments prior to the battle was inspection of wells and cellar accommodations in nearby Beaucourt.

Working close to the front lines placed the unit well in range of enemy fire.  On the night of August 11, enemy bombardment of its camp killed 2 sappers and wounded 9 others.  Over the next several days, Burt and his 'D' Company comrades erected water tanks in the newly captured village of Rosieres, dug pits, bomb-proofed infantry billets, installed 'fire-stepping' in nearby front trenches, investigated and reclaimed dugouts captured in the attack.  Other battalion companies engaged in road maintenance, erected road signs, deployed trench wire, constructed trench bridges and deepened trenches in the area.

On August 23, the battalion was relieved of front line duty, enjoying several days rest at Bois de Gentelles.  The men relocated to Arras six days later, where they constructed a cavalry track and buried horses killed in the recent fighting.  On September 1, it was back to the front lines in support of an infantry attack at Scarpe.  Burt's company was assigned "[the] task of building [a] horse transport road" as the unit moved forward into captured territory the following day.  The men also filled shell holes and hauled 'road metal' to repair damages incurred during the battle.  On September 6, 'D' Company spent the day salvaging "German Machine Guns and Material".  The battalion retired to 'brigade support ' on the following day, only to endure an attack on its camp "in afternoon and evening with H. E. and Gas Shells".

Sappers completing a bridge across Canal du Nord, France
During the second week of September, 'D' Company constructed a 'dry weather track' from Wancourt to Cherisy, while the battalion's other companies repaired roads and rebuilt bridges destroyed in the recent fighting.  These tasks were central to continuing the offensive against German positions, as they allowed infantry, artillery and supplies to quickly reach newly established front line positions.  After a week of rest, clean-up and training, the battalion once again moved into positions behind the infantry at Canal du Nord as the Canadian Corps prepared for a major assault on this strategic location.

The assault on the canal was launched at 5:20 am September 26, 1918.  The following day, while other battalion units searched the area for water supplies, Burt's Company "did very good work making a crossing on the Canal du Nord… allowing the artillery to get over by 8:00 am[;] during the day they improved this, making it passable for lorries".  Work continued on the crossing for several days before the men retired to Petit Bois for a period of rest and training.

On October 16, Burt was attached to 4th Brigade Canadian Engineers Headquarters, where he received a promotion to the rank of Lance Corporal nine days later.  He spent the final month of the war working in this location while his former comrades constructed bridges at Arleux and Valenciennes.  Shortly after the cessation of hostilities, Burt was granted two weeks' leave to the United Kingdom.  On December 6, he rejoined the 11th Battalion, Canadian Engineers in the field.

By that time, the unit had relocated to Gistoux on the outskirts of Brussels, Belgium.  The men's daily schedule included drill and training in the morning, followed by rest and recreational activities in the afternoon.  The battalion spent Christmas Eve "preparing rooms for different companies' Christmas dinner.  Schools, cinemas, chateaux, etc. being put at our disposal.  The people were very kind and helped by lending dishes, tables, etc. and helping to cook the turkeys".  The following day, "the men had their Christmas dinners by Companies, there was lots to eat also rum and beer, and a merry time was had, dances and concerts followed the dinners, in which the inhabitants joined".  The festivities may have taken a toll on battalion personnel, as the Boxing Day entry noted that "no work was done[,] the men being allowed to recuperate from the effect of the Xmas dinner".

2nd & 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Coy. shoulder patch
The regular schedule of training and recreational activities resumed on December 27.  Three days later, "[an] illuminated clock which we had been making for 4th Div'l Ball was finished and taken to Brussels to be put in place".  The men enjoyed a holiday on New Years' Day 1919, before commencing a schedule of military training until 11 am in the morning, followed by afternoon classes in elementary subjects, Agriculture and French, designed to prepare the men for return to civilian life.  In late January, battalion members were granted short leaves to Brussels in small groups.

Winter arrived in the area with a heavy snowfall on February 5, followed by several days of cold temperatures.  Military training and classes continued into March, when improved weather conditions allowed for a resumption of outdoor activities.  Burt and his comrades had the opportunity to participate in a variety of activities as spring approached.  On March 14, "40 men [were] despatched to Brussels to fix [the] boxing ring at Palais d'Ete for Div'l Sports".  The 4th Division Boxing Tournament was staged the following day, after which the "ring was dismantled by 'B' Coy".  On March 16, the battalion's team won the Brigade Association Football Championship.  On March 25, a 'composite company' represented the battalion as the 10th Infantry Brigade was formally inspected by the King of Belgium.  Finally, on March 29, an Army boxing competition was held, along with "Canada Night at Opera Brussels".  "Special trains were run" to assist interested personnel in attending these events.

Daily training and educational classes continued until mid-April, when each company held a dinner and dance in anticipation of its departure.  In late April and early May, battalion members were transported to LeHavre, France, where they awaited passage to England.  On May 4, Burt travelled across the English Channel and was 'taken on strength' by 'F' Wing, CCC Bramshott.  After completing the required medical and dental inspections, Burt departed England on May 31, 1919 aboard HMT Adriatic.  Seven days later, he arrived in Halifax and was discharged from military service on June 15, 1919.
*****

After his return, Burt settled into civilian life as a farmer in the Stillwater area.  On February 12, 1925 he married Annie Laurie (Newington) Bixby, a 33-year-old widow.  A resident of New Glasgow, Annie was born in Melrose, Massachusetts, the location to which her parents, John William and Annie J. (Williams) Newington - natives of Kent England - had immigrated.  The marriage ceremony took place at the Presbyterian Manse, Antigonish. 

Sapper F. B. McLane's 'dog tag'
Sadly, Annie passed away five years later.  After more than a decade as a widower, Burt married Ella Marian Hines on June 30, 1943 at Stellarton.  The couple took up residence in nearby Springville, Pictou County after Burt became ill with Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS).  Neither of Bert's marriages resulted in children. 

Frank Burton McLane died at Springville on August 5, 1947 and was laid to rest in Riverside Cemetery, Sherbrooke.  His service with 2nd Tunnelling Coy. and 11th Battalion Canadian Engineers represents another dimension of the many contributions that young men from Guysborough County made to the Canadian war effort. 
*****

Sources:

Regimental Record of Lance Corporal Frank Burton McLane, no. 901534.  Library and Archives Canada: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 7038 - 50.  Attestation papers available online.

War Diary of 2nd Tunnelling Co., Canadian Engineers.  Library and Archives Canada.  RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3 , Volume 5003 , Reel T-10850, File : 685.  Available online.

War Diary of 11th Battalion, Canadian Engineers.  Library and Archives Canada.  RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3 , Volume 5001 , Reel T-10846, File : 675.  Available online.

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