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Thursday, 28 March 2013

Lance Cpl. Percy John Lumsden - A Pioneer's Story

Date of Birth:  April 24, 1890

Place of Birth: Canso, NS

Mother's Name: Annie Rebecca McLellan

Father's Name: James Robert Lumsden

Date of Enlistment: March 1, 1915 at Victoria, BC

Regimental Number: 430043

Rank: Lance Corporal

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force

Regiments: 48th Battalion; 3rd Canadian Pioneers

Location of service: Canada, England, France & Belgium

Occupation at Enlistment: Salesman

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: James R. Lumsden (father)

Over the course of the First World War, it was not unusual for several siblings to voluntarily enlist for overseas service.  The Canso family of Deacon James Robert and Annie Rebecca (McLellan) Lumsden was one such case.  James and Annie raised seven children in their home - six sons and one daughter.  Three of their boys responded to the King's 'call to duty'.  The first to enlist - and the youngest - was Clarence Basil 'Bill' Lumsden, who joined the 25th Battalion at Halifax on February 11, 1915 at age 20.  A second brother - the oldest - Asa Harrington 'Harry', enlisted in the Forestry Corps at Windsor, NS on October 15, 1917.  A third son, Percy John, joined the 48th Battalion (British Columbia) on March 1, 1915.

Percy John Lumsden in his youth.
Percy's early life was representative of life in a rural settlement.  He was raised in a devout Baptist family and became actively involved in church affairs, serving as a member of the Finance Committee, Sunday School librarian, and first secretary of the Free Men Class.  Percy found local employment at A. N. Whitman's general store, working as a clerk in the men's wear department.  He was also an avid amateur photographer.

Like other young men of his day, Percy was soon enticed by the world beyond his humble beginnings.  After nine years working in Canso, he decided to relocate to Canada's west coast.  A. N. Whitman's and the local Oddfellows' Lodge, of which he was 'a prominent member', presented him with a gold watch chain in recognition of his service to both employer and community.  By early 1914, Percy was settled in Prince Rupert, BC, where he found employment at a local warehouse.  He described his circumstances in a May 25, 1914 letter to his older brother Homer's wife, Gertie:

"Here I am on the other side of the continent seeking fame and fortune and mayhap a wife.  Well such is life.  We're here today and gone tomorrow.  But I can't complain [as] I am enjoying it to the full.  I have been working just a fortnight and hope I'll be able to hold the job down as long as I want it.  I had the offer of a job in the commissary department of the Canadian Cold Storage a fortnight ago at $ 80 a month but I turned it down as I would have had to work Sunday and they expected me to stay at the plant all the time[,] which is about two miles out of town.  However[,] I got a job the same afternoon in the Piercy Morris Co.'s warehouse at $ 21 a week and hours from 8 to 6 and close[d] on Saturdays.  It is a wholesale firm and I like the work first rate."

A. N. Whitman's General Store, Canso (date unknown).
Percy found accommodations in Prince Rupert with two other young men, Philip H. Linsy, an Englishman, and 'Chas.' McCurdy, a native of Baddeck, NS.  According to family sources, Percy also met a young woman and was soon engaged to be married.  However, his personal and professional plans were place on hold on March 1, 1915, when Percy enlisted in the 48th Canadian Infantry Battalion at Victoria, BC.


The 48th Canadian Infantry Battalion was organized at Victoria, BC in February 1915 under the command of Lt.-Col. W. J. H. Holmes.  The unit drew the nucleus of its initial enlistments from the 50th Gordon Highlanders and 88th Victoria Fuseliers, two local militia regiments.  To bring its ranks to full strength, organizers launched a province-wide recruitment campaign, to which young Percy Lumsden and dozens of other young men responded.

After a period of training, Percy and the 48th travelled by train to Montreal, boarding the SS Grampian for their trans-Atlantic voyage on July 1, 1915.  Upon its arrival in England nine days later, the battalion consisted of 38 officers, 1010 'other ranks' and their mascot, a bear affectionately named 'Bruno'.  The men immediately resumed training at West Sandling, in preparation for the call to the front.

The unit's plans for service as an infantry unit changed significantly on January 25, 1916.  In response to a pressing need for skilled labor at the front, military authorities re-designated the 48th as the 3rd Canadian Pioneer Battalion and assigned the unit to the 3rd Canadian Division.  Sources cite the men's excellent physical condition as the reason for the decision.  Whatever the cause, Percy's experience at the front lines would prove no less perilous than the infantrymen for whom he and his fellow 'pioneers' constructed fortifications, trenches and other vital facilities.

3rd Canadian Pioneers/48th Battalion pin.
On March 1, 1916, Percy's devotion to military duties merited a promotion to the rank of Lance Corporal.  The following day, he wrote to Homer and Gertie, outlining his experiences in England:

"I've been having a pretty good time over here.  I've had quite a bit of leave of absence and needless to say made the most of my opportunities.  I visited the family of the chap I was backing [sic] with in [Prince] Rupert.  They live in Trowbridge and I have been down there twice.... I have been to the Big Smoke [London] quite a lot and feel very much at home there.... She's a great old town and I'd like to see it when she's lit up.  The streets are all darkened now of course as they are afraid of Zeppelins.  I have seen a number of the places that were wrecked by the bombs but really the damage done hasn't been very great.... A week ago a German aeroplane dropped a bomb not far from Folkestone.  They tried to hit the Naval Aerodrome but missed it."

Percy also described recent activities as the 3rd Pioneers prepared for deployment at the front:

"We have been quarantined for measles for over a week now and are not allowed out of camp except for drill.  I think it has been done more to keep the boys together than to prevent the spread of measles.  We expect to leave for France on the 10th of this month and they don't want any of the chaps to be away when the time comes to leave.... We have about a hundred horses and mules and as soon as they are equipped we'll be ready to move off.  We have been down to Hythe these last two days building bridges across the canal.  Yesterday we built a float out of a couple of casks lashed together and when two of the boys got on it to put it into place it upset.  The water was quite shallow so they didn't get very wet, but it was fun for us while it lasted."

The Folkestone area was 'crawling' with CEF battalions, providing the occasional opportunity to connect with Canso acquaintances.  Percy relates one such instance:

"On Tuesday the 40th Bn. moved from Bramshott to East Sandling.  I saw three of the boys from home as they marched past our camp.  I didn't see Jud Swaine [Percy's first cousin - their mothers were sisters].  Guess he was in the first half of the battalion which went by when I was on guard.  I can't get out to see them so am hoping that they will come over here before we pull out."

Percy closed with the observation that "I haven't been using my camera much lately.  I won't be able to take it with me so I am going to send it to my friends in Trowbridge till I come back for it."

Percy John Lumsden shortly before the war.
Seven days after his letter home, Percy marched with the 3rd Canadian Pioneers from West Sandling to nearby Folkestone and boarded one of two transport ships for the journey across the English Channel.  At 5 pm March 9, 1916, he disembarked at Boulogne, France and marched to nearby St. Martin's Camp.  The following day, the men were issued their equipment - "leather jackets, gas helmets. etc." - as they prepared for their front line deployment.

Entraining at Boulogne at 1:30 pm March 11, the 3rd Pioneers made a six-hour train journey to Goedewaersvelde, France, adjacent to the Belgian border, where they rested in billets for two days.  On March 14, their final preparation for front line duty commenced when the battalion was attached to the 1st Canadian Division "for practical training in the trenches".  Two of the battalion's four companies proceed to the front lines later that evening.

The following day, Percy and the 3rd Pioneers were introduced to the realities of front line combat.  The battalion's war diary records that "[the] enemy put a little shrapnel over in the morning.  In [the] afternoon [German forces were] active with rifle grenades and minenwerfers [mortars].  Two men [were] wounded while on working parties - one slightly and one severely in [the] chest with [a] rifle bullet."

S. S. Grampian (1907)
German shellfire on March 16 resulted in the unit's first fatalities.  At 1:15 pm, "[the] enemy commenced intense bombardment on [the] whole sector and continued until 6 pm.  Shells [fired] on average of 6 to 8 per minute.  Casualties - two killed, four wounded."  The following day, rifle grenade and mortar activity continued as 3rd and 4th Companies replaced 1st and 2nd for two days of service in the front trenches.  Having completed its preliminary training, 3rd Pioneer Battalion was assigned to the Ypres Salient, Belgium on March 22, in relief of the Sherwood Foresters, a British Pioneer battalion.

Percy and his comrades spent the first two days heightening the parapets around their camp before commencing work on front line defences.  On March 25 and 26, several companies worked on trench construction near Ypres in co-operation with the Royal Canadian Engineers.  The following day, British artillery launched a heavy artillery bombardment and detonated a mine underneath nearby German positions at St. Eloi.

On March 28, the battalion suffered its first officer fatality at Ypres when Captain A. F. Whiteside was "killed instantly" by enemy shellfire.  Their tasks often required pioneers to work in the open, exposed to enemy fire.  On March 31, for example, one officer and two 'OR' were wounded by shrapnel while carrying out survey work.  Two days later, three Sergeants and two Privates were similarly injured while on a working party.  Working in such a perilous environment was no doubt a highly stressful experience.

Portrait of Percy John Lumsden.
Despite these dangers, Percy and his fellow pioneers continued their daily work.  On April 2, No. 4 Coy. dug out a 43rd Battalion machine gun section that had been "buried by [a] HE [high explosive] shell".  On subsequent days, companies engaged in trench construction, tunneled underneath the Menin Road, built dugouts, surveyed rear trenches and existing light tramlines, constructed a machine gun emplacement under the Lille Road, and connected light tramways with main branch lines. 

The daily exchange of gun, mortar and artillery fire produced a steady stream of injuries and fatalities.  On April 13 and 15, the unit's war diary reported one casualty each day.  April 16, 1916, however, proved to be particularly tragic as one pioneer was killed and three others wounded.  Amongst the three soldiers rushed to No. 10 Casualty Clearing Station for treatment was Lance Corporal Percy John Lumsden.  Severely wounded in the head, he never regained consciousness.  Despite the valiant efforts of CAMC personnel to save his life, Percy died of his wounds before day's end.


After contributing to fortifications in the Ypres Salient, 3rd Pioneer Battalion relocated to the Somme region of France, where the men participated in the major British offensive launched in July 1916.  The following spring, the unit labored in support of the successful Canadian assault at Vimy Ridge in April 1917.

By this point in the war, increasing demand for infantry recruits forced military commanders to reconsider existing personnel assignments.  After more than two years of recruitment efforts, British Columbia was struggling to maintain separate units in the field "due to the fact that the majority of [those eligible] had enlisted during the early part of the war".  In fact, only 40 percent of 3rd Pioneers' 1917 personnel were from its home province.

As a result, in May 1917, officials decided to dissolve the 3rd Pioneer Battalion, rejecting a last minute suggestion from its officers that the battalion be re-designated as a Canadian Railway Troops unit.  The battalion war diary lamented the decision to dissolve a unit "of trained miners and technical men with 14 months' experience in France", but its fate was sealed.  By month's end, 3rd Canadian Pioneers' remaining personnel were dispersed amongst four Canadian infantry battalions desperate for reinforcements.

#rd Canadian Pioneers pin with mascot 'Bruno'.
Lance Corporal Percy John Lumsden was laid to rest in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Belgium.  His tragic death did not pass unnoticed.  A news item from a local newspaper, The Canso Breeze, describes a sombre memorial service held at the Baptist Church "for two of our most highly respected young men" on April 30, 1917.  Two days prior to Percy's death, his first cousin, 23-year-old Roland Judson 'Jud' Swaine - a fellow 'son' of Canso and the young soldier Percy had hoped to see as the 40th Battalion marched past in Folkestone - was also killed in action.  Like Percy, Jud was one of four brothers who enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the course of the war. 

Rev. Charles R. Freeman conducted the memorial service, expressing the community's sentiments on the tragedy that had befallen two of its families:

"In the passing of these two young men not only the immediate families but the church and town have suffered a great loss…. The young men have done their bit for King and Country and in the great cause of humanity have laid down their lives.  Brave heroes they were that needed no urging to the call to duty and never refused the task because it was hard.  With the King of Kings they have entered into their reward."

Percy's 3rd Pioneer Battalion mates also remembered their fallen comrade.  Several weeks after his death, Percy's mother Annie received a letter from Cpl.Ron McIntosh (regimental number 430083) dated May 6, 1916.  Its content described the recent arrival of a box of fudge addressed to Percy.  Cpl. McIntosh shared the parcel with the boys from Percy's section and concluded with these personal sentiments:

" We all miss him terrible.  The boys of his section send their heart felt sympathy to you as I do, Percy was my constant chum for the past eighteen months and we had many happy times together.  I cannot begin to describe to you how much I miss him."

Belgian grave of Lance Corporal Percy John Lumsden


Broznitsky, Peter.  3rd Pioneer Battalion.  Russians in the CEF.  Available online.

Regimental Record of Lance Corporal Percy John Lumsden, no. 430043.  Library and Archives Canada: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 5790 - 3.  Attestation papers available online.

War Diaries - 3rd Pioneer Battalion.  War Diaries of the First World War.  Library and Archives Canada: RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series II, D-3, Volume 5010, Reel T-10858-10895.  File: 723.  Available online.

Personal letters, newspaper article and family pictures courtesy of Patsy Lumsden.  Available online at The Lumsden Family website.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Pioneer Battalions

'Pioneers' were an integral part of European armies for centuries.  The military use of the term is derived from 'pionnier', a traditional French word for 'foot soldier'.  Traditionally, pioneers travelled in advance of the main body of soldiers, using spades and pick-axes to prepare a path across the landscape.  As the era of modern warfare emerged, pioneers assumed various engineering and construction tasks, fulfilling roles similar to 'sappers'.

Recruitment poster for CEF Pioneer battalion.
Prior to World War I, the British Army maintained small groups of pioneers within each infantry regiment.  Thus, no distinct 'pioneer' units existed in August 1914.  The war's early events, however, quickly produced dramatic changes in their organization and role.  Gradually, pioneers were organized into separate units under the control of the infantry's engineering and logistics branches, where they assumed responsibility for constructing fortifications, military camps, roads, railways and bridges. 

When British and French forces managed to halt invading German forces in northern France and Belgium late in 1914, two massive armies faced one another along the lengthy, static Western Front.  The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) initially relied on French civilian labor to unload and transport equipment and supplies required on the front lines.  During the war's early months, infantry soldiers dug trenches, installed barbed wire, and moved munitions and supplies to the front lines, tasks that were appropriately labeled 'fatigue routine'.  The inefficiency of these practices quickly became apparent.  French labourers were unable to maintain the pace required to move the large quantities of supplies, and utilizing infantry soldiers as construction labor reduced the number of men available to fight. 

In addition, as the war progressed, a much greater focus on field engineering emerged as trench construction, defensive reinforcements, enhanced road and railroad transportation became increasingly vital.  As a result, in December 1914, British commanders decided to recruit and organize several 'labor' and 'pioneer' units, each with specific tasks.  Railway Companies were located at major transportation centres such as Le Havre, France, where they unloaded and moved the large quantities of supplies required to fight the war.  Twelve Royal Engineering Labor Battalions carried out railroad construction and transportation.  Finally, in December 1914, a Pioneer Battalion was formed in each infantry division and assigned the task of completing construction work as required along and behind the front lines. 

CEF Pioneer Badge.
While pioneer recruits received basic infantry training and could be assigned to the front trenches in an emergency, recruitment focused on men with a variety of skills and trades.  The goal was to create an efficient labor pool capable of carrying out complex construction and engineering tasks.  As fighting progressed, the need for additional manpower to carry out this work led Britain to request assistance from its colonies.  In response, Canada organized and trained the 1st and 2nd Pioneer Battalions in the autumn of 1915.  By year's end, both units were in England training and were transferred to France in early March 1916.  

In total, Canada provided seven pioneer battalions as part of its wartime contributions.  Several units were initially recruited as infantry battalions before being redesigned 'pioneers'.  The 48th Infantry Battalion, for example, was organized in Victoria, BC in February 1915, traveled to England in July and was re-designated the 3rd Pioneer Battalion in January 1916.  Four other infantry battalions - 67th, 107th, 123rd and 124th - were also transformed into pioneer battalions but retained their infantry numbers.

Pioneer battalions maintained channels of communication and transport, dealt with the movement and handling of munitions, built and repaired various structures and fortifications.  In doing so, they provided essentially the same services as CEF engineering units, although they remained under infantry command.  This anomaly was corrected in mid-1917, when pioneer units were reorganized and placed under direct control of the Engineers branch of the Canadian Corps.  At that time, one unit - 1st Pioneer - was re-designated a Railway Troop.  Another unit - the 3rd Pioneer - was disbanded and its members were reassigned to several infantry battalions.

An Australian Pioneer Battalion constructing a fortification at the front.
In May 1918, General Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian Corps, initiated a final reorganization of Canadian Engineers personnel.  Until that time, small groups of engineering 'specialists' relied on infantry battalions to provide, on a rotating basis, the labourers required to complete their projects.  As a result, the engineers had little control over their working parties and often found themselves caught between Engineering and Infantry Brigade chains of command.  This situation often created confusion, waste and inefficiency in completing their assigned tasks.

Under Currie's direction, the three engineering companies connected to each Canadian Division were expanded and combined into one Engineer Brigade, under a separate headquarters.  The Brigade consisted of three engineering battalions of 1000 men each, along with a Pontoon Bridging and Transport Unit.  Additional personnel required to staff the battalions was obtained by disbanding the remaining pioneer units, the 1st and 2nd Tunnelling Companies, and three 5th Division Engineers field companies. 

Currie's reorganization plan was completed by the end of July 1918.  Much of the success achieved by the Canadian Corps during the last 100 days of the war was attributed to this restructuring.  As Canadian units advanced into German-held territory, engineering units possessed sufficient manpower to complete vital tasks, such as bridge building and repair, without requiring assistance from infantry units.

Ist Canadian Pioneers Badge.
Engineering battalions continued their work in France and Belgium for several months after the November 11, 1918 ceasefire.  With the assistance of labor battalions, they cleared the remnants of the war - particularly unexploded artillery shells - from the battlefields.  Other units recovered, registered and organized the war dead into today's war cemeteries. 

The pioneers' crucial role in the war was not forgotten.  When the Second World War broke out, on October 17, 1939, the British government created the Royal Pioneer Corps, a unit designed to complete 'light engineering tasks'.  Today, it is known as the Royal Logistics Corps (1993) and plays an integral role in the implementation of military strategy on the battlefield.  Similarly, today's Canadian Armed Forces include several 'combat engineer regiments' designed to carry out such tasks as road clearance, disposal of explosive ordnance, heavy equipment operation and combat support.  These modern units continue the excellent tradition of military service established by the 'pioneers' of the past.


48th Battalion, CEF (3rd Pioneer Battalion).  The Great War Forum.  Available online.

Broznitsky, Peter. "3rd Pioneer Battalion".  Russians in the CEF.  Available online.

Payne, Dr. David.  "The British Pioneer Battalions and Labour Corps on the Western Front."  The Western Front Association.  Available online.

Pioneer (military).  Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  Available online.

Pioneer Battalions.  Oxford Companion to Australian Military History.  Available online at

Pioneer Battalions.  Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group.  Available online.

WW I Pioneer Battalions.  The Great War Forum.  Available online.