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Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Pte. John Alvin 'Jack' Crittenden - A 'Gassed' Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: February 18, 1894

Place of Birth: Port Mulgrave, NS

Mother's Name: Mary Carter

Father's Name: Hiram Bruce Crittenden

Date of Enlistment: October 22, 1915 at Halifax, NS

Regimental Number: 222850

Rank: Private

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force - Infantry

Units: 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders); 17th Reserve Battalion

Location of service: Canada, England, France & Belgium

Occupation at Enlistment: Machinist

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Mrs. Mary Crittenden

Pte. John Alvin 'Jack' Crittenden, 85th Battalion.
John Alvin 'Jack' Crittenden was born on February 18, 1894, the second son in a family of five boys and two girls raised by Hiram and Mary (Carter) Crittenden in their Port Mulgrave home.  Sometime after 1911, Jack relocated to Pictou County, where he worked as a machinist at Nova Scotia Steel & Coal, Trenton.  His civilian career was put on hold when Jack responded to the first province-wide recruitment campaign soliciting volunteers for the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  On October 22, 1915, he enlisted for overseas service with the 85th Battalion at Halifax.

Jack spent the next twelve months in training, initially at the Halifax Armouries and later at Camp Aldershot, NS.  On October 16, 1916, the 85th boarded the SS Olympic at Halifax, along with the 185th, 193rd and 219th Battalions, for its trans-Atlantic voyage.   The four units were part of a 'Highland Brigade' recruited across the province.  As events unfolded in Europe, only the 85th would see combat in France and Belgium as a distinct fighting unit.

Arriving in Liverpool, England on October 19, Jack made his way to Witley Camp, South Surrey, England, where the members of the Highland Brigade resumed training.  By year's end, only two of its battalions - the 185th (Cape Breton Highlanders) and 85th - remained intact as the 193rd and 219th were disbanded and their members re-assigned to other battalions.

On the morning of February 10, 1917, the long awaited 'call to arms' finally came.  Jack boarded the SS London at Folkestone, England for the short voyage across the English Channel to Boulogne, France.  Arriving at mid-day, the soldiers marched to St. Martin's Rest Camp, where they were issued combat equipment.  Three days later, the men travelled by train to Houdain and then marched to billets at Gouy-Servins, near Lens, France.  On February 17th, the 85th's officers begin preliminary 'tours' of the front lines.  In the meantime, the men completed training in musketry, signalling, Lewis Gun, rifle grenade and trench mortar operation, and the use of box respirators ('Gas School'), in addition to providing working parties for the 176th Tunnelling Company.

Jack (back row, 3rd from left) and comrades, December 1915.
By early March, small groups of officers and enlisted men began short tours of the front line with other battalions.  It was not long before the 85th's war diary recorded its first casualty - Pte. L. R. Young, # 283336, was killed near 'Hospital Corner', an officer and two 'other ranks' (OR) wounded by artillery fire on March 4.  Three days later, the battalion relocated to Bouvigny, where front line tours continued, as did the casualties.  On March 8, the war diary reported four fatalities and three wounded during the day's events.

Sir Robert Borden, Canadian Prime Minister and Member of Parliament for Halifax, reviewed Companies 'A' and 'B' along with the 85th's stretcher-bearers on March 9, near Vimy.  Meanwhile, front line tours continued throughout the month.  The war diary recorded the battalion's first 'casualty in action' on March 16, when Pte. W. I. Leslie, # 222998, was killed "while on sentry duty in front line trenches with [the] 46th Battalion".  On the evening of March 22, the battalion rehearsed 'relief' procedures, replacing the 9th Royal Sussex 'in the line' at Lorette Spur for four hours before being relieved by the 2nd Leinsters at midnight.

As April arrived, Jack and the men of the 85th were no doubt eager to experience combat.  That opportunity would occur during Canada's most famous military engagement of the war.  As part of preparations for the scheduled attack on Vimy Ridge, the battalion was assigned a 'support' role that included: constructing ammunition dumps, trenches and dugouts; carrying wire, ammunition and supplies to the front lines; escorting and guarding anticipated prisoners of war.  On the night of April 8, 1917, the 85th relocated to its assigned 'jumping-off point' on "Music Hall Line" at midnight.  The men had an uncomfortable night as there was "very limited dugout accommodation.  Men [were] crowded in [a] trench, [and] secured very little rest."

Canadian soldiers advance through No Man's Land (April 1917).
As the historic battle unfolded on April 9, the 85th carried out its assigned support duties.  When the advance was held up by stiff German fire on its Brigade's left front, two of its companies - 'C' and 'D' - moved into front line positions at 4:30 pm as part of action designed to capture the resisting enemy position.  The advance commenced without artillery support at 6:45 pm.  The battalion's war diary describes its first combat experience in these words:

"In spite of machine gun and rifle fire from the enemy, which immediately opened, the attack was pressed home, the Companies providing their own covering fire by Lewis Guns firing from the hip and riflemen firing on the move.  Many of the Germans finding themselves unable to stop the advance turned and ran but were soon put out of action by our fire.  About 20 prisoners, including 3 officers were taken.  Two… officers and about 70 other ranks were killed.  At least 3 machine guns were captured."

The 85th had successfully completed its first combat assignment, capturing its objective within ten minutes.  The ordeal was far from over, however, as it "snowed in [the] evening[,] turning very cold.  Men in the open holding shell holes".  The following day, 'A' and 'B' Companies took up positions along the newly captured line under the command of the 47th Battalion.  The hardships continued as it "snowed in afternoon, making conditions very bad for men who had no shelter except shell holes."  Such was Jack's introduction to combat.

Map displaying 85th's front line positions, May 1917.
The following day, 'A' and 'B' Companies were transferred back to 85th command as the battalion assumed complete responsibility for its section of the line.  The situation was quiet for the next few days as the Canadian units consolidated their new positions.  During the night of April 14/15, the 85th was relieved in the line and moved into billets at Bouvigny.  The war diary reported that 6 officers were wounded, 47 OR killed, 116 OR wounded and 3 OR missing as a result of its first combat assignment.

Jack and the 85th spent several days resting and cleaning up before providing working parties for road repair.  The unit experienced "some hostile shelling, principally shrapnel bursting high and behind [its] camp", but reported no casualties.  On April 24, the men moved back into front line positions along the Lens-Vimy Railway in support of an attack by 5th Division (Imperial) infantry.  Working parties constructed new front line and communication trenches before being relieved the 72nd and 785th Canadian Infantry Battalions in the early hours April 29 and moving into brigade support at Givenchy.  The battalion provided working parties for the front lines at night, but no training was possible as their position was "under direct [German] observation so that there can be no movement by daylight".

On May 2, Jack returned to the front lines as the 85th relieved the 78th Battalion for four days before retiring to Brigade Reserve positions on the western slope of Vimy Ridge.  The war diary reported light casualties - 2 officers and 20 OR wounded - during this assignment.  Jack spent the remainder of May and early June in rotation in the Vimy area, serving seven or eight days 'in the line' before retiring to support positions in a rotation interspersed with several days' rest and training in reserve.

85th Battalion Pipe Band on parade (date unknown).
The 85th participated in a series of attacks on German positions at 'Canada Trench' and 'Ontario Trench', near the Lens-Arras Road, from June 25 to July 1.  The battalion sustained significant casualties during the fighting, the war diary reporting 24 OR killed, 8 officers and 118 OR wounded, and 9 OR missing as Canadian troops advanced one mile into German-held territory.  The battalion was relieved by Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry on the night of July 1/2 as the 4th Canadian Division moved into "Corps Reserve for training and rest from duties in the line".  The men were billeted at Suburban Camp, Villers au Bois for three weeks, following a daily schedule of 6 hours' training and lectures, combined with rest and cleanup.

On July 25, Jack and the 85th relocated to the Zouave Valley, relieving the 50th Canadian Battalion in the line at 2:20 am July 26 before moving into brigade support the following day.  Jack spent the month of August in the valley while the battalion logged 39 days of front line service before retiring to reserve positions on September 2.  During its longest 'tour' since landing in France, the battalion's casualties were light - three officers wounded, 8 OR killed, 36 OR wounded (four 'accidental'), 7 OR gassed, 14 OR wounded but remaining at duty.

Following a week of rest, cleanup and training, Jack was back in the line on September 11 near Avion.  The 85th served in rotation for the remainder of the month before moving into division reserve at Tottenham Camp in the Zouave Valley, where the men commenced training for their second major assignment.  On October 5, Jack was on the move to a new and treacherous location as the battalion relocated to Staple, France in preparation for a scheduled Canadian attack at Passchendaele, Belgium.  For two and a half weeks, the men rehearsed the battle plan on a simulated battlefield marked with tape, a technique previously used successfully in preparations for Vimy Ridge.

On October 23, Jack and the 85th moved by bus from Staple to Brandhoek, Belgium and then marched to nearby St. Lawrence Camp, located between Poperinge and Ypres.  Later that same day, battalion officers visited the front lines to view the battlefield.  Five days later, the men relocated to Potijze, where they completed preparations for battle and moved into front line positions.  The following day, officers observed considerable manpower in the line opposite their position and requested an artillery barrage on enemy trenches prior to the scheduled infantry attack.  The officers laid out tapes in the trenches, marking the 'jumping off' points for the next day's attack.  That evening, Jack and his comrades received hot tea and rations as they rested in preparation for battle.   At 4:30 am October 30, the men assumed their assigned positions one hour before the attack was scheduled to commence.

Map of 85th's positions at Passchendaele, October 30, 1917.
At 'zero hour', the brigade's machine guns opened fire as the men advanced.  The battalion war diary reported that "they were met by heavy machine-gun and rifle fire… all the way along our front."  Nine officers were killed or wounded in the attack's opening minutes.  The requested artillery barrage in support of the advance was described as "light" as "very little if any of it fell on our side or on the enemy's trench".  'A', 'B' and 'C' Companies advanced nonetheless, "providing their own covering fire with rifle-grenades, Lewis Guns and rifle fire until they had passed our old front line.  Then, in No Man's Land, a fierce fire fight took place…. Anyone who attempted to walk upright instantly became a casualty." 

The fighting continued for 10 to 30 minutes before 'D' Company advanced in support of the attack, enemy resistance breaking upon its arrival.  "The whole line swarmed across the hostile front line and pushed onto the final objective. sniping the fleeing enemy and dealing with those who remained in shell-holes behind his original front line."  The battalion reached its objective by 6:38 am, one officer reporting: "Casualties are very heavy".  Enemy forces appeared to be regrouping for a counter-attack later in the day but it never materialized.

Jack had survived the worst of the fighting, but the battle was not over.  After a lull during daylight hours, the war diary reported: "Just at dusk on the night of the 31st a very heavy barrage of H. E., shrapnel and gas shells was placed on on our front line and in the back areas about Battalion Headquarters.  Our artillery replied in a very effective manner and no counter-attack developed."  The war diary dispassionately recorded the results of two days' combat: 12 officers killed, 8 wounded, and 3 wounded but still at duty; 371 OR killed or wounded.  Total battalion strength prior to battle was 26 officers and 662 OR.  As a result of its Passchendaele action, the 85th recorded a shocking casualty rate of 57 %.  The war diary nevertheless reported that "the fighting spirit of the 85th was never better than on the day of relief" as the 102nd Battalion replaced it in the line on the night of October 31/November 1.

Jack was amongst the fortunate survivors, moving to Burns Camp, Potizje where the battalion spent the next few days resting and cleaning up.  On November 3, the 85th crossed the Belgian border to the Borre area, near Hazebrouk, France, where the men were billeted in "excellent qualities all round".  Two days later, however, Jack's tour of duty at the front came to an end when he reported to Casualty Clearing Station 37 for treatment of injuries sustained during the fighting at Passchendaele.

Westcliffe Canadian Eye & Ear Hospital, Folkestone, England (1916).
On October 31, Jack was amongst the soldiers exposed to poison gas.  He was also struck by a small metal fragment that penetrated the cornea of his left eye.  Despite these injuries, he remained on duty until their effects required medical intervention.  On November 6, Jack was transferred to # 57 General Hospital, Wimereux France, where the metal fragment was removed.  The following day, he was evacuated to # 54 General Hospital, London for further treatment.  Exposure to poison gas had resulted in loss of voice in addition to pains in his chest and stomach.  A medical note written on November 19 summarized his condition in these words: "Voice slightly improved, eye very much better, slight pain in chest".  One week later, his "voice [has] not completely returned" as Jack was "transferred to Westcliffe Canadian Eye & Ear Hospital, Folkestone", where he was treated for "laryngitis - gas" in addition to "intermittent discharge" from both ears.

Jack spent the winter of 1917-18 convalescing at Westcliffe.  A medical entry noted that he was "gassed last October" and suffering from "aphonia" [inability to speak] since.  Larynx reddened, membrane swollen, vocal cords do not approximate."  On March 20, 1918, Jack was discharged from hospital and posted to the 17th Reserve Battalion, Bramshott, England on April 1.  Any hope Jack may have had of returning to action came to an end when he was "struck off strength" on April 17 as a result of continuing problems with his larynx.  He was posted to the Canadian Discharge Depot at Buxton on August 6, 1918 "pending embarkation to Canada".   

Two months later, Jack was back in Halifax, where he was admitted to hospital for medical assessment.  A detailed report dated November 4, 1918 identified a "bullet mark on [his] right forearm", apparently a slight wound for which he received no recorded treatment.  Its main focus, however, was the condition of his voice.  The report noted that he continued to suffer from laryngitis and was "unable to speak above a whisper.  [Patient] says in dry weather he can do much better, and the condition is improving.  He is easily fatigued, says he feels very tired after walking two miles…[,] has shortness of breath and palpitation after exertion".

Jack & Mildred Crittenden's CNR pass.
The report noted that hoarseness "is gradually improving", but concluded that the duration of the disability was likely "permanent".  As a result, it recommended that Jack be placed in "Category E" - 'medically unfit for service'.  A consultant's report dated November 6 noted that Jack's epiglottis was swollen and his vocal cords did not meet "owing to infiltration…. This was caused by gas on service and has been aggravated by climate.  In as much as exposure and use of voice is very injurious to this condition", the consultant concurred with the previous report, recommending discharge from military service.

Two days later, the medical board examining Jack's condition accepted these recommendations.  On November 30, 1918, Pte. John Alvin Crittenden was officially discharged as "medically unfit for further service".  In addition to the British War Medal and Victory Medals acknowledging his overseas service, Jack was awarded one gold bar in recognition of wounds sustained in the field.

It did not take long for Jack to settle into civilian life.  On February 20, 1919, he married Mildred Lavine Gould, a native of Jeddore, Halifax County.  The couple had met in Halifax prior to Jack's departure for overseas service and corresponded throughout hiss time in Europe.  He and his bride returned to Mulgrave, where Jack found employment with the Canadian National Railways as a marine engineer.  He spent the majority of his career serving as mate and captain on the CNR's Scotia ferry, carrying railway and passenger cars from Mulgrave to Port Hastings.

Ralston Stirling (leftt) and Jack Crittenden (date unknown).
Jack and Mildred raised two children in their Mulgrave home - daughter Myrtle Ona and son Ralston Stirling, who later served during World War II.  A living descendant, Jack's grand-daughter Joyce, does not recall any lingering effects to either voice or lungs from exposure to poison gas.  She does remember, however, that Jack always kept the radio volume low and did not allow the purchase of firecrackers at Halloween, actions attributed to the lingering effects of "shell shock".

Jack retired from his position with CNR in 1955.  By this time, he had been diagnosed with coronary artery disease, a condition that led to his sudden and untimely death two years later.  On August 27, 1957, Jack and his grand-daughter travelled by train to New Glasgow, where Joyce had a dental appointment.  Returning to the train station, Jack made sure that Joyce was comfortably settled in the coach car before leaving to supervise the loading of lumber purchased during their visit.  Jack suffered a heart attack in the boxcar and could not be revived.  He was laid to rest in St. Andrew's Anglican Cemetery, Church St., Mulgrave on August 31, 1957.


Regimental Record of Pte. John Alvin Crittenden, No. 222850.  Library and Archives Canada: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 2144 - 36.  Attestation papers available online.

War Diaries of the 85th Battalion, Nova Scotia Highlanders.  Library and Archives Canada: RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3 , Volume 4944 , Reel T-10751-10752, File : 454.  Available online.

Special thanks to Jack's grand-daughter, Joyce Malcolm of Port Hawkesbury, who provided the family photographs included in this post.

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