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Thursday, 27 June 2013

Pte. William Andrew Jordain - A Machine Gunner's Story

Date of Birth: June 6, 1891*

Place of Birth: New Town, Guysborough County

Mother's Name: Caroline Gordon 'Carrie' Archibald

Father's Name: Peter Jordain

Date of Enlistment: January 16, 1916

Regimental Number: 624488

Rank: Private

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force

Name of Units: 151st Overseas Battalion; 15th Canadian Machine Gun Company

Location of service: Canada, England, France & Belgium

Occupation at Enlistment: Engineer

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Peter Jordain, New Town, Guysborough County (father)

*: Date recorded on attestation paper.  1901 census lists date of birth as June 6, 1890.


William Andrew Jordain was the third child born to Peter and Caroline 'Carrie' (Archibald) Jordain of New Town, Guysborough County.  Carrie's first husband, Hugh Fraser, passed away sometime prior to 1887, leaving his widow to care for three dependent children.  On January 1, 1887, Carrie married Peter Jordain, a 36-year-old bachelor from Sherbrooke who had taken up farming in New Town.  Together, they raised a family of four children.

By 1911, young William was no longer living at home with older twin sisters Rose Ann and Cassie Jane and younger brother John Henry.  Like others of his generation, he had travelled west and was living as a 'lodger' in the Edmonton, Alberta household of Henry and Alice Hunt.  One of Carrie's children from her first marriage, Alexander, was employed there as an engineer.  William worked with his step brother on the construction of Edmonton's High Level bridge, which was opened in 1913.
Pte. William Andrew Jordain
With the outbreak of war, however, William set aside civilian pursuits in favor of military service, enlisting with the 151st Battalion at Edmonton on January 18, 1916.  The majority of the regiment's recruits came from the Central Alberta communities of Strathcona, Battle River and Red Deer.  After spending the spring and summer training at Camp Sarcee, near Calgary, William and his fellow volunteers made their way by train to Halifax, where they boarded the SS California on October 3, 1916 for their trans-Atlantic voyage.  Ten days later, the men disembarked at Liverpool, England.

Upon arrival overseas, the 151st met the same fate as many other battalions recruited in 1916.  The bloody Somme offensive launched on July 1, 1916 dramatically increased the number of casualties at the front.  As a result, the majority of the unit's personnel were transferred to the 9th Reserve, 11th Reserve and 21st (Central Ontario) Battalions.  William was initially transferred to the 11th Reserve Battalion, Shorncliffe, but on October 16, 1916, his military career took another turn.  Perhaps due to the mechanical interests reflected in his civilian occupation, Pte. William Andrew Jordain was assigned to the Canadian Machine Gun Depot, Shorncliffe.

151st Battalion collar badge.
In the spring of 1916, in an effort to maximize the machine gun's effectiveness, British military commanders ordered the formation of three separate companies within each Canadian infantry division.  To ensure uniform training, authorities also established the Canadian Machine Gun Depot at Shorncliffe.  By autumn 1916, with existing resources stretched to the breaking point, authorities decided to train an additional machine gun company for each of Canada's four divisions.  Pte. William Jordain was selected for service in one of these new companies and spent the next four months - October 1916 to January 1917 - training at the Shorncliffe facility.

On February 7, 1917, William was transferred to the Machine Gun Pool at Crowborough, England.  The following day, he crossed the English Channel to Le Havre, France, where he was 'taken on strength' by the Canadian Machine Gun Reinforcement Pool.  That same day, he was assigned to the 15th Canadian Machine Gun Company (CMG Coy.), the unit with which he served for the duration of his time in uniform.  Six days later, William joined the unit in the field.

At that time, 15th CMG Coy. was training at Floringhem, France.  Several days after William's arrival, the unit relocated to Ruitz before finally establishing a camp at Lozinghem.  Here, the men participated in range fire drills and completed instructional sessions on map reading, tactics, movement of guns under cover, gun concealment, shelter and gun emplacement construction.  On March 6, the company completed a drill in which it established eight gun positions on an imaginary defensive line and rehearsed relief procedures.

15th CMG Coy. relocated to billets at Bruay, where the men practised assuming positions, digging splinter-proof emplacements, and placing guns for 'indirect fire', in addition to range fire drills.  By month's end, the men were ready for service 'in the line', relieving 8th CMG Coy. at Neuville - St. Vaast on March 30 in their first rotation.  The company deployed 12 guns at specific locations along the front, holding four weapons 'in reserve' for service as required.

Machine gun deployed as anti-aircraft weapon.
William's initial combat tour exposed him to the machine gun's various roles at the front.  The weapon fulfilled a critical anti-aircraft role.  On April 1, the unit's war diary reported that enemy aircraft were "very active but usually at great height".  At 3:15 pm, a "hostile aeroplane [was] forced back to his own lines by our Machine Gun fire."  Company gunners also fired 2500 rounds on a specific enemy location between 7:30 and 10:00 pm, a strategy known as 'indirect fire'.  The following day, company personnel "reconnoitered positions for barrage fire".  On April 4, the men "prepared for a practice barrage in conjunction with gas and smoke from Stokes mortars."  The barrage was launched at 11:00 pm, the Company's guns firing total of 14 000 rounds at enemy positions.

15th CMG Coy. was relieved in the line by 8th CMG Coy. on the night of April 5 - 6 and retired to reserve positions.  The break was short-lived, however, as the Canadian Corps prepared for its historic assault on Vimy Ridge.  William's unit participated in the April 9 attack, providing barrage fire in support of the infantry advance.  Its rate of fire intensified to 3000 rounds per hour by 10:00 am.  Three hours later, all of the company's guns were deployed in the line at Petit Vimy, from where its gunners continued barrage fire on enemy positions.  Eight packhorses continuously carried ammunition to the guns in the line as the battle raged.

By 4:00 pm, the Company's war diary reported: "Situation normal.  All objectives reached.  Enemy massed for counter-attack several times, but our observers on [the] ridge spotted them and they were dispersed.  [Enemy] troops and horses [were] seen moving around Vimy and fired on."  A snow storm that set in at 6:00 pm "made things unpleasant but work on [the] consolidated line was carried on, and it became clear and cold towards night."

The following morning, 15th CMG Coy. launched a heavy barrage from 4:00 to 6:30 am.  By this point in the battle, its guns had been firing intermittently for 24 hours, leading the war diary to comment: "Barrels all in bad shape.  Every endeavour to get more barrels has been made."  On April 11, William's unit relieved 8th CMG Coy. in the newly established front line.  No sooner had the men settled into their new location than an artillery shell struck their trenches, killing two and wounding four, the unit's first significant casualties since deployment at the front.

Canadian machine guns at Vimy Ridge - April 9, 1917.
Conditions in the trenches worsened the following day.  The company's war diary reported: "Heavy snowstorm during night, blizzard from West.  Country in terrible condition for movement of troops" and supplies.  Muddy conditions made it impossible for horses to deliver ammunition to front line dumps, requiring personnel to carry the crucial supplies by hand.  Nevertheless, by April 16, the Company's 'B' and 'C' Sections' guns were deployed "on [the] crest of Vimy Ridge", while several other gun crews provided anti-aircraft fire.

William and his comrades spent the next six weeks on rotation in the front lines near Vimy.  On May 1, the Company's anti-aircraft gun recorded its first success when it "brought down an enemy plane in flames behind enemy lines".  One week later, the unit was relieved by the 7th CMG Coy. spending several days cleaning and repairing equipment before returning to the line on May 13.  Six days later, their position was heavily shelled from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.  The war diary commented: "About 400 shells were sent over and [our] Trench was badly damaged."  The company's rear positions were also shelled and one gun emplacement took a direct hit.  Luckily, there were no casualties nor damage to the company's guns.  The unit was relieved in the line by 7th CMG Coy. on the night of May 21 - 22.

Each front-line assignment involved one to two hours of nighttime 'indirect fire' on selected enemy locations.  The unit also supported various infantry activities.  On June 8, for example, the Company's guns provided cover for a nighttime trench raid by 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade, firing a total of 107.300 during the mission.  The Company's war diary proudly stated: "Infantry… reported our barrage was well placed and timed and that it gave them effective support."  The guns withdrew to reserve positions by 2:45 am as the raiding party captured 140 prisoners and 12 machine guns, while incurring only 'light' casualties.

After the successful trench raid, William and his comrades enjoyed several weeks' rest, recreation and training.  The men participated in a Division Sports Day at Berthonval Farm on June 14, placing second in "officers' jumping and limber".  On July 10, the men marched in a special parade to nearby Carency "to see H. M. the King".  In late July, the company relocated to Berbure, where the men refilled ammunition belts and participated in fire range training and instruction.  After this well-deserved break, 15th CMG Coy. returned to the line on the night of August 22 - 23.

Canadian Machine Gun Corps badge.
The rotation of front line duty and training in reserve continued into the early weeks of autumn.  Front trench assignments routinely involved daily anti-aircraft fire and indirect night fire on selected targets.  Personnel were subjected to daily artillery shelling of their positions.  When not in the trenches, the men practiced on the firing range, received compass and clinometer training, and completed sessions on gun placement for indirect and barrage fire.  On September 19, "a Company Smoker was given for all our ranks.  The RCR [Royal Canadian Regiment] band was in attendance" as the men enjoyed a welcome break from the rigours of military routine.

On October 15, 15th CMG Coy. boarded a train at Tinques, arriving at Borre, near the Belgian border, at 3:00 am the following morning.  William and his comrades spent the next week cleaning equipment and training before moving out on the night of October 22 - 23 en route to a new location.  Entraining at Castre at 3:00 am, 15th CMG Coy. arrived in Ypres, Belgium at mid-afternoon and were deployed in the front trenches of the treacherous Ypres Salient by nightfall.

Over the next few days, personnel moved large quantities of ammunition to dumps near the front lines.  Several sections were deployed "in barrage positions" in support of a successful infantry attack at Belvue Spur, while other guns were held in reserve for "SOS" fire as requested by infantry units.  Sensing preparations for an impending attack, German artillery responded on October 27 when the company's transport lines and camp were "bombed heavily during the afternoon and again at night."  Preparations for battle were made even more difficult by the physical conditions.  The war diary commented:  "Owing to weather conditions being bad the Transport lines and camp being very muddy caused much discomfort for the men."

On October 28, the company's war diary noted that all available men were "sent up to the line to carry ammunition, and build positions for our proposed attack on Passchendaele Ridge.  In spite of the mud and wet weather, the men worked well, carried 300 000 rounds to our new gun positions forward."  The following day, four guns being held in reserve were called forward and "although heavily shelled dug themselves in and established barrage positions."  With three other guns already securely located at the front, the section was poised to act as a 'barrage group' in support of the impending attack.

Map of Passchendaele battlefield.
On October 29, William and the men of 15th CMG Coy. completed preparations for their second major assignment since arriving at the front - the Canadian Corps' assault on Passchendaele Ridge.  At 'zero hour' - 5:40 am - October 30, the infantry advanced across the battlefield as the company's machine guns engaged the enemy "all through the engagement, firing in all 600 000 rounds…. Our positions were heavily shelled throughout the day and night and casualties were very heavy."  While the war diary provides no details in terms of names or numbers, Pte. William Andrew Jordain, regimental number 624488, was amongst the men reported as 'killed in action' the day's fighting.

The following day, 15th CMG Coy.'s positions were subjected to heavy high explosive and gas shell fire.  The Company was finally relieved in the line on November 1, but remained on duty in the Ypres Salient until November 17, when it returned to the trenches of northern France.

There would be no 'return' for Pte. William Andrew Jordain.  Nor did he receive the acknowledgement of an individual headstone in a military cemetery.  Rather, his name is inscribed on the Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres, Belgium as one of 55 000 men "who were lost without a trace during the defense of the Ypres Salient in the First World War.

Interior wall of Menin Gate - Ypres, Belgium.



151st (Central Alberta) Battalion, CEF.  Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  Available online.

Regimental Record of Pte. William Arthur Jordain, No. 634488.  Library and Archives Canada: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 4967 - 10.  Available online.

War Diaries - 15th Canadian Machine Gun Company.  Library and Archives Canada: RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3 , Volume 4984 , Reel T-10816, File : 615.  Available online.

Photograph of Pte. William Andrew Jordain courtesy of his niece, Kathleen MacKay, Thorburn, NS and great-nephew Colin MacKay, Willowdale, NS, reproduced by his great-great-niece Jennifer MacKay, Truro, NS.

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