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Monday, 29 July 2013

Pte. Clarence Basil 'Bill' Lumsden - A Stretcher Bearer's Story

Date of Birth: January 21, 1895

Place of Birth: Canso, NS

Mother's Name: Annie Rebecca McLellan

Father's Name: James R. Lumsden

Date of Enlistment: February 11, 1915 at Halifax, NS

Regimental Number: 68225

Rank: Private

Unit: 25th Battalion

Location of service: England, Belgium & France

Occupation at Enlistment: Cable Operator

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Mr. Jas. R. Lumsden (father)

In numerous Guysborough County families, multiple siblings enlisted for overseas service during World War I.  Amongst the eight sons and one daughter raised in the Canso home of James R. and Annie Rebecca (McLellan) Lumsden, three boys joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  Asa Harrington 'Harry' joined the Canadian Forestry Corps, while Percy John was tragically killed in action while serving with the 3rd Canadian Pioneers.  A third son, Clarence Basil 'Bill', joined the 25th Battalion during the early months of the war.

Pte. Clarence Basil Lumsden
Bill was born at Canso Tickle on January 21, 1895, the youngest of James and Annie's sons.  After completing his local schooling, he worked as a cable operator with Western Union Cable Company, Hazel Hill before enrolling at Acadia College, Wolfville, NS in September 1914.  After one term, Bill put his studies on hold and was the first Lumsden brother to enlist when he joined the 25th Battalion at Halifax on February 11, 1915.

Officially authorized on November 7, 1914 and formed during the winter of 1914-15, the 25th Battalion was Nova Scotia's first 'volunteer' regiment.  Bill was one of "100 men recruited… to take [the] place of men discharged [as] medically unfit and undesirable".  After spending the spring of 1915 training in Halifax, the battalion departed for England via HMT Saxonia on May 20, 1915.  The unit's war diary described the occasion in these words:

"Thousands of people were there to see the Battalion aboard ship.  The 22nd French Canadian Battalion arrived from Amherst at 3:00 pm o'clock and were embarked about 6:00 pm.  The Saxonia sailed immediately after….  Total 2274 officers and men."

Subsequent entries provide a glimpse into the battalion's experiences aboard ship.  Two days after leaving Halifax, the vessel "passed two large icebergs [off the] port bow", an observation eerily reminiscent of Titanic's fateful 1912 maiden voyage.  The North Atlantic held other perils - as the ship "arrived in range of [German] submarines at 6:30 pm [May 24, 1915]", its officers "made allotments of rafts and boats to [the] Battalion".  Three days later, the men participated in a lifeboat drill, complete with "boats away over side and provisions put on board.  All ranks [were] ordered to sleep with clothing on" as a further precaution.

On May 28, several destroyers reached the vessel and provided an escort throughout the journey's final hours.  At 4:10 am May 29, the Saxonia entered Plymouth Harbour, docking at Davenport at 8:30 am.  The battalion immediately disembarked and travelled by train to Westenhanger, arriving just prior to midnight.  The following day, Bill's regiment encamped at East Sandling.  On June 1, he and his comrades commenced a rigorous training schedule that included musketry, bomb throwing, machine gun and trench warfare instruction.

Members of 25th Battalion preparing to depart Halifax, May 1915.
Bill's summer of military training was interrupted by two memorable occasions.  On July 17, the 25th Battalion's brigade was reviewed at Beachborough by Canadian Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, and Major General the Honorable Sir Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia.   On September 2, His Majesty King George V and Lord Kitchener, British Secretary of War, inspected the 2nd Canadian Division - to which the 25th belonged - at the same location.

While Bill completed standard infantry training, his service documents record an event that significantly shaped his war experience.  On June 1, he was transferred to the Stretcher Bearer section of B Company, 25th Battalion.  While it is not possible to determine whether this was an individual choice, undertaking such an assignment is very much in keeping with Bill's post-war career as a clergyman and provides an insight into his character.  Stretcher bearers ventured onto the battlefield without weapons and at great personal peril, retrieving wounded comrades amidst the chaos of battle.  Such an assignment was undertaken only after considerable reflection. 

After three and a half months' training, the 25th Battalion broke camp at East Sandling on September 15, 1915 and boarded a transport ship at Folkestone for the journey across the English Channel.  The men arrived at Boulogne, France at 1:00 am September 16 and later that same day travelled by train to St. Omer, France.  On September 19, the unit made its way toward the front lines near Ypres, Belgium.  The 25th Battalion "took over the trenches from the 2nd Kings Own [near Hazebrouk, Belgium] on the evening of the 22nd [September,] completing relief at 8:45 pm". 

The perils of Belgium's trenches quickly became apparent.  The war diary recorded the unit's first combat fatality on September 25, when # 67563 Lt. Corporal J. A. MacLean, a Cape Breton native, was shot and killed while sniping at enemy trenches.  The battalion retired to reserve positions three days later, returning to the front lines on October 4.  Bill and his comrades experienced heavy artillery bombardment of their position during this second tour, but the war diary proudly noted that the "battalion behaved nobly under fire".

Map of trenches occupied by 25th Battalion, September 1915.
The 25th spent the next six months in the Kemmel trench sector near Ypres, Belgium.  Several days in the front trenches were followed by a period in reserve and several days in rest camp before the men returned 'to the line'.  On October 25, the battalion provided a 'Guard of Honor' and its remaining personnel lined the streets of Loker as King George V and Edward, Prince of Wales passed through the small Belgian town.  After this pleasant diversion, Bill and his mates returned to the rotation of trench duty.

The impending winter made conditions in the trenches increasingly uncomfortable.  On November 12, the war diary described the circumstances: "Rained all day.  Trenches in dreadful state".  The situation worsened with a "light fall of snow in forenoon" of November 26.  Two days later, the diary described the weather as "[a] fine day, very cold.  Roads frozen hard."  As winter set in, the level of fighting declined significantly, consisting mainly of occasional artillery and machine gun exchanges.
A local newspaper, The Canso Breeze, published a letter from Pte. Lumsden in early 1916.  Dated December 15, 1915 and titled "Somewhere At the Front", its contents offer a glimpse into Bill's war experience.  He began by describing his role:

"As for myself, I am in the stretcher bearer section, and it is my duty to dress the wounded and see they reach the dressing station quickly and safely.  I am not a non-combatant, though I handed in my rifle, because it was too cumbersome for my work, but I sometimes get the loan of someone else's rifle and have a crack at Fritz."

Bill noted the challenging conditions in the trenches:

"We have been having regular winter weather over here.  Rain one day, cold the next, then both rainy and cold for a week.  It is far worse than our April or even March weather.  Mud seems to be the principal product of this benighted country.  I'd give almost anything if I could have a few of Canso's superfluous rocks in our front line trenches to stand on and to throw at Fritz."

In early April 1916, Bill and the 25th were encamped near Dickesbusch, enjoying their first period of rest and training since reaching the front.  It was back into combat on April 12 as the men occupied "new trenches" whose conditions were described as "very poor".  Their position was heavily shelled on April 13 and subjected to an infantry attack by 200 German soldiers the following day.  The advance was "repulsed… with M[achine] guns and bombs leaving a great many dead and wounded".  The unit suffered 8 fatalities and 6 wounded in the day's battle, its largest single-day casualties since arriving at the front.  As the battalion retired to reserve positions on the night of April 14/15, the war diary tallied the cost of its most recent tour: 2 officers suffering from shell shock, 18 'other ranks' (OR) killed and 42 wounded.

25th Battalion cap badge.
The events of early April were omens of what lay ahead.  As the weather improved, fighting intensified in the Ypres Salient.   When Bill returned to the line on April 25, heavy artillery shelling inflicted daily casualties, pushing the stretcher bearers' energy and resources to the limit - April 26: six wounded; April 27: 30 wounded and one killed; April 28: 11 wounded and 2 killed;  April 30: 3 killed and 2 deaths from wounds; May 1: 6 wounded.  The unit was relieved the following day, bringing to an end its most costly front-line tour to date.  Unfortunately, the year's fighting had barely begun.

On June 1, the battalion was "holding front line trenches at St. Eloi".  After a brief period in brigade reserve at Dickebusch, the 25th returned to the trenches near Zillebeke on June 9.  Fourteen men were wounded in heavy artillery bombardment on the day of their arrival.  The war diary describes the events of the following day: "Enemy bombarding all day long and night with HE's [high explosive shells], minenwerfers, trench mortars, etc.. Machine gun, rifle fire very active."  Two officers and 44 OR were wounded in the day's action, while 1 officer and 12 OR were killed.  The following day, 2 officers and 15 OR were wounded and 10 OR were reported missing.  The battalion was relieved on the night of June 11/12, moving into facilities at a rest camp.  The men "arrived very fatigued after having undergone a particularly heavy bombardment."  Considering the high number of casualties, the stretcher bearers also needed time to recover.  Their rest, however, was short-lived as two days later the battalion received orders to move into the front trenches at Hill 60.

The war diary's June 16 entry reported "great activity on our front [and] also on our left.  Numerous HE's, whizzbangs, trench mortars, etc. being thrown over, we however came through without any casualties."  The unit was not so fortunate the following day as the heavy bombardment continued.  Eight OR were killed and 47 wounded in the fighting, with an additional 10 OR killed and 7 wounded on June 18.  Throughout the action, Bill and the unit's stretcher bearers worked tirelessly, removing wounded comrades from the battlefield.  The heavy bombardment continued throughout the next day, becoming intermittent at night.  Mercifully, the 25th was relieved in the line on June 20.

The stretcher bearers' work under fire did not go unnoticed.  On July 23, 1916, Pte. Clarence Basil Lumsden was awarded the Military Medal "for conspicuous bravery and gallantry at Hill 60 on the afternoon of June 18, 1916.  When a number were wounded he performed acts under heavy fire, that were most heroic, with absolute forgiveness of himself, he gave attention to all who were suffering, rushed to the most exposed places that were being shelled, and by his example encouraged the men who were with him."

Back home in Canso, Bill's efforts were also acknowledged.  A short news item in The Canso Breeze informed its readers his award, commenting that on at least two other occasions, Bill had performed notable "acts of bravery":  "Once when a comrade was shot and fell over on him… he did not forsake him under the heavy fire.  On another occasion, he dressed the wounds of an officer under heavy fire."  The author concluded with the observation that "Mr. Lumsden… is exposed to very great danger, bringing in the wounded."

The battalion continued to serve in rotation on the Belgian front lines throughout the summer of 1916.  The war diary records one welcome diversion that took place on August 14, while the battalion was in rest camp:

"HM the King, Prince of Wales and Staff walked through our Camp at about 4:15 pm.  The Commanding Officer met the party and walked through with the King, who showed keen interest in the training which the men were undergoing, asking many questions of the C. O..  The battalion was carrying on with [its] schedule and as the King walked through the camp, all ranks lined the road and cheered the King lustily."

Early the following month, the 25th left Belgium for a new assignment in the trenches of the Somme region of northern France.  On September 15, the unit participated in the 5th Brigade's attack at Courcelette.  The war diary entry described the day's events:  "The 25th Battalion moved forward as though on General Inspection.  The young soldiers behaving like veterans going through very heavy artillery barrages without a quiver."

British soldiers with tank at Courcelette, September 1916.
Despite sustaining significant casualties in the day's fighting, the unit assisted in establishing  new positions the following day.  On September 17, "the battalion was subjected to the heaviest artillery fire that it has been anyone's lot to see, but all ranks worked like beavers consolidating and making the new line tenable."  Bill and the men of the 25th were relieved in the line on the night of September 17/18, having suffered a total of 5 officers and 31 OR killed; 8 officers and 183 OR wounded; and 4 officers and 73 OR missing after the battle.  A September 21 muster recorded battalion strength as 21 officers and 549 OR.  As the unit moved into reserve, the war diary observed that "all ranks [were] enjoying a very much needed and well earned rest."

On September 27, Bill and his comrades moved back into the front trenches near Pozieres.  The following day, the men were "consolidating their position, under extremely severe shell fire."  The officer at battalion headquarters recording September 29th's events wrote somewhat alarmingly that he "cannot get any information as to how things are!"  The following day's entry was similarly brief: "No news coming through, will not know until the battalion comes out."  The October 1 entry tersely noted: "In trenches at Courcelette".  These brief comments failed to reveal the ferocity of the conflict in which the battalion was embroiled.

A later report attached to the monthly war diary records that on October 1, 1916, the 25th Battalion was ordered to attack and capture "at all costs" enemy trenches known as Kenora and Regina.  Two hundred men and 12 machine guns were assigned to the task, with the attack commencing at 3:15 pm.  The men succeeded in capturing Kenora Trench but suffered heavy casualties in the assault on the second German position.  Only 1 officer and 30 men reached the enemy wire at Regina Trench, where they were forced by fierce fire to shelter in shell craters.  As night fell, the men retreated to the relative safety of Kenora Trench.

The battalion sustained heavy casualties in the day's action, particularly in the area between Kenora and Regina Trenches.  Four officers were killed and 6 wounded, while 18 OR were killed, 60 wounded and 24 missing in action.  The stretcher bearers were thus busy throughout the day, evacuating the wounded as quickly as possible.  Amidst the chaos of battle, Pte. Clarence Basil Lumsden was struck in the left elbow by a machine gun bullet while clearing a wounded comrade from the battlefield.  Bill was evacuated to the Casualty Clearing Station, where the seriousness of his wound quickly became apparent:

"[Elbow] joint… badly shattered and artery severed.  Wound became infected…  Arm shattered by bullet. Circulation destroyed."

The stretcher bearer who had faithfully served his comrades on the battlefield now found himself a casualty of war.


Pte. Clarence Basil Lumsden was admitted to the 4th General Hospital, Camiers on October 2, 1916.  Medical records describe his condition as "dangerously ill".  Two days later, surgeons performed an "amputation… through [the] arm just above [the] elbow joint".  Bill spent two weeks in recovery at 4th General Hospital.  By October 10, medical reports described his condition as "improved" though still "dangerously ill".

American Women's War Hospital, Paignton, England
On October 16, Bill was transferred to the hospital ship HMHS Caris Casle for passage to England.  The following day, he arrived at the Canadian Casualty Assembly Centre at Shoreham-on-Sea.  He was admitted to the American Women's Hospital, Paignton, England on October 18, where he spent the next three months and a half months recuperating.  By month's end, the hospital noted that Bill was "doing well", although he was far from fully recovered.  In fact, on January 2, 1917, surgeons at the Paignton hospital performed a "re-amputation… above [the] juncture [of the] lower and middle thirds of arm".

By late January, medical reports summarized the second surgery's outcome: "Stump well healed.  Scar only slightly adherent to end of bone.  No pain or tenderness of stump.  Movement at shoulder perfectly free."  On January 31, Bill was transferred to the Granville Special Hospital, Ramsgate.  A medical board report dated February 8, 1917 recommended that he be "invalided to Canada" as his injuries made further military service impossible.  Nine days later, Bill was admitted to Princess Patricia's Convalescent Hospital, Ramsgate, where he awaited discharge to Canada.

On February 19, 1917, Bill boarded the hospital ship HMHS Esquibo at Liverpool, arriving at Quebec City ten days later.  On March 3, 1917, a second Medical Board ordered three months' convalescence while Bill was "fitted with [an] artificial arm".  Six days later, he made his way to Toronto and was admitted to the Whitby Military Hospital.  In late May, Bill was supplied with a 'Carnes' artificial arm.  On June 17, a third medical report at Toronto concluded that he be "discharged with suitable compensation and permitted to pass under his own control" as Category E - unfit for military service.  Six weeks later - July 31, 1917 - Pte. Clarence Basil Lumsden was officially discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force and returned to civilian life.

Prior to his official discharge, Bill Lumsden returned to Canso, where he received a hero's welcome.  The local newspaper recorded his arrival aboard the coastal steamer "Cann" on Saturday evening, July 7.  A large crowd gathered at the dock and the national anthem was proudly sung as Bill disembarked and walked through local streets decorated with bunting to his family home.

Student portrait of Clarence Basil Lumsden.
Two days later, a special church service was held at the local Baptist Church to mark his return.  In his address to the gathering, Deacon D. C. Whitman commented:

"We know that you did not go to the war to kill, but to make alive - 'to rescue the perishing, care for the dying' - but we are sure that your work called for all the courage and endurance that the work of the fighting men called for, and that you went out into the open for wounded men when the fighting men were comparatively safe in the trenches."

The following Monday, July 16, Canso Town Council sponsored another 'welcome home' gathering at the Ideal Theatre, where Pte. Lumsden spoke briefly about his war experience.

After settling into civilian life, Bill decided to return to Acadia College, completing the requirements for a Bachelor of Arts.  It is perhaps no surprise that the soldier who dedicated his military career to caring for wounded comrades chose to become a Baptist minister.  Bill enrolled in Andover Newton Theological Institute, Newton Centre, Massachusetts, where he obtained his Bachelor in Divinity and was ordained upon graduation.  Returning to Nova Scotia, he married Ruth Somerville Wilson at St. Andrews Church, Truro on September 17, 1924.  Bill ministered to parishes in Hampton, NB and Dartmouth, NS before deciding to undertake post-graduate studies at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

In 1932, Bill obtained a Doctorate in Divinity from the prestigious American university.  He briefly served as minister to Olivet Baptist Church, New Haven but soon decided to return to Canada.  He first accepted a teaching position at Brandon College, Manitoba before returning to Acadia University, where he became a professor in Biblical Languages and Literature.  Bill served as Executive Secretary to the University's Board of Governors and was a member of its Department of Classics, Art Faculty.  When he retired in 1963, the University presented him with an honorary Doctorate in Divinity.

Dr. Clarence Basil 'Bill' Lumsden.
Ministry and academics were not Bill's only civilian pursuits.  He maintained contact with his military past through active involvement in the Royal Canadian Legion, joining the Wolfville branch in 1936.  Bill went on to serve as Provincial President of Nova Scotia Command and represented the province on the Legion's Dominion Executive Council.  He was a member of Dominion Command's Rehabilitation Committee and served on the Board of Directors of Legionnaire, the organization's official publication, from 1948 to 1954.

After making a notable contribution to the Legion at the provincial level, Bill was selected to serve as Dominion First Vice-President and Chairman of Dominion Command's Pension Committee.  He was an outspoken advocate of veterans' pensions at a time when rates lagged far behind the rapidly rising post-war cost of living.  The pinnacle of his work with the Legion came when he served as national President from 1952 to 1954, the first ex-Private to hold the office.

Bill also found time in his later years to work with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  In 1958, he was appointed to the organization's Board of Directors and later served as its vice-chairman.  He travelled extensively throughout northern Canada, establishing radio stations across the region.

Clarence Basil Lumsden died at Kentville, NS on September 2, 1970 and was laid to rest in Willow Bank Cemetery, Wolfville.  He was pre-deceased by his eight siblings and one son, and survived by his wife Ruth, son Howard Rice Lumsden, Toronto, and daughter Halle MacMullen, Wolfville.  On January 14, 1985, the Wolfville Legion was officially re-named Dr. C. B. Lumsden (NS No. 74) Branch in honour of his dedicated service to Canada and the organization that represented its war veterans.

Dr. C. B. Lumsden (NS No. 74) Branch, Wolfville, NS.


Regimental Record of Pte. Clarence Basil Lumsden, number 68255.  Library and Archives Canada, RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 5789 - 21.  Attestation papers available online.

War Diaries of the 25th Battalion, CEF.  Library and Archives Canada, RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3 , Volume 4933 , Reel T-10735, File : 417.  Available online.

Personal photographs, letters and Canso Breeze news items courtesy of Patsy Lumsden, Canso.  Available online at Patsy's Canso Heroes - World War I website.


  1. What a good story. Has any family members got photos of Bill with his Carnes Artificial Arm issued in 1917 or know anything about this? contact

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Mark. Unfortunately, none of the photos made available to me show Bill's artificial arm. I will check with his family sources to see if they have any information on it.

    1. Hi I am his granddaughter and I never saw him with an artificial arm