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Friday, 28 February 2014

Sergeant Henry Michael Farrell - An 85th Battalion Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: October 22, 1894*

Place of Birth: East Roman Valley, Guysborough County

Mother's Name: Mary Aikens

Father's Name: Patrick Farrell

Date of Enlistment: February 16, 1916 at Halifax, NS

Regimental Number: 223455

Rank: Sergeant

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force (Infantry)

Unit: 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders)

Location of service: England, Belgium & France

Occupation at Enlistment: Lineman

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Mrs. Mary Farrell, Guysborough (mother)

*: Taken from 1901 and 1911 Guysborough census data.  Henry's attestation papers record his year of birth as 1895.

Henry Michael Farrell was the sixth of fourteen children born to Patrick and Mary Farrell of East Roman Valley, Guysborough County.  The second-oldest of the couple's six sons, Henry worked as a telephone lineman in the years prior to the outbreak of war in Europe.  His younger brother, Douglas Augustine, enlisted with the 85th Battalion at Halifax on October 28, 1915.  Perhaps inspired by his example, Henry joined the same unit on February 16, 1916.

Sgt. Henry Michael Farrell at enlistment.
Officially authorized on September 14, 1915, the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) was the first provincial unit formed entirely from volunteer recruits and the only such battalion to see action at the front.  Its personnel included a pipe band that played the Scottish air 'Cock o' the North' as the unit's anthem.  Its Gaelic motto, 'Siol Na Fear Fearail' ('Breed of Manly Men'), was further testament to its Highland Scottish character.

A sturdy 5' 10" and 171 pounds at enlistment, Henry was briefly hospitalized at Halifax with tonsillitis in early March before returning to barracks.  As the battalion trained at Camp Aldershot throughout the summer months, recruits deemed 'medically unfit' were honourably discharged.  Such was the case with Douglas, who was released from military service on August 17, 1916 and returned home.

Henry, however, remained with the 85th and boarded SS Olympic on October 12, 1916 for the journey across the North Atlantic Ocean.  Three other provincial units - the 185th (Cape Breton Highlanders), 193rd and 219th - that along with the 85th comprised the 'Nova Scotia Highland Brigade' also made the voyage.  Upon landing in England six days later, the four battalions proceeded to Witley Camp, Surrey for further training.

Unfortunately, demand for reinforcements at the front resulted in the dissolution of the Highland Brigade.  Two of its components - the 193rd and 219th - were dispersed amongst reserve units and battalions at the front.  The 185th remained intact until February 1918, at which time it suffered the same fate.  The 85th, however, proceeded across the English Channel to France on February 10, 1917.  Henry and his comrades spent three days in camp near Boulogne before relocating to Gouy Servins, where the battalion prepared for service 'in the line'.

On March 2, small groups of the 85th's officers and 'other ranks' (OR) commenced short 'tours' in the front trenches with other battalions.  Two days later, the battalion's war diary recorded its first fatality since arriving in France - a Pte. Young killed by artillery fire near 'Hospital Corner'.  The 85th relocated to Bouvigny on March 7 as small groups continued to serve in the line with other units.  The war diary recorded its first official 'front line casualty' on March 16 when Pte. W. I. Leslie (attestation number 222998) was killed "while on sentry duty in front line trenches with 46th Battalion".

In the meantime, Henry and the battalion's personnel completed a training program that included instruction in Lewis Gun operation, bombing, rifle grenades, bayonet fighting and sniping.  On the night of March 22, the 85th relieved the 95h Royal Sussex Regiment in the line at Lorette Spur for four hours as the men rehearsed the procedures for entering and leaving the front trenches.

In early April, the 85th began preparations for its role in the impending Canadian Corps attack on Vimy Ridge.  Due to its lack of combat experience, the battalion was assigned to support roles behind attacking infantry units - constructing dugouts and trenches; carrying wire, ammunition and supplies; escorting and guarding prisoners of war.  As events unfolded on the battlefield, however, its role changed dramatically.

At 8:00 pm April 8, 1917, the 85th moved to its assigned pre-battle position, advancing to the 'jumping off point' on 'Music Hall Line' at midnight.  Its war diary described the rather uncomfortable surroundings: "Very limited dugout accommodation.  Men crowded in trench, secured very little rest."

As the attack commenced in the early hours of April 9, Henry and the soldiers of the 85th soldiers carried out support roles behind the advancing infantry.  When the Canadian advance stalled along the left side of the Canadian line, the battalion's 'C' and 'D' Companies were dispatched to the front line at 4:30 pm and advanced toward the German line two hours later without the benefit of artillery support.  Its war diary proudly described the outcome:

"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 three machine guns were captured."

The following day, the battalion's two remaining companies - one of which included Henry - took up positions along the newly captured line, under the command of the 47th Battalion.  The war diary reported "snow in afternoon, making conditions very bad for [the] men[,] who had no shelter except shell holes."

On April 11, 'A' and 'B' Companies returned to 85th Battalion command as it assumed full responsibility for a section of the new front line at Vimy Ridge.  The unit spent several days consolidating its position before being relieved on the night of April 14 and retiring to billets at Bouvigny.  Its first action at the front claimed the lives of 47 OR, while 6 officers and 116 OR were wounded and 3 OR missing after six days in the line.

Henry's performance under fire must have impressed on his superiors, as he was promoted to Lance Corporal on April 14.  Similarly, the 85th had demonstrated its resolve in battle and earned a well-deserved place in the Canadian Corps.  The battalion was assigned to the 4th Canadian Division's 12th Brigade, where it served alongside the 78th (Winnipeg Grenadiers), 72nd (Seaforth Highlanders) and 39th (Ottawa) Battalions for the duration of the war.

85th Battalion Crest - photo courtesy of Greville Nifort, Lunenburg, NS.
In the two months after its first combat experience, the 85th served on rotation in the Vimy sector, spending approximately one week in the front lines before retiring to support positions.  Tours were interspersed with several days' rest and training in reserve.  During the last week of June, the battalion participated in a series of attacks on German positions at 'Canada Trench' and 'Ontario Trench', near the Lens-Arras Road.  A total of 24 OR were killed, 8 officers and 118 OR wounded as Canadian units advanced a distance of one mile into the German line.

On the night of July 1/2, the battalion retired to Corps Reserve at Villers au Bois, where personnel followed a daily schedule of training and lectures for the next three weeks.  Henry received a welcome break from military routine during this time when he was assigned to service "with [the] Town Mayor" of Villers au Bois from July 4 to 24.

On July 25, the 85th returned to the trenches in the Zouave Valley, where its personnel logged 39 consecutive days in the line before retiring to reserve positions on September 2.  While no major combat occurred during this rotation, the war diary nevertheless recorded 8 OR killed, 3 officers and 36 OR wounded (4 'accidental'), 7 OR gassed and 14 OR 'wounded at duty' during the unit's longest tour since landing in France.

Once again, the battalion retired to camp near Avion for a week's rest, cleanup and training.  On September 9, Henry was assigned to a "Gas Course", rejoining the 85th in Divisional Reserve at Petit Servins on September 15.  He was promoted to the rank of Corporal on September 13 and at month's end was granted a welcome ten days' leave.  At the time of Henry's return on October 11, the battalion was training on a simulated battlefield near Etaples, France in preparation for the Canadian Corps' next assignment - an attack on the Belgian village of Passchendaele.

On October 23, the 85th relocated to St. Lawrence Camp near Brandhoek, Belgium.  Its officers visited the front trenches to view the battlefield while personnel made final preparations for combat.  On the night of October 28, the battalion entered the front lines near Potijze.   The following day, officers marked "jumping off" points with tape in preparation for the assault.  That night, the men received hot tea and rations before assuming attack positions at 4:50 am, one hour prior to the scheduled advance.

At 'Zero Hour' October 30, the 12th Brigade's machine guns opened fire as Henry and the men of the 85th advanced toward the village of Passchendaele.  "They were met by heavy machine-gun and rifle fire… all the way along our front" as 9 officers were killed or wounded in the battle's opening minutes.  The anticipated artillery barrage in support of the advance was "light", and "very little if any of it fell on our side or on the enemy's trench".  'A', 'B' and 'C' Companies nevertheless advanced, "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 battle continued for approximately thirty minutes before 'D' Company advanced in support of the attack, breaking enemy resistance as its men reached their comrades.  "The whole line swarmed across the hostile front line and pushed on to the final objective, sniping the fleeing enemy and dealing with those who remained in shell-holes behind his original front line."  The 85th captured its objective by 6:38 am as the officer in charge somberly reported: "Casualties are very heavy."  While German forces appeared to regroup during the day, an anticipated counter-attack never occurred.

Its officers took stock of the situation as the 85th was relieved on the night of October 31/November 1.  The battalion had entered the trenches with 26 officers and 662 OR.  In the battle's aftermath, more than half of its personnel were 'casualties' - 12 officers killed, 8 wounded and 3 'wounded at duty', while 371 OR were killed or wounded at Passchendaele.

Corporal Henry Farrell survived the battle but was amongst the October 30th firefight's OR casualties.  He was evacuated to 2nd Canadian General Hospital, Le Treport, France on November 1, suffering from a shrapnel wound to his left forearm and a mild contusion to his head.  Medical records later described a small, three-point scar behind his left ear.  Luckily, neither injury was serious as Henry was discharged to 3rd Convalescent Depot, Le Treport on November 5 and returned to Canadian Base Details at Etaples, France six days later.

On November 22, Henry was officially classified 'Category A' - fit for active service.  He was transferred to the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Centre (CCRC) on November 28 and rejoined the 85th in the field on December 3, a rapid recovery considering the fate of so many of his comrades.

At the time of Henry's return, the battalion was in Divisional Reserve at Reimbert, France.  Personnel spent the first half of December in training before relocating to Guoy-Servins on December 17.  The following day, the weather was "snowing and freezing" as the 85h moved "over Vimy Ridge through Givenchy to [the] support line of [the] left Avion sector" in relief of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Battalion. 

The situation was quiet as the battalion endured twelve days in "freezing and hazy" conditions.  Personnel provided work parties for wiring before moving into the front trenches on December 23.  The war diary's Christmas Day entry described a typical winter's day in the line:

"Cold, turning fine, then snowy and strong wind.  Quiet except evening strafe and some 'pineapples' with gas sent on right half of Battalion front, stopped by Artillery retaliation."

In later years, daughter Eileen Haynes recalls her father Henry describing the experience of sleeping in the trenches and awakening to find one's woolen garments frozen to the ground.

85th Battalion pin - photo courtesy of Greville Nifort, Lunenburg, NS.
The 85th was relieved on December 29 and retired to Niagara Camp, Chateau de la Haie, having sustained light casualties during the month: 1 officer wounded; 2 OR killed and 4 wounded.  On New Year's Day 1918, the battalion served "Christmas Dinner for 'other ranks' at 1 pm."  In the evening, personnel "paraded… to [the] theatre to see new pantomime 'Aladin France' by 4th Divisional Troupe (Maple Leaves Concert Company)."  Two days later, the unit relocated to Alberta Camp at Souchez, where the men provided wiring parties for the front lines.

The weather was "stormy… [with] snow and high wind" as the 85th moved to support positions in Mericourt Sector on January 9, 1918.  After providing work parties for several days, the unit assumed forward positions on January 14.  That same day, the war diary reported that one its intelligence officers was fatally wounded while on patrol.  The January 15 entry described the weather as "cloudy [and] very mild" but made no mention of further casualties.

That same day, Corporal Henry Farrell was admitted to No. 13 Canadian Field Ambulance with a 'bomb wound' to his left leg and left wrist.  There is no record of the circumstances in which he received these injuries.  It is possible that Henry participated in the previous day's patrol.  The battalion's month-end casualty report listed 9 OR with similar wounds to various body parts on January 15, suggesting that an artillery shell may have landed amongst a group of soldiers.  Whatever the circumstances, Henry was evacuated to No. 30 Casualty Clearing Station two days later and admitted to No. 26 General Hospital, Etaples, France on January 18, 1918.

Once again, Henry's injuries proved to be mild.  On January 31, he was transferred to No. 6 Convalescent Depot, Etaples.  That same day, he was promoted to Sergeant.  Henry was discharged from medical care on February 3 and transferred to the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Centre, where he waited ten days before returning to the 85th in the field on February 13, 1918.

At the time of Henry's return, the battalion was in training at Petit Servins, moving to billets at Reimbert for further drill five days later.  The war diary recorded the arrival of 98 OR reinforcements from the 185th Battalion (Cape Breton Highlanders) - one of the 85th's former 'sister' Highland Brigade units - on March 3.  Ten days later, personnel returned to the line, assuming support positions near Bully Grenay before moving into the front trenches on March 18 near St. Emile.

The situation was "rainy [and] quiet" as the battalion worked at "wiring defended localities and cleaning out communication trenches" on its first day.  The men carried out similar tasks for several days before retiring to support positions on March 23 and moving into Divisional Reserve at Cite Colonne the following day.  On March 28, the 85th was briefly assigned to the "Odlums Composite Brigade".  Hastily organized in response to a massive German offensive launched on March 21 and placed under the command of Brigadier-General V. W. Odlum, the Brigade never saw action, as the Canadian sector was not subjected to a major German attack.

On March 29, the 85th returned to the command of the 12th Infantry Brigade, moving into the front trenches near Gavrelle later that evening.  The following day, the war diary described "very heavy enemy shelling in forenoon" in addition to a "great deal of enemy movement… in his rear area".  On April 1, the diary reported: "Quite a number of enemy aeroplanes flew over our lines.  One large bombing plane flew over about 10:30 AM and dropped 2 bombs on [our] front line.  One of these was a dud."

While observers continued to report "enemy movement much above normal", the situation remained relatively quiet in the 85th's sector.  Its war diary also recorded an unusual incident that took place on April 3, a small glimpse of humanity amongst the brutality of war:

"Lieutenants Ernst and Smith while on daylight patrol captured a wounded Bosche [German]….  Lieutenant Ernst carried him on his back a distance of about 900 yards.  The Bosche had been wounded during the attack of March 28th and had not been able to get back to his lines."

The following day, the war diary noted a "remarkable decrease in enemy artillery since [the] beginning of [the] tour.  Now below normal."  Later that evening, the 85th was relieved by the 46th Canadian Infantry Battalion and personnel made its way to Aubrey Camp, Ecurie.  The war diary recorded that conditions were "very wet and muddy coming out of line."  The comment may explain the third - and final - injury that Henry sustained during his service with the 85th.  On April 4, he was admitted to No. 13 Canadian Field Ambulance, suffering from a sprained right ankle and fractured fibula, injuries he incurred accidentally.

Henry was briefly admitted to St. John's Ambulance Brigade Hospital, Etaples on April 10 before being evacuated to England, where he was admitted to Norfolk War Hospital, Thorpe, Norwich on April 13.  He spent two and a half months recovering from his injuries before being discharged to the Canadian Military Convalescent Hospital at Woodcote Park, Epsom.  Medical records described his condition at the time of his arrival:

"Accidentally fractured… fibula… simple fracture. Union of bones good.  No sign of injury.  Movement good.  General Health good.  No complaints."

Henry was discharged from hospital on July 27, 1918 and transferred to the 17th Reserve Battalion, Bramshott.  His days in the trenches, however, had come to an end as he was not reassigned to duty at the front.  Henry spent the next eleven months in England before departing for Canada on board HMT Mauretania on June 28, 1919.  Sergeant Henry Michael Farrell was officially discharged from military service at Halifax on July 13, 1919 and returned to his Guysborough County home.

Upon returning to civilian life, Henry resumed his work as a telephone lineman, an occupation that took him to various parts of Guysborough County.  On November 28, 1923, he married Margaret Ann Marr.  The couple settled in Riverside, where they raised a family of five children - three boys and two girls.

Sgt. Henry Farrell shortly after returning from overseas - photo courtesy of Eileen (Farrell) Haynes.
During the Second World War, Henry once again enlisted for military service but remained in Canada.  He served as a Lance Corporal with the Pictou Highlanders and a Corporal with the Royal Canadian Engineers from June 4, 1940 to June 21, 1946. 

Upon retirement, Henry spent his last years in his Riverside.  His daughter Eileen recalls her father suffering from circulation problems with his feet, the result of service in the cold, muddy trenches of northern France and Belgium.  Henry Michael Farrell passed away on August 26, 1968 at St. Martha's Hospital, Antigonish and was laid to rest in St. Ann's Parish Catholic Cemetery, Guysborough.



Service Record of Henry Michael Farrell, attestation number 223455.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 3003 - 47.  Attestation papers available online.

War Diary of 85th Canadian Infantry Battalion.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 4944, Reel T-10751-10752, File: 454.  Available online.

A special thank you to Henry's daughter, Eileen (Farrell) Haynes of Guysborough, who contributed a photograph along with valuable information to this account of her father's war experience.


  1. I didn't know my father had another brother, I must ask him about that. A very fasinating article. Thank you very much. Signed - Lori Farrell Fischer (daughter of Clayton Francis Farrell 2nd son of Henry Michael and Margaret Marr Farrell ).

    1. Hello, Lori. I can provide you with the genealogical information I gathered on Henry Farrell's family, if you want to contact me at my e-mail address: