Place of Birth: Queensport, Guysborough County
Mother's Name: Marjorie Perio
Father's Name: Elijah Dort
Date of Enlistment: May 2, 1916 at Halifax, NS
Regimental Number: 488326
Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force (Canadian Engineers)
Units: Composite Battalion; 23rd Reserve Battalion; 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company
Location of Service: England, France & Belgium
Occupation at Enlistment: Lumberman
Marital Status at Enlistment: Married
Next of Kin: Mrs. Georgina (Sharp) Dort, 36 North Albert St., Amherst, NS (wife)
*: Date of birth as recorded on attestation papers. Howard's 1914 marriage certificate gives his age as 25, suggesting that his year of birth as 1888 or 1889. The family is not listed in the 1891, 1901 or 1911 Guysborough County censuses.
|Howard Alphonsus Dort with his second wife, Erma (c. 1947).|
Amongst its duties was supervising a small group of prisoners of war held at the Citadel and a Detention Barracks on Melville Island. In March 1915, increasing numbers of POWs prompted military authorities to establish an Internment Station at Amherst, where two and a half Composite Battalion companies supervised German naval personnel captured at sea and civilians suspected of supporting Canada's 'enemy combatants'. While his file provides no description of Howard's duties, he may have worked as a guard at the Amherst Internment Station.
Demand for reinforcements at the front increased as the war in Europe entered its second year. In response, the Composite Battalion provided two 'drafts' for overseas service. The first group of 100 men departed Halifax in January 1916, followed by a second group of 56 men in June 1916. Perhaps enticed by appeals for enlistments, Howard attested for overseas service on May 4, 1916. He was not part of the second group of volunteers, but departed from Halifax aboard the SS Scandinavian with third group on August 8, 1916.
Upon arriving in England ten days later, Howard was taken on strength by the 23rd Reserve Battalion at Dilgate. The fact that he resided in a coal mining area may have influenced the direction of his military career. Perhaps Howard had previously worked at a local mining operation. Whatever the reason, on October 13, 1916 he was assigned to the Canadian Engineers Tunnnelling Brigade at Crowborough, England.
Howard was briefly hospitalized on October 31 for unspecified reasons and spent the month of November awaiting transfer to an overseas unit. On December 4, 1916, he was selected for service with the 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company and proceeded across the English Channel to the Canadian Base Depot (CBD) at Le Havre the following day. One week later, Howard reached his new unit in the field.
In February 1915 - the same month during which British engineers detonated the first mine at Hill 60, near Ypres, Belgium - Imperial authorities approved plans to create nine companies dedicated to tunnelling beneath German front lines. A total of twelve units were in operation by year's end, with an additional unit created in 1916. Each Company consisted of 5 officers and 270 'sappers', assisted by parties of infantrymen who provided manual labour.
The following year, the Canadian government organized three tunnelling companies for service at the front. The 1st and 2nd Tunnnelling Companies were recruited in Eastern and Western Canada respectively and arrived at the front in the spring of 1916. While preference was given to men with mining experience, individuals with no such background also served in tunnelling companies. By year's end, a total of 30 Allied tunnelling companies - including units from New Zealand and Australia - were operating in France and Belgium.
Unlike its two counterparts, 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company was formed from existing mining sections within the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions. As these men were already overseas, the unit was the first to serve at the front, deploying at St. Marie-Cappel, France in January 1916. Its initial assignment involved the construction of mines beneath the German front line near Wulveringhem, Belgium. Utilizing two existing shafts dug to a depth of 60 feet, the Company completed 900 feet of underground 'galleries' before turning the site over to the 175th Company Royal Engineers and relocating to Hill 60 in March 1916.
Upon reaching its new location, 3rd Tunnelling undertook construction of a deep offensive system called the 'Berlin Sap'. Commencing in the support trenches, the network of tunnels reached a depth of 100 feet from the surface "a short distance outside [the] enemy front line". At the time of the Company's arrival, personnel dragged 'spoil' - the earth removed to create the galleries - by hand up a 400-foot incline. 3rd Tunnelling's engineers quickly installed a gearless windlass track and utilized 'trucks' capable of carrying 30 to 40 sacks of earth to remove spoil more efficiently.
The Company also created two offensive galleries, one below the center of Hill 60 and the other beneath a high mound called 'the Caterpillar'. Upon completion, personnel placed 70,000 pounds (32,00 kilograms) of ammonal explosive beneath the Caterpillar at a depth of 110 feet and a distance of 500 feet from the access shaft. A second charge of 54,000 (24,200 kilograms) pounds was placed beneath Hill 60 at a depth of 90 feet. Sappers "loaded and tamped" both charges in October 1916. During construction, the Company detected an underground German gallery that penetrated to 100 feet inside the Allied front line.
|3rd Cdn. Tunnelling Co. officers, May 1918 (Source: War Diary)|
British, New Zealand and Australian infantry units occupied the trenches maintained by the Company, as the Canadian Corps spent the winter of 1916-17 in the Somme region of France. Casualties were light throughout Howard's first months, due mainly to a lull in fighting brought on by the weather. The Company's war diary reported 2 officers and 24 'other ranks' (OR) sick and 4 OR wounded for the month of December.
Galleries dug under No Man's Land also served as 'listening posts' for monitoring German activity. The Company's January 6, 1917 war diary entry described sappers in one shaft hearing "noises which sounded like [the] ringing of an electric bell. Sounds have been constantly reported from this post. It is probably under a deep enemy dugout."
Enemy artillery and trench mortar fire at work locations occurred regularly. On January 22, 1917, for example, "a slight amount of gas entered galleries from gas shells. Men were withdrawn and were asked by infantry to hold [positions in the] front line. Galleries were cleared of gas [that] same night."
Throughout the month, personnel completed a vertical shaft to a depth of 95 feet, in addition to 6' by 3' subways at the machine gun emplacements, where work advanced at an average of 15 feet each day. The war diary described the difficulties of disguising the spoil brought to the surface at worksites during wintertime:
"It is essential that our own work on the surface here be well screened as snow lying on the ground shows up everything that is not covered. Constant supervision is necessary in the disposal of bags at night. We have now filled up most of the holes and old trenches closest to the work."
Once completed, the machine gun emplacement was outfitted with bunks and interior fittings to accommodate the gunners stationed there.
As winter gave way to spring, artillery activity in the Company's sector increased noticeably. For example, the war diary's March 16, 1917 entry reported: "Enemy shelled [one location] continuously from 9 pm to midnight with trench mortars and gas shells. No casualties owing to the prompt use of box respirators which were worn by our men for four hours."
By early April, Company personnel had constructed 296 feet of gallery at the bottom of the Seaforth Farm shaft, advancing at a rate of 10 feet per day. The "heavy ground" required significant reinforcement, prompting the men to install 4' 6" I-beam legs and 9" x 3" timber caps and sills to prevent collapsing. At mid-month, sappers began work on a deep dugout system large enough to accommodate a Brigade and a Battalion Headquarters.
By month's end, the gallery at Seaforth Farm extended to almost 600 feet, with the Company "doing a lot of deep dugout work as well as mining". Casualties remained light as the war diary listed 1 OR killed, 1 wounded, 1 death from natural causes, 1 case of shell shock and 10 sick during April.
On May 11, 1917, the Company was ordered to seal the shaft at "Seaforth Farm [and cease work at the location]… on account of not having sufficient time to complete it before commencement of operations." Personnel concentrated on an "extensive dugout system at Hill 63 [, which was] progressing favourably." The war diary described precautions taken there in the event of an underground collapse: "We are placing an emergency store of timbers, rations and tools so that in case of a cave-in or blow, the men will be able to dig themselves out, and at most keep alive until rescued."
|Plan for Ploegsteert Brigade HQ (Source: War Diary, April 1917)|
In early June, Allied forces completed preparations for a major attack on Messines Ridge, a strategic area of high ground on the outskirts of Ypres occupied by German troops. In fact, the 3rd Tunnelling Company had placed two of four large mines beneath enemy lines beneath Hill 60 prior to Howard's arrival. The Company's war diary described its role in the June 7th assault:
"In conjunction with the attack on Messines Ridge: At 3:10 AM we exploded two mines… in front of Ploegstreet Wood. All four blows [detonated beneath German lines] were successful, an average of about 40,000 pounds of ammonal in each at [an] average depth of 70 feet."
Tunnelling companies detonated a total of 19 mines as Allied infantry advanced toward the ridge under cover of artillery fire. In fighting that lasted more than a week, British, Australian and New Zealand units succeeded in dislodging German forces from the strategic ridge, a success greatly aided by the painstaking work of Allied tunnelling companies.
A summary of the Company's work 'in the line' since its inception, attached to the June 1917 war diary, made the following claim: "The credit of the Hill 60 blows on 7/6/17… rests largely with the 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company, even though the mines were actually sprung by others." While justifiably proud of its contribution, the report also acknowledged that the detonation of the Messines mines marked the "practical termination of mining on the Second Army front."
With the arrival of summer, Howard and his comrades spent considerable time laboring above ground, primarily on road construction and repair. Within twelve hours of the Messines mine detonations, personnel began work on the Wulveringhem - Messines Road in anticipation of the Ridge's capture. Construction of a "double width" road measuring 18 feet proceeded for several days. Shell craters posed the greatest challenge - one measured 60 feet wide and 25 feet deep, while a second stretched for 40 feet and reached a depth of 20 feet.
Small Company work parties put down two wells for drinking water, as "the enemy poisoned all the water in Messines before he retired with arsenic". Work was "greatly hindered by [artillery] shelling" as the men toiled in the open for the first time since Howard's arrival. Month-end casualty statistics reflect the work's precarious nature: 2 officers wounded, 2 OR killed, 23 wounded and 1 case of 'shell shock'.
Throughout the summer months, small of officers and OR received several days' rest on a rotating basis at a camp near Malhove, France. Personnel completed work on a Headquarters dugout at Messines, constructed dugouts in the newly captured line, and salvaged supplies and material from the old trenches. The men loaded the recycled items onto lorries, which then transported them to supply dumps. "If they are careful to work when there is no aerial observation", the war diary commented, "they are immune from shell fire."
In mid-August, Howard and his comrades returned to the perilous task of road repair. The war diary noted: "Work can only be carried out at night and the early morning on account of the enemy observing and shelling the working parties." In early September, 3rd Tunnelling relocated to the Ypres-Menin Road area, where it assumed responsibility for constructing and maintaining the sector's dugout systems in addition to local road repair.
The new location proved just as treacherous as the Company's previous assignment. On three consecutive days in late September, German artillery shells struck lorries working on road construction, killing 4 and wounding 2 OR. In total, the war diary reported 3 officers wounded, 6 OR killed and 38 wounded, the Company's "effective strength" standing at 19 officers and 494 OR at month's end.
Roadwork continued into October, as did German artillery fire and mounting casualties. Crews repaired shell craters "as quickly as possible", but poor road conditions from continual bombardment frequently prevented lorries from transporting the required material to work sites. At mid-month, the war diary identified another peril: "The enemy are putting over much mustard gas mixed with phosgene. Our men are continually working in the gas shelled areas." Several days later, a "bomb [dropped] from [an] enemy aeroplane" killed one and wounded two, while a fourth sapper was gassed. Altogether, the war diary reported: "Nearly 50 cases of gas are being treated in our camp hospital."
Meanwhile, other sappers were "kept busy cleaning out and repairing entrances and passages damaged by enemy shelling." As month's end approached, the diary lamented: "A large number of men are reporting sick - largely due to the effects of bad weather and being gassed." Casualties reached the highest monthly total since Howard's arrival: 1 officer wounded and 1 gassed; 7 OR killed, 19 wounded, 27 gassed and 1 missing.
|Map of St, Yves Machine Gun Emplacements (Source: War Diary, April 1917)|
On November 1, 1917, as soldiers of the Canadian Corps attacked nearby Passchendaele Ridge, their tunnelling countrymen were building an underground complex at Hooge. Heavy shelling continued throughout the month as the sappers constructed, repaired and expanded their sector's dugouts. Casualties for the month were less severe but still well above the levels recorded during Howard's first months at the front: 1 OR killed, 1 officer and 10 OR wounded, and 14 OR gassed.
As winter set in and combat activity declined, military authorities granted small groups of OR two weeks' leave to England. Having served at the front for twelve months, Howard was amongst those selected for a welcome break, departing on December 7 and rejoining the Company on December 23, 1917. Two days after his return, personnel enjoyed a lavish Christmas dinner, "which included turkeys given by the New Zealanders and Roast Pork provided by our canteen, with vegetables, fruit, nuts and plum pudding and a canteen of beer or stout or bottle of ginger ale for every man."
Over the next several weeks, Howard and his fellow sappers continued work on underground dugouts, constructing over 900 feet of galleries. Artillery fire decreased significantly as the year drew to a close: "Enemy very quiet. No shelling on either side." December casualty figures - 6 OR wounded, 12 sick - reflect the seasonal lull in combat as both sides settled in for another winter in the trenches.
Two days into the New Year, a dugout where personnel were working suffered a direct hit from a German artillery shell. While there were no casualties, "one man was entombed for nearly an hour."
Work continued on the underground complex, the men pouring concrete floors in the officers' quarters and constructing new subways to machine gun emplacements, in addition to building six dugouts in other locations.
In February 1918, 3rd Tunnelling began construction of a new underground Corps Headquarters near Westoutre. Artillery fire gradually increased as the project extended into the following month. On March 21, 1918, the Company received word of a major German infantry attack at Cambrai, France. While sappers commenced work on a Royal Flying Corps dugout near Locre, the massive German spring offensive soon impacted their activity.
On March 25, 1918, the Company received orders to "withdraw all men at once from work and mobilize at once ready to move." That same day, 3rd Tunnelling assumed responsibility for the sector previously serviced by the 2nd Canadian Tunnelling Company. The war diary commented on the challenge created by the increased workload: " We have now such a large front and [a] comparatively small company that we are only able to carry on a few of the most important jobs. The remainder is mostly maintenance work."
The following month, the situation worsened as German forces expanded their offensive to areas adjacent to the Belgian border. On April 9, Company officers received orders to prepare an evacuation plan. The following day's diary entry contained an alarming tone: "The military situation is intense. Enemy are advancing on Bailleuil [, France]". The Company received orders to relocate at 9:30 pm, and immediately set charges to demolish its supply dumps in the event of retreat.
On April 12, the proximity of advancing German infantry dramatically impacted the Company's activity: "All available men working on the Corps line of trenches just behind Bailleuil and in front of [Saint-Jans-Cappel]. Before we had time to complete three trenches they are being occupied by the Infantry and Machine Gunners who are expecting an attack." Personnel completed almost one and a quarter miles of front line trench that day, while a small party placed demolition charges beneath the canal bridges at St. Omer, France.
The following day, trench construction continued as 3rd Tunnelling's men "had only a light screen of Infantry between them and the advancing Germans[;] consequently they had to stand to for over 4 hours and dig the line at the same time." The men were eventually relieved of infantry duty and returned to their labours, completing 51 fire bays and practically all communication trenches, in addition to one machine gun emplacement, by day's end.
For the next several weeks, personnel hastily constructed networks of trenches behind Allied front lines. The war diary's April 14, 1918 entry described one consequence of the furious pace of activity:
"Men now digging a line of trenches north west of Méteren. The French authorities are evacuating civilians from the farms between Méteren and Berthen. They are leaving their cows, pigs and horses in the fields and on account of the trenches being dug with all speed, this livestock is, unfortunately, being wired into No Man's Land."
The following day, work continued on the Berthen trenches as Allied forces "started to evacuate the Ypres Salient". All dugout work was discontinued as the Company focused all resources on trench construction, completing "practically a mile of line… on April 17." The fluid situation led to "the Company… shaking down and becoming more of a mobile unit."
|Map of Ploegsteert Charges, Messines Ridge (Source: War Diary, April 1917)|
The Company's April 21 diary entry reflects the surreal absurdity of working in a combat zone: "The town of Caestre was heavily shelled. We have a good Baseball field in the meadow and the men enjoyed a splendid Baseball Game after their return from work." In between such recreational diversions, personnel continued construction of the Castre - Hazebrouck line.
When German forces captured Kemmel Hill on the morning of April 26, "the situation in the Ypres Salient… became untenable and the demolition charges [set] under the Menin Road… were successfully blown. The [Hooge] detachment withdrew in good order and with no casualties." On the last day of the month, 3rd Tunnelling relocated to a new camp one-half mile north of Sainte-Marie-Cappel, where Howard and his comrades commenced work on a new line of trenches in the direction of Cassel. Considering the circumstances, April's casualties were surprisingly light: 1 OR killed, 2 wounded and 12 sick.
During the early days of May, both sides engaged in a "heavy artillery duel" in the Kemmel Hill sector near Heuvelland, Belgium, but "no infantry action developed. The situation remains unchanged." On May 3, the Company war diary described the implementation of a welcome new routine: "Arrangements have been made for 15 % of the Company to have a rest daily. The men will be free and able to leave camp for the whole day on Pass." Meanwhile, work continued on the Sainte-Marie-Cappel - Cassel trenches, the front line nearing completion and efforts focusing on communication and support trenches.
On May 12, 3rd Tunnelling surrendered the newly constructed Sainte-Marie-Cappel line to a Royal Engineers Company as personnel participated in a rare afternoon of sports "much enjoyed by all ranks". The men rested the following day before establishing a new camp at Godewaersvelde on May 14. The following day, a large group commenced work on a new section of line at Boechèpe, while another party constructed a new Brigade Headquarters at Borré.
On May 20, two sappers were killed by artillery fire at Boechèpe and the Company's medical officer was evacuated "due to [a] nervous breakdown". Work continued at this location throughout the following week, despite the ever-present danger of shelling. The Company war diary noted a major development on May 27, 1918:
"The enemy attacked at Soissons[, France] and advanced 7 kilometres. He also attacked east of Ypres and took Ridge Wood and Scottish Wood. A heavy gas barrage was put down on the French and [the British] 6th Division. The trenches we are digging were gas shelled and the [Artillery] Batteries nearby had a hot time of it."
The May 29, 1918 war diary provided an update on the German advance: "Word has been received that the enemy has taken Soissons. 3 OR wounded by enemy shell fire while working on Trenches." While Allied forces eventually halted the German 'Spring Offensive', Sapper Howard Dort was not present to witness the event - he was one of the three OR wounded by artillery fire that day at Boechèpe.
A Case History report compiled in January 1919 provided details on his condition. Howard had received an eight-inch wound on his left thigh three inches above the knee joint, and a second, six-inch wound on the thigh's posterior surface. Surgeons removed a "small piece of shrapnel, subcutaneously placed on [the] inner surface of the thigh" and reported a "large mass of tissue torn away from the outer side of [the] thigh by [the] missile". The resulting wounds were quite septic, requiring nine subsequent procedures to drain infection.
The exploding shell casing also inflicted major damage to Howard's left foot. Surgeons amputated the index toe, while the remainder of his foot was badly deformed, "three outer toes being flexed and two raw surfaces between [the] great and third toes". There was considerable "tenderness and swelling" in this area, in addition to "stiffness" and "lessened flexion" of the toes.
Damage to Howard's "external popliteal [nerve] high up" resulted in a "marked foot drop". He therefore "[had] to wear [a] boot with [a] dorsal spring." Doctors also described "marked limitation of movement at [the left] ankle…. No nerve suture was done…. Muscles of leg much atrophied…. Also has impaired function [of the right] Hip to slight degree."
On October 8, 1918, Howard was transferred to Granville Convalescent Special Hospital, Buxton, where he rested for almost two months. He was discharged to No. 5 Canadian General Hospital, Kirkdale on November 30, 1918 as preparations for his return to Canada commenced. After a final Christmas season overseas, Howard departed England on December 29, 1918 aboard SS Araguaya.
|Map displaying Camp Hill Hospital's location (c. 1918)|
"Has to wear a spring on dorsum of foot so as to walk. Has complete loss of all sensation on outer side left leg from external malleolus [ankle bone] to head of fibula."
While 'foreign bodies' had been removed from the upper third of his thigh, Howard experienced "constant pain at [the] hip, [which became] worse when walking." He was "unable to walk without a cane and cannot walk over one mile without resting, owing to pain in [his] left foot and thigh. Left foot and leg always cold, skin is white and glossy. Hair and skin dry."
The report also stated that Howard had been hospitalized in France for seventeen days in October 1917 for treatment of 'trench foot', although his service file contains no record of this occurrence. He was also gassed in March 1918 but did not report to hospital.
Howard was released from the Casualty Company on August 1, 1919. Three days later, he was officially discharged from military service and returned home to his wife and young daughters in Amherst.
Howard and Georgina had three more daughters during the post-war years, the first of whom was born in late 1920. At age 51, Georgina suffered a heart attack and died at Amherst on October 24, 1946. Howard subsequently married Erma McFarlane, a native of Woodstock, NB, raising a family of one daughter and three sons with his second wife. The family resided for a time at East Hampton, NB as Howard worked at the Irving Oil refinery in nearby Saint John. Daughter Joyce recalls her father contracting a serious case of blood poisoning while working at the facility.
An excellent baker, Howard was also handy around the house, on one occasion building a fancy crib for his son Paul. At times a stern disciplinarian, daughter Joyce recalls that Howard exhibited many of the symptoms associated today with post-traumatic stress disorder, not a surprising development considering the circumstances of his war service.
The family eventually returned to Nova Scotia, taking up residence at Oxford. In his later years, Howard suffered from the effects of coronary disease. He passed away as a result of cardiac failure on May 13, 1956, and was laid to rest in Pine Grove Cemetery, Oxford, NS.
Service Record of Sapper Howard Alphonsus Dort, number 488326. Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150: Accession 1992-93/166, Box 2609 - 52. Attestation papers available online.
War Diary of 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company, CEF. Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5003, Reel T-10850, File: 686. Available online.
A special thanks to two of Howard's children, Joyce (Dort) Whitton (Calgary, Alta.) and Malcolm 'Mack' Dort (Ottawa, Ontario), who provided a copy of Howard and Erma Dort's wedding picture, in addition to information on Howard's life after the war.