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Friday, 30 May 2014

Pte. Norman Burton 'Burt' Williams - A 25th Battalion Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: December 4, 1894*

Place of Birth: Cole Harbour, Guysborough County

Mother's Name: Georgina Harrigan

Father's Name: Elisha Williams

Date of Enlistment: March 31, 1915 at Halifax, NS

Regimental Number: 415443

Rank: Private

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force (Infantry)

Units: 40th Battalion; 17th Reserve Battalion; 25th Battalion

Location of service: England, France & Belgium

Occupation at Enlistment: Labourer

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Mrs. Georgina Williams, Stellarton, NS (mother)

*: Date of birth recorded in 1901 and 1911 censuses.  Burt's attestation papers give his year of birth as 1895.

Norman Burton 'Burt' Williams was the second of ten children born to Elisha and Georgina (Harrigan) Williams of Cole Harbour, Guysborough County.  To support his growing family, Elisha worked as a fisherman and cook on the coastal schooners, travelling on occasion as far as Gloucester, Massachusetts.  The couple's three oldest children - Burt, his older brother James 'Jim' Elisha and younger brother Courtney - spent their youth in the small fishing village.  As the years passed, seven more siblings arrived before Elisha sold the Cole Harbour property and relocated the family to Stellarton, Pictou County around 1912.

Pte. Norman Burton 'Burt' Williams
Burt attended school until Grade 6, joking in later life that he was expelled for constantly fighting.  After working in the fishery during their early years, Burt and Jim found employment in the coal mines when the family settled in Stellarton.  On at least one occasion, Georgina rushed to the mine upon hearing of a cave-in and was relieved to find her boys unharmed.  At her insistence, the brothers left the mines to work for local farmers, Burt delivering milk by horse and wagon with younger brother Courtney often tagging along for the ride.

After the outbreak of war in Europe, the large numbers of fit males living in mining communities drew the attention of military recruiters.  Oldest brother Jim was the first to enlist, joining the 25th Battalion on November 18, 1914.  A later medical examination detected the presence of pleurisy, likely caused by exposure to coal dust, and Jim was discharged before the unit departed for overseas in May 1915.

Perhaps inspired by Jim's example, Burt enlisted with the 40th Battalion at Halifax on March 30, 1915.  Built upon the Halifax Rifles militia unit, the 40th was officially authorized on January 1, 1915 and established detachments across the province in search of recruits.  Determined to join Burt in uniform, Jim enlisted with the same unit at New Glasgow on May 1, 1915.  Ten days later, the Williams brothers made their way to Camp Aldershot, where the 40th assembled before relocating to Camp Valcartier, Quebec on June 21, 1915 for training.

Younger brother Courtney didn't want to be left behind.  Initially rejected by the 25th Battalion in March 1915 as 'medically unfit', he successfully enlisted with the 40th at Camp Aldershot on August 12, 1915 and joined his siblings at Valcartier shortly afterward.  Unfortunately, Courtney suffered from a "chronic cough" and was discharged a second time for health reasons on October 15, 1915. 

Three days later, Burt and Jim boarded the SS Saxonia at Quebec City and departed Canada, arriving in England on October 25, 1915.  Shortly after landing, the 40th was disbanded and the majority of its personnel transferred to the 17th Reserve Battalion.  Burt was 'taken on strength' by this unit on November 3, 1915. 

Back home in Stellarton, Courtney was determined to join his brothers overseas.  He travelled to North Sydney shortly after returning from Valcartier and enlisted with the 2nd Canadian Pioneer Battalion on November 14, 1915.  Courtney's unit arrived in England in December 1915.  For the next two months, all three Williams brothers were together on English soil.

Sometime after Burt's enlistment, his sister Esther sent him a small rosebud with a note, "For good luck, Essi".  Burt carried the precious gift with him throughout his military service and carefully preserved it after the war.  Today, it is amongst the family's most treasured mementos of Burt's military service.

Health issues eventually terminated Jim's military career.  Shortly after arriving in England, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and admitted to hospital.  After a lengthy period of treatment, Jim was discharged as 'medically unfit' on November 27, 1916 and returned home to Stellarton.

Pte. James Elisha 'Jim' Williams
 In the meantime, Burt was transferred to the 25th Battalion - Jim's initial unit - on February 3, 1916.  Officially authorized on November 7, 1914 and recruited province-wide, the 25th departed Halifax on May 20, 1915.  Shortly after arriving in England, the unit was assigned to the 2nd Canadian Division's 5th Brigade, alongside the 22nd (Quebec's 'Van Doos'), 24th (Montreal's Victoria Rifles) and 26th (New Brunswick) Battalions. 

The 25th crossed the English Channel in mid-September 1915 and one week later deployed in the Kemmel Sector of the Ypres Salient.  Its personnel spent the winter of 1915-16 on rotation in Belgium, receiving limited exposure to full-fledged combat.  The arrival of spring weather soon provided the men with more than they may have desired.

Private Burt Williams crossed the English Channel to the Canadian Base Depot (CBD) at Havre, France on February 5, 1916.  Nine days later, he was briefly admitted to Isolation Hospital for unspecified reasons - likely a case of measles - and spent the remainder of the month awaiting further orders.  Finally, on March 9, 1916, he left CBD Havre and reported to the 25th in the field. 

Two days prior to Burt's departure for the front, Courtney's unit landed at Havre and made its way into the front lines near Ypres, Belgium on the same day as Burt's departure.  While there is no record of an encounter, the two brothers may have briefly met before leaving for their respective assignments.  Several months later, their paths would cross once more on the outskirts of Ypres.

The 25th Battalion was serving on rotation in trenches near Locre, Belgium at the time of Burt's departure from Havre.  The unit moved into Divisional Reserve on March 15, 1916, its war diary recording the arrival of 40 'other rank' (OR) reinforcements - a group that included Burt - four days later.  The following day, the soldiers returned to the front line.  The war diary described Burt's first full day in the trenches: "Machine gun and rifle fire active….  A few bombs and grenades fell into our front line.  7 O. R. wounded."

Both sides exchanged machine gun and rifle fire daily, with occasional sniper and artillery fire throughout the tour.  Each night, personnel conducted patrols into 'No Man's Land', venturing as far as the German wire.  A man who delighted in relating a good story, Burt later described the 'reputation' he earned amongst his comrades.  Apparently, soldiers on his patrol were often wounded or killed, leading one soldier to speculate that Burt 'had a pact with the devil' and refuse to accompany him, even if it meant risking court martial.

Burt's first 'tour' ended on March 27, 1916 as the battalion moved into Brigade Reserve, relocating to billets at Berthorn on April 1.  While Burt had only recently arrived, the bulk of the battalion's personnel had served on rotation without a break since arriving in Belgium and enjoyed a ten-day break before returning to the line on April 12, 1916.  The following day, German forces heavily bombarded their trenches in preparation for a subsequent infantry attack that was "repulsed... with Machine guns and bombs[,] leaving a great many dead and wounded". 

The 25th suffered 8 OR killed and 6 wounded in the April 14, 1916 assault, the highest single-day casualties since arriving at the front.  The war diary reported a total of 18 OR killed, 42 wounded and 2 officers evacuated with 'shell shock' during the tour as personnel retired to reserve positions later that night.  The statistics reveal the increasing intensity of fighting brought on by the arrival of spring.  Burt's combat experience was just beginning.

Personnel endured daily artillery shelling when they returned to the line on April 25, 1916.  Significant numbers of casualties occurred daily, reaching a peak of 30 OR wounded and 1 killed on the tour's third day.  Six OR were wounded on May 1, the tour's last full day.  Burt was amongst the casualties, admitted to No. 67 Canadian Field Ambulance on May 2, 1916 suffering from a gunshot wound to his scalp and a 'superficial' wound to his left wrist.  Fortunately, neither injury was serious and two days later he was discharged to duty.

Combat at the front intensified with each passing week.  The 25th's May 10th diary entry commented: "All ranks confined to dugouts during the day.  All work being done at night, on account of shell fire and sniping."  On June 1, the unit was "holding front line trenches at St. Eloi" in the aftermath of major fighting there earlier in the spring.  The men retired to Brigade Reserve at Dickebusch before returning to the line at Zillebeeke on the night of June 8/9, 1916.  By day's end, fourteen OR were wounded in a heavy artillery bombardment.

The following day, German forces "bombard[ed] all day and night with HE's [high explosives], Minnenwerfers [trench mortars], etc..  Machine gun, rifle fire very active."  One officer and 12 OR were killed, while 2 officers and 44 OR were wounded in the shelling.  Burt and his comrades were relieved on the night of June 11/12, arriving at rest camp "very fatigued after having undergone a particularly heavy bombardment."

Two days later, the 25th received orders to relocate to Hill 60, entering the front line shortly after arriving.  On June 16, 1916, the war diary reported: "Great action 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 following day, the battalion was not so fortunate as 8 OR were killed and 47 wounded in continued shelling.  Casualties declined on the third day - 10 OR killed and 7 wounded - but artillery fire was no less intense.  The battalion was relieved on June 20, 1916 and retired to rest camp after one of its most challenging tours.

As summer arrived, Burt and Courtney received sad news from home - their mother Georgina passed away on June 4, 1916.  Years later, Burt described a chance encounter around this time with his younger brother, whose unit was serving in the same sector: 

"Courtney… was with the Engineers.  They used to build trenches….  When we came out [of the line] we had eight days [rest] and that's when I met him.  'Courtney, what are you doing here?' I said.  'Boy, I wish I could get out of this.  I'd do anything to get out.'  But there he was and he had to stay."

Neither brother could have imagined that this would be their last conversation.  On the night of July 12/13, 1916, Courtney was killed by rifle grenade fire while working in the front trenches near Ypres.

Throughout July and August 1916, the 25th Battalion served on rotation in the Hill 60 sector.  The war diary described summer's most notable event, which took place on August 14, 1916:

"His Majesty the King [George V], 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 with [its] schedule and as the King walked through the camp, all ranks lined the road and cheered the King lustily."

By early September 1916, the 25th was on the move to the Somme region of France, arriving at Pozières on September 14.  The following morning, the battalion participated in a full-scale attack on nearby Courcelette.  The unit's war diary described its performance on the battlefield:  "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." 

The battalion consolidated the newly captured position over the next two days before being relieved on the night of September 17/18.  Its casualties at Courcelette represent the 25th's most significant losses since landing on the Continent - 5 officers and 31 OR killed; 8 officers and 183 OR wounded; 4 officers and 73 OR missing.  On the morning of September 21, the unit mustered only 21 officers and 549 OR.

Burt Williams (back left) and comrades at East Sandling, England (1917).
Burt was amongst the soldiers wounded in the initial advance at Courcelette.  He was admitted to the 8th Canadian Field Ambulance on September 16, 1916, suffering from shrapnel wounds to his right knee, arm and head.  The following day, Burt was transported to a nearby Casualty Clearing Station and evacuated to No. 1 Canadian General Hospital, Étaples for treatment.

Burt was discharged to CBD Havre on October 6, 1916, but was re-admitted to No. 7 Stationary Hospital on November 4, 1916, complaining of pain in his leg and chest.  He was evacuated to England via the hospital ship Warilda on December 15, 1916 and admitted to 2nd General Hospital, Bristol the following day.  After a further six weeks' treatment, Burt was transferred to the Bearwood Canadian Casualty Hospital, Wokingham.

Documents from Bearwood's medical records provide details of Burt's condition at the time of admission.  A February 22, 1917 report described three small scars across the back of his left thigh.  While staff assessed his present condition as "fit", Burt complained of stiffness in his wounded leg.  The Proceedings of a Medical Board held at month's end concluded:  "Wounds healed - no disability.  Complains of pain in chest - shortness of breath - lungs negative - heart very rapid and irregular - pulse 140."  Despite these disconcerting cardiovascular symptoms, the Report concluded that Burt was "fit for duty".

Burt was discharged from hospital on February 27, 1917 and placed 'on command' to 2nd Canadian Convalescent Depot, Hastings.  He returned to the 25th Battalion's list of available personnel on March 10, 1917 but was destined to remain in England for a considerable period before returning to the front.  On March 31, 1917, he was awarded a 'Good Conduct' stripe in recognition of his devotion to duty.  Six weeks later, Burt was transferred to the 26th Reserve Battalion at Hastings, England.

Burt spent the summer of 1917 in England awaiting orders to return to the front.  On October 15, 1917, he was transferred to the 17th Reserve Battalion, the unit that serviced the 25th Battalion and other Maritime units at the front.  After a lengthy winter and spring in England, Burt finally received orders to return to the Continent on June 1, 1918.  The following day, he landed in France for the second time, remaining at CBD Havre for two weeks before relocating to the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Centre on June 17, 1918. 

Four days later, Burt left to rejoin the 25th Battalion in the field, reaching its camp on June 23, 1918.  Twenty-one months had passed since his departure, leaving one to wonder how many familiar faces remained.  In his absence, the unit had fought with the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge, France (April 1917) and Passchendaele, Belgium (October - November 1917) and was deployed in the Mercatel sector, south of Arras, France, at the time of his return.

The 25th was relieved on the night of June 26th, 1918 and retired to support positions with a trench strength of 21 officers and 625 OR.  Burt was immediately put to work as the battalion provided trench repair parties "building Lewis Gun emplacements, shelters, etc.."  The unit was relieved in support on June 30, 1918 and retired to billets at Bellacourt.  The following day, personnel participated in Canadian Corps sports competitions as part of Dominion Day festivities.

The timing of Burt's return coincided with a scheduled period of rest and training in the Arras area, interspersed with recreational diversions.  The battalion returned to the trenches near Bois de Blangy-Tronville in the evening hours of August 5, 1918.  Its personnel remained in this location for two days before moving to "jumping off" positions near Cachy in preparation for a scheduled attack.  The war diary listed the restrictions enforced prior to battle: "No whistling or singing was allowed and all ranks were forbidden to enter any village.  The importance of secrecy was appreciated by the men, who acted accordingly."

Burt was about to participate in a significant event - the launching of a major Allied offensive that would eventually end the war.  The massive military operation commenced at Amiens in the early hours of August 8, 1918.  The war diary noted that "a thick mist hung over the ground" as the attack opened with an artillery barrage at 4:20 am.  The 5th Brigade moved out at 5:20 am, the 25th in support of an attack led by the 24th and 26th Battalions. 

The Brigade quickly captured its initial objective, a position 1000 yards beyond the village of Guillacourt.  The war diary described the difficulties the soldiers encountered on the battlefield: "The mist and smoke was so thick that it was impossible to proceed other than by compass, [which] was also difficult at times owing to the obscurity of all land marks."  The 25th assumed positions in the newly consolidated line, sustaining significant casualties by day's end: 2 officers killed and 5 wounded; 6 OR killed, 102 wounded and 3 missing.

On August 9, 1918, the 25th received orders to continue the attack.  Burt and his comrades proceeded "over the ridge in front of Caix" at 1:00 pm in the face of "[a] light artillery barrage and strong enemy machine gun fire".  Approximately 250 German soldiers holding the front line were taken prisoner as the advance continued, facing resistance "from large numbers of enemy machine gun posts". 

The battalion succeeded in capturing the village of Vrély with the assistance of several tanks and occupied nearby Méharicourt by 5:00 pm as personnel "dug in" and set about consolidating the line.  The 25th suffered significant casualties in the day's advance: one officer wounded; 6 OR killed and 152 wounded. 

Once again, Burt was amongst the wounded carried to a field ambulance station for treatment.  He was transported to 12th General Hospital, Rouen on August 11, 1918 with shrapnel wounds in his left knee.  Medical records describe his condition and treatment at the time:

"Small puncture wound of left patella, swelling and redness.  Small amount of fluid in joint - operation same day - small f. b. [foreign body] removed from pre-patella bursa.  Bursa opened throughout by longitudinal dimension." 

Three days later, Burt was 'invalided' to England, crossing the Channel aboard the hospital ship Western Australia.  On August 16, 1918, he was admitted to Lord Derby War Hospital, Warrington with a "clean gutter wound over [his] knee".  Burt spent seven weeks at Warrington before being transferred to the Military Convalescent Hospital, Bramshott on October 5, 1918.  A medical report on his condition at the time concluded: "Left knee healed, heart and lungs negative.  No evidence of disability."

Burt was discharged to 2nd Canadian Convalescent Depot, Bramshott on October 11, 1918.  He returned to the 17th Reserve Battalion on November 29, 1918, but the Armistice signed earlier in the month ensured that his days at the front were over.  Burt remained in England throughout the winter of 1918-19.  He was briefly admitted to hospital for treatment of jaundice on March 20, 1919 and discharged after twelve days.  On April 9, 1919, he reported to Military District 6, Rhyl and awaited orders to return to Canada.

Burt boarded SS Cassandra for the journey home on May 2, 1919, arriving in Halifax after a twelve-day passage.  Burt was officially discharged from military service, with official permission to wear three 'wounded stripes, on May 19, 1919 and returned to the family residence in Trenton, NS.

Discharged soldiers found it difficult to find work in the post-war years.  Burt fished at White Head before travelling west on the harvest train with his brother Charlie in 1921.  The trauma of his war experience made it difficult to adjust to civilian life.  Burt suffered from nightmares and on at least one occasion, in the midst of a dream, attempted to choke Charlie, whom he had mistaken for a German soldier.

After returning to Canada, Burt met Leata Jamieson, the daughter of family friends Alex and Cynthia Jamieson of Peas Brook, Guysborough County.  Leata had moved to New Glasgow, where she lived with her sister while working at a local confectionary store.  Their courtship was interrupted by the death of Burt's father, Elisha, who passed away on November 28, 1921.  Burt sold the family home and arranged accommodations for several young siblings before returning to Cole Harbour in search of work.

Burt and Leata eventually married at Trenton on May 29, 1924.  As local work was still scarce, the young couple decided to try their luck in the United States.  Insistent on residing as close as possible to her Nova Scotian family, Leata preferred a move to Maine.  On a casual visit to Detroit, Michigan, however, Burt secured employment at the River Rouge Ford Motor Company plant and Leata reluctantly agreed to settle there.

Burt's initially installed wooden floors on rail cars.  A casual encounter with a stranger at work one day led to a new assignment.  Burt, always one for conversation, described his Nova Scotian roots, familiarity with ships and the sea.  Impressed, the man asked if Burt could drive.  When Burt answered yes, the gentleman requested that he take him somewhere.  When Burt objected that he'd be fired for doing so, the man responded: "No, you won't; you'll be working for me."  Thus began Burt's employment as one of Henry Ford's chauffeurs.

The years that followed produced both friendship and humorous experiences that Burt related whenever opportunity arose.  Mr. Ford often slipped out of the office for drives in the countryside.  On one occasion, police pursued Burt for speeding on the city's outskirts.  Mr. Ford responded, "If you stop, you're fired".  Burt replied that he had no choice.  Upon pulling over, both Burt and Mr. Ford stepped out of the car.  Burt's driving offence was quickly forgotten as Mr. Ford offered to build a new substation at the location, which was a considerable distance from police headquarters.

On another country excursion, Burt stumbled upon fourteen acres of land with an old farmhouse and shed.  Perhaps the rural setting reminded him of his Guysborough roots.  Burt bought the property, built a chicken house and barn, and raised a family of four children - two boys and two girls - with Leata in their new home.

Leata & Burt Williams in their later years.
During the Second World War, Burt assumed responsibility for security at Ford Motor Company's plants, becoming an American citizen on April 26, 1948.  He and Leata also purchased six cottages on Lake Huron at East Tawas, Michigan, living in one during the summer months while renting the others.  Burt spent many an evening beside the campfire enthralling his audience with ghost, pirate and seafaring stories recalled from his Nova Scotian childhood.

Burt retired from Ford Motor Company after thirty-five years' employment.  He and Leata spent the summer months at the cottage in between trips to Nova Scotia to visit relatives.  The couple wintered in Arizona with their daughter Norma, returning to their Michigan home each spring.

In his later years, Burt was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or 'Lou Gehrig's disease').  Perhaps its most difficult impact was the loss of his speech.  Burt died peacefully at his Michigan home on January 21, 1979, his wife of 55 years at his side.  He was laid to rest in Cadillac Memorial Gardens, Westland, Michigan.


Service file of Private Norman Burton Williams, number 415443.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 10378 - 8.  Attestation papers available online.

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

A special 'thank you' to Burt's daughter, Norma Williams Harrelson, Tucson, Arizona, who provided extensive information on Burt's life in addition to family photographs.