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Friday, 31 October 2014

Private Charles Russell "Russ" Cameron - A "Valenciennes" Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: June 22, 1894

Place of Birth: Sherbrooke, Guysborough County

Mother's Name: Jessie Dechman

Father's Name: Alexander Fisher Cameron

Date of Enlistment: April 6, 1918 at Halifax, NS

Regimental Number: 3181453

Rank: Private

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force (Infantry)

Units: 1st Depot Battalion, Nova Scotia Regiment; 17th Reserve Battalion; 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders)

Location of service: England & France

Occupation at Enlistment: Liveryman

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Mr. Alexander Cameron, Sherbrooke (father)


Charles Russell "Russ" Cameron was the third child and eldest son of Alexander Fisher Cameron of Sherbrooke, Guysborough County, and the first of four children born to Alexander's second wife, Jessie Dechman.  An owner of several sizeable land tracts, Alexander was actively involved in the local economy, harvesting timber from his properties, investing in local schooners, and operating a small hotel and livery in the village.

Private Charles Russell Cameron
As Alexander's four sons by his second marriage grew into adulthood, he guided each in turn into an occupation.  Russ, the eldest, was thus employed at the Sherbrooke livery operation, a facility built to house 15 to 18 horses, although often accommodating twice that number.  As passengers and mail travelled by stagecoach, there was a demand for locations where drivers could change, rest and feed horses on their journey.  Alexander serviced the stagecoach teams, along with the animals of local residents visiting the village.

As the First World War entered its third year, voluntary enlistment numbers declined as dramatically as casualty statistics increased.  The Canadian Corps' involvement in major battles at Courcelette (September 1916), Ancre Heights (October - November 1916) and Vimy Ridge (April 1917) in particular took a considerable toll.  Pressured by the British government to meet the Corps' growing personnel requirements, Prime Minister Robert Borden's Conservative government introduced the Military Service Act to the Canadian Parliament in the summer of 1917.

Subsequent to Parliamentary approval on August 29, 1917 and the Canadian people's endorsement in the December 1917 federal election, the Canadian government implemented conscription across the country.  Under its terms, all male citizens between the ages of 20 and 45 were subject to military service.  Several months previously, military authorities commenced medical examinations of potential recruits.  Russ Cameron was amongst the young Sherbrooke men to receive notice, completing his medical examination in the village on October 29, 1917.

Russ was called to duty the following spring, attesting for overseas service at Halifax on April 6, 1918.  Standing five feet ten inches and weighing a slender 130 pounds, Russ was two months shy of his twenty-fourth birthday when be boarded the SS Scotian for the journey to England on April 17, 1918.  Upon docking at Liverpool eleven days later, Russ and his fellow conscripts making their way to Bramshott Military Camp.

Russ's journey to the front lines was interrupted on May 6, 1918, when he was admitted to No. 12 Canadian General Hospital, Bramshott with a case of the mumps.  The common camp affliction delayed his passage overseas by several weeks, as he was discharged on June 4, 1918 and reported to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot the following day.  Ten days later, Russ was "taken on strength" by the 17th Reserve Battalion, the unit servicing Nova Scotian battalions at the front.

While in England, Russ wrote several letters home.  In a note to his mother Jessie, dated August 15, 1918, he described his comrades' feelings as they prepared to cross the English Channel to the front lines:

"Some of the boys that came over with me are going to France this week, and they are glad of it, a fellow gets fed up on this training, day in and day out.  I will soon have all my training and I am myself glad of it, but may not have to go to France for a long while yet."

Conversations with soldiers who had been wounded and nursed back to health in England prompted Russ to observe:

"It is funny but everybody that was ever over there wants to go back again, there is something about it that a fellow likes [ - ] lots of excitement [ - ] and you never think of getting killed or anything like that."

Despite being conscripted into military service, Russ was most enthusiastic about his military experience to date:

"I am not as timid as when I was in civilian life.  The army made a man of me, every boy should have some military training, it is the best thing that ever happened to me."

Russ's call to the front came on September 11, 1918, when he was transferred to the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders).  He crossed the English Channel to the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Centre (CCRC) at Havre, France two days later and joined the 85th in the field on September 19, 1918.


The 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) is perhaps the province's best-known First World War unit.  Authorized on July 10, 1915 and recruited province-wide in the autumn and winter of 1915-16, the battalion departed for England on October 13, 1916 aboard the SS Olympic in the company of three other units that together comprised the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade.  Shortly after arriving at Witley Camp, two of the Brigade's battalions - the 193rd and 219th - were disbanded.  The 85th, however, remained intact, crossing the English Channel to France in February 1917 and completing final preparations for deployment at the front.

While assigned a support role in the Canadian Corps' April 9, 1917 assault on Vimy Ridge, two of its Companies were called upon late in the day to attack Hill 145, a strategic location that held out against the morning's advance.  The inexperienced soldiers proved their worth, capturing the position without the benefit of artillery fire and demonstrating their readiness for combat.

By month's end, the 85th was assigned to the 4th Canadian Division's 12th Brigade, where it served alongside the 38th (Ottawa), 72nd (Seaforth Highlanders of Canada) and 78th (Winnipeg Grenadiers) Battalions for the duration of the war.  Its soldiers served in the Vimy area throughout the summer and early autumn of 1917, relocating to Belgium on October 1917 for the Canadian Corps' successful attack on Passchendaele. 

Upon returning to France, the battalion deployed in the trenches near Lens throughout the winter and spring of 1917-18.  In the aftermath of the unsuccessful German "Spring Offensive", the 85th participated in a major counter-attack launched at Amiens on August 8, 1918.  While the unit was not involved in fighting at Arras later month, its soldiers saw action along the Drocourt-Quéant line on September 2, 1918, as the Canadian Corps spearheaded the advance into German-held territory.

Sherbrooke Livery - 2014.
 The 85th went "over the top" that morning with a complement of 26 officers and 743 "other ranks" (OR).  By day's end, three officers and 62 OR were killed in action, while 23 officers and 198 OR were wounded.  Three days after the battle, the 85th retired to camp at Wailly for reorganization and training, with the first of several reinforcement drafts arrived on September 6, 1918.

Private Charles Russell Cameron was amongst a group of recruits reporting to the 85th's camp on September 19, 1918.  The unit's war diary remarked on their composition: "[The] draft for the most part [was]… made up from men who had been doing guard duty in Canada in the Militia Regiments since the early days of the war."  For the next week, Russ took part in a daily schedule of morning training and afternoon recreation as the 85th prepared for its next assignment, the Canadian Corps' assault on the town of Cambrai and its strategic canal.

Personnel broke camp on September 25, 1918, making their way to Arras by 5:30 p.m..  While awaiting the arrival of train transportation, the war diary described the first notable incident since Russ joined the 85th:

"Battalion was quartered in one of the large freight sheds in the station, with the rest of the Brigade in the surrounding buildings.  About 11:30 p.m. enemy aircraft came over and dropped a bomb in the yards about two feet from the edge of the building where the Battalion was quartered, killing one officer and nine other ranks and wounding one officer and 53 other ranks."

The train finally arrived at 2:00 p.m. the following day, transporting the soldiers to Bullecourt.  Upon disembarking, personnel marched to camp on the outskirts of nearby Quéant, taking shelter in trenches under bivouac.  In the hours prior to the scheduled attack, the soldiers were outfitted with "bombs, ammunition, fireworks, extra water bottles and rations", catching whatever rest they could amidst the makeshift accommodations.

At 1:00 a.m. September 28, 1918, the 85th moved to the assembly area near Inchy-en-Artois.  As the battalion prepared for its second engagement of the month, the war diary remarked: "From the night 24/25-9-18, the only rest the men… had was what they had been able to get on the very torturous journey on the train, and any sleep they had during the afternoon and evening of outfitting in the assembly area."

The battalion entered combat at Cambrai with a trench strength of 25 officers and 605 OR.  Its soldiers moved out at 5:20 a.m. September 28, 1918 - 15 minutes after Zero Hour - with "C" and "D" Companies leading the attack and "A" and "D" in the rear, all advancing in single file.  A report appended to the month's war diary summarized the day's events:

"The Battalion encountered [a] considerable quantity of gas near the Canal, necessitating the S. B. R.'s [small box respirators] being worn for ten or fifteen minutes.  No casualties resulted from the gas….  Considerable machine gun fire was encountered as [the] Battalion passed Quarry Wood and frequent casualties occurred….  The advance was continued and considerable machine gun fire was experienced from the height in front of Bourlon Wood on the right, and the Battalion reached the Red Line [first objective] at about 7:45 a.m….  The forward Companies at once pushed on to make their objective….  They were led by the Tanks and seemed to have no difficulty as far as the barrage was concerned and pushed forward."

As the leading Companies continued the advance, the supporting barrage resumed, striking the area the soldiers had reached and causing "numerous casualties".  Personnel hastily took shelter, allowing the artillery fire to proceed through their location before resuming the advance.  The report noted that "very little resistance was encountered in the Town" as the 85th reached the Green Line on the city's outskirts by 9:45 p.m..

German artillery shelled the area throughout the night, inflicting "severe casualties particularly in 'A' Company, as the Battalion attempted to link up with adjacent battalions."  Officers estimated the day's losses at eight officers and 75 OR as the soldiers caught whatever rest they could, before resuming the advance the following day.

As morning broke, the 10th Brigade once again spearheaded the attack, its units gathering at the designated "jumping off" point on the Cambrai - Douai Road at 8:00 a.m..  On this occasion, the 38th and 72nd Battalions led the advance, while the 85th - reporting a trench strength of 18 Officers and 521 OR - followed in support at a distance of approximately one mile, while the 78th occupied reserve positions.

A German artillery barrage and "heavy machine gun fire" inflicted an estimated 25 casualties in the advance's opening minutes.  Later in the day, two of the 85th's Companies received orders to attack the village following a supporting barrage, which was scheduled to lift at 3:00 p.m..  The action was cancelled at the last minute, however, due to a German counter-attack in an adjacent sector of the line.

As a result, the 85th's soldiers assisted the 72nd in "holding the line" until ordered to withdraw and assume a defensive position along the Cambrai - Douai Road, behind the town of Sancourt.  After another long night in the field, the 11th Brigade resumed the attack at 6:00 a.m. September 30, the 10th Brigade following in support throughout the day.

As fighting stretched into a fourth day in the early hours of October 1, 1918, the 85th suffered "considerable casualties" from German retaliatory shelling and machine gun fire to the left of its location.  Later in the morning, the battalion was placed under the command of the 11th Brigade, receiving orders at 12:30 p.m. to assume a defensive position in the "Railway Area".  The war diary described the assignment's hazardous circumstances:

"Battalion had to be led to and placed in their positions over the open and suffered considerably from artillery and machine gun fire, direct on the area, during the afternoon."

At some point that day, Henry Seymour Archibald, a Sherbrooke acquaintance of Russ and fellow 85th soldier, was struck in the face by a piece of shrapnel.  In later years, Russ recalled seeing an unresponsive Henry lying in a trench, and assumed that his friend was dead.  While subsequent events proved otherwise, the incident no doubt brought home the perils of service at the front.

Sherbrooke Irving Station, 1930s.

The 85th's soldiers held their positions throughout the day and into the evening as the 25th Battalion, their Nova Scotia counterparts, relieved them in the line during the night of October 1/2, 1918.  The 85th's soldiers made their way into camp at 5:30 a.m., "tired and cheerful".  After enjoying a hot breakfast, the exhausted troops spent the day recovering from four consecutive days of combat.

At 6:00 p.m. October 2, 1918, personnel departed for Quéant, arriving in camp after a five-hour march.  The battalion spent the next three days resting and cleaning up, while 144 much-needed OR reinforcements arrived from the CCRC.  Personnel moved out to Agnez-les-Duisans at 11:30 p.m. October 6, 1918, arriving in the early hours of the following morning.  The men assumed quarters in huts, while the officers were housed in a nearby château.

Russ and his comrades rested for a day before commencing a training schedule on October 8, 1918.  Two noteworthy events occurred during a ten-day break from service in the line.  On October 13, 1918, the 85th's "old originals" commemorated the second anniversary of their departure from Halifax.  Shortly after relocating to Sauchy-Cauchy on October 15, 1918, HRH Edward, Prince of Wales, inspected the battalion, prompting the war diary to comment: "He seemed very much interested and evinced quite a knowledge of the Battalion."

In response to word of a German retreat, the 85th relocated to Aubencheul-au-Bac, arriving at 11:00 a.m. October 18, 1918.  The war diary described the scene that greeted the soldiers: "Town was badly smashed up and there was all evidence of the population having left hurriedly, as furniture, etc. was left in the houses."

The following day, the 85th was once again on the move, advancing at a distance of 1500 yards behind the 10th Brigade's leading battalions.  Its personnel moved forward to the Brigade's front positions early in the afternoon, pausing for the night at Marcq, where civilians reported that German troops had withdrawn at 3:30 a.m. that morning.  The advance continued on October 20, 1918, the 85th's war diary reporting the first encounter with "repatriated civilians" upon reaching Mastaing at 10:30 a.m..  Unlike previous locations, the town was undamaged, but retreating German soldiers had "extensively looted" its homes. 

The 85th entered nearby Rouelx at 2:30 p.m., the war diary observing that the town was untouched and still inhabited by civilians, "with the exception of men from 18 to 45".  For the first time, Russ and his comrades received an enthusiastic welcome from a local population:  "Battalion was given a great reception and none of the inhabitants seemed to be able to do enough to comfort the men." 

Personnel remained in Rouelx the following day, overhauling equipment and resting before resuming the advance on October 22, 1918.  The unit reached Rouvignies at 1:00 p.m., its soldiers moving out at dusk to the forward line of advance.  Progress slowed considerably as the Canadian Corps approached the city of Valenciennes, where German forces prepared to defend another strategic location.

On October 23, 1918, the 85th "cleared up" the front area as far east as the Dunkirk-Escaut Canal, the war diary commenting: "Enemy seems quite on the alert and is giving quite a lot of trouble with his machine guns."  The soldiers spent the following twenty-four hours "consolidating and organizing positions gained" the previous day, amidst "heavy artillery and trench mortar fire."

On October 25, 1918, the 85th received orders to "establish a bridgehead on the East side of the Canal tonight".  The operation proved unsuccessful, German forces destroying the bridge with explosive charges as the attacking party prepared to cross.  Personnel endured heavy artillery and machine gun fire in the forward area throughout the remainder of the day.

Machine guns and trench mortars were particularly active on October 26, 1918, while German artillery targeted La Sentinelle, on the outskirts of Valenciennes.  The battalion once again received orders to cross the canal the following day.  The misty morning weather later turned wet as the operation was once again postponed, "owing to the severe resistance of the enemy and his strong machine gun posts not permitting carrying parties getting bridging material to the canal."

The 85th received notice of relief on the night of October 27, 1918.  While the war diary made no mention of casualties during the day's action, Russ was not amongst the soldiers moving out of the line to Brigade Reserve at 11:58 p.m. that evening.  Earlier that day, he was admitted to No. 1 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), suffering from a severe shrapnel wound to his left foot.  Private Charles Russell Cameron had served his last day "in the line".


Russ's medical records described his condition at the time of his admission to No. 1 CCS: 
"He was hit in [the] left foot by a piece of shell casing.  F. B. [foreign body] did not penetrate the tissues but there was a wound on dorsum of foot at base metatarsal bones [immediately behind the toes].  Foot became very much swollen and painful."

The shrapnel's impact caused compound fractures of the second, third, fourth and fifth metatarsal bones.  Medical personnel immediately made two incisions in the dorsum and excised the wound.  Sixteen pieces of necrotic bone were discharged through several sinuses inserted into the area.  On October 29, 1918, Russ was evacuated to Rouen and admitted to No. 11 Stationary Hospital.  Two days later, he crossed the English Channel aboard the Hospital Ship Essequibo and was admitted to No. 4 General Hospital, Basingstoke on November 2, 1918.

Upon examination, doctors detected "necrosis of bones in foot" and described a steady discharge from his left foot:  "Dead bones present.  Much loss of bone and tissues.  Progress will be slow.  General condition fair."  Russ spent three months at Basingstoke before being transferred to No. 5 Canadian General Hospital, Kirkdale, Liverpool on February 5, 1919.  Finally fit enough for the journey home. he departed for Canada on February 24, 1919 and was admitted to Camp Hill Hospital, Halifax on March 8, 1919.

Camp Hill medical staff described Russ's condition at the time of his arrival: 

"Scars inner and outer surface of left foot[,] also on dorsum….  Great deal of wasting of calf muscles, left leg 1 3/4 inches smaller than right.  Is lame on this foot, walks with the aid of a cane.  Wounds… healed.  Has no pain except after walking a mile."

An x-ray showed loss of bone in the heads of the first, second and third metatarsals, in addition to "ankylosis" in the metatarsal and tarsal bones.  A "posterior splint with foot piece" supported Russ's wounded limb, while three discharging sinuses continued to drain the affected area.  On April 8, 1919, doctors "curetted" the sinuses, while nurses dressed the wound every second day.  By May 20, 1919, Russ was "allowed up", his left foot supported by a posterior ankle splint."  Two months later, doctors described a "very slight discharge" as the wound was almost fully healed.

Russ occasionally strolled the hospital grounds throughout the spring and summer of 1919.  On one such excursion, he was delighted to encounter his old friend, Henry Archibald, whom he assumed had died from the wound he received at Cambrai.  Like Russ, Henry was well on the way to recovery.

On October 11, 1919, Russ was transferred to the Halifax "Casualty Company".  One week later, Private Charles Russell Cameron was officially discharged from military service  and returned home to Sherbrooke.


Russ gradually settled into civilian life, returning to work at the Sherbrooke livery stables.  As automobiles replaced horses as the primary means of transportation, Russ partnered with Edwin Fraser to open a gasoline and service station adjacent to the livery stable.  Russ handled the mechanical side of the operation, while Ed managed the business affairs.

Russ Cameron in later years.
At first operating independently, Russ and Ed eventually applied for admission to the Irving chain of service stations.  When K. C. Irving himself visited the garage to evaluate the applicants, he asked to speak to Russ, who was busy working underneath a vehicle in the garage's bay.  Never one to abandon a task once started, Russ continued with the repair work.  Undaunted, Mr. Irving requested a mechanic's dolly and slid beneath the vehicle, where he interviewed Russ.  Shortly afterward, the garage became part of the Irving chain.

Russ married Ida Blanche McMillan, a native of Country Harbour, at Sherbrooke on September 28, 1921.  Barely four months later, Ida was stricken with kidney failure and passed away unexpectedly on March 4, 1922.  Saddened by the loss of his young bride, Russ did not re-marry until August 19, 1925, when Edith Belle Irwin, a school-teacher born and raised in Moser River, became his second wife.  The couple went on to raise four children - two sons and two daughters - in their Sherbrooke home.

In addition to Russ's work at the garage, he and Belle operated the local customs office in the village, inspecting all parcels arriving by mail from outside the country.  Despite his serious shrapnel wound, Russ wore regular footwear.  While he favoured his healthy foot somewhat, he walked without a cane and maintained an active lifestyle well into his later years.

Ed Fraser's son, Scotty, assumed his part of the garage's operation after his father's death.  Several years later, Russ retired and sold his portion of the business to Scotty.  Russ spent his retirement days in his Cameron Road residence, enjoying the tranquility of his native community.  He passed away at home on March 7, 1974 and was laid to rest in Riverside Cemetery, Sherbrooke.



Service file of Private Charles Russell Cameron, number 3181453.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1401 - 47.  Attestation papers available online.

War Diary of the 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 two of Russ's children, John Cameron and Mary Jane Macdonald of Sherbrooke, and his nephew, Dr. Ian Cameron of Sherbrooke, who provided photographs and valuable information on Russ's family background and life after the war.

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