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Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Guysborough County's "Hill 70 Boys"

In the aftermath of the Canadian Corps’ April 9, 1917 capture of Vimy Ridge, Canadian units served in sectors near the French city of Lens throughout the spring and early summer of 1917. Meanwhile, British forces prepared for a major Belgian summer offensive known as the Third Battle of Ypres, intended to relieve the pressure of the beleaguered French Army to the south.

General Sir Douglas Haig, British Commander in Chief, desired a diversionary attack in nearby French sectors to occupy German troops there and thus prevent reinforcements being sent to Belgium. He therefore instructed the Canadian Corps to attack and capture the strategic city of Lens. Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie, who had been appointed commander of the Canadian Corps in June 1917, studied the area and determined that an attack on an area of high ground to the north of the city of Lens—known as Hill 70—would be of more strategic value than the largely destroyed urban area below.

Currie therefore suggested to General Henry Horne—British First Army Commander and Currie’s immediate superior—that the Canadians capture and reinforce Hill 70, thus forcing the Germans to expend men and resources in efforts to recapture the high ground. Horne agreed and Haig consented to the change of plans.

While Haig’s Belgian offensive commenced on July 31, 1917, poor weather delayed the Hill 70 assault into the following month. At 4:25 a.m. August 15, while the 4th Canadian Division launched a direct diversionary attack on the city of Lens, 1st and Canadian Division units commenced the attack on Hill 70. Ten Canadian battalions advanced along a 4,000-yard front, crashing through the German front line in twenty minutes and seizing their first objective. By 6:00 p.m., the Corps had achieved all of its objectives and personnel set about establishing a new, consolidated line.

In subsequent days, German forces heavily shelled the Canadian line and launched 21 counter-attacks, but were unable to drive the Corps from the high ground. The Canadian success at Hill 70, however, came at considerable cost. Approximately 1,500 soldiers were killed, while another 3,800 were wounded. Three soldiers with connections to Guysborough County were among the Canadian Corps’ Hill 70 fatalities.

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Roy Quentin Grencon (Greencorn) (715105) was born at Canso, Guysborough County on May 7, 1899, the second of Mary Jane “Jennie” (Armsworthy) and David Frederick Grencon’s 10 children. Sometime after 1911, the family relocated to Belmont, Colchester County. On December 6, 1915, Roy exaggerated his age by two years when he enlisted with the 106th Battalion at Truro, NS.

Pte. Roy Quentin Grencon
The 106th’s ranks contained a number of men from Guysborough County and communities adjacent to its borders. James Alexander Cameron (716118) was one such recruit. Born at East River St. Mary’s, Pictou County on January 19, 1897, James was the oldest of Christina (Fraser) and Angus G. Cameron’s three children. On February 14, 1916, he enlisted with the 106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) at Antigonish.

Lance Corporal James Alexander Cameron
James, Roy and their comrades departed Halifax aboard SS Empress of Britain on July 15 and landed in England 10 days later. Within two months of its overseas arrival, the 106th was disbanded and its personnel dispersed to other units. Roy and James were part of a draft of 106th soldiers transferred to the 26th Battalion on September 27. The following day, the group crossed the English Channel to France and arrived in the 26th’s camp in mid-October 1916.

The 26th Battalion (New Brunswick) was part of the 2nd Canadian Division’s 5th Brigade, where it served alongside the 22nd (Quebec’s “Van Doos”), 24th (Victoria Rifles of Canada, Montreal) and 25th (Nova Scotia) Battalions. Roy and James joined the 26th’s ranks following its costly service at the Somme, its personnel reduced to less than 300 “all ranks.” Throughout the autumn of 1916, the battalion rebuilt its ranks. Shortly after Roy and James’s arrival, the unit relocated northward, where it served in sectors near Lens, France throughout the winter of 1916-17.

On April 9, 1917, James and Roy were in the line as the 26th participated in the Canadian Corps’ historic attack on Vimy Ridge. The unit was part of the attack’s first phase, capturing its assigned sector of Zwischen Stellung—a German defensive support position—in less than an hour and suffering only “slight” casualties during the advance. The 26th served on rotation in sectors near Vimy Ridge until early June, when personnel retired to EstrĂ©e Cauchie for a period of training.

On July 1, as the 26th prepared to return to the line, James was promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal. The 26th served in sectors near Lens for three weeks, retiring before month’s end to Bois de Bouvingy for several weeks training. Personnel focused on preparing for the Canadian Corps’ second major engagement of the year—the attack on Hill 70, north of Lens.

On the night of August 14/15, the 26th returned to the line and completed final preparations for the following morning’s attack. While not part of the initial attacking wave, James, Roy and their comrades “pushed off” at 4:25 a.m. April 15, advancing behind the 22nd and 25th Battalions to a Second Assembly area “with very few casualties.”

As the soldiers went “over the top” toward their objective—a German defensive position known as “Norman Trench”—“a great deal of Machine Gun and Rifle Fire was met with and most of [the day’s] casualties took place just after leaving” the Second Assembly Area. The battalion nevertheless secured its objective and set about consolidating its position. During the day, the 26th repelled three German counter-attacks, its soldiers remaining in the line until relieved on the night of August 16/17.

Lance Corporal James Cameron and Private Roy Grencon were among the 26th’s casualties during the first day’s advance toward Norman Trench. Their remains were never recovered from the battlefield. Roy’s and James’ names are engraved on the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, two of 11,285 Canadian soldiers killed on the battlefields of northern France and who have no known final resting place. Lance Corporal James Alexander Cameron was 20 years, six months of age at the time of his passing, while Private Roy Quentin Grencon was only three months past his eighteenth birthday.

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Harrington John “Hal” Barss (624382) was born at Canso, Guysborough County on February 10, 1888, the second of Sadie (Morris) and John Barss’ three sons. Sadie passed away on November 13, 1891 at age 36, leaving John to care for their young children. Hal’s grandmother moved into the home to assist, while John made a living in the local fishery.
Private Harrington John "Hal" Barss.
In 1906, John relocated to Irma, AB, where his oldest son, Fred, had established a homestead. Two years later, John obtained quarter section and took up farming. Hal and his younger brother, Layton, also obtained pieces of land nearby and established farms as the Barss family settled into a new way of life.

Following the outbreak of the First World War, Canadian officials authorized the formation of the 151st (Central Alberta) Battalion, which recruited its ranks from the Strathcona, Battle River and Red Deer areas. On January 11, 1916, 28-year-old Hal Barss enlisted with the 151st at Wainwright, AB. After several months’ training at Camp Sarcee, near Calgary, the battalion made its way across the country by train and departed for England aboard SS California on October 3.

The unit arrived at Liverpool, England 10 days later but was disbanded within weeks of its arrival. Hal was initially transferred to the 9th Reserve Battalion, St. Martin’s Plain, Shorncliffe, but was quickly re-assigned to the 16th Battalion and proceeded across the English Channel to France on November 13, 1916.

One of the first Canadian units organized for overseas service, the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) initially consisted of volunteers from four Canadian Highland militia units. At the time of Hal’s arrival in early December 1916, the 16th was an experienced battalion, having served in Belgium’s Ypres Salient for 16 months and fought at the Somme during the autumn of 1916.

Hal served with the 16th in trenches near Lens, France throughout the winter and spring of 1916-17 and participated in the Canadian Corps’ historic April 7, 1917 attack on Vimy Ridge. Two weeks after the famous battle, Hal provided a detailed description of his Vimy experiences in a letter written to “Irene,” a female acquaintance (see below).

The unit served in sectors near Vimy Ridge throughout the spring and early summer months. Following a week-long break, Hal and his mates returned to trenches near Loos on August 13 as the Canadian Corps prepared for its assault of Hill 70, north of Lens, France. At 2:30 a.m. August 15, the unit’s personnel assumed their assigned positions and awaited the opening barrage. Two hours later, the battalion “leaped out of the trenches led by its pipers” and advanced behind the supporting barrage.

Personnel encountered “little or no resistance” as they captured their objective and set about consolidating their position. The remainder of the day passed quietly, as German artillery fire fell on trench positions well behind the 16th’s location. The following day, however, the guns readjusted their range and heavy shelled the unit’s line throughout the day, causing considerable casualties.

In the early morning hours of August 17, the 16th withdrew from the line and took toll of its Hill 70 losses. Two Officers and 35 “other ranks” (OR) were killed, 201 OR wounded and nine OR missing after two days in the line. Private Harrington John Barss was one of the nine “missing” OR, most likely a victim of the August 16, 1917 artillery fire. He never returned to his unit and his remains were never recovered from the battlefield.

Hal’s name is inscribed on the Canadian War Memorial, Vimy Ridge, erected in memory of the 11,285 Canadian soldiers killed on the battlefields of northern France and who have no known final resting place. A detailed version of Hal’s story, including his descriptive letter recalling his Vimy experiences, is available here.

Bantry Publishing's First World War Honour Roll of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, Volume I: 1915 - 1917 contains a detailed summary of Roy's, James's and Hal's family background and military service, along with 69 other profiles of soldiers with connections to Guysborough County who died of causes related to their service during the first three years of the war.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Remembering Private Truman Bishop Davidson—Died of Sickness August 1, 1917

Truman Bishop Davidson was born on August 2, 1885 at Isaac’s Harbour, Guysborough County, the oldest of Marcella M. “Mercy” (Langley) and Robert G. Davidson’s five children. Sometime after 1901, the family relocated to Stellarton, Pictou County, where Truman worked as a machinist in the local Intercolonial Railroad yard. Truman also became a member of the renowned Stellarton Band, a brass ensemble with deep roots in the community. In 1905, the band officially affiliated with the 78th Pictou Highlanders, a local militia unit, and was referred to as the “78th Band” during the pre-war years.

Pte. Truman Bishop Davidson
On February 19, 1908, Truman married Charlotte “Lottie” Baxter, a Stellarton native, and the couple established a home on River Street. Three children soon joined the family—Baxter Grier (1908), Truman Bishop (1910) and Isabel Josephine (1914). While family responsibilities hindered Truman’s ability to enlist, the Stellarton Band’s decision to affiliate with the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) resulted in all but two of its members joining the unit.

Truman was one of 24 band members who attested for overseas service with the 85th Battalion at Westville, NS on September 29, 1915. While their ages varied, the vast majority were older than the unit’s recruits, many of them—like Truman—married with children. Following their enlistment, band members relocated to Halifax, where they played a prominent part in the unit’s recruitment campaign and played at numerous functions in the city.

The formation of the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade in January 1916 delayed the 85th’s overseas departure, as military recruiters recruited and trained three new infantry units. The band participated in a recruitment tour of mainland communities during the spring of the year and accompanied the unit to Camp Aldershot for a summer of drill and training. On October 12, the band was on board as the four battalions sailed out of Halifax harbour aboard SS Olympic and arrived at Liverpool, England six days later.

Throughout the winter of 1916-17, the band played concerts for the thousands of soldiers camped in southern England while awaiting orders to proceed to the continent. Before year’s end, military authorities dissolved two of the Brigade’s four units, but the 85th—the Brigade’s senior unit—remained intact and crossed the English Channel to France on February 10, 1917.

At the time, conventional military policy dictated that bands were not part of a unit’s regular personnel and therefore remained in England. However, the 85th’s attachment to its band was particularly strong and therefore assigned its members to stretcher-bearers with its four Companies, allowing them to make the crossing with their mates. A resourceful Quartermaster also managed to conceal their instruments among the unit’s equipment. Upon disembarking at Le Havre, the band members unpacked their instruments and led the way as the 85th’s soldiers proudly marched to nearby St. Martin’s Camp.

While the presence of Truman and his bandmates in France did not pose a problem—they were considered regular enlisted men, having been assigned to a Company for duty—their role with the unit as a band was another matter. According to Lt. Col. Joseph Hayes, the unit’s Medical Officer, until military authorities consented to the continuation of their traditional role, they were “treated as ordinary fighting soldiers and played their part as such.”

In mid-March, band director Lt. Dan Mooney and 41 OR [“other ranks”] left as [a] working party for 3rd Canadian Divisional Artillery” and were “under heavy shell fire day and night for ten days.” Before month’s end, the matter was resolved to the satisfaction of all parties and the band assumed its regular tasks, providing entertainment for the men when they were not in the line and entertaining various units encamped nearby.

On the night of April 7/8, the 85th entered the line with the 4th Division’s 11th Brigade prior to the Canadian Corps’ attack on Vimy Ridge. While temporarily attached to the Brigade as a “working unit,” two of its Companies entered the line on the evening of April 9 and captured the western slopes of Hill 145. Meanwhile, the band’s personnel remained in camp. When the tired but victorious soldiers returned to billets at Bouvigny Huts in the early morning hours of April 14, band personnel had made their bunks, lit fires and prepared hot rations for their comrades.

Following the Canadian Corps’ capture of Vimy Ridge, the 85th was permanently attached to the 4th Division’s 12th Brigade and commenced regular rotations in the line. The band continued to perform its role, as described by Lt. Col. Hayes:

“Coming out of the line or back from a ‘Show’ [battle, the battalion] was regularly met by them. During the time ‘out,’ the days were replete with Band Concerts—if the billets were scattered, they took turns with the different companies. When the Battalion went ‘in,’ the Bands [brass and pipe and drum] accompanied it as far as regulations permitted, and everyone seemed to step a little smarter, and to hold their head a little higher, as the Bands swung into the old familiar Regimental, on parting.”

The brass band also became a 4th Division fixture, entertaining each Brigade’s units during their breaks from front line duty.

Meanwhile, throughout the spring and early summer, the 85th’s soldiers served regular rotations in sectors near Lens, marching out to billets at Suburban Camp, near Villers au Bois, in early July. After three weeks of rest, training and recreation, personnel returned to line in the early morning hours of July 26. Later that same day, Private Truman Bishop Davidson was admitted to a field ambulance station in respiratory distress and immediately evacuated to No. 5 Canadian General Hospital, Rouen with bronchial pneumonia. Despite medical staff’s efforts, Truman’s condition worsened and he passed away on August 1, 1917. The father of three was laid to rest in St. Sever Cemetery Extension, Rouen, France.


A detailed summary of Truman’s family background and military service is one of 72 detailed profiles contained in Bantry Publishing’s First World War Honour Roll of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, Volume I: 1915 - 17.