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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.

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