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Monday, 30 October 2017

Guysborough's "Passchendaele Boys"

In mid-October 1917, Canadian Corps units arrived in Belgium’s Ypres Salient and assumed responsibility for sectors of the line at the foot of Passchendaele Ridge. On October 26, 3rd and 4th Division units launched the first of a four-phase assault on the village of Passchendaele and its surrounding ridge. Two days later, fresh units entered the line and prepared for the second stage. On the morning of October 30, the battalions resumed the attack. Four Guysborough County soldiers were killed during the day’s fighting.

1. William Andrew “Will” Jordain was born at New Town, Guysborough County on June 6, 1890, the son of Caroline Gordon “Carrie” (Archibald) and Peter Jordain. Will enlisted with the 151st Battalion at Edmonton, AB on January 16, 1916. The unit crossed to England in early October 1916, but was disbanded shortly after arriving overseas.

Pte. William Andrew Jordain
On October 16, Will was transferred to the Canadian Machine Gun Corps’s training facility at Shorncliffe, England. After four months of training, he crossed the English Channel to France and was assigned to the 15th Canadian Machine Gun Company (CMGC) on February 8, 1917. The recently created unit spent almost two months training before its personnel entered the line near Neuville-Saint-Vaast on March 30 for its first “tour.”

Will’s unit participated in the Canadian Corps’ April 9 attack on Vimy Ridge and served in sectors near Lens, France throughout the spring and summer months. In mid-October, personnel made their way northward to Belgium, entering the line on October 28. The following day, the gunners completed preparations for their role in the second phase of the attack on Passchendaele Ridge.

As Canadian infantry units advanced toward their objectives at 5:50 a.m. October 30, Will and his mates commenced firing approximately 600,000 rounds of ammunition at German positions. In response, German artillery heavily shelled the Canadian line, in an effort to neutralize the machine gun barrage. According to its war diary, 15th CMGC’s positions “were heavily shelled throughout the day and night and casualties were heavy.”

Private Will Jordain was among the personnel killed during the day’s fighting. His remains were never recovered from the mud-strewn battlefield. Will’s name is engraved on the Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium, one of more than 55,000 British and Imperial soldiers “lost without a trace during the defence of the Ypres Salient in the First World War.”

2. Albyn R. Smith was born at Saint Francis Harbour, Guysborough County on August 10, 1894. The identity of his parents remain a mystery. Sometime before 1901, Albyn was adopted by Charlotte and Jeffrey Pelrine, Larry’s River. On July 10, 1916, Albyn attested for service with the Composite Battalion at Halifax. At the time, he was was almost six feet tall and weighed 169 pounds, a sizeable lad for his day.

Pte. Albyn Smith (488357)—Menin Gate Inscription
In early August, Albyn departed for England, where he was promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal on September 29. Eager to serve overseas, he soon “reverted to ranks” to hasten a transfer and was assigned to the 60th Battalion (Victoria Rifles of Canada, Montreal) on October 26. Albyn crossed the English Channel to France the following day and joined his new unit in the line on November 23.

Illness soon interrupted Albyn’s service in the line. On December 20, he was admitted to a field ambulance for treatment of pleurisy. Albyn rejoined the 60th’s ranks in early February 1917, by which time military authorities had decided to disband the unit, due to dwindling reinforcement numbers. While the soldiers participated in the Canadian Corps’ historic April 9, 1917 attack on Vimy Ridge, the 60th was disbanded before month’s end.

Albyn was part of a draft of 11 Officers and 225 OR transferred to the 5th Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles (CMR), on April 30. He served with his new unit in sectors near Lens throughout the summer of 1917 and followed 5th CMR northward to Caƫstre, France, near the Belgian border, in mid-October. One week later, the battalion travelled by train to Ypres and entered the line for its Passchendaele assignment on the evening of October 28.

A steady hail of artillery fire inflicted casualties as 5th CMR spent the following day preparing for combat. At 5:50 a.m. October 30, Albyn and his comrades went “over the top” toward the German line. In little more than two hours, all Companies achieved their objectives, but were subjected to enemy fire from both flanks throughout the morning as units on each side had failed to keep pace with their advance. Officers estimated casualties at approximately 300, while an afternoon report stated that the unit had lost 75 % of its trench strength of 590 “all ranks.”

On the night of October 31/November 1, 2nd Battalion CMR relieved 5th CMR in the trenches. As the unit retired from the line, the toll from its Passchendaele assignment was staggering. Seven of its Officers had been killed, 10 wounded and another 10 “wounded and missing.” Amongst its OR, 381 were killed, wounded or missing, while 14 wounded OR remained at duty.

Private Albyn Smith was one of the OR killed during the October 30 fighting. His remains were never recovered from the battlefield where he fell. Albyn’s name is inscribed on the Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium, erected in honour of British and Imperial soldiers who died on the battlefields of Flanders and have no known grave.

3. Private Thomas William “Tommy” Waterhouse was born at Leeds, England on July 20, 1884. His mother, Caroline (Townson) Waterhouse, passed away in 1890, leaving Tommy in the care of his 20-year-old brother, Edward. While a local resident took Tommy into his home shortly after Caroline’s death, the arrangement ended five years later, at which time Tommy applied for admission to the Children’s Emigration Home, Birmingham.

Pte. Thomas William (Waterhouse) Suttis.
The charity accepted Tommy into its care and in 1896 arranged for Tommy to emigrate to Halifax, NS, where he was placed in a Fairview “receiving home” until he found an adoptive family. At the same time, David and Emma (Atwater) Suttis, an older, childless couple residing at Indian Harbour Lake, Guysborough County, were seeking a boy to help them with daily chores. An arrangement was quickly made and Tommy moved into the Suttis home.

As he grew into adulthood, Tommy went to work in the local fishery. While never formally adopted, he used the surname “Suttis” following his arrival in Indian Harbour Lake. When military recruiters visited Guysborough County in the spring of 1916, Tommy enlisted with the 193rd Battalion and spent the summer training at Camp Aldershot, near Kentville. In mid-October 1916, he crossed to England with the 193rd as part of the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade.

Upon arriving overseas, Tommy took the opportunity to visit family in Birmingham. Before year’s end, pressing demands for reinforcements in France led to the 193rd’s dissolution. On December 5, 1916, Tommy was transferred to the 42nd Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada) and crossed the English Channel the following day. Shortly after landing in France, however, he was temporarily attached to 3rd Entrenching Battalion. Tommy served with the work unit for almost two months, at which time he received a second transfer to the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) on February 24, 1917.

The Nova Scotia Highland Brigade’s senior unit, the 85th had arrived in France earlier in the month. Tommy joined their ranks at Gouy-Servins on March 5 and served with the unit at Vimy Ridge the following month. Assigned to the 4th Canadian Division’s 12th Brigade in late April, the unit completed tours in the Lens area throughout the summer of 1917. In mid-October, the battalion travelled northward to Staple, near the Belgian border, where its ranks trained in preparation for their Passchendaele assignment.

The 85th made its way to Ypres, Belgium on October 23 and five days later entered the trenches for its role in the second stage of the Canadian Corps’ Passchendaele operation. The 85th was located on the 12th Brigade’s extreme right flank, its objective to capture a cluster of fortified buildings called Vienna Cottage and establish a new defensive line approximately 600 yards from its jumping off trenches.

As Tommy and his mates went “over the top” toward their objective at 5:50 a.m. October 30, they immediately encountered a wall of enemy fire. The supporting artillery barrage in their sector was “light… little if any of it” striking German positions. Within minutes, a fierce fire-fight erupted in No Man’s Land, cutting down any soldier who dared to stand. When the three attacking Companies appeared to waver, a fourth Company waiting in reserve entered the fight. German resistance broke as the reinforcements reached their comrades and the battalion pushed on to its final objective, although casualties were “very heavy.”

The 85th remained in the line for almost 48 hours, its soldiers working to establish a new defensive position. By the time the unit retired on the night of October 31/November 1, the extent of its Passchendaele losses were staggering. A total of 12 Officers were killed and another later died of wounds, while seven others were seriously wounded in the fighting. Amongst its OR, the losses were similarly devastating—a total of 135 soldiers were killed and 243 wounded. The remains of 75 fallen 85th soldiers were never recovered from the battlefield.

Tommy was one of the fatalities buried somewhere beneath the Passchendaele battlefield. His name is engraved on the Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium, erected in memory of the thousands of British and Imperial soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient during the First World War and who have no known final resting place.

4. Neil Cornelius David was born at Port Felix on June 6, 1896, the son of William Henry and Bridget (Bellefontaine) David. Neil enlisted with the 237th Battalion at Halifax, NS on August 1, 1916. One of several “American Legion” units recruited across the country, the battalion was disbanded shortly after Neil’s enlistment, at which time he was transferred to the 97th Battalion, another “American Legion” unit.

Pte. Neil David's Menin Gate Inscription.

The 97th departed for England on September 18 and was in turn dissolved shortly after its overseas arrival. On October 31, 1916, Neil was transferred to the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR)—Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) Depot, Seaford. Neil spent the winter of 1916-17 in England and was assigned to the PPCLI on April 25, 1917. Two and a half weeks later, he joined the unit in France.

The PPCLI was the Canadian Corps’ most experienced unit, having arrived on the Western Front in late December 1914. Neil joined the battalion in the aftermath of its Vimy Ridge assignment and served with the “Patricias” in sectors near Lens throughout the summer months. On October 23, the battalion travelled northward by train to Ypres, Belgium, its soldiers spending the night amongst the ruins, where they endured considerable aerial bombardment.

On the afternoon of October 28, the PPCLI commenced the journey into the front trenches facing Passchendaele Ridge. At 5:50 a.m. October 30, its 28 Officers and 600 OR advanced toward their objective—the village of Metcheele and its surrounding high ground—making steady progress throughout the early morning hours. By mid-morning, however, the unit had suffered considerable casualties and urgently requested reinforcements. In response, four RCR platoons moved forward and assisted the unit in establishing a new defensive line in front of the village of Metcheele by early afternoon.

When the unit withdrew from the line on the night of October 31/November 1, only 245 of its soldiers remained at duty. Nine Officers were killed, 10 wounded and one gassed during the tour, while 93 of its OR were killed, 199 wounded and 38 missing. The battalion suffered a staggering total of 354 casualties “all ranks” at Passchendaele.

Private Neil David was initially reported “missing in action… last seen as he was leaving the ‘jumping off’ trench in the [October 30] attack.” Struck of the unit’s strength three days after its withdrawal from the line, Neil was officially reported “killed in action” four months later. No information ever surfaced as to the circumstances in which he died.

As with so many of his Passchendaele comrades, Neil’s remains were never recovered from the battlefield. His name is inscribed on the Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium, erected as a memorial to the thousands of soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient and whose bodies were never recovered.

Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium.

Bantry Publishing’s First World War Honour Roll of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia Volume I: 1915 - 1917 contains detailed summaries of the above four Passchendaele soldiers’ family background and military experience, along with profiles of 68 other Guysborough County soldiers who died during the first three years of Canadian overseas service.