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Saturday, 4 November 2017

Remembering Lance Corporal Owen Delbert Somers—Died of Wounds November 4, 1917

Owen Delbert Somers was born at Middle Melford, Guysborough County on January 21, 1896, the youngest of Harriet A. (Grant) and David A. Somers’ five children. Owen was working as a baker in Sydney, NS when he enlisted with the 185th Battalion (Cape Breton Highlanders) on March 28, 1916. The unit trained at Camp Broughton—an abandoned mining operation on the outskirts of Sydney—until late May, at which time its soldiers relocated to Camp Aldershot for a summer of military drill, alongside their comrades from three additional Nova Scotia Highland Brigade units.

Lance Corporal Owen Delbert Somers.

On October 12, the Brigade’s four battalions—85th (Nova Scotia Highlanders), 185th, 193rd and 219th—departed Halifax aboard RMS Olympic and made their way to Camp Witley in southern England. Upon arriving overseas, Owen was promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal. Before year’s end, significant Canadian casualties incurred at the Somme during the autumn of 1916 resulted in the dissolution of the 193rd and 219th Battalions. While the 185th remained intact with Owen among its ranks, an abscess in his groin resulted in Owen’s hospitalization for several months and eliminated the possibility of a transfer to a unit at the front.

Discharged from medical care on April 21, Owen reverted to the rank of Private shortly afterward, in order to hasten a transfer to France. On June 25, Owen proceeded overseas for service with the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders). The Highland Brigade’s senior unit, the 85th had landed in France on February 10, 1917. Two of its four Companies saw combat at Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917, proceeding up Hill 145’s western slopes during the early evening hours and capturing the ridge’s highest point.

Throughout the spring and summer months, Owen served with the battalion in sectors near Lens, France and followed the unit northward to Staple, France—adjacent to the Belgian border—in early October. For several weeks, personnel trained in preparation for the Canadian Corps’ next major assignment—an attack on Passchendaele village and its surrounding ridge.

On October 23, the 85th broke camp and travelled to Ypres. Three days later, 3rd and 4th Division units launched the first phase of a four-stage attack on the ridge. On the night of October 28, the 85th made its way into the line and the following day completed final preparations for combat. At 5:50 a.m. October 30, three of the 85th’s Companies advanced toward their assigned target, a cluster of fortified buildings at a location called “Vienna Cottage.”

A hail of German machine gun, rifle and artillery fire greeted the soldiers as they made their way forward, several of their Officers falling as the Companies left their “jumping off” positions. Within minutes, a ferocious fire-fight erupted in No Man’s Land and any soldier who attempted to stand instantly became a casualty. According to later reports, the fighting raged for 10 to 30 minutes before “D” Company, waiting in reserve, advanced in support. German resistance broke as the reinforcements reached their comrades and the battalion swept onward to its objective.

While the unit succeeded in capturing Vienna Cottage and advanced to its final destination several hundred yards beyond, the Officer in charge reported that casualties were “heavy.” The soldiers set about establishing a new defensive line, enduring a particularly heavy bombardment after dusk October 31. Later that night, the 85th’s remaining personnel made their way out of the line as units relieved them in the newly established front trench.

During its Passchendaele tour, the 85th suffered almost 400 casualties, its worst combat losses of the war. Owen was among the “other ranks” (OR) wounded during the fighting. Evacuated from the battlefield, he was admitted to No. 4 General Hospital, Camiers on November 3. Reported “dangerously ill” at the time of his arrival, Private Owen Delbert Somers died from the effects of a gunshot wound to the head on November 4, 1917 and was laid to rest in Étaples Military Cemetery, France.

Bantry Publishing’s “First World War Honour Roll of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, Volume I: 1915 - 1917” contains a detailed description of Owen’s family background and military experience, along with profiles of 71 other Guysborough County soldiers and sailors who lost their lives during the first three years of Canadian overseas service.

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