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Saturday, 24 March 2018

Remembering Private Benjamin Wallace Swaine—Accidentally Killed March 24, 1918

Benjamin Wallace “Ben” Swaine was born at Canso, NS on December 11, 1897, the fifth of Samuel Isaiah and Emily Myra “Emma” (McLellan) Swaine’s six children. All three of Ben’s older brothers enlisted for service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Edward (DOB March 29, 1894) was closest in age to Ben and joined the 85th Battalion at Halifax on November 3, 1915. Discharged as “medically unfit” on March 14, 1916, he returned home to Canso.
Pte. Benjamin Wallace Swaine
At the time of Edward’s enlistment, Ben’s two oldest brothers were already in uniform. Roland Judson “Jud” (DOB February 6, 1893) joined the 40th Battalion at Camp Aldershot, NS on August 10, 1915. Four days later, Arthur (DOB May 10, 1891), the oldest of the Swaine boys, enlisted with the same unit.

Following the 40th’s dissolution in England, the Swaine brothers parted ways. Jud was transferred to the 25th Battalion (Nova Scotia) and was killed in action on April 14, 1916 near St. Eloi, Belgium. Arthur was assigned to the 43rd Battalion (Cameron Highlanders of Canada) and was killed in action near Courcelette, France on September 21, 1916.

Arthur Swaine
Determined to follow in his older brothers’ footsteps, Ben enlisted with the 193rd Battalion at Canso, NS on March 31, 1916—only two weeks prior to Jud’s death. Two months later, Ben travelled to Camp Aldershot, where the 193rd and its Highland Brigade comrades—the 85th (Nova Scotia Highlanders), 185th (Cape Breton Highlanders) and 219th (Halifax, South Shore & Annapolis Valley) Battalions—underwent several months of intense military drill.
Pte. Roland Judson Swaine
During Ben’s final month of training at Aldershot, the Swaine family received word of Arthur’s death during the Battle of the Somme. On October 12, 1916, Ben departed Halifax with the Highland Brigade aboard SS Olympic and arrived at Liverpool, England six days later. The Brigade’s days, however, were numbered. Significant casualties incurred during the Canadian Corps’ autumn 1916 service at the Somme created a pressing need for reinforcements in the field. In response, military authorities assembled a draft of 800 reinforcements—200 from each Brigade unit—and dissolved two of its four battalions—the 193rd and 219th—before year’s end.

Young Ben Swaine was among the soldiers selected for the reinforcement draft. On December 5, 1916, he was assigned to the 42nd Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada) and crossed the English Channel to France the following day. After several weeks’s wait at the Canadian Base Depot, Le Havre, Ben was temporarily assigned to the 3rd Entrenching Battalion and arrived in its camp near Arras, France, on January 2, 1917.

For almost two months, Ben worked at various tasks in the forward area—laying communication cable, repairing roads, installing water lines, and constructing a prisoner of war compound. On February 25, he received a second transfer to the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders), which had arrived in France two weeks previously. Once again, a temporary assignment postponed his arrival. Ben spent one week with 4th Entrenching Battalion at Villers au Bois before finally reporting to the 85th’s camp at Château de la Haie on March 5.

A newly arrived unit with no combat experience, the 85th was attached to the 4th Division’s 11th Brigade as a “working unit” during the Canadian Corps’ impending attack on Vimy Ridge, France. As the April 9, 1917 assault unfolded, however, the Brigade’s two attacking battalions failed to dislodge German forces from the western slopes of Hill 145. Before day’s end, two of the 85th’s Companies—“C” (Halifax, South Shore & Annapolis Valley) and “D” (Cape Breton)—entered the jumping off trenches and advanced up the ridge’s western slope in the early evening, securing the strategic location before nightfall.

Before month’s end, military authorities assigned the 85th to the 4th Division’s 12th Brigade, where it served alongside the 38th (Ottawa), 72nd (Seaforth Highlanders of Canada) and 78th (Winnipeg Grenadiers) Battalions for the war’s duration. In mid-June, Ben was gassed during a series of attacks on a section of the German line known as “The Triangle” and was evacuated to hospital at Wimereux for treatment. Invalided to England on June 22, he spent almost one month at Southern General Hospital, Dudley Road, Birmingham, before he was discharged to the Canadian Convalescent Home, Wokingham on July 19. Early the following month, he reported to the Canadian Corps Depot, Bramshott, and awaited orders to return to the front.

Temporarily assigned to the 17th Reserve Battalion, Ben spent several months in its ranks before crossing to France on November 10. Two weeks later, he rejoining the 85th’s camp at Raimbert, northwest of Arras, as part of a reinforcement draft of 21 Officers and 221 “other rank” (OR) reinforcements. The battalion had recently returned from Belgium, having suffered its heaviest combat losses of the war during its Passchendaele tour. Over the ensuing weeks, the unit reorganized and rebuilt its strength, finally returning to the Avion Sector on December 18.

For almost two months, Ben and his comrades served a regular rotation in the line, enduring uncomfortable winter conditions but experiencing little in the way of combat. On February 10, 1918, the unit retired to billets at Petit Servins, where its soldiers enjoyed a lengthy break from the trenches. Four weeks later, the 85th marched to Bully Grenay and returned to support positions in the St. Émile sector on the evening of March 13.

The soldiers occupied support positions and provided work parties for several days before advancing to the front trenches, where trench maintenance tasks continued. Relieved after 10 days in the line, personnel briefly marched out to support positions before making their way into Divisional Reserve at Cité Colonne on March 24.

No doubt exhausted after their first tour in a month, the men immediately retired to billets. Ben found accommodations in the cellar of the Opera House at nearby Cité St. Pierre, and two other soldiers later joined him. While Ben had laid down to rest, his colleagues occupied their time with other tasks. According to a later report, at 10:50 a.m. March 24, Private John Rankin (878060) was cleaning the bolt of his rifle when the weapon “discharged in the direction of… Pte. Swaine.” Pte. Rankin later stated that he “did not know [Ben] was in the cellar until I found he had been shot by the bullet from my rifle.”

A second soldier, Private Ralph Autton [Aulton] (877268), was eating dinner in the cellar at the time. Pte. Autton later recalled: “We were lying down and… Private Rankin… was cleaning his gun about 20 feet away. I heard his bolt work and the shot fired immediately afterwards. Pte. Swaine tried to get up but fell back. I ran for assistance.”

Private Harold Philip Eady (700218), a stretcher bearer with “D” Company, responded to Autton’s call for help. Upon entering the cellar, he found Ben “with a bullet wound in his head. I saw I could be of no use, so I went for the Medical Officer. When we returned, Pte. Swaine was dead.” A subsequent Court of Inquiry concluded that Private Benjamin Wallace Swaine died “through careless handling, causing discharge of a rifle in the hands of… Pte. Rankin,” and recommended that he appear before a Field Court Martial.

Canso's First World War Monument
Ben was laid to rest in Aix-Noulette Communal Cemetery Extension, Pas de Calais, France. In the years following the war, Canadian communities erected monuments to the memory of their fallen First World War soldiers. The Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (I.O.D.E.) spearheaded a campaign to erect such a structure in Canso. When the monument was officially unveiled on September 7, 1925, Emma Swaine, the mother of three soldiers whose names were inscribed on the monument’s plaque, “performed the unveiling ceremony.”

Ben’s story is one of 64 profiles contained in Bantry Publishing’s "First World War Honour Roll of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, Volume II: 1918 - 1937," available for purchase online at .

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Remembering Private William Robertson Spears—KIA March 18, 1918

William Robertson Spears was born at Spanish Ship Bay, Guysborough County on May 18, 1898, the fifth of Nelson and Mary Ann “Annie” (Howlett) Spears’ eight children. William went to work at sea at an early age, an occupation that likely took him on occasion to Halifax. As the bustling city very much involved in the overseas war effort, William may have been caught up in the excitement. On August 2, 1915, he commenced training with the 63rd Regiment (Halifax Rifles), a local militia unit, on McNab’s Island and formally attested for overseas service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force on October 28.
Pte. William Robertson Spears' Headstone
Within months of his attestation, however, health problems led to William’s admission to military hospital, where doctors initially diagnosed him with “tuberculosis, chest walls.” A closer examination  detected a “deformity of [the] chest wall” that, in the opinion of military officials, prevented William from “carry[ing] anything on [his] shoulder.” As a result, on April 15, 1916, William was discharged as “medically unfit.”

While William briefly returned to civilian life, he was determined to serve overseas. On October 3, 1916, he joined the 246th Battalion’s ranks and spent the winter of 1916-17 training in Halifax. On May 31, 1917, he departed for overseas as part of a reinforcement draft of 13 Officers and  230 “other ranks” (OR). Upon arriving in England, William was assigned to the 17th Reserve Battalion, the unit tasked with providing reinforcements for Nova Scotia’s 25th and 85th Battalions. On August 27, William proceed to France for service with the 85th Battalion.

While William joined his new unit in the forward area in mid-September, for unexplained reasons, he returned to the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Centre (CCRC) before month’s end. During his absence, the 85th followed the Canadian Corps to Belgium, where it participated in the second stage of the attack on Passchendaele Ridge. On November 7, William rejoined the 85th’s ranks near Caëstre, France, as the battalion rebuilt its ranks following significant combat losses during its Passchendaele tour.

William spent the winter of 1917-18 with the 85th in sectors near Lens, enduring conditions that varied from “snowing and strong wind” to “thawing fast and… becoming very muddy.” During late February and early March 1918, the unit enjoyed a lengthy break from the line before returning to support positions near St. Émile on the night of March 13. For several days, the situation in the sector was quiet as soldiers provided work parties for trench maintenance.

The 85th’s war diary entry for March 18, 1918 makes no reference to loss of personnel: “Fine Relieved 38th CI [Canadian Infantry] Battalion in front line left sub-sector St. Émile sector.” A monthly casualty list included in the diary’s appendix, however, tells a different story. According to its contents, four OR were wounded by artillery fire, while a fifth was “injured in the back by falling brick” when a shell struck a section of the 85th’s trench. The document also reported one March 18 fatality—Private William Robertson Spears, most likely killed in the same artillery barrage that wounded his comrades. William was laid to rest in Loos British Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France.

Loos British Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France
William’s story is one of 64 profiles contained in Bantry Publishing’s First World War Honour Roll of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, Volume II: 1918 - 1937, available for purchase online at .

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Remembering Private Charles Patrick Knocton—Died of Sickness March 10, 1918

Charles Patrick Knocton was born at South Intervale, Guysborough County on December 25, 1895, the second of Patrick and Abigail Annie (Bond) Knocton’s four children. On May 3, 1911, Patrick passed away from complications related to asthma and Annie remarried the following year. While Charles’ older brother, Stanley, departed for the United States, he remained at home, where he looked after the family farm.

Private Charles Knocton's Headstone

Following the passage of the Military Service Act (1917), Charles completed his medical examination at nearby Guysborough town on October 26, 1917 and was “called up” early the following year. He completed his attestation papers at Halifax, NS on February 13, 1918 and was assigned to a detachment stationed at the Amherst Armouries.

The crowded, poorly heated quarters were a breeding ground for illness. On March 1, Charles was admitted to Highland View Hospital, Amherst, for treatment of pneumonia. According to medical records, his body temperature at the time of admission was 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 Celsius) and his pulse rate was 110 beats per minute.

Within three days, Charles’ pulse returned to normal and his condition “seemed satisfactory.” He continued to improve until mid-day March 8, when he developed a severe headache and his temperature spiked to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). Early the following morning, Charles fell into a coma and never regained consciousness. He passed away at 12:30 a.m. March 10, 1918.

St. Patrick's Cemetery, Guysborough Intervale

Charles’ remains were transported to Guysborough County, where he was laid to rest in St. Patrick’s Cemetery, Guysborough Intervale. Private Charles Patrick Knocton was the first Guysborough “conscript” to die in uniform. His story is one of 64 profiles contained in Bantry Publishing’s First World War Honour Roll of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, Volume II: 1918 - 1937, available for purchase online at .

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Remembering Lieutenant James Gibson Laurier Fraser—Killed in Action March 4, 1918

James Gibson Laurier Fraser was born at New Glasgow, NS on September 14, 1895, the youngest of Duncan Cameron “D. C.” and Elizabeth “Bessie” (Graham) Fraser’s five children. A lawyer by profession, D C. was elected Member of Parliament for Guysborough in 1891. He held this position until 1904, at which time he accepted an appointment to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. Two years later, D. C. was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, a post he held until his untimely death at age 64 on September 27, 1910.

Lt. Laurier Fraser at training camp
Following her husband’s passing, Bessie relocated to Moose Jaw, SK, where she resided with her oldest daughter, Annie, and her husband, Rev. William G. Wilson. Laurier, as he was known to family, and his older sister, Sarah “Sadie,” accompanied Bessie to Moose Jaw.

Two other siblings, Alistair and Margaret Marjorie “Pearl,” had already left home. Alistair completed his legal studies at Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, and later re-joined the family in Moose Jaw, where he commenced the practice of law. Pearl completed nursing studies at Lady Stanley Institute, Ottawa and commenced employment at Vancouver General Hospital. In the meantime, upon completing his schooling, Laurier entered a five-year legal apprenticeship with a nearby Gull Lake,  SK law office.

The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 soon impacted the Fraser siblings. Shortly after the British declaration of war on Germany and Austria-Hungary, both Alistair and Pearl travelled to Camp Valcartier, QC. Pearl enlisted with the Canadian Army Medical Corps, while Alistair accompanied the 17th Battalion (Nova Scotia) to England, where he received a commission as a Lieutenant when he attested with the unit. Alistair subsequently served in Belgium with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) and at Vimy Ridge, France with the 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders of Canada).

Too young to enlist at the time of the war’s commencement, Laurier joined the 60th Rifles of Canada, a Moose Jaw militia unit. On February 19, 1916, he enlisted with the 229th Battalion (South Saskatchewan). At the time, he was five feet, 11 inches tall and weighed 195 pounds. As with his older brother, Laurier received the commissioned rank of Lieutenant at the time of his enlistment.

Following a summer of training in western Canada, the 229th made its way by train to Halifax, NS, and departed for England on September 23. Upon arriving overseas, the 229th was dissolved and its rank and file dispersed to existing units in the field. As a result, Laurier was placed on the Canadian Expeditionary Forces’s “General List” of Officers and awaited the opportunity to serve at the front.

Laurier spent seven months in England before receiving a transfer to the 16th Battalion on April 26, 1917. He crossed the English Channel to France on May 1 and joined his new unit in the field four days later. The 16th had been established at Valcartier, QC, in September 1914, its initial ranks composed of soldiers from four Highland militia units. As a result, the battalion adopted the title “Canadian Scottish.”

Lt. Laurier Fraser, 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish)
Following its arrival in France in mid-February 1915, the 16th served with the Canadian Corps in Belgium’s Ypres Salient until September 1916, when the Corps relocated to the Somme region of France for two months. The battalion spent the winter of 1916-17 in sectors near Lens, France and participated in the Canadian Corps’ historic April 9, 1917 attack on Vimy Ridge.

Laurier served with the 16th in France throughout the spring and summer of 1917. In late October, the unit made its way northward to a location close to the Belgian border, where it paused to prepare for its role in the Canadian Corps’ attack on Passchendaele Ridge. At month’s end, personnel arrived at Ypres, Belgium. While the 16th served several tours in the line, its soldiers did not participate in the assault’s final stages. The unit remained in the area until mid-month, at which time its soldiers made their way back to their previous sectors near Lens.

Throughout the winter of 1917-18, the 16th completed a regular schedule of rotations, conducting occasional raids on German trenches and enduring intermittent machine gun, artillery and trench mortar fire during its tours. On February 25, its soldiers occupied “a little more than 1000 yards” of the St. Émile sector’s trenches. In subsequent days, personnel set about wiring and deepening the front line, amidst sporadic artillery and machine gun fire.

Early the following month, hostile fire intensified considerably. On March 1, a trench mortar shell killed three “other ranks” (OR) and wounded a fourth. Artillery and mortar shelling continued throughout the subsequent days, culminating in a heavy barrage on the 16th’s line in the early morning hours of March 4. As the hostile fire subsided, German soldiers attacked a section of the line to the battalion’s left.

The 16th’s No. 1, Company, located in support trenches at the time of the bombardment, was particularly hard-hit by the barrage. Two of its Officers were killed and a third wounded, while four OR were killed and the same number wounded. Lieutenant James Gibson Laurier Fraser was one of the two Officer fatalities. He was laid to rest in Bully Grenay Communal Cemetery. Laurier’s cousin, Lieutenant Roderick Douglas Graham, was in camp with the 85th Battalion at nearby Raimbert and attended Laurier’s interment.

Lt. Laurier Fraser's headstone, Bully Grenay Cemetery
Lieutenant James Gibson Laurier Fraser’s story is one of 64 detailed profiles contained in Bantry Publishing’s First World War Honour Roll of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, Volume II: 1918 - 1937, available for purchase online at .