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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 .

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