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Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Remembering Private James DeWitt Ferguson—KIA August 28, 1918

James DeWitt Ferguson and his fraternal twin sister, Florence Mabel, were born at Halifax, NS, on November 9, 1891. Their mother, Bessie Ferguson, was a native of Indian Harbour, Guysborough County. Sometime before 1901, Bessie returned to her home community with her twins. By 1915, De Witt had made his way to northern Ontario, where he found employment as a fireman.

Pte. James DeWitt Ferguson's memorial stone, Wine Harbour Cemetery
On November 1, 1915, DeWitt enlisted with the 94th Battalion at Fort Frances, ON. Six months later, he departed from Halifax with his unit aboard SS Olympic. Following the 94th’s dissolution, DeWitt was re-assigned to the 32nd Reserve Battalion on July 18, 1916. After a summer’s training in England, he proceeded to France with a draft of reinforcements for the 52nd Battalion (New Ontario) on October 13.

DeWitt’s arrival at the front was delayed by a brief period in hospital. He joined the 52nd in the forward area on December 23 and served with the unit in sectors near Vimy Ridge, France, throughout the winter of 1916-17. The 52nd’s 9th Brigade remained in reserve during the Canadian Corps’ historic April 9, 1917 attack on Vimy Ridge. Two days later, its soldiers occupied trenches atop the newly captured location. The unit served in sectors near Lens, France, throughout the summer and early autumn of 1917, relocating to Ypres, Belgium, in late October for the Canadian Corps’ Passchendaele operation.

On the evening of October 25, two of the 52nd’s Companies entered support positions behind the 43rd and 58th Battalions, while its two remaining Companies waited in reserve. The following morning, Canadian units launched the first part of a four-stage operation to capture Passchendaele Ridge. While the 52nd’s soldiers did not participate in the attack, they helped consolidate the objective following its capture.

The battalion remained in the line for 48 hours before retiring to camp. In subsequent days, its personnel provided stretcher parties for the evacuation of wounded soldiers before returning to France early the following month. Throughout the winter of 1917-18, DeWitt served regular rotations with the 52nd in sectors near Lens, France. A major German spring offensive launched in late March 1918 did not affect the Canadian Corps’ sector, although its units remained on alert throughout the fighting south of its location.

In early May, DeWitt and his comrades retired from the line and spent two months training before returning to trenches near Neuville-Vitasse in mid-July. Early the following month, the 52nd moved southward to Bois de Boves, southeast of Amiens, where personnel prepared for their role in a major Allied counter-offensive scheduled to take place east of the strategic city.

On the morning of August 8, the 58th occupied support positions while its three Brigade mates participated in the initial attack. Its soldiers remained in the line for one week as Canadian units steadily advanced into German-held territory. Following the unit’s withdrawal from the line on August 16, personnel gradually made their way northward toward Arras, where a second offensive was scheduled to take place before month’s end.

The attack commenced on the morning of August 26, the 52nd stationed nearby awaiting orders. Its soldiers moved forward later that evening and prepared to resume the advance in the early hours of August 27. The objective was the capture of Bois de Vert, a wooded area atop a hill. While the battalion advanced in support, closely behind the attacking 4th Battalion Canadian Mounted Rifles, 2nd Division units to their right had received orders to delay their attack until mid-morning. As a result, the 52nd’s right flank was exposed to hostile fire and its “D” Company suffered significant casualties during the attack.

The units nevertheless managed to secure their objective and continued the attack toward the day’s objective—the village of Boiry—in the late morning hours of August 28. While the 52nd commenced the day in support, its soldiers moved forward and attacked an elevated location known as “Artillery Hill.” While the soldiers succeeded in capturing the position, two days’ fighting took a severe toll on its personnel. By day’s end, the 52nd’s ranks were reduced to little more than 100, although a considerable number of soldiers were presumed to have attached themselves to other units during the advance.

As the 52nd withdrew from the line on the night of August 28/29, its war diary reported two Officers and 23 “other ranks” killed during 48 hours of combat, while three Officers and 133 OR were wounded and 17 OR missing. Private James DeWitt Ferguson was one of the soldiers lost during the fighting. While DeWitt advanced alongside his “D” Company comrades during the August 28 morning attack, he was killed by an exploding artillery shell following the capture of Boiry.

DeWitt’s remains were never retrieved from the battlefield. His name is inscribed on the Canadian War Memorial, Vimy Ridge, France, one of 11,285 Canadian soldiers lost on the battlefields of northern France and whose final resting place is unknown.

DeWitt’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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