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Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Remembering Private Wilfred Asa Nickerson—Accidentally Killed June 4, 1919

Wilfred Asa Nickerson was born at Hazel Hill, Guysborough County, on December 8, 1896, the youngest of Sarah (Swain) and Reuben Nickerson’s six children. Enticed by the presence of militia detachments in Canso following the outbreak of the First World War, Wilfred enlisted with one of the units—the 94th Victoria Regiment (Argyll Highlanders)—in 1916.
Pte. Wilfred Asa Nickerson
Following the Canadian government’s introduction of compulsory military service in late 1917, Wilfred reported to Halifax in mid-April 1918 and was officially “conscripted” into the Canadian Expeditionary Force before month’s end. Subsequent bouts of tonsillitis and influenza delayed his overseas journey until early August, when he finally departed for England.

Following a 16-day voyage, Wilfred arrived at Liverpool and reported to the 17th (Nova Scotia) Reserve Battalion, which was encamped at the Canadian Training Depot, Tidworth Barracks, Wiltshire, England. In late September, he was hospitalized with a mild case of appendicitis, but did not undergo surgery. Discharged on October 9, Wilfred spent the autumn and winter of 1918-19 in England. During that time, he suffered a second appendicitis attack and underwent surgery in late January 1919.

Discharged to duty on March 21, Wilfred returned to the 17th’s ranks. While the signing of the November 11, 1918 Armistice had brought fighting to an end, an opportunity for service in France arose in the spring of 1919, when military officials organized the Canadian War Graves Detachment (CWGD) and solicited personnel for its two Companies.

Wilfred was among the soldiers who volunteered for duty with the CWGD. He crossed the English Channel to France on May 18, 1919, and travelled to the Arras area with No. 2 Company before month’s end. The soldiers performed a variety of tasks in the former combat zone—searching battlefields for informal graves and human remains, as well as exhuming bodies from smaller cemeteries and transporting them to larger cemeteries for re-interment.

The soldiers’ work was not without risk of injury, as unexploded artillery shells and grenades were scattered across the former battlefields. No. 1 Company, CWGD, reported its first casualties on May 28, when two of its soldiers drove a truck across a “half-buried” Mills Grenade, which immediately detonated. The following day, all personnel “were again warned as to the care to be taken with unexploded Ammunition.” Despite the warning, two more soldiers were hospitalized for treatment shortly afterward, “through the fault of one tampering with a detonator, against all orders to the contrary.”

On the evening of June 4, 1919, following a day’s work in the forward area, Wilfred set off for a stroll from camp toward a nearby village, in the company of two comrades. While walking along several meters in front of his mates, Wilfred called out, “Hurry up. I’ve found some nice souvenirs.” As his companions approached, they saw several artillery “nose caps” scattered on the ground and cautioned him not to touch the items.

Undeterred, Wilfred decided to “open one to see what was inside of it.” He removed a small brass band and, using a pocket knife, began to dig at the pin. After working at it for several minutes, the nose cap exploded in his hand and Wilfred fell to the ground. A piece of shrapnel struck one soldier in the leg. Despite his injury, he ordered the other soldier to remain with Wilfred while he returned to camp for help.

The second soldier later reported that Wilfred lay on the ground, unresponsive. About 15 minutes later, as help approached, he checked for vital signs but found none. An Officer, who arrived at the scene with a stretcher and several soldiers, confirmed that Wilfred was deceased, placed his remains on the stretcher, and returned to camp, where a Medical Officer confirmed that Wilfred had succumbed to his injuries, a piece of shrapnel having pierced his heart.

Private Wilfred Asa Nickerson was laid to rest in Bois-Carré Cemetery, Haisnes, France, on June 6, 1919. A formal inquiry later concluded that he was “accidentally killed while tampering with unexploded ammunition.” Sadly, Wilfred’s passing was only the first of three fatalities that occurred that month. Two other soldiers later succumbed to poison gas released from half-buried shells.

Wilfred’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 bantrypublishing.ca .

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