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Saturday, 25 January 2020

Private Herman Oswald Matheson: A Wounded Soldier’s Story

Date of Birth: December 18, 1892

Place of Birth: Low Point, Cape Breton, NS

Mother: Mary Simms

Father: Thomas Matheson

Occupation: Coal miner

Marital Status: Married

Enlistment: March 31, 1915 at Glace Bay, NS

Regimental #: 68308

Rank: Private

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force (Infantry)

Units: 40th Battalion; 25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles)

Service: England, France & Belgium

Next of Kin: Kate Matheson, No. 2 New Aberdeen, Glace Bay, NS (wife)

Herman Oswald Matheson was born at Low Point, near New Waterford, Cape Breton, on December 18, 1892, the second of Thomas and Mary (Simms) Matheson’s eight children. Over the ensuing years, his parents raised a family of five boys and three girls in their home. At the time of the 1901 Canadian census, the Mathesons were residing at Sydney Mines, Cape Breton, where Thomas worked as a miner.

Pte. Herman Oswald Matheson

Sometime before 1911, the family relocated to New Aberdeen, where that year’s Canadian census indicates that the couple’s two oldest children—John, age 19, and Herman, age 18—had commenced work in the mines. On January 6, 1912, the Province of Nova Scotia’s Department of Mines issued a Mining Certificate to Herman, stating that he had demonstrated “competency as [a] miner” and was entitled to “take charge of a working face.”

On March 31, 1913, Herman married Mary Katherine “Kate” (Shorten) Bryant in a ceremony that took place at New Aberdeen. It was Kate’s second marriage—her first husband, William Thomas Bryant, was shot and killed during an altercation between local miners and the “Company Store” in April 1911. Kate had two living children from her first marriage—a daughter Alice Ann, born at Pictou, NS, on January 25, 1905, and a son, Thomas Arthur, born at New Aberdeen on July 2, 1907. A third child, George William, died in September 1919 shortly after birth.

Kate’s mother, Alice Walsh, was born at West Roachvale, Guysborough County, the daughter of Edward and Catherine Walsh. Kate’s father, John Shorten, was born at London, England, on August 1, 1850, the son of John and Margaret Shorten, both of Irish descent. Two days after his eighteenth birthday—August 3, 1868—John Jr. enlisted with the Royal Artillery at Woolwich, UK. He served in England for four years before receiving a transfer to Halifax, where he met Alice. The couple married in the capital city on August 8, 1874, and their two oldest children—John and Alice—were born while John was serving there.

In 1880, John was assigned to duty in Bermuda. Alice and their young children accompanied him, and Kate was born during the family’s time there. The following year, the Shortens relocated to Gilbraltar, where Alice gave birth to a second son, Frederick. John served in England from 1886 to 1887 before returning to Halifax, where the couple’s fifth child, Edward, joined the family. After John was discharged from military service at Halifax on August 2, 1889—the “end of [his] second period of limited engagement”—the family settled at West Roachvale, Guysborough County, where John took up farming.

Following their marriage, Herman and Kate remained at New Aberdeen, where Herman continued to work in the local mines. The outbreak of the First World War, however, soon impacted their lives. On March 31, 1915, Herman enlisted with the 40th Battalion at Glace Bay, NS. Formally authorized on January 1, 1915, the 40th established detachments across the province, one of which set up operations at Glace Bay.

Shortly after his enlistment, Herman was transferred to the 25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) and made his way to Halifax, where the unit had established headquarters at the Armouries and was completing preparations for its departure. He left behind a young wife who was expecting the couple’s first child—Mary Catherine “Pearl” Matheson was born at Glace Bay on December 9, 1915, seven months after Herman’s departure for England.

Considering her childhood experience, Kate was familiar with the impact of military service on families. In this instance, however, there were significant differences. Unlike her mother Alice, Kate was unable to follow her husband overseas. In addition, her father John had served with the Royal Artillery during peacetime, while Herman was heading to war.

On May 20, 1915, Herman and his 25th Battalion comrades departed Halifax, NS, aboard SS Saxonia and arrived in the United Kingdom nine days later. The unit spent the summer training in England before crossing to France on September 15, 1915. One week later, its soldiers entered the Kemmel Sector of Belgium’s treacherous Ypres Salient.

Herman was one of three Matheson family members to enlist for overseas service. His older brother, John James (DOB July 12, 1891), joined the ranks of the 64th Battalion at Sydney, NS, on August 24, 1915, and departed for the United Kingdom in late March 1916. Following the 64th’s dissolution, John’s mining experience likely played a role in his transfer to the 2nd Tunnelling Company. He joined the unit in France in mid-June 1916 and served in the forward area for four months. A series of incidents during that time—a sprained ankle, influenza and a case of enteric fever—resulted in his return to England in mid-October 1916.

A medical examination in the spring of 1917 determined that John had “flat feet,” prompting authorities to declare him no longer fit for service at the front. He returned to Canada in November 1917 and spent a period of time in hospital at Sydney, NS, before being transferred to Halifax, NS, in February 1918. John was officially discharged from military service as “medically unfit” on August 5, 1918.

John relocated to Ontario sometime after returning home, and was plagued by poor health for the remainder of his life. Family members recall that he spent considerable time in various hospitals. Family members also believe that John suffered from “shell shock,” a common affliction among soldiers who had served at the front, particularly with tunnelling companies. He passed away at Westminster Hospital, London, ON, in 1962 and was laid to rest in St. John’s Cemetery, New Aberdeen, Cape Breton.

Herman’s younger brother, Thomas James (DOB February 25, 1895), enlisted with the 106th Battalion at Sydney, NS, on December 18, 1915, and departed for the United Kingdom with the unit in mid-July 1916. Following the 106th’s dissolution, Thomas was transferred to the 25th Battalion—Herman’s unit—on September 21, 1916, and joined its ranks in France on October 8, 1916, more than a year after his older brother had commenced service at the front.

Pte. Thomas James Matheson (106th Battalion portrait)
During that time, Herman was quickly introduced to the dangers of service in the forward area. Within days of the 25th’s September 1915 arrival in Belgium, a young soldier’s inexperience resulted in an incident that injured several of his comrades. During the early morning hours of October 4, 1915, Herman was standing outside his billet with a small group of men, awaiting orders to proceed to the trenches. Another soldier had found what he thought was a piece of a harvesting machine in a nearby field and was examining it nearby. Upon removing a pin from the object, he “saw the spring fly up and became frightened and then had thrown the [object] on the ground amidst a number of men.”

The object was actually a “Mills bomb,” the popular name for a British-manufactured hand grenade. It exploded shortly after landing on the ground, injuring Herman and several others. Herman was admitted to No. 11 Stationary Hospital, Rouen, France, for treatment. Documents in his service file provide a brief description of his injuries: “Was wounded in chest by payment of bomb.” After receiving treatment at the Rouen facility, Herman was transported to No. 14 General Hospital, Wimereux, France, two days later. On October 10, he was invalided to England and admitted to East Leeds War Hospital, Leeds, UK.

Two weeks later, Herman was transferred to the Canadian Convalescent Hospital, Monks, Horton, “for x-ray and treatment.” A report in his service file described the results: “Present condition two inch scar at junction of cartilage and sternum on left side at lower end of corpus sternum. No tenderness, sometimes slight pain. General condition OK.” Subsequent medical notes indicated the presence of a “small fragment of metal seen opposite [the] level of 10th dorsal vertebra in mid-line[,] apparently near abdominal surface.”

Herman’s injuries gradually healed and he was discharged from hospital as “fit for duty” on February 17, 1916. Assigned to the 17th Reserve Battalion, East Sandling, he returned to regular military routines. Before month’s end, however, he returned to the Canadian Convalescent Hospital, Epsom, for further rest and rehabilitation. During his time there, Herman attended a “Program of Entertainment to Wounded Sailors and Soldiers” hosted by “Their Majesties the King and Queen” at the Riding School, Buckingham Palace, on March 22.

In early April, Herman was discharged to the Canadian Casualty Assembly Centre (CCAC) and received 10 days’ leave upon reporting there. On May 1, 1916, Herman was re-assigned to the 25th Battalion and embarked for France. Three weeks later, he rejoined his comrades in the Ypres Salient. Herman served with the unit throughout the early summer of 1916 without incident, and traveled with its soldiers to the Somme region of France in late August. On September 15, 1916, Herman and his colleagues participated in the Canadian Corps’ capture of the village of Courcelette, its first combat engagement during two months’ service at the Somme.

While the unit suffered a total of 227 casualties and 77 missing among its ranks during three days in the line, Herman emerged from the battlefield unscathed and enjoyed several days’ rest before returning to the front trenches on the night of September 27/28. Three days into the tour, Herman was wounded for a second time when an enemy bullet “entered [his] left thigh upper and front aspect, passing out [of his] left buttock and inflicting [a] deep flesh wound on [his] right buttock.” Medical personnel dressed his wounds at a casualty clearing station and Herman was once again transported to No. 11 Stationary Hospital, Rouen, France.

On October 6, 1916, Herman was invalided to England aboard the hospital ship St. George. Two days later, his younger brother, Thomas James, joined the 25th’s ranks at Berteaucourt-les-Dames, northwest of Arras, France. Following his arrival in the United Kingdom, Herman was admitted to 2nd Scottish Hospital, Edinburgh, Scotland, where he remained for almost two months. In early December 1916, he was transferred to Kings Red Cross Hospital, Bushey Park, Hampton Hill, England.

By mid-month, medical records indicate that “very little disability” remained from Herman’s gunshot wound. While his “leg [was] a little stiff,” he was experiencing “no other trouble.” His progress was sufficient to warrant his discharge from hospital on January 11, 1917, at which time he was once again assigned to the Canadian Casualty Assembly Centre. Two months later, Herman was transferred to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot, the first step in returning to the continent.

On June 8, 1917, Herman was assigned to the 26th Reserve Battalion, Hastings, where he spent the summer in training. In mid-October, he was transferred to the 17th Reserve Battalion, the unit tasked with providing reinforcements for the 25th and 85th Battalions, Nova Scotia’s two front-line infantry units. He spent the winter of 1917-18 with the 17th, awaiting orders to return to the continent. Finally, on May 10, 1918, Herman once again “proceeded overseas for service with [the] 25th Battalion.” He spent almost six weeks at the Canadian Base Depot and Canadian Corps Reinforcement Centre before rejoining his 25th comrades in the field on June 21, 1918.

Following Herman’s October 1916 evacuation to England, his younger brother Thomas served with the 25th throughout the winter of 1916-17, and was in the line as the battalion participated in the Canadian Corps’ April 9, 1917 capture of Vimy Ridge, France. During the day’s fighting, he received a shrapnel wound to his left calf and was invalided to England 10 days later. Thomas spent almost one year recovered from his wounds before returning to France on April 8, 1918. He rejoined the 25th’s ranks on May 18, one month before Herman’s return.

The Matheson brothers spent much of the next 10 weeks training with the 25th Battalion as the Canadian Corps prepared for its role in a major Allied offensive, scheduled for mid-summer. The 25th’s soldiers were in the line on the morning of August 8, 1918, when the Canadian Corps participated in the opening hours of the Battle of Amiens. The attack marked the commencement of the “100 Days” campaign that eventually resulted in the signing of the November 11, 1918 Armistice.

During the day’s advance, Herman received a shrapnel wound to his lower left thigh and was admitted to No. 1 Canadian Field Ambulance for treatment. Transferred to No. 47 Casualty Clearing Station before day’s end, he was evacuated by ambulance train to No. 3 General Hospital, Le Tréport, France, the following day.

On this occasion, Herman’s injuries proved to be much less severe than his previous wounds. Discharged after only eight days in hospital, he reported to the Canadian Base Depot on August 17. A mere 11 days later—August 28—he departed for the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Centre (CCRC), an indication of the urgent need for manpower at the front as the Allied offensive continued.

Meanwhile, Thomas came through the 25th’s Amiens combat tour without injury and travelled northward toward Lens with the battalion following its seven-day tour. On August 26, 1918, the 25th’s soldiers occupied support positions as Canadian Corps units launched an attack on the German line east of Arras, France. The following morning—August 27, 1918—the unit’s 5th Brigade comrades continued the advance at 10:00 am, the 25th once again following in support. As its soldiers advanced across the battlefield and into the newly captured German line, the unit suffered severe casualties, particularly among its “C” Company ranks.

Thomas was one of the soldiers lost at Arras that day: “While taking part in an attack from east of Wancourt to Chérisy, he was hit in the face and forehead by enemy bullets and killed.” Pte. Thomas James Matheson was laid to rest in Quebec British Cemetery, Chérisy, approximately eight miles south of Arras, France. Sadly, Herman was still at the CCRC at the time of his brother’s death. He rejoined the 25th’s ranks at Chérisy on September 5, 1918. As the unit spent the next week training in the area, he may have had an opportunity to visit Thomas’s grave before the unit moved out to training facilities near Cagnicourt at mid-month.

On September 19, the 25th returned to front-line duty near Inchy-en-Artois, sustaining daily casualties in skirmishes with German forces opposite its position throughout a seven-day tour. After a brief rest, the battalion followed in the wake of the Canadian Corps, which captured Canal du Nord on the outskirts of Cambrai in late September and proceeded to encircle the strategically important city.

The 25th returned to trenches in front of Sailly-lez-Cambrai, northwest of the city, on October 1. Throughout the ensuing week, German artillery regularly shelled its positions, inflicting daily casualties. Finally, in the early hours of October 9, the 25th participated in an attack on Canal de l’Escaut, during which “C” and “D” Companies successfully established bridgeheads on its eastern banks. The unit’s remaining two companies then passed through their comrades’ lines and secured the unit’s objective “in short time.”

A total of 15 “other ranks” were killed and 85 “other ranks” were wounded in the day’s advance. Herman was among the day’s casualties, struck in the left elbow, left hip and right leg by artillery shrapnel. Admitted to No. 9 Canadian Field Ambulance for treatment, he was transported by stretcher to No. 30 Casualty Clearing Station, where “damaged and infected tissue [was] excised” from his open wounds.

On October 11, Herman was evacuated by ambulance train to No. 56 General Hospital, Étaples, France. At the time of his admission, medical staff described a “lacerated wound [to his] left elbow…  [that] look[ed] well.” The following day, Herman was invalided to England for the third time and admitted to Northamptonshire War Hospital, Duston, Northampton.  At the time of his arrival, staff indicated that “movement of elbow [was] good, muscles cut and lacerated.”

Herman spent the next three months at the Northampton facility. Following his transfer to the Canadian Red Cross Special Hospital, Buxton, on January 11, 1919, staff records described a “healed wound on left forearm.” A subsequent x-ray displayed “no evidence of fracture or F. B. [foreign body] present.” A “fall on [a] sidewalk upon [his] left elbow” early the following month raised concern of a “bone injury,” but once again an x-ray revealed no fracture.

On March 19, Herman was transferred to No. 9 Canadian General Hospital, Kinmel Park. A detailed “Medical History of an Invalid” report, dated April 29, 1919, described a “Y-shaped scar… on [his] left forearm, anterior to elbow region. Movements of elbow and arm normal.” Herman’s forearm, however, was “below normal strength,” and he was “unable to take much of a strain on [his] elbow or forearm.” His left forearm’s “carrying and lifting powers” were “below normal,” and “after any strain or slight injury to [the] elbow region it becomes swollen.”

Herman was discharged to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot, Witley, on May 15 and immediately received 10 days’ leave. He departed for Canada on July 2 and arrived at Halifax, NS, six days later. On July 17, 1919, he was formally discharged from military service as “medically unfit.” Herman’s discharge certificate clearly stated that he was “authorized to wear four wounded stripes,” an honour that distinguished him from the vast majority of his returning comrades. He later received the 1914-15 Star, British War and Victory medals, in recognition of his overseas service.

Herman returned to New Aberdeen, where he was reunited with his wife Kate and met his daughter, Mary Catherine “Pearl,” for the first time. A second daughter, Freda, joined the family on March 30, 1920. Unfortunately, Herman’s war injuries made it impossible for him to return to his previous work in the local coal mines. Throughout the following decade, the family remained at New Aberdeen, where Kate’s son by her first marriage, Thomas, passed away from pulmonary tuberculosis on August 24, 1929.

In October 1932, Kate and her two daughters relocated to West Roachvale, Guysborough County, and Herman joined them shortly afterward. Kate Matheson unexpectedly passed away at Roachvale, the result of “cardiac failure,” on April 22, 1936. Only 54 years of age at the time of her death, she was laid to rest in St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, Guysborough.

Two months after her mother’s passing, Mary Catherine “Pearl” married John Maurice Long, a native of Rogerton, Guysborough County. The couple subsequently raised a family of 15 children at Roachvale. Pearl’s sister Freda married John McNeil at New Aberdeen, Cape Breton, on July 10, 1939. She remained there for the duration of her life, raising a family of six children.

Herman (left) in his later years with one of his grandsons
Throughout his later years, Herman resided in a small house near his daughter Pearl’s home. His many grandchildren—Pearl and John’s sons and daughters—frequently visited, keeping him company and assisting with various chores. They remember a kind and loving grandfather who always had white peppermint treats in his shirt pocket, and occasionally warned them not to venture too far into the nearby woods, because “bears lived in there.” Herman Matheson  passed away at St. Martha’s Hospital, Antigonish, NS, on June 28, 1972, and was laid to rest beside his wife Kate in St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, Guysborough, NS.

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