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Sunday, 30 December 2012

Sgt. Alexander D. MacIsaac - A DCM Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: July 27, 1893

Place of Birth: Giant's Lake, Guysborough County*

Mother's Name: Flora MacLean

Father's Name: Archibald MacIsaac

Date of Enlistment: March 21, 1916 at Antigonish, NS

Regimental Number: 902010

Rank: Sargeant

Force: Infantry

Units: 193rd Battalion; 185th Battalion (Cape Breton Highlanders); 25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles)

Location of service: England & France

Occupation at Enlistment: Clerk

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Mrs. Flora MacIsaac, Giant's Lake (mother)

Date of Discharge: February 14, 1919 at Halifax, NS

*: Attestation lists "Porter's River" as place of birth.

*****

The small settlements scattered throughout the interior of Guysborough County provided numerous volunteers for military service.  Alexander D. MacIsaac was a native of one such community.  'Nandy', as he was known to family members, was born at Porter's River, near Giant's Lake, Guysborough County, on July 17, 1893.  His parents, Archibald and Flora, raised a family of seven children - three boys and four girls - on their family farm.  An older brother, Alexander Laughlin (b. April 1, 1888), moved to Western Canada sometime before 1911, working as a storekeeper before being drafted into military service at Calgary on January 4, 1918.

Sgt. Alexander D. 'Nandy' MacIsaac
 Nandy was not as adventurous as his older sibling, travelling only as far as Antigonish, where he found employment as a clerk.  On March 21, 1916, he decided to enlist in the 193rd Battalion, which was canvassing for recruits across northeastern Nova Scotia.  His initial rank at enlistment -"cadet" - suggests that he had an interest in military activities, although no prior service is noted on his attestation papers.  His regimental record suggests that his superiors saw "leadership potential" in this young recruit, as he was promoted to "provisional Corporal" on June 5, 1916 and later to "Adjutant Corporal with pay" on October 12, 1916.  Subsequent service at the front would prove their judgment to be well founded.

The 193rd Battalion trained at Aldershot throughout the summer of 1916 before relocating to Halifax in preparation for overseas deployment.  On October 12, 1916 - the same day that his promotion to Adjutant Corporal became official - young Nandy MacIsaac boarded the SS Olympic with the members of Nova Scotia's famed "Highland Brigade" for their trans-Atlantic journey.  The Brigade's four battalions disembarked at Liverpool, England on October 18, travelling by train and then foot to Witley Camp, Surrey, England.

When military authorities decided to dissolve the 193rd Battalion later that year, Nandy was transferred to the 185th Battalion (Cape Breton Highlanders), one of two regiments that survived the Highland Brigade's dissolution, on December 29, 1916.  He remained in England throughout 1917, training in preparation for an overseas assignment.  His leadership potential soon became apparent, as he was promoted to "A/Sgt." with the pay of Corporal on November 10, 1917.  Before year's end, he was granted the full pay to which his rank was entitled.

As with many other volunteers, Nandy's military career seems to have "stalled" in England.  Promotions may have indicated leadership potential, but the vast majority of men who voluntarily enlisted for service had one major goal in mind - to see action on the front lines in Belgium and France.  In order to hasten such a transfer, Nandy reverted to ranks "at his own request" on February 25, 1918.  Four days later, he was transferred to the 25th Battalion and proceeded across the English Channel for service at the front.

25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) Cap Badge
Nandy spent two weeks at Canadian Base Details (CBD) in France before being transferred to the 25th in the field on March 14, 1918.  It did not take long for him to make a positive impression on his new unit.  One week after his arrival, he was awarded a "Good Conduct Badge".  As his service in France unfolded, his performance in uniform would earn additional recognition from his both commanding officers and the Imperial authorities.

*****

On March 15, 1918, the 25th Battalion was enjoying a period of rest, recreation and training near Raimbert, France, when Pte. Alexander MacIsaac and three "other ranks" (OR) reinforcements joined the unit.  One week later, officers received orders to stand by "for a sudden move to the line… owing to [an] expected attack by the enemy".  The men relocated to Wailly on March 29, spending two days in support positions before retiring to billets without seeing action. 

Finally, on April 5, the battalion moved into front line positions at Neuville-Vitasse with a "trench strength" of 20 officers and 668 OR.  Over the next several days, both sides exchanged artillery fire, with the 25th's position "heavily shelled with gas from 4.00 am to 7.00 am" on April 8.  The battalion recorded no casualties and was relieved of front line duty the following day, retiring for three days to support positions before moving into billets at Wailly for a period of rest and training.

Four days later, on April 16, Nandy accompanied the regiment into the front lines near Mercatel.  The following day brought the first significant casualties since his arrival, when three OR were killed by a direct artillery strike on a machine gun placement.  Otherwise, the situation was relatively quiet, with intermittent exchanges of artillery fire, the occasional gas shell and frequent enemy aircraft activity. On April 24, the 25th was once again relieved of front line duty and retired to billets at Bailleulval.

Mackenzie tartan (worn by 25th Battalion's pipe band)
The battalion's war diary records an interesting meeting that occurred on April 29, when the unit's officers discussed a proposal to transform the regiment into a "Highland unit", complete with the kilt.  A resolution requesting a change of name to "25th Canadian Battalion, Acadian Highlanders, Nova Scotia Regiment" and formal adoption of Highland dress was approved by both officers and enlisted men and forwarded to the authorities.  Disappointingly, the war would end before the request could be considered.

The battalion continued to serve in rotation along the Mercatel sector of the front lines throughout May and June.  The only notable incident during this period occurred on June 13, when a party of 6 officers and 140 OR from the 25th raided an enemy outpost line, capturing 5 prisoners - including 2 officers - and one machine gun and killing an estimated 50 to 60 German soldiers.  One officer and 1 OR soldier were killed in the raid, with 22 OR wounded and 3 missing after the encounter.
On June 30, the men retired to billets at Bellacourt for a much-deserved rest.  A delegation of 200 men participated in a July 1 "Dominion Day" Canadian Corps athletic competition at Tinques, with the unit spending the remainder of the month resting, training and enjoying the occasional recreational activity near Arras, France.

Nandy and the men of the 25th returned to the trenches near Bois de Blangy in the evening hours of August 5.  They remained in this location for two days before moving to "jumping off" positions near Cachy on August 7, in preparation for an attack scheduled the following day.  The battalion was about to participate in the battle of Amiens, a major counterattack in response to the German "spring offensive" that had taken place earlier that same year.  In retrospect, the events that unfolded over the next few days mark the beginning of the war's eventual end.

The Allied attack was carefully planned, with particular emphasis on surprising the enemy.  The 25th's war diary notes that "no whistling or singing was allowed" as the men marched to their assigned location, and "all ranks were forbidden to enter any village.  The importance of secrecy was appreciated by the men, who acted accordingly."

Canadian soldiers at Amiens, August 1918
The attack was scheduled to begin with an artillery barrage at 4:20 am on the morning of August 8, 1918.  "A thick mist hung over the ground" as the guns opened fire on German positions at "Zero hour".  One hour later, Nandy and the men of the 25th Battalion advanced "in support" of an attack spearheaded by two of its fellow 5th Brigade units, the 24th and 26th Battalions.  Their objective - to advance approximately 1000 yards beyond the village of Guillacourt - was achieved by noon. 

The day's war diary entry provides a sense of the challenges faced in the advance: "The mist and smoke was so thick that it was impossible to proceed other than by compass [, which] was also difficult at times owing to the obscurity of all land marks".  At day's end, the battalion remained in the newly consolidated line.  Its casualties were relatively light, considering the ferocity of battle.  Two officers were killed and another 5 wounded, while 6 OR were killed, 102 wounded and 3 missing in the battle's aftermath.

The following day, the battalion was order to continue the attack from their positions, proceeding "over the ridge in front of Caix" at 1 pm in the face of a "light artillery barrage and strong enemy machine gun fire".  Approximately 250 German soldiers holding front line positions surrendered and were taken prisoner as the advance continued.  The war diary records stiff resistance from "large numbers of enemy machine gun posts", but the battalion persevered.  By day's end, the unit had captured the villages of Veely and Meharicourt, with assistance from several tanks.  One officer was wounded, 6 OR killed and an additional 152 wounded in the day's fighting.

Nandy and the soldiers of the 25th remained in the newly established front lines near Amiens until the night of August 16-17, when they were retired to billets at Caix.  In the aftermath of the battle, Nandy found himself in a new role.  On August 9, while engaged in battle near Amiens, he was officially appointed "a/L/Cpl.", with the pay of "L/Cpl".  By month's end, he received an additional promotion to "Corporal".  The leadership qualities apparent during his early months of training were once again being recognized on the battlefields of France.

Canadian soldiers along the Arras - Cambrai road, August 1918
The 25th participated in the first three days of the battle of Arras (August 26 - September 5, 1918) before being relieved of front line duty on August 29 and retiring to billets at Achicourt.  Its battle strength had been significantly reduced as a result of the month's fighting, and much needed reinforcements arrived in small numbers throughout late August and early September.  As a result, the battalion spent several weeks resting and training as its new members were integrated into the unit. 

On September 19, Corporal MacIsaac returned to the front lines with the 25th, which was assigned a sector of trench southeast of the village of Inchy-en-Artois.  Two days later, an enemy attack on their right flank was "completely repulsed" and "the enemy retired to their former positions [,] leaving many dead and wounded in our hands".  Heavy artillery shelling the next day was followed by a German infantry attack at 9 pm, but once again the enemy was "forced to withdraw".  The war diary entry records "numerous counter-attacks" through the night, each "repulsed by our bombs and machine gun fire".  Casualties were light, with only 5 OR wounded in the day's action.

Fighting intensified on September 25, with a heavy artillery barrage at 5 am followed by a German infantry "attack in force".  The war diary describes the battalion's response:

"Our S.O.S. was sent up and the field guns opened up immediately.  We prevented the enemy from entering our trenches and in many places our men started over the top to meet the enemy, who was completely repulsed after some heavy fighting.  The enemy continued to bombard our trenches all day, lifting fire toward evening." 

Later that night, the 25th was relieved by the 44th Canadian Infantry Battalion and retired to bivouac and trench shelters at Hendecourt.  Six OR were killed and an additional 16 wounded in the day's fighting, relatively light casualties considering the intensity of the attack.

Canadian soldiers in Cambrai Square, October 1918
Following several days' rest, Nandy and the men of the 25th received orders to "stand to" on September 30 in anticipation of a "sudden move to the line".  The following day, the battalion moved back into trenches in front of Sailly.  The men encountered intermittent artillery shelling over the next several days, and "enemy bombing planes [were] active" as the men worked on trenches along an adjacent railway line at night.

Once week later, the battalion was assigned a vital task in a key battle unfolded over the strategically important location of Cambrai.  German troops controlled several bridges that crossed the canals around the town, and the 25th was given the objective of capturing one such position at Canal de L'Escaut.  According to the war diary's October 9th entry, "at 0130… the [25th] Battalion attacked the Canal.., 'C' and 'D' Companies establishing bridgeheads…. 'A' and 'B' Companies continued the attack and reached their objective in a short time and consolidated their positions…. Casualties - 15 O. R. killed and 85 O. R. wounded."

The brief war diary description does not reveal the entire story of what transpired in those early morning hours.  The men faced significant enemy resistance in establishing the bridgeheads.  One Company, under the command of Captain Charles Beckett Holmes, encountered an enemy machine gun nest upon crossing the canal.  The outcome of the attack hung in the balance as several soldiers advanced in the face of unrelenting gunfire.

Reverse of Sgt. Alexander D. MacIsaac's Medals - DCM, British War Medal & Victory Medal
Nandy was one of four men who "rushed forward… and attacked the [machine gun] post[,] killing five of the enemy, capturing eight prisoners and two machine guns."  Their daring action ensured the success of the day's attack.  In the aftermath of the battle, Cpl. Alexander MacIsaac was one of seven "other ranks" from the 25th Battalion to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, in recognition of "marked gallantry and initiative during the attack…. His fine action enabled his company to advance to their objective."

The battalion remained stationary for one day before relocating to a new position on the front lines following an October 11 attack by the 4th and 6th Brigades.  Three days later, Nandy and the men of the 25th retired to billets at Tilloy, passing the next two weeks resting, cleaning up and training in preparation for a return to action.  Nandy's days on the front lines came to an end when he proceeded to England on October 25, 1918 "with a view to obtaining a commission" as an officer.  The leadership skills evident throughout his service with the 193rd, 185th and 25th Battalions were thus officially acknowledged.

Nandy was posted to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot at Bramshott, where he was appointed "a/Sgt. with pay" effective immediately.  His officers' training, however, was brought to an end by the November 11, 1918 armistice.  On November 13, Nandy was transferred to the 17th Reserve Battalion, where he remained "A/Sgt. with pay".  One month later, he was posted "on command" as Sergeant with "10 Canadian Reserves" at Bramshott.  On January 12, 1919, he was transferred to CEF No. 6 D. D. Halifax and departed England for Canada on January 31 aboard the Empress of Britain.  On February 14, 1919, Sgt. Alexander D. MacIsaac was officially discharged from military service at Halifax.

*****

After his discharge, Nandy remained in Halifax, where he received his Distinguished Conduct Medal from HRH Edward, Prince of Wales, in an August 1919 ceremony.  The event marked the completion of his military career.  Nandy found employment in the Halifax area as a tailor and settled into civilian life.  On August 24, 1924, he married Mary Teresa MacDonald, a native of Ketch Harbour who was working in the city as a stenographer.  The newlyweds took up residence at Mary's 95 Jubilee Road address.  Nandy subsequently opened a tailor shop under the business name "Wilmot's".

Sgt. Alexander MacIsaac receiving the Distinguished Conduct Medal from HRH Edward, Prince of Wales
Sadly, Alexander D. MacIsaac's life was cut short by poor health.  After being hospitalized for nine months with a progressive brain infection, he died in hospital on February 5, 1932 and was buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Halifax.  Only his wife Mary and his six siblings survived him, as the young couple had no children.  The promotions and awards bestowed on him are fitting testimony to the leadership qualities and dedication to duty he displayed throughout his service to "King and Country".

*****

Sources:

Regimental Record of Sgt. Alexander MacIsaac, No. 902010.  Library and Archives Canada.
RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 6911 - 29.  Available online.

War Diaries: 25th Canadian Infantry Battalion.  War Diaries of the First World War.    Library and Archives Canada.  RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3 , Volume 4933 , Reel T-10736.  File : 419.  Available online.

Photographs of Sgt. Alexander MacIsaac courtesy of his great-nephew, Mr. Neil MacIaac, Giant's Lake, Guysborough County, NS.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The 25th Battalion - Nova Scotia Rifles

During the First World War, three Nova Scotian battalions saw combat in France and Belgium as distinct fighting units - the Royal Canadian Regiment, 85th and 25th Battalions.  The Royal Canadian Regiment, based in Halifax, was the only unit in existence at the time of the war's outbreak.  Having previously served in both the Northwest Rebellion (1885) and South African (Boer) War (1899-1903), its overseas deployment was delayed by a garrison assignment in Bermuda from September 1914 until August 1915.  Upon returning to Nova Scotia, its members attested for overseas service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), arriving in France in October 1915.  The second unit, the 85th Battalion ("Nova Scotia Highlanders") was formed entirely by volunteer enlistment in a province-wide campaign conducted throughout the autumn and winter of 1915-16. After ten months of training in England, it was deployed at the front in February 1917. 

25th Battalion Cap Badge
The third unit - 25th Battalion, "Nova Scotia Rifles" - is not as well known as its counterparts, despite the fact that it was the first Nova Scotian regiment to see action at the front.  It was officially authorized on November 7, 1914 under the command of Lt. Col. G. A. Lecain of Roundhill, Annapolis County, who immediately organized a recruitment campaign.  Regimental headquarters were established at the Halifax Armouries, with recruitment offices in Sydney, Amherst, New Glasgow, Truro and Yarmouth.  Organizational efforts were hampered by a lack of suitable training facilities.  Nevertheless, the battalion achieved full strength (1000 men) by late December 1914, with an additional ten percent "reserve" in training at the Armouries.

The 25th was not officially considered a "Highland" battalion, despite the fact that it included a kilted pipe band, nor was it was part of the "Highland Brigade" later recruited in Nova Scotia.  Military officials later prohibited its members from wearing kilts, a decision that became a sore point with many of its members.  In fact, the battalion possessed a strong "Highland" element.  It had a historical connection to the British army's Seaforth Highlanders - the "Ross Shire Buffs" - a unit originally recruited by the chiefs of Clan MacKenzie.  The 25th's official tartan was MacKenzie of Seaforth, proudly worn by its pipe band, and its members referred to themselves as the "MacKenzie Battalion" throughout the war.  Its regimental march and assembly tune was the air "Mackenzie Highlanders" , leaving no doubt as to the unit's Scottish character.

Officially organized on March 15, 1915, the 25th Battalion mustered in front of Province House in April 1915 for a ceremony at which the people of Nova Scotia presented the regiment with two fully equipped field kitchens and the sum of $ 2500 .  On May 20, 1915, its members boarded HMTS Saxonia, disembarking at Devonport, England nine days later.  The men traveled by train to Westenhanger, Kent, at which point they marched to East Sandling Camp, Shorncliffe in the early hours of the morning.

Officers' Collar Badge
The 25th Battalion was assigned to the 5th Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division, along with the 22nd (the famed "Van Doos"),  24th and 26th Battalions.  Brigade personnel was recruited entirely from Eastern Canada - specifically Quebec, Montreal, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia - and trained at Shorncliffe for three and a half months, eight hours a day, along with regular four-hour "night operations" training.  On September 15, 1915, the 5th Brigade traveled from Folkestone to Boulogne, France, moving by train the following day from Port de Brieques to St. Omer, France.  After a five-day march in their newly issued "Kitchener boots", the 25th reached the front lines in Belgium.

On the night of September 22-23, 1915, the "Mackenzie Battalion" took up combat positions near Ypres, Belgium, becoming the first Nova Scotian battalion to see combat in the war.  The regiment spent its first "tours" in trenches H and I of the Kemmel Sector of the Ypres Salient, a strategic piece of high ground that protruded into German lines.  Its members passed the autumn and winter of 1915-16 in this precarious location, gaining valuable experience "in the line".  Their military skills would be severely tested in several 1916 battles.

In April 1916, the 25th was assigned to defend the front lines in a sector referred to as the "St. Eloi craters".  The battalion moved into several large depressions created in late March 1916 when British forces detonated several large mines planted beneath the German front lines.   The 25th occupied this precarious location in a rotation that lasted for almost six weeks.  The lack of properly constructed trenches left the men dangerously exposed as they were subjected to hostile fire on three sides.  German forces attacked one crater five times during one particular night, but the battalion successfully repelled each assault.  When finally relieved, the unit's manpower had been reduced to the point where soldiers from other regiments were brought in to assist in evacuating wounded personnel.

25th Officers Capt. William A. Livingstone, MC & Bar (left) and Major Guy McLean Matheson, DSO, MC, MM
As with many other regiments, the members of the 25th sought diversions to distract them from the perils of their circumstances.  While serving in Belgium, the battalion purchased a two-week-old goat from a Belgian farmer for the grand sum of two francs.  Suitably named "Robert the Bruce" and trimmed in MacKenzie tartan, the animal served as battalion mascot for the duration of the war.  The goat was trained to prance in front of the battalion's pipe band, eat cigarettes, drink beer, and demand its blanket at "lights out".  Apparently, the animal was repeatedly sold to Belgian farmers, only to be "retrieved" by the men under cover of darkness.  At war's end, Robert the Bruce retired to a much deserved rest on the Baddeck, Nova Scotia farm of one of the battalion's most decorated officers, Major Guy McLean Matheson, MC, MM, DSO.

The "Mackenzie Battalion" spent 339 days in the treacherous Belgian trenches, 164 of which involved front line duty.  Its reassignment to the Somme region of France in September 1916 may have come as a relief to the men, but this new locale proved to be just as treacherous as the muddy trenches of Belgium.  On September 15, 1916, the 25th participated in an attack on Courcelette, moving through the town, establishing and holding new forward positions for several days before being relieved.  In the early days of October 1916, the 25th Battalion took part in a series of attacks on Regina Trench, one of the most fortified German positions on the front lines.  The price of its Somme engagements was costly.  By the time the battalion left the area, less than 100 of the men who had initially arrived in France with the unit were still available for duty.  The regiment relocated to Lens, where it was reconstituted with reinforcements and undertook training in preparation for a return to the front.

The 25th spent the autumn and winter of 1916 - 17 in the Lens sector, where its soldiers honed their skills as "trench raiders".  Its personnel captured enemy positions at Fresnoy and Arleux, France in February 1917, suffering severe casualties in the attacks.  Several months later, the unit participated in the April 9, 1917 attack on Vimy Ridge, as well as the Second Battle of the Scarpe later that same month.  On August 15, 1917, it played a key role in the Battle of Hill 70, withstanding a ferocious German counter-attack after participating in an advance near Cite St. Laurent.  As part of the 5th Brigade, the battalion also took part in the final assault on the Belgian town of Passchendaele in November 1917.

25th Battalion brass buttons
In March 1918, the 25th relocated once again to northern France, where German forces launched a major "spring offensive".  The battalion was assigned to the Mercatel-Vetasse sector during the assault.  In its aftermath, the unit established a reputation as the "Master Raiders" of the Canadian Corps, carrying out excursions into enemy outposts on each tour of front line duty.  On occasion, its soldiers ventured as far as three-quarters of a mile into German lines, earning the nickname the "raiding battalion" in recognition of their daring exploits. 

By late summer, a major Allied assault was launched on German positions in northern France.  The 25th was "in the line" at Amiens on August 8, participating in an attack that advanced a remarkable 12 miles in two days.  Relocated to Berneville, near Arras, its personnel fought in the advance that continued throughout the month.  After a brief two-day break in early September, the battalion returned to the front lines, where it remained until after the fall of Cambrai on October 9, 1918.

On November 9-10, 1918, the members of the 25th participated in what became its last combat action of the war - an attack on Elouges, a small mining town near Mons, Belgium.  The battalion was scheduled to participate in an assault on Mons the following day when news of the 11 am armistice arrived.  Eight days later, the 25th began a lengthy march to the Rhine River as part of the Allied "army of occupation".  The regiment crossed the German border at 10:08 am December 5, continuing to Bonn, where it crossed the Rhine at 10:47 am December 13, 1918.

Brass Insignia
After spending six weeks in Germany, the 25th returned to Belgium for a well-deserved rest.  On April 9, 1919, the "MacKenzie Battalion" departed Belgium for Havre, France, where it boarded the Prince Arthur, a vessel that traveled from Boston, Massachusetts to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia in the years prior to the war.  The regiment arrived at Southampton the following day and proceeded to Witley Camp, Surrey, where it encamped for one month.  Finally, on May 10, 1919, the men of the 25th began the final part of their journey home, boarding the SS Olympic at Southampton with the rest of the 5th Brigade's battalions.  The battalion was "mustered out" at Halifax on May 16, 1919 and officially disbanded on September 20, 1920. 

Altogether, 263 officers and 4829 "other ranks" served with the 25th Battalion on the battlefields of France and Belgium.  A total of 156 officers and 2557 "other ranks" were invalided as wounded or sick to England, and an additional 32 officers and 686 "other ranks" were killed in action during its tours of duty.  Of its original personnel, only 2 commissioned officers and 96 "other ranks" were still with the unit at war's end.  Unlike the other two Nova Scotian battalions that saw action in France and Belgium, the 25th Battalion was not perpetuated after the war.  Its service record at the front remains as impressive proof of the sacrifices endured by the first Nova Scotian battalion to see combat in "The Great War".

*****
Sources:

25th Battalion.  The Matrix Project.  Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group.  Available online.

Hunt, M. S.  Nova Scotia's Part in the Great War.  Archive CD Books Canada, Inc., Manotick, Ontario (2007).  Available online.

MacNintch, John E. (Ted).  "The Brother Keepers" - Nova Scotians in the Great War.  Originally published in Celtic Heritage Magazine, Nov/Dec 2007.  Available online.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Lance Cpl. Arthur Stanford Horton - A 40th Battalion Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: November 17, 1893

Place of Birth: Canso, NS

Mother's Name: Henrietta 'Hattie' E. Worth

Father's Name: Hiram Charles Horton

Date of Enlistment: August 9, 1915 at Sydney, NS

Regimental Number: 415289

Rank: Private (later promoted to Lance Corporal)

Force: Infantry

Regiments: 40th Battalion; 5th Battalion Canadian Mounted Rifles

Location of service: England, Belgium & France

Occupation at Enlistment: Iron worker

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Hiram Horton (father)

Previous Military Experience: 94th Regiment (militia) - 3 months

*****

While early enlistments in the Canadian Expeditionary Force were not uncommon, the majority of Guysborough veterans volunteered or were drafted for overseas service during the last three years of the war.  This was not the case with Arthur Stanford Horton, who chose to enlist in the CEF during the first twelve months of the war.

Born in Canso on November 17, 1893, Arthur was raised in a busy household of ten children - four boys and six girls.  His father Hiram, a fisherman, was also a Canso native, while his mother, Henrietta 'Hattie' Worth, was born at Salmon River Lake.  An older brother, George, followed Arthur into military service, enlisting with the No. 10 Halifax Siege Battery on October 1, 1917.

Arthur left home sometime after 1911, finding employment in the Sydney area as an ironworker.  Like many other young men, he took an interest in the military activity that swept the county after the outbreak of war, joining the 94th Regiment, a local militia unit.  It likely came as no surprise to his parents when, after three months of militia training, Arthur visited the Sydney recruitment office of the 40th Battalion and enlisted for overseas service on August 9, 1915. 

Arthur's military journey began with a trip to Valcartier, Quebec, where the battalion was training in preparation for deployment at the front.  On October 18, 1915, Arthur followed the members of the 40th Battalion onto the SS Saxonia for their trans-Atlantic voyage, arriving in England ten days later.  The regiment then travelled by train to the newly established military camp at Bramshott, where Arthur spent the next five months.


Perhaps not surprisingly, the attractions of a foreign country were a considerable distraction to a young lad from Guysborough County.  Arthur's service record states that he forfeited one day's pay for being "absent without leave" from midnight November 16 until 8 am November 17, 1915.  His record describes no further misconduct, leaving one to conclude that the young soldier "learned his lesson".  In fact, a later promotion to Lance Corporal suggests that over time he made a positive impression on his commanding officers.

Arthur spent the winter of 1915-16 at Bramshott, training and awaiting orders to depart for the front.  During this time, he suffered from a bout of influenza and was admitted to hospital at Moore Barracks, Shorncliffe on February 24, 1916, spending nine days recuperating before rejoining his unit.

The 40th Battalion suffered the eventual fate of most Nova Scotian regiments when its soldiers were dispersed to existing regiments and the unit was transformed into a "reserve" battalion in the spring of 1916.  As a result, on March 15, 1916 - eleven days after his discharge from hospital - Pte. Arthur Stanford Horton was transferred to the 5th Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles, the unit with which he served for the duration of his combat experience.

*****
The 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles (CMR) Regiment was organized in November 1914.  Under the command of Lt.-Colonel G. H. Baker, it drew its initial recruits from the Eastern Townships and mobilized at Sherbrooke, Quebec.  The regiment departed Quebec City on July 18, 1915, arriving in England nine days later with a complement of 35 officers and 601 "other ranks".  5th CMR was assigned to the 2nd Brigade, Canadian Mounted Rifles, and proceeded overseas to France on October 14, 1915.

5th Canadian Mounted Rifles Cap Badge
Mounted infantry units played a significant role in Canada's late 19th - early 20th century military history.  Two mounted infantry units - the Canadian Mounted Rifle Corps (later absorbed by the Royal Canadian Dragoons) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Rifles (later re-named Lord Stratchcona's Horse) - were part of the country's Permanent Active Militia.  Other units were formed as required in time of war.  Six such battalions travelled to South Africa, where two engaged in combat during the Boer War (1899-1903).  With the outbreak of war in Europe, Canada raised thirteen Mounted Rifle regiments as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. 

As the first year of the war progressed, it became increasingly apparent that mounted units were no longer effective military weapons.  Battlefields crisscrossed by trenches and strewn with barbed wire, combined with modern weapons such as the machine gun, dramatically changed the nature of combat.  Soldiers on horseback may have been effective on flat, open battlefields, but were poorly suited to the conditions that emerged along the Western Front in 1915.  While several Canadian mounted units - most notably Lord Stratchona's Horse - were maintained throughout the war and fought with distinction in key battles, such as the defines of the Somme (March 1917) and Moreuil Wood (March 1918), the emergence of the tank eventually resulted in their transformation into mobile armored regiments after the war.

On January 1, 1916, in acknowledgement of this transformation, British commanders changed the designation of four CMR units - 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th - from regiments to battalions.  Their personnel formed the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade and were assigned to the newly created 3rd Canadian Division.  The change was not well received by the men, who disparagingly referred to infantry soldiers as "gravel crushers".  In the end, however, it was a soldier's duty to follow orders and the units set about making the necessary adjustments, drawing the necessary manpower to increase their numbers to full battalion strength from existing infantry regiments in England.  As a result, Pte. Arthur Horton officially became a member of the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles on March 15, 1916 and immediately left England to join the unit at the front lines.

Canadian Mounted Rifles recruitment poster
*****

In mid-March 1916, 5th CMR was located at Meteren, France, close to the Belgian border, where the men were enjoying a period of rest and training behind the front lines.  Several days after Arthur's arrival, on the night of March 20-21, the unit moved into reserve positions near Ypres, Belgium.  The battalion's March 24 war diary described the weather conditions: "Heavy snow fall during night.  Weather cold. Northeasterly wind".  Arthur may have awakened to the first impression that he was back home in Nova Scotia, but the reality of his situation quickly became apparent as the unit moved into the front line trenches later that evening.

Arthur's introduction to war at the front came quickly.  "Snipers on both sides [were] very active during [the] morning" of March 25, as was enemy artillery fire, resulting in 6 wounded soldiers by days' end.  Artillery shelling, though intermittent, was a regular occurrence, as were nighttime patrols into "no man's land", probing and assessing German defenses.  On the evening of March 28, the unit was relieved by 4th CMR and moved into support positions behind the front line.  The men rested during the day and participated in working parties carrying out trench repairs during the night.

This was the routine Arthur and 5th CMR followed for the next two months.  While there were no battles during this period, artillery fire was a constant threat, with the additional hazards of snipers, rifle grenades and trench mortars when assigned to the front trenches.  As April passed, temperatures rose but the trenches remained wet and muddy, making life uncomfortable at the best of times.  Each tour of duty at the front lines resulted in casualties.  For example, the May 23 war diary entry took stock of the battalion's losses after 8 days at the front: 2 officers and 3 "other ranks" killed; 2 "other ranks" died of wounds; 3 officers and 36 "other ranks" wounded, for a total of 46 casualties.  While these numbers are disturbing, the worst was yet to come.

On June 1, 1916, the battalion moved through the town of Ypres into support positions behind the front lines at a location called "Maple Copse".  Two of its "sister" battalions - 1st CMR and 4th CMR - occupied the front trenches at Mount Sorrel.  The 8th Brigade had been assigned to hold a 2.2-kilometer section of a sector known as the Ypres Salient, an area of higher ground protruding into German-held territory.  Its elevation made it strategically important, as it protected British lines from enemy fire and provided a vantage point from which German positions could be observed.

The 3rd Division, to which the 8th Brigade belonged, had served in the Belgian front lines since early 1916 but had yet to see major combat, mainly due to winter and spring weather conditions.  Its soldiers would receive their "baptism by fire" in early June, when German forces launched an assault on the strategically valuable high ground held by the 8th Brigade.

5th Canadian Mounted Rifles soldiers at Valcartier, Quebec (1916)
An attack had been carefully planned, fresh German infantry units training intensely for several weeks.  On the same day that the 5th CMR relocated to Maple Copse, 6 fully-manned and well-equipped German infantry battalions, supported by sizeable numbers of reserves, took up their positions along the front lines directly opposite the 1st and 4th CMR, neither of whom were fully manned or prepared for what was about to occur.  The following day, Pte. Arthur Horton would receive his first major combat experience in what became known as the Battle of Mount Sorrel.

The 5th CMR's war diary describes June 2, 1916 as "a red letter day in the history of the Battalion, ever to be remembered by those who lived through it."  In the early morning, German forces detonated a large mine along the front line held by 4th CMR and launched a heavy, day-long bombardment of 8th Brigade's position.  5th CMR moved into positions along the heavily damaged communication trenches leading to the front lines.  Artillery fire cut off telephone lines to 4th CMR's trenches, forcing the brigade to rely on runners to convey messages.

At 8:30 pm, German infantry advanced toward the 8th Brigade's front lines, while supporting "Trench Mortar, Bombs, and guns of all calibres [enfiladed] the [5th CMR's trench from the East with shrapnel".  Additional attacks were launched to the east and southeast of the unit's location, its personnel managing to hold its support position only at considerable cost.  Artillery bombardment and machine gun fire continued until 11 pm as nearby regiments attempted, with limited success, to support the 8th Brigade's position.

5th CMR's war diary describes what unfolded throughout the night and early morning:  "A lively bombardment continued all night and at about 7 am [June 3] the 14th Battalion advanced across the open in a very gallant manner, but their attack being in broad daylight was apparently unavailing, for we saw nothing more of them than a constant stream of wounded returning."  Enemy artillery fire continued throughout the day, the diary noting that "during this time, there were only two of our officers in the line, the balance being killed or wounded".  That evening, 9th Brigade moved into the sector, relieving 5th CMR and the other units of the 8th Brigade.


Battlefield at Mount Sorrel, Belgium (June 1916)
The remnants of the battalion retired to a rest camp and took stock of the situation.  While German infantry seized large sections of the front line, 5th CMR held its ground, preventing the attack from advancing further.  In the ensuing days, the lost ground would be regained, but the 8th Brigade would play no further role in the fighting.  Arthur had received his introduction to combat on the front lines, and the results were shocking to say the least.  The day after the battle, only 325 of the battalion's 650 "rank and file" remained on active duty.  Twelve officers were lost in the fighting - killed, wounded or missing - with an additional 59 "other ranks" killed, 272 wounded and 50 missing. 

Among the regiment's casualties was its OC, Lt. Colonel G. H. Baker, commander since its inception.  He was buried "with full military honors" at Poperinghe Military Cemetery on June 4, 1916.  The two front line 8th Brigade battalions fared even worse.  4th CMR suffered an astounding 89 % casualty rate, while only 135 of 692 members of 1st CMR were available for duty after the attack.  The Brigade's experience at Mount Sorrel was nothing short of catastrophic, to say the least, but Pte. Arthur Horton counted himself among the "lucky" soldiers who emerged from the battle unscathed.

On June 5, the remnants of 5th CMR moved into billets across the Belgian border at Steenvorde, France.  The battalion spent the next six weeks recovering from the impact of battle as 534 "other ranks" and 12 new officers joined its ranks.  It was "back to basics" for the men, following a training regimen focused on preparing the new arrivals for front line combat.  In early July, 11 officers and 489 "other ranks" left for a four-day "instructional tour" of the front line trenches.  The bulk of the men were reinforcements, although the battalion's officers made sure to send along "enough of the old men to give the necessary stiffening". 

On July 10, Canadian Corps Commander, Lt. General Hon. Sir Julian Byng inspected the reconstituted battalion.  The men apparently "passed muster" as a little over one week later - July 19, 1916 - Arthur and 5th CMR returned to the front trenches at Zillebeke, near Ypres.  It did not take long for the realities of war at the front to return - on the battalion's first day back in the trenches, 3 men were killed, 4 wounded and 8 cases of "shell shock" were reported.  The men repaired the trenches and conducted nighttime patrols of "no man's land" for five days, before spending a week in support positions.  Having been "reintroduced" to the front, 5th CMR retired to the rest camp at Steenvorde on August 1, returning "to the line" nine days later.

Map of trenches occupied by 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade (August 28, 1916)
The battalion spent the remainder of the month on rotation in the Ypres Salient.  Arthur's time on the front lines was interrupted on August 27, when he was admitted to 3rd Stationary Hospital, Boulogne with "PUO" - pyrexia (fever) of unknown origin.  One week later, he was transferred to Canadian Base Details (CBD), where he spent two weeks recuperating from a suspected case of food poisoning.  On September 16, he was selected for promotion to Lance Corporal, a reflection no doubt of both his performance and the experience gained serving at the front.  Two days later, he left CBD to rejoin the battalion in field.

During Arthur's absence, 5th CMR had relocated to the Somme River region of France.  No doubt, the men were happy to leave what most Canadian soldiers considered the "death trap" of the Ypres Salient.  As events unfolded, however, their new location would prove to be no less treacherous.
While the 8th Brigade was serving on the Belgian front lines, British forces had launched a major offensive in the Somme River valley on July 1, 1916.  While modestly successful in pushing back the German front lines, the advance came at an alarming cost in terms of casualties.  Fighting continued as Arthur's unit arrived in the area, with British commanders attempted to consolidate and expand upon the summer's gains in the dwindling days of autumn.

At the time of Arthur's return - September 18, 1916 - 5th CMR was stationed in Corps reserve quarters near Bouzincourt, France.  The men spent the next week conducting working parties, unloading supplies and repairing local roads as reinforcements arrived to replace personnel lost in a recent engagement.  On September 27, the battalion moved back into reserve positions near Courcelette, in preparation for a planned attack on German positions at a location called "Regina Trench".  This would be the second major engagement in which Arthur participated during his six months with 5th CMR.  Having experienced so much in such a short period of time, one wonders what his expectations were as the unit once again prepared for battle.

*****

The planned assault on Regina Trench was part of a larger attack, later referred to by historians as the Battle of the Ancre Heights.  As with most conflicts along the Western Front, it was a struggle to occupy a strategically advantageous section of high ground, in this case a trench stretching for 3 kilometers across the entire length of the front opposite Canadian lines.  As described by Canadian historian Tim Cook, the German position was "built over the crest of a spur on Thiepval Ridge", a location that was virtually impossible to hit with artillery fire.  The attack, planned for October 1, was being launched on "one of the most fortified positions on the Western Front".

Aerial photograph of Regina Trench battlefield
On the evening of September 30, Arthur followed the members of 5th CMR into the front lines in preparation for the attack.  The battalion consisted of 524 men "all ranks" as it moved into positions opposite the German trenches.  On the eve of battle, commanding officer Lt. Colonel D. C. Draper summarized the situation in these words: "We are to attack, capture, and consolidate a line of German trench known as REGINA TRENCH.  All ranks keyed up and in fine spirits, very eager to attack."
The following morning, the "weather [was] dull and cool" as the men awaited the order to attack.  At zero hour - 3:15 pm - a supporting artillery barrage commenced on schedule, followed one minute later by an infantry advance.  The men were met with "intense" machine gun and rifle fire, "causing many casualties" as they came to within 100 yards of German positions.  The battalion nevertheless captured its objective by 3:23 pm, but "strenuous fighting" continued in the captured trench section as the advance on each side of the 5th CMR's position had not kept pace with its progress.

4th CMR to the left and the 24th Battalion to the right of 5th CMR suffered significant casualties crossing "no man's land" and failed to capture their assigned objectives.  5th CMR thus found itself occupying approximately 100 yards of German trench, with "enemy… on both sides".  By 6:30 pm, the men had placed "blocks" at either end of their location, and succeeded in capturing an additional 500 yards of trench in close combat throughout the night.  Their position, however, was precarious as German forces launched repeated counter-attacks throughout the night and into the following day.  The unit's war diary describes the situation and final outcome in these words:

"Our men held on with great gallantry until two of our machine guns had been put out of action and the supply of bombs exhausted.  At 7 am [October 2] the position became untenable and our men retired in good order[,] bringing the majority of wounded out."

Later that evening, the Royal Canadian regiment relieved 5th CMR in the line.  The battalion's war diary reflected on the unit's performance: 

"All ranks displayed the greatest gallantry and devotion to duty.  They were severely tried, fighting continuously, often practically hand to hand for 34 hours against superior numbers." 

Three officers and 45 "other ranks" were killed in action.  One officer and one "other ranks" subsequently died of wounds, while 6 officers and 168 "other ranks" were wounded.  The war diary makes no mention of "missing" soldiers.  However, at least one member of the battalion was unaccounted for in the battle's aftermath.  According to his regimental record, Lance Corporal Arthur Stanford Horton was officially listed as "missing in action".

*****

After two more unsuccessful attempts, soldiers of the 4th Canadian Division finally captured Regina Trench on November 11, 1916.  By the time of its surrender, continual shelling had reduced the once formidable position to little more than a shallow ditch in the chalky soil of northern France.  The vast majority of Canadian casualties suffered during the 1916 Somme offensive - almost 24,000 in total - occurred during the two months the Canadian Corps spent capturing the German stronghold.  The success helped establish its reputation as an effective force on the battlefield, leading to an even more challenging assignment the following spring at Vimy Ridge.

The 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles recuperated from its losses at Regina Trench and continued to serve as part of the Canadian Corps for the duration of the war.  Its sacrifices in service of their country were far from over.  Returning to the battlefields of the Ypres Salient in the autumn of 1917, the regiment suffered 60 % casualties in the Battle of Passchendaele.

Lance Corporal Arthur Horton's record contains two entries after his disappearance during the fighting at Regina Trench.  On May 11, 1917, he was "now for official purposes presumed to have died on or between October 1 and 2 [1916]".  A final entry on September 6, 1917 officially listed Arthur as "killed in action" on October 2, 1916.  A commemorative gravesite is located in Regina Trench Cemetery, Grandcourt, France, in remembrance of Arthur Horton's sacrifice in the service of his country.  His remains were never recovered, lying somewhere beneath the battlefield were he so gallantly fought and died.

Regina Trench Cemetery, Grandcourt, France

*****

Sources:

5th CMR.  Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group.  Available online.

Canadian Mounted Rifles.  Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  Available online.

Canadian War Diaries: Canadian Mounted Rifles.  Canadian Great War Project.  Available online.

Cook, Tim.  At The Sharp End: Canadians Fighting in the Great War, 1914-1916, Volume I.  Toronto: Penguin Canada (2007).

Photos: Eastern Townships Resource Centre.  Available online.

Regimental Record of Lance Corporal Arthur Stanford Horton, No. 415289.  Library and Archives Canada.  RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 4511 - 59.  Available online.

War Diaries: 5th Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles.  War Diaries of the First World War.    Library and Archives Canada.  RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3, Volume 4949, Reel T-10759-10760.  File" 4t3.  Available online.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Halifax Rifles & 40th Battalion

Several of the regiments recruited in Nova Scotia during the First World War were built upon existing militia or military units.  One such example is the 40th Battalion, which grew out of the Halifax Rifles, a militia unit in existence at the time of the war's outbreak.  Created on May 14, 1860 in the aftermath of the Crimean War, the "Halifax Volunteer Battalion" was renamed the Halifax Battalion of Rifles in 1869 before being formally designated the 63rd Regiment (Halifax Rifles) on May 8, 1900.

Halifax Volunteer Battalion soldier, c. 1860
Members of the militia unit participated in several 19th century military campaigns.  A number volunteered for service with the military contingent sent to the Canadian West in response to the Northwest Rebellion of 1885.  During the South African (Boer) War (1899-1903), members of the Rifles voluntarily enlisted in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, which was actively involved in the conflict.

When Britain declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary in the summer of 1914, the Halifax Rifles responded by sending a draft of volunteers to the 14th Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment), one of the units that sailed to England in October 1914 as part of the first Canadian contingent.  The regiment's officers, however, were not satisfied with simply providing personnel for other units.  On January 1, 1915, the Canadian government authorized the creation of the 40th Battalion, under the command of Lt. Col. W. H. Gilborne (R. C. R.).  Built around military personnel enlisted in the Halifax Rifles, the newly created regiment immediately set out to raise a Nova Scotian battalion for overseas combat.

A member of the 63rd Halifax Rifles at McNab's Island camp, September 1914
 The 40th established detachments across the province - at Sydney, Glace Bay, North Sydney, Truro, Amherst, New Glasgow, Yarmouth, Lunenburg, Kentville and Digby - in addition to Halifax and McNab's Island.  After four months of recruiting, the battalion mobilized at Aldershot on May 11, 1915, where military training continued.  On June 21, the 40th relocated to Camp Valcartier, Quebec.  Prior to its departure for Europe, two "drafts" for overseas service were drawn from its ranks - 25 men to the 25th Battalion, and an additional 250 men and 5 officers to England as reinforcements.  While training at Valcartier, a third draft of 5 officers and 250 "other ranks" were sent to England.

Having spent the summer in training at Valcartier, the 40th Battalion boarded the SS Saxonia and departed Canada on October 18,1915.  Eleven days later, its 1143 personnel landed at Plymouth, England and proceeded to Bramshott Military Camp, becoming the first Canadian infantry battalion to be stationed there.  The 40th was assigned to the 9th Brigade, 3rd Canadian Division and continued its training in anticipation of deployment in France.
C. R. Fulton, Upper Stewiacke, NS (center) & J. Miller, Fogo, Nfld. (right) of the 63rd Halifax Rifles in CEF uniform
Unfortunately, the 40th Battalion suffered the same fate as most other Nova Scotian battalions.  The heavy demand for reinforcements due to significant casualties in the Third Battle of Ypres (June 2, 1916) led to the unit's relocation to East Sandling, England, where it was re-designated the 40th Reserve Battalion.  The regiment dispatched drafts of infantry personnel to virtually every component of the Canadian Corps as demand for reinforcements continued throughout the Battle of Somme (July - November 1916).

Eventually, the 40th Battalion absorbed the remaining personnel of the 64th, 104th, 106th (Nova Scotia Rifles) and 172nd Battalions.  The unit later returned to Bramshott, where it was re-designated the 216th Reserve Battalion.  When its manpower dwindled, the 216th was absorbed by the 17th Reserve Battalion.

40th Battalion Cap Badge
Over the course of the war, virtually all of the 40th Battalion's original recruits served on the front lines in France or Belgium.  Ten of its officers were killed in action, while nineteen were wounded.  Twelve officers received the Military Cross, while one was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross "for an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty performed whilst flying in active operations against the enemy".

After the end of the war, the Halifax Rifles continued to operate as a militia unit.  As time passed, its active membership dwindled, particularly in the years after the Second World War.  In 1965, the regiment was placed on the "Supplementary Order of Battle", its strength having been reduced to "nil".  The unit was reactivated as a reserve force on May 10, 2009, its personnel training to perform armoured reconnaissance.  Its resurrection is a fitting tribute to the men whose military exploits in defence of their country began with a small militia unit created in Halifax, Nova Scotia over 150 years ago. 

*****

Sources:

The Halifax Rifles (RCAC).  Wikipedia.  Available online.

Hunt, M. S.. Nova Scotia's Part in the Great War - 1920.  Archives CD Books Canada Inc., Manotick, Ontario: 2007.

Orders and Decorations - Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).  Veterans Affairs Canada.  Available online.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Pte. Matthew McGrath 'Mac' Manson - A Young Soldier's Story

Date of Birth:  May 30, 1899

Place of Birth: Sherbrooke, NS

Mother's Name: Agnes (McGrath) Manson

Father's Name: Francis Gilbert Manson

Date of Enlistment: August 12, 1916*

Regimental Number: 902354

Rank: Private

Force: Infantry, Canadian Expeditionary Force

Regiments: 193rd Battalion; 17th Reserve Battalion; 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders)

Location of service: Canada, England and France

Occupation at Enlistment: Teamster

Marital Status at Enlistment:  Single

Next of Kin: Francis Manson, Sherbrooke

*: Initial enlistment date of June 26, 1916 crossed off attestation paper and replaced by August 12, 1916.
*****

The vast majority of men who volunteered for overseas service in the first two years of the war were born between 1885 and 1895, making them close to twenty years of age or older at the time of enlistment.  While it was not uncommon for young men to lie about their birth year on their attestation papers, their deployment at the front was usually delayed once their age became apparent.  Matthew McGrath Manson's story is remarkable in that he made no attempt to lie about his age when he first enlisted, several months before his seventeenth birthday.  While others born in 1899 served overseas with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, the vast majority enlisted in the last two years of the war or were "drafted" in 1918.  Matthew's decision to enlist in the spring of 1916 - at a time when there was "no end in sight" for the conflict - is a unique aspect of his story.

Matthew McGrath 'Mac' Manson was born on May 30, 1899 in Sherbrooke, the youngest of four children raised by Agnes (McGrath) and Francis Gilbert Manson.  Four other children died at birth or in infancy.  According to family sources, Agnes spent much of her time in bed while pregnant with Mac, in hope of giving birth to a strong, healthy infant.

The Manson family (l to r): Mac, parents Francis & Agnes, Kate, Ernest, & Nellie (sitting) with her son Cicero
Mac spent his childhood in the family home on Sonora Road, Sherbrooke, where Francis made his living as a carriage maker, a trade he inherited from his father.  Mac attended school in Sherbrooke, completing Grade 9 before enrolling in a course at Maritime Business College, Halifax. His older siblings - particularly sisters Ellen 'Nellie' and Katherine 'Kate' - were very supportive during his formative years.  While studying in Halifax, Mac lived with his sister Nellie, a registered nurse, and her husband, Cicero Theodore Ritchie, in their Dartmouth home.  Kate also lived in Dartmouth, where she was employed as a teacher at Hawthorne St. School.

In March 1916, Mac completed his studies and returned to Sherbrooke two months shy of his seventeenth birthday.  At this time, Nova Scotia was awash in the excitement of an enlistment campaign launched by the regiments of the newly formed Highland Brigade.  One regiment in particular - the 193rd - focused its efforts on Antigonish and Guysborough Counties, establishing offices in the small rural communities in an effort to attract young men to its ranks.

Perhaps it was the attraction overseas experience or youthful exuberance at the prospect of a military career.  It may have simply been a lack of employment opportunities.  Whatever the motivation, Mac decided to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  When the 193rd Regiment launched its recruitment campaign in his native community, Mac contacted the Sherbrooke recruiting office on April 9, 1916 and took his initial oath in the village Court House, in the presence of his sister Kate. 

Kate & Mac, May 1916
Mac's actual date of enlistment is not clear.  His attestation papers bear the date June 26, 1916, which was subsequently crossed out and replaced with August 12.  Two other documents, however, prove that Mac was actively involved in the regiment's training well before this time.  His initial medical examination, conducted at Guysborough on April 29, 1916, lists his "apparent age" as "18 years", despite the birthdate of May 30, 1899 on his attestation paper.  Conclusive proof of his military activities is contained in a letter to Kate, written in Guysborough and dated April 19, 1916, in which Mac described the regiment's early training:

"Just arrived home - was on a route march.  We marched around town once then went out to Cook's Cove….  We have great times on the marches singing and howling all the time.  We all like it fine.  We expect our uniforms on the boat.  I think we will get off for a few days when we get them.  They are a great bunch of fellows in the squad, 36 in all."

At the age of sixteen years, ten and one half months, Mac Manson's training for overseas service had commenced.  The 193rd trained in Guysborough for six weeks before "shipping out" to the military base at Aldershot on May 30, 1916.  Throughout the summer months, Mac kept family members up to date on his activities.  On July 13, he once again wrote to Kate:

"We had a route march yesterday, about 18 to 20 miles.  I stood it all right.  We started at 7:30 am and marched till 12, then started at 2 and marched till 4.  Some march, believe me, Kate….  There wasn't a bit of wind and the sun was some hot.  I sweated about a barrel."

Members of 193rd Battalion leaving Guysborough - May 30, 1916
In August, Kate traveled to Aldershot to visit with Mac and other Sherbrooke area acquaintances who had enlisted, and reported to her mother:

"[I] had a great time of it.  Took in the [Sunday] Church parade & it was the grandest thing I ever saw.  Really it was marvellous to see all those battalions forming and marching up to their places.  I cannot describe the splendour of it all.  When the pipes played you should have seen those Highlanders falling in to the music."

By October, the Highland Brigade regiments relocated to Halifax in anticipation of their transfer overseas.  On October 13, 1916, Mac's sister Nellie wrote to her mother, describing the events surrounding their departure:

"They are still in the Harbor, left the pier at a quarter to twelve this morning and sailed up the Basin.  Mac looked fine.  I could hardly believe it was him, he had even got fat since we were up to Aldershot over a month ago.  He was glad to see us, we had no trouble seeing him at all."

Kate (left) and friend visit Mac (center) and the 193rd at Aldershot, August 1916
Nellie was particularly impressed with capital city's response to the brigade's departure:

"I wish you could see the crowd of people that were there[,] thousands and thousands.  I never saw anything like it.  The Highlanders are certainly the most popular regiments that have left Halifax as yet.   Some one sent a whole car load of apples for the soldiers to eat on the way over & you should have seen the boxes of chocolates & cakes & things, the soldiers all had lots of parcels."

Mac and the soldiers of the Highland Brigade sailed out of Halifax Harbour on board the SS Olympic, White Star Line sister ship to the famous Titanic.  The regiments arrived in Liverpool, England on October 18 and encamped at Bramshott, where they spent the winter training in anticipation of a spring deployment at the front.  Unfortunately, the pressing need to reinforce existing regiments in the field led to the dissolution of two of the Brigade's four regiments - the 193rd and 219th - by year's end.  One hundred men from each regiment were transferred to the Brigade's senior unit, the 85th Battalion, Nova Scotia Highlanders.  The remaining soldiers were reassigned to the 17th Canadian Reserve Battalion, Bramshott, the unit to which Mac was transferred on January 23, 1917.

Mac spent two months with the 17th before being assigned to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot, Bramshott.  On May 18, 1917, he wrote to his mother Agnes, informing her that he was "working down at Brigade Hdqs and… kept pretty busy.  We work from 8 am till 6 pm and on one night a week but it's a good job and I like it fine." 

L to R: Guysborough recruits Mac Manson, Bert McLane & Blair Archibald
On September 11, Mac returned to the 17th Battalion, where his military training continued.  An October 20, 1917 letter to his mother described one recent experience:

"I left Bramshott a week ago Sunday.  We marched down here [Mytchett Musketry Camp;] it's between 15 and 17 miles.  I did not mind it any….  We are here shooting our musketry.  We have about a week longer and it is a dandy place, far better than Bramshott.  Wish we were stationed here.  We are right near Aldershot and it is quite a large town."

A few days later, Mac wrote again, telling his mother: "we got back here [Bramshott] Friday, marched about 19 miles….  I got along very good at shooting.  While away I made first class shoot." 

By this time, Mac had spent more than a year training in England and awaiting transfer to France.  A letter to his mother, dated November 11, 1917, provides an explanation:

"…a large draft went [to France] last night.  I tried to get on it but they would [not] let me till I got 19 and that's quite a while yet.  I would like to have went [sic], for all the boys I knew were on it…. They were a happy bunch leaving.  It was the finest draft I['ve] seen leaving yet and there were a lot of them going back for a second time, but they were in the best of cheer."

Mac (seated) and unidentified comrade
Mac was thus destined to spend at least another six months at Bramshott.  A second letter to his mother explained: "I have a permanent fatigue job and don't have to go on parade.  I am all through my training now and got to hang around here till May and I'm getting sick of sticking around here and seeing all the rest of the boys going that I know."  In a March 11, 1918 letter to his mother, Mac indicated that he was "working in the mess room now.  The hours are long but…. lots to eat, that's the main thing." 

On June 20, 1918, the call to the front lines finally came when Mac was "taken on strength" by the 85th Battalion.  He spent another month at the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Centre (CCRC) in France before joining the unit in the field on July 21, 1918.

The 85th had spent the month prior to Mac's arrival training and participating in sports and recreational activities.   On July 19, the regiment moved into Divisional Reserve at Sterling Camp, Fampoux, northeast of Arras.  The battalion's war diary describes the location as an "excellent place… built on the side of a huge railway embankment on the Lens-Arras railway, and there is lots of cover… a lake for bathing and a good indoor ball ground."  On the day of Mac's arrival, the diary entry recorded several gas shells landing near two of the battalion's companies, resulting in one "slight" casualty.  Intermittent gas shelling continued over the next two days, although there were no further casualties.

Pte. Matthew McGrath 'Mac' Manson
Mac's introduction to combat came soon after his arrival.  On the night of July 25-26, the 85th relieved the 77th Battalion in the Fampoux sector's front line trenches.  The neighbouring 10th Battalion launched a large raid on German trenches at 9 pm July 26, prompting heavy retaliatory artillery fire on the 85th's position, mainly "whiz-bangs and 5.9's, with some gas shells".  Four personnel were killed, two wounded and twenty-nine gassed in the attack.

Over the next several days, the 85th engaged in "active patrolling both by day and night - patrols consisting of one officer and from two to four other ranks."  At night, the men participated in work parties, "getting [the] line in better shape [as the] trenches [were] muddy and in poor condition."  In the midst of all these events, one wonders whether young Mac may have preferred the "humdrum" duties of his Bramshott days, but there was "no turning back".

On July 31, the 85th was relieved of front line duty and moved by light rail to Aubin.  There would be no time for rest, however, as the war diary noted a major military action was imminent:  "The whole Corps is moving in a few days…. For where - no one knows but it looks like a big scrap ahead."  Two days later, Mac and the regiment's personnel travelled by train to Hangest-sur-Somme, near Amiens, arriving at 2 am August 3.  They then proceeded to the village of Vergies in a "march [that was] very exhausting after [a] long train ride".  The battalion's war diary observed that the local people were "not as hospitable as in the North where the Canadians are better known."

The following day, the battalion began preparations for an attack "to take place in a few days" at Amiens.  The men marched 17 miles to Briquemesnil, west of Amiens, on the night of August 4-5 and then moved to Bois de Boues on the night of August 6-7.  The "entire wood, which is a large one, [was] teeming with artillery, infantry and cavalry and a large number of tanks in the near vicinity" as the Canadian Corps prepared for the attack.  Mac joined the 85th, assembling to the left of Gentilles Wood by nightfall August 7, in preparation for the following day's assault.

Christmas card sent by Mac from England
On August 8, Mac received his first battle experience when the men of the 85th advanced toward enemy positions at 12:10 pm.  Despite heavy German machine gun fire, the unit succeeded in capturing its assigned objective by day's end.  The following day, the fierce fighting continued.  The battalion's field commander, Lt. Col. J. L. Ralston, was wounded in both feet by machine gun fire while proceeding to the front line and was replaced by Major I. S. Ralston, MC. 

The 85th joined in the final assault on Amiens on August 10, advancing at 10:10 am in the face of stiff enemy resistance near Rosieres.  Major Ralston was killed by machine gun fire in the ensuing battle, but once again the battalion captured its objectives and consolidated its position on the newly established front lines.  Three days later, the 85th was relieved by the 102nd, retreating to support positions at Caix Wood.  The unit spent the next several days reorganizing after the battle, receiving 106 much needed reinforcements from CCRC.

In the short span of three weeks, Mac had received a full introduction to life at the front lines, completing a week in the trenches and participating in a direct assault on enemy positions.  It was, no doubt, a welcome break when the battalion moved into divisional reserve near Rouvroy.  The men participated in night-time work parties on nearby support and communication trenches for several days before once again moving by night march to Gentilles Wood, arriving at 2:30 am August 25.  "Several bombs dropped in close vicinity during the march but no casualties were sustained."

British soldiers check German dugout during Scarpe attack
Two days later, the 85th was once again on the move, on foot and by train, to Monchy le Proux, east of Amiens, in preparation for "future operations".  On the night of August 31 - September 1, Mac found himself back in the front lines as the regiment relieved the 2nd Canadian Infantry Battalion in preparation for an attack near Scarpe.  At 8:40 am September 1, Allied artillery launched a barrage on German positions, followed by an infantry attack led by the battalion's "C" Company.

The unit advanced approximately 150 yards in the face of heavy machine gun fire and was unable to fully dislodge the enemy from its assigned objective.  The men rested for the remainder of the night, as the attack was scheduled to resume in the morning.  Battalion strength at this time consisted of 743 "other ranks".

The following day - September 2, 1918 - the 85th was assigned the task of breaking through the Drucourt-Quant front and support lines, capturing and consolidating possession of the German positions, and establishing an outpost line.  The plan of attack called for six waves of infantry, each consisting of two lines, led by "A" and "D" Companies.  Eight tanks were to provide support, in addition to two sections of machine guns. 

The attack commenced at 5 am as scheduled.  Unfortunately, the tanks did not reach the front line in time to support the initial assault, the men advancing 600 yards before their arrival.  The war diary describes the initial assault in these words:  "In passing over the first 300 yards of the advance, the Battalion losses amounted to approximately 50 % of our total casualties throughout the whole action, both in officers and men."  Mac and the men of the 85th faced two well-armed enemy posts, supported by an estimated 18 machine guns.  Dislodging them from their positions posed a considerable challenge.

Battlefield at Scarpe, September 1918
The battalion reached its first objective by 6:15 am "after severe fighting" and achieved its second objective by 7:30 am.  Still facing considerable enemy machine gun fire, commanders requested the assistance of rifle grenadiers who provided a "smoke barrage" as cover for a final advance.  The attacking wave of infantry "suffered heavy casualties", but captured its final objective and established forward outposts by 9:30 am.  Despite a heavy artillery barrage and a large number of German infantry occupying the opposing trenches, the 85th held its ground until it was relieved that evening.  As the unit moved into Divisional Reserve, the battalion's war diary recorded the day's losses.  The 85th suffered a total of 260 casualties in the Scarpe attack - 62 killed, 162 wounded and 36 missing (believed wounded). 

In the battle's aftermath, Pte. Matthew McGrath Manson was amongst the 162 soldiers wounded in action on that day.  A September 16, 1918 letter to his mother from an unidentified acquaintance describes the circumstances:

"[Mac] was in the attack on the Arras front and was wounded just as he got about 100 yards across the Hindenburg line.  A bullet grazed his head, cut his scalp fair on the top and probably injured the skull some….  When he was struck he fell and never knew what happened.  He recovered consciousness after a minute or two, just for a second.  I asked him what he thought in the second.  He said 'he thought he was killed and that it would be pretty bad news for the folks at home'.  He then went off into unconsciousness again for about an hour.  When he woke up, our line had retreated and he was about 100 yards out in 'no man's land'.  He jumped up and to use his own description 'scratched gravel like sixty' till he got back to the line, and then the stre[t]cher bearers took him back to the [Casualty] Clearing Station [CCS]."

Medical examination at the CCS state that Mac had suffered a "GSW [gunshot wound to the] head" caused by a bullet and was experiencing weakness in his right hand.  Later medical records indicate that Mac's right leg was paralyzed for approximately 24 hours, although there was no facial paralysis.  On September 3, he was admitted to 18th General Hospital, Camiers, France.  The machine gun bullet had grazed the parietal line of his skull, but there was no puncture.  His right arm was completely paralyzed at first, but showed continual signs of improvement. 

Back of postcard informing parents of Mac's hospitalization, September 1918
On September 11, Mac had recovered sufficiently to be transferred to Brook War Hospital, Woolich, England, where he continued to improve.  It was here that he received a visit from the unidentified acquaintance - family sources believe it was a young woman whom Mac befriended during his time in England.  The September 16, 1918 letter to Mac's mother describes her visit to the hospital:

"I found him in bed but in great spirits and wondering how long they were going to keep him on his back…. He lost the use of his right arm but that will only be temporary and the use of it is beginning to come back.  It will likely be some months before the use comes back completely and as he can't be sent to France again until that gets completely well the war is likely to be over befor[e] that happens.  So you can feel easy about him after this.  It was a pretty close call just the same.  If the bullet had been an inch or even half an inch lower, it would have been the end of poor Mac."

By the first week of October, Mac was well enough to write a letter to his mother:

"Just a few lines to let you know I'm well and got to my destination.  But I don't think much of the place and don't think I will stay very long.  At least I don't want to….  I am leaving this hospital tomorrow and going to Convalescent at Woodcote Park…. I'm writing this myself.  I don't suppose you will be able to make it out.  It's awful hard for me to write on account of my arm.  I got no grip in my hand."

On October 8, Mac was transferred to the Military Convalescent Hospital, Woodcote Park, Epsom.  Medical reports describe a "superficial GSW" to the head as "healed", although Mac was still suffering from from "headache".  He spent almost three weeks at the facility before being discharged to 2nd Canadian Casualty Depot, Bramshott, on October 25.

Front of hospital postcard sent to Mac's family, September 1918
Slightly more than one month later - December 4, 1918 - Mac had recovered sufficiently to be discharged from medical care and transferred to the 17th Reserve Depot, Bramshott.  On December 15, he once again wrote home with an update:

"Just a few lines to let you know I'm OK and getting along fine and dandy.  We are having it pretty easy now since the armistice was signed.  We don't have to go on Parade at all….  There are a lot going home now [and] my turn will be coming before long to be setting sail for our home."

On January 18, 1919, Mac was "struck off strength" by the 17th Reserve Depot and transferred to the Canadian Expeditionary Force Canada.  That same day, he boarded HMT Aquitania at Liverpool for the voyage home, disembarking at Halifax on January 24.  The following day, Mac was assigned to No. 6 D. D., Halifax Casualty Company, where he remained for the next five weeks.

HMT Aquitania
Pte. Matthew McGrath Manson was officially discharged from military service on March 4, 1919.  His medical examination upon discharge describes a scar about 3 1/2" long on the left side of his head, over the parietal region.  The skull is described as "slightly grooved".  Mac was still experiencing weakness in his right hand - strength was estimated at approximately 60 % of his left hand - although flexion was "free".  He had difficulty holding a pen, buttoning his coat and performing other similar movements, and his lifting power was "limited".  Otherwise, he was in good health as he returned to civilian life at 19 years, 9 months of age.

*****

After his discharge from military service, Mac returned to his Sherbrooke home.  Employment opportunities were scarce, although he did find work with the Department of Highways, as a mechanic and truck driver, from March 1921 to December 1922.  Like many other young men of his generation, he decided to relocate to the United States in search of employment.  Accompanied by a friend, Fred Scott, Mac travelled to Meriden, Connecticut, where his sister Nellie, her husband Cicero and children were now residing.  After several months searching for work, he landed a job with the International Silver Company, where he tended to the firm's motors and generators from November 1923 to June 1927.

Eventually, Mac decided to return to his Sherbrooke home, where he was able to secure temporary employment with the Department of Fisheries on June 20, 1927.  By year's end, his position was made permanent as Mac was named "Overseer" for the St. Mary's District, covering the area from New Harbour to Ecum Secum.  The following year, he was appointed as a Game Officer for Guysborough County, a position that included the powers of a Police Constable.

For almost thirty years, Mac worked with the Department of Fisheries, enforcing government fisheries acts and regulations in the Sherbrooke area.  He was also an avid recreational fisherman, regularly visiting his favorite salmon pools along the St. Mary's River.  Mac served as an elder with St. James Presbyterian Church and was an active member of the Sherbrooke Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.  During the Second World War, he served as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 2nd Reserve Battalion, Pictou Highlanders, for approximately three years.

Mac visits the Canadian War Memorial, Ottawa (1956)
Marriage and family also ensued, although it was some time before Mac "found the right woman".  On November 19, 1942, he married Florence Winnifred "Flo" Anderson of Boylston.  The newlyweds moved into the Sherbrooke family home where Mac's mother Agnes still resided.  (His father Francis had passed away years before, on November 22, 1920. )  Three children - Ellen Natalie Joy, Francis Gilbert Anderson and Winnifred Katherine - soon followed as Mac and Flo settled into married life.

Tragically, Mac Manson died unexpectedly of a heart attack while working at Denver, Guysborough County on November 13, 1956.  The youngest child in his family, he was survived in death by all three older siblings.  Mac was buried in Riverside Cemetery, Sherbrooke.  In January 1958, longtime friend and acquaintance, J. Edwin Fraser, presented a photograph and letter of tribute to the Royal Canadian Legion, Sherbrooke in his memory.  Mr. Fraser's words provide a fitting eulogy to a man who willingly risked his life in service of his country at such a young age:

"In his passing this Branch has lost a beloved Member, but his name will be remembered.  Although he has gone, he had left behind a Memorial not built of wood or stone, but a living Memorial built of good works, cheerfulness, self-sacrifice and service to others, and it is in the minds of those others that he has built that Memorial."

*****

Sources:

Regimental Record of Pte. Matthew McGrath Manson, no. 902354.  Library and Archives Canada.  RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 5905 - 37.  Attestation papers available online.

War Diary of 85th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force.  Library and Archives Canada.  RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3 , Volume 4944 , Reel T-10751-10752 File : 454.  Available online.

Special thanks to Mac Manson’s daughter, Winnifred ‘Winn’ (Manson) Campbell, who graciously provided access to copies of documents from Mac's regimental record, family correspondence, numerous photos and her unpublished account of Mac’s life story.