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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.

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