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Friday, 29 June 2012

Pte. John Hewitt Mills - A Military Medal Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: November 6, 1894

Place of Birth: Port Hilford, Guysborough County

Mother's Name: Sara Ella (Hewitt) Mills

Father's Name: David R. Mills

Date of Enlistment: October 21, 1915 at Halifax, NS

Regimental Number: 488679

Rank: Corporal*

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force

Regiments: 63rd Regiment; 17th Reserve Battalion; 15th Reserve Battalion; 28th Battalion (Northwest Regiment - Saskatchewan)

Location of service: England, France & Belgium   

Occupation at Enlistment: Wireman

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Mr. David R. Mills, Gottingen St., Halifax

*: Promoted to Corporal while serving with 63rd Halifax Rifles, three months after enlisting over overseas service with the CEF.  In September 1916, John requested to "revert to ranks" and served as a Private for the duration of the war.

John Hewitt Mills was born in Port Hilford, Guysborough County on November 16, 1894.  He was the third child and oldest son in a family of five children born to David and Sarah (Hewitt) Mills.  By1901, John and his older sisters, Sadie (b. 1891) and Elizabeth 'Libbie' (b. 1893) - were living with their parents in Indian Harbour.  At some point prior to the outbreak of World War I, the family moved to Halifax, taking up residence at 277 1/2 Gottingen St.. 

Sadly, the family was struck by two tragedies in the years prior to the war.   A younger sister, Eva Naomi, died at age 2 in 1907.  Four years later, John's mother Sarah passed away after battling pulmonary tuberculosis for 1 1/2 years, leaving father David to care for John and his younger brother Harold (b. 1901).

Souvenir Portrait of Pte. John Hewitt Mills
With the outbreak of war, John became involved in his new hometown's abundant military activity, joining the 63rd Regiment (Halifax Rifles) in August 1914.  Military units such as the 63rd - in existence at the time of the war's outbreak - provided basic military training, with the goal of supplying volunteers for overseas battalions.  John spent fourteen months with the Halifax Rifles before enlisting with the 63rd Regiment Reinforcements on October 21, 1915. 

In recognition of his military experience, John was promoted to the rank of Corporal on January 12, 1916.  Ten days later, he boarded the SS Missinabie for the journey to England.  Disembarking at Plymouth, England eight days later, John spent six weeks awaiting placement with an existing regiment.  On March 13, he was transferred to the 17th Reserve Battalion at East Sandling, in preparation for assignment with a front line unit.  Shortly after his transfer, he assigned $ 20 of his monthly pay to his older sister, Libbie Mills, Gottingen St., Halifax.

Like many recruits, John spent several months in England before finally being placed with a fighting unit in France.  Perhaps in an effort to hasten such a move, he requested to "revert to ranks" on September 3, 1916 and was transferred to the 28th Battalion  (Northwest Regiment), a Saskatchewan unit.  Embarking for France on the same day as his transfer, John spent two weeks at the Canadian Base Depot, Le Havre, France before the call came to join the regiment in the field on September 19. 

Pte. John Hewitt Mills' 28th Battalion cap badge
At that time, the 28th Battalion was serving in the trenches near Albert, France.  Its personnel had participated in an early morning attack on September 15 and were relieved of front line duty the following day, having suffered a total of 302 casualties.  John was one of 80 "other ranks" reinforcements assigned to the regiment on September 17.  One week later, on the night of September 24-25, the new arrivals received their first combat experience as the 28th returned to the front lines, occupying 1000 yards of trench near Vadencourt, France. 

Almost immediately, John was introduced to the frightening reality of trench warfare.  The battalion's war diary reported heavy shelling of its sector by enemy artillery and "great activity sniping" by both sides on September 25.  An enemy assault on the 28th's position was "repulsed", prompting "heavy retaliation shelling" by German artillery later in the day.  John was buried in earth by a "shell explosion" and suffered a "sprained back", but was able to remain on duty.  The following day, he would not be so fortunate. 

In the early morning of September 26, the battalion endured "heavy hostile bombardment lasting half an hour".  At 12:35 pm, Allied artillery launched an "intense bombardment" of German trenches in preparation for a general assault along British lines.  However, the advance in the trenches occupied by the 28th was cancelled, due to the "tank being put out of action in [their] sector prior to advance". 

German forces quickly responded, occupying the trenches opposite the 28th in large numbers during the afternoon.  The battalion war diary noted that "snipers [were] very active… as the enemy had but slight cover", and estimated that 50 casualties were inflicted on the enemy.  The day's activity, however, inflicted casualties on both sides.  In the exchange of fire, John suffered a shrapnel wound to the neck and was immediately evacuated for medical treatment.  When the 28th was finally relieved on September 29, the regiment had taken a total of 142 casualties during four days' fighting at the front.

Postcard sent home to family by Pte. Mills
Luckily, John was not seriously wounded.  Medical reports describe the impact as "slight", causing a "tiny entry only" on the left side of the neck.  Nevertheless, the wound was serious enough to require his removal from the front.  John was transferred to England , where he was admitted to Southern General Hospital, Bristol on September 28.  After a brief stay of five days, he was moved to the Canadian Convalescent Hospital at Bear Wood for rest and recuperation.  On November 8, John was discharged to the Canadian Casualty Assembly Centre.  Medical records state that the wound was "no[t] open [and had] healed" by this time.  The following day, John reported to the Canadian Convalescent Depot at Shoreham, where he remained for almost three months awaiting medical clearance to return to France.

On January 24, 1917, John was finally deemed fit for military duty and was transferred to the 15th Reserve Battalion at Dilgate, Hastings.  The call to the front came on February 14, and John was once again assigned to the 28th Battalion.  He proceeded to Le Havre, France the following day, but remained there for another two months before rejoining the battalion in the field on April 16, almost seven months after his departure.

The week before John's return, the 28th had participated in the successful attack on Vimy Ridge and was still on duty in the area.  The battalion spent the remainder of April and May near Vimy in a rotation of front line, support and reserve duty before moving to Haillicourt, France on June 1 for a period of rest and training.  The men participated in a variety of sports competitions with nearby battalions during this time.  A war diary entry observed that "the Battalion has reached a good standard in Training, Discipline and Appearance…. In every way the rest has been a great help after 2 months of heavy fighting since April 9."

New Years' card sent by Pte. Mills to his future wife's mother
On July 11, John and the members of the 28th returned to the front near Lens, being relieved on August 24 for another month of rest and training at nearby Olhain, France.  On September 26, it was back to the trenches near Lens, where the battalion resumed the regular rotation of front line - support - reserve duty.  John's commitment to military duty must have drawn the attention of his commanding officers, as he was awarded a "Good Conduct" badge on October 19, 1917.  His cousin Clayton Mills of Glenelg, who was serving with the 29th Battalion in France, would receive the same honour in January 1918.  Their military paths would "cross" later that year.

In early November 1917, the 28th relocated to Belgium, along with other Canadian units, to participate in the final stages of the assault on Passchendaele from November 5 - 8.  There was little enthusiasm for this assignment amongst the men.  The battalion's Major Alexander Ross recalled: "It was the one job we went into with no real heart.  I had never seen my men so depressed as we moved into the [Ypres] Salient.  They knew what the Salient was like, always had been like.  It was the graveyard of everybody."  Battlefield conditions were atrocious, with soldiers "knee deep, and in places waist deep, in mud and water". 

The 28th participated in the final assault on the village of Passchendaele, suffering 268 casualties in the fighting.  The men were no doubt relieved to return to the much less treacherous trenches of the Lens sector in mid-November.  It is quite likely that John's days at Passchendaele were amongst the most difficult of his combat experience.

The 28th was relieved of front line duty for one month of rest and training on December 22, 1917.  John was fortunate to receive two weeks' leave to the United Kingdom during this time, departing on December 31 and returning on January 15, 1918.  His time in England was a welcome reprieve from the cold weather - not to mention the dangers - of the front lines.  Two weeks after returning from leave, John accompanied the battalion back to front line duty near Lens on January 28.  The regiment later relocated to trenches near Arras.  During the months of March and April 1918, Canadian soldiers withstood the impact of the German "spring offensive", ceding territory but eventually halting the enemy's advance.

Postcard note sent home while on leave in London, January 12, 1918
John's earlier wound likely played a role in an incident that occurred during the spring of 1918.  On May 4, he was treated by field ambulance for an inflammation of connective tissue in his neck, returning to duty with his unit on May 8.  Finally, after a long stretch of five months at the front, John and his comrades were relieved of duty for a period of rest and training on June 29.

In late July, the battalion relocated to the area of Amiens.  As part of the 6th Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division, the 28th prepared for a major attack on a strategic German position close to the Paris-Amiens rail line.  Clayton Mills' 29th Battalion also participated, with tragic consequences for John's cousin.  The attack on Amiens commenced in the early morning hours of August 8, with the 28th Battalion assuming a position on the right and the 29th on the left.  The following day - August 9 - 6th Brigade command ordered an assault on the village of Rosieres.  The attack was launched at 11 am under cover of a "light shrapnel barrage, and the fire of as many guns as could be brought to bear".  The 28th was to provide support for an advance led by the 29th and 31st Battalions.  Neither of the units flanking their positions were prepared to attack at the same time, leaving both battalions badly exposed to enemy fire.  To further complicate the situation, the anticipated tank support did not reach the battlefield in time.  Nevertheless, the two battalions launched their assault at 11 am, immediately encountering intense enemy machine gun fire.

The 29th Battalion advanced "despite severe casualties", one of whom was John's cousin Clayton, killed in action on that day.  The 31st Battalion, however, was held up by "withering machine gun fire".  As the Germans prepared a counter-attack, the 28th was sent  into the fray to assist the 31st.  The battalion's war diary noted that several of the 28th's officers organized attacks on German machine gun positions before receiving official orders to advance in support of their comrades.

At 1:30 pm, the 28th's Lewis gun successfully halted the German counter-attack, while two companies moved forward in support of the 31st.  The 28th held the centre line of the advance until relieved late in the afternoon by the 27th Battalion.  The following day, the 28th resumed its reserve position in support of the advancing attack and was assigned the task of defending the village of Rosieres from possible counter-attack. 

On the night of August 11-12, John and the men of the 28th were relieved of front line duty, allowing the officers to take stock of what had transpired.  Three officers and 20 "other ranks" were killed during the battle, with 3 officers and 101 "other ranks" wounded and 3 men missing in action.  Their fearless action in support of the 31st not only resulted in the capture of 175 prisoners.  The men of the 28th had "taken out" or captured an estimated 50 to 75 German machine gun positions during the August 9 fighting, rescuing the 31st Battalion and ensuring that the attack continued to move forward.  On August 15, battalion officers forwarded to Brigade headquarters a list of names for honours and awards as a result of this action.  Pte. John Hewitt Mills was amongst the men recommended for the Military Medal in recognition of their role in the attack.

Military Medal awarded to Pte. John Hewitt Mills
For the men of the battalion, there was no time to rest or reflect, as they were sent back to trench positions near Caix on August 13.  Four days later, the battalion moved into reserve positions near Amiens for a brief rest before supporting an advance at Wancourt on August 26.  The 28th joined the attack late in the afternoon, seizing "high ground" to the east of the village, but was unable to advance further due to heavy machine gun and artillery fire.  While not as severe as the August 9 attack, the battalion suffered casualties in this action - 5 officers wounded, 24 "other ranks" killed, 70 "other ranks" wounded and 4 "other ranks" missing in action.  After a heavy month of fighting, the regiment was withdrawn from the front lines on August 29 and moved into reserve positions near Cambrai.

While John and his comrades no doubt enjoyed a break from duty in the front line trenches, they were still vulnerable to enemy attack.  The battalion war diary reported "heavy gas shell concentration" in the area occupied by "D" Company during the night of September 8, with several other companies also hit by gas shells.  The attack was a precursor of what John and the men would face after returning to the front lines later that same night, in relief of the 29th Battalion.  During the afternoon and evening of September 9, the war diary states that "some gas shells [were] thrown over by the enemy". 

The following day - September 10, 1918 - the "situation [was] normal, weather wet.  Usual enemy shelling over [the] area, including [a] fair amount of gas shells."   One "other ranks" soldier died of wounds, an additional soldier was wounded, and 6 "other ranks" were gassed in the attack.  Pte. John Hewitt Mills was one of the six soldiers to suffer the effects of the gas shells fired at the 28th that day.  

John was evacuated and admitted to the 54th General Hospital at Boulogne for treatment.  His symptoms did not appear to be serious, and he was transferred to the 1st Canadian Depot on October 1.  Perhaps - as later events suggest - John was not completely "honest" with medical personnel in describing his medical condition, hoping to quickly return to his regiment.  Nevertheless, he spent the remainder of the month with reserve units in France before finally rejoining the 28th in the field on November 3.

Congratulatory note on receiving the Military Medal
By this time, the battalion was enjoying a period of rest and training near Cambrai, France.  One week after John's return, the 28th received orders to relocate to Framieres, Belgium.  As they arrived in the village the following day - November 11, 1918 - the men received news that an armistice had been signed, bringing fighting to an end.  The 28th moved into billets at Havre, Belgium and were posted along the canal leading into the village of Mons.  The war diary entry for November 12 observed that "the civil population did all that was possible in caring for the comfort of the troops".  The entry also mentioned that one "other ranks" soldier was transferred to hospital for treatment.  While not identified, the individual was Pte. John Hewitt Mills, still suffering from the effects of the September 10 gas attack.

John initially received care from the 6th Co. Field Ambulance before being evacuated to the 7th Canadian Casualty Centre on November 19.  He was "invalided" as sick and posted to the Saskatchewan Regimental Depot, Bramshott, England on November 28.  Upon arrival, John was first admitted to the Graylingwell War Hospital, Chichester before being transferred to Princess Patricia Canadian Red Cross Hospital, Cooden Camp, Bexhill on December 4.  Finally, John was moved to King's Canadian Red Cross Special Hospital, Bushey Park on December 9, where he underwent a thorough medical examination. 

Medical records state that John was experiencing pain in the portion of the body over the heart and lower chest, in addition to shortness of breath.  As he had enjoyed an active childhood and experienced no health issues prior to enlistment, both symptoms were attributed to poison gas exposure.  All other vital signs were "normal".  John remained under medical care until January 22, 1919, by which time he was capable of performing 45 minutes of exercise and a four-mile march without difficulty.  He was therefore transferred to the Canadian Convalescent Depot at Bramshott, where he remained for 10 days before being attached to the Canadian Convalescent Hospital at Busley Park. 

Congratulatory note that accompanied Pte. Mills Military Medal
Finally, after three months of treatment in various medical facilities, John was assigned to the 15th Reserve Battalion on February 19.  He spent the next two months at Rhyl, England, awaiting orders to return home.  On April 16, John boarded the SS Belgic at Liverpool for the voyage to Canada, arriving in Halifax on April 22.   By this time, he had fully recovered from his encounter with poisonous gas, as a medical examination concluded that he suffered from "no disability" due to military service.  Pte. John Hewitt Mills was discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force on May 1, 1919.
In civilian life, John returned to his pre-war career as an electrician.  On September 23, 1920, he married Muriel Jean Myers, age 22, a native of Halifax.  Together, he and Muriel raised a  family of eight children - five sons and three daughters - while John pursued a career with Maritime Tel & Tel.  His oldest son - John Hewitt 'Jack' Mills Jr. - served with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in Northern Africa, Sicily, Italy and Holland during the Second World War. 

John Hewitt Mills passed away at Camp Hill Hospital, Halifax on May 31, 1963 at age 68 after a lengthy illness, and was laid to rest in St. John's Cemetery, Halifax.  For his distinguished service to his country, John received the British War Medal and Victory Medal in addition to the Military Medal earned on the battlefield at Amiens.  Like many of the other men of his generation, John placed himself in situations of great personal peril at a very young age without hesitation, choices that deserve our respect and acknowledgement.

Lindsay, Robert.  28th (Northwest) Battalion Headquarters.  2006.

Regimental documents of Pte. John Hewitt Mills, No. 488679.  Library and Archives Canada.  RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 6216 - 39.  Available online.

War Diaries of the First World War: 28th Canadian Infantry Battalion.  Library and Archives Canada.  RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III D-3 , Volume 4936 , Reel T-10740  File : 426; and RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3 , Volume 4935 , Reel T-10739-10740 File : 425.  Available online.

I am particularly grateful to Mr. Robert 'Bob' Mills, Windsor Junction, NS, son of Pte. John Hewitt Mills.  Bob provided all of the images used in this post, in addition to valuable information on his father's life and military career.

Friday, 15 June 2012

The 193rd Battalion and Nova Scotia Highland Brigade

During the first two years of the war, no direct effort was made to recruit Guysborough County men in their home communities.  Those interested in enlisting traveled to nearby communities - Antigonish, New Glasgow, Truro, Sydney or Halifax - to do so.  Guysborough natives outside Nova Scotia joined local units recruited in the provinces where they were living.  Others working in the United States returned to the nearest province - particularly New Brunswick - to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Early in 1916, as the war entered its third year and demand for manpower at the front increased, the Canadian government was forced to reconsider its recruiting strategies.  At the same time, it revisited a Nova Scotian politician's earlier offer to raise an infantry unit in his constituency.  These two separate initiatives soon came together in a plan to form the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade.

The 193rd Battalion was originally conceived by John Stanfield, Member of Parliament for Colchester from 1901 to 1917.  In England at war's outbreak, Stanfield quickly returned to Canada and offered his services to the Department of Militia and Defence.   More than a year passed before the government responded, authorizing the recruitment of the 193rd Overseas Battalion - to be known as the "Cumberland Highlanders" - on January 27, 1916.  Stanfield was awarded the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and appointed its commander.  Battalion headquarters were established in Truro and recruitment efforts began within ten days of its formation. 

Source: M. S. Hunt, "Nova Scotia's Part in the Great War"
Within one month of its creation, the 193rd became part of a larger recruitment plan.  Lieutenant-Colonel A. H. Borden, commander of the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders), proposed the creation of a "Nova Scotia Highland Brigade".  In January 1916, the federal government approved the plan and appointed Borden as Brigade Commander.  On February 13, Lt.-Col. Stanfield was informed that the 193rd Battalion would become one of the Highland Brigade's four units.

The province of Nova Scotia was divided into three sections for the purposes of recruitment.  The 185th Battalion would be raised from Cape Breton communities and adopted the name "Cape Breton Highlanders" .  The 219th Battalion focused its recruitment efforts on central and southwestern counties - Halifax, Lunenburg, Queens, Shelburne, Yarmouth, Digby, Annapolis and Kings.  The 193rd Battalion would be recruited from the six northeastern counties - Cumberland, Colchester, Hants, Pictou, Antigonish and Guysborough.  The 85th Battalion - already in existence at the time of the Brigade's creation - formed the Highland Brigade's fourth unit and continued its recruitment efforts across the entire province. 

The 193rd was assigned regimental numbers 901001 to 904000.  Within one month of its formation, recruitment exceeded the quantity required for full strength (approximately 1000 men).  Enlistments initially trained in detachments in their home counties while the recruitment campaign continued.  On May 23, 1916, the 193rd joined the three other battalions of the Highland Brigade at Aldershot for a summer of intense military preparation.  By this date, the 193rd Battalion consisted of 1459 men, approximately 300 over fighting strength.

Members of the 193rd Battalion training at Guysborough.  (Photo courtesy of Winn (Manson) Campbell, Kingston, NS.)
During the summer of 1916, over 7000 men encamped at Aldershot for training in trench warfare, bayonet fighting, bomb throwing, route marching and night operations.  The Governor General, HRH the Duke of Connaught, his daughter Princess Patricia, Minister of Militia Sir Sam Hughes and Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden were among the dignitaries who reviewed the Brigade at various times during training.  On September 9, Lt.-Col. Borden traveled to France to observe conditions on the front lines,  and Lt.-Col. Stanfield assumed Commander in his absence.

HRH Duke of Connaught, Governor-General of Canada, reviews the Highland Brigade at Camp Aldershot.  (Source: Hunt, "Nova Scotia's Part in the Great War".)
On September 23, Lady Borden, wife of the Canadian Prime Minister, presented regimental colors to each Brigade battalion.  The 193rd selected royal blue as its color, displayed as a cap feather.  Its badge consisted of a maple leaf overlaid by a Scotch thistle wreath, with the battalion number in the center and the words "Nova Scotia Highlanders Overseas" arranged around its edge.  The Highland Brigade officially adopted the Gaelic phrase "Siol Na Fear Ferail" - "the breed of manly men" - as its motto. 

Three weeks later, the Brigade relocated to Halifax in preparation for departure to England.  On October 13, the 193rd Battalion - 33 officers and 1024 "other ranks" - boarded the SS Olympic for its trans-Atlantic voyage.  After three days at sea, the vessel was met by escort torpedo boats that accompanied it for the remainder of the voyage.  The Olympic reached Liverpool Harbor on October 18.  Its passengers disembarked the following day and traveled by train to Witley Camp, Surrey Hills, England. 

193rd Battalion cap badge.
The newly-arrived Highland Brigade was slated to become part of the new 5th Canadian Division, to be deployed at the front in 1917.   In early December, Lt.-Col. Borden returned from France and resumed command of the Brigade.  He had served in the trenches with the Royal Canadian Regiment and suffered a thigh wound in combat.  Unfortunately, Lt.-Col. Stanfield was forced to return to Canada at this time, due to ill health.  Meanwhile, the Brigade's four units continued training in preparation for the much anticipated assignment on the front lines.

Disappointingly, the call to duty at the front did not come.  By late 1916, increasing demand for reinforcements to existing units resulted in a change of plans.  Military commanders decided to use the bulk of Highland Brigade personnel to reinforce existing units rather than maintain it as a separate fighting force.  The notable exception was the 85th Battalion, which proceeded to France in the spring of 1917.  Two battalions - the 193rd and 219th - would be dismantled, their personnel reassigned to existing units.  The 185th Battalion initially retained a place in the 5th Canadian Division, but was eventually dispersed without seeing combat at the front.

In December 1916 and January 1917, personnel from the 193rd and 219th Battalions were re-assigned to several units.  15 officers and 300 "other ranks" were transferred to the 185th, while 4 groups of 100 men were transferred to the Royal Canadian Regiment, 25th, 58th and 85th Battalions respectively.  Of the 100 soldiers transferred to the 85th, 46 had originally enlisted with the 193rd.  34 of these men were wounded or killed during their service at the front in the last two years of the war.

Crest of the Nova Scotia Highlanders, a Reserve Infantry Battalion that perpetuates the 193rd and four other CEF Battalions
The remaining members of the Highland Brigade proceeded to the 17th Reserve Battalion at Bramshott, England. Created on August 6, 1914 from a base of 600 Nova Scotia militia unit recruits, the 17th Infantry Battalion had been officially reclassified as a reserve battalion on April 29, 1915.  By late 1916, its numbers were badly depleted.  The 17th therefore absorbed the remnants of the 193rd and 219th Battalions, and provided reinforcements for the 25th, 85th and Royal Canadian Regiment for the duration of the war.  It also supplied reinforcements for the 185th (Cape Breton Highlanders) until the unit was dispersed amongst regiments of the 15th Brigade, 5th Canadian Division in February 1918.

It was a disappointing end to the story of the 193rd Battalion and the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade.  On a positive note, the 85th went on to distinguish itself in combat at Arras, Vimy, Ypres, Passchendaele and Amiens before war's end.  While the other three units were dissolved without combat experience, many of their members recorded distinguished service with other regiments at the front, fitting testimony to their military skill and the professional training they received from the officers of the193rd and the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade.


"17th Reserve Battalion".  The Matrix Project, Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group.  Available online.

"193rd Battalion".  The Matrix Project, Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group.  Available online.

Hayes, Lt. Col. Joseph.  The Eighty-Fifth In France and Flanders.  Halifax: Royal Print & Litho Ltd., 1920.

Hunt, M. S.. Nova Scotia's Part In the Great War.  Archive CD Books Canada Inc., Manotick, Ont, 2007.

Kelley, QMS Edgar E..  "193rd Blue Feather Battalion".  Available online.