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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."



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.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The 85th Canadian Infantry Battalion ("Nova Scotia Highlanders")

During the twelve months following the outbreak of the First World War, Nova Scotians enlisted with several military units, most notably the 17th, 25th, 40th and 64th Infantry Battalions. While each contained substantial numbers of "Bluenosers,” several included recruits from other parts of Canada. The 17th Battalion, for example, contained members of the Seaforth Highlanders, a British Columbia regiment. Others, such as the 40th (Halifax Rifles), were built upon pre-war militia units and did not recruit across the entire province. The 64th was a “Maritime” unit initially established at Sussex, NB. While the Royal Canadian Regiment solicited recruits in the province, it existed prior to the war’s outbreak as part of Canada’s “standing army” and was based by coincidence at Halifax.

Nova Scotia raised only two truly “volunteer” units through province-wide recruitment. The first was the 25th Battalion, authorized on November 7, 1914. While headquartered at the Halifax Armouries, the unit established recruitment offices in all of the province’s major towns and cities—Sydney, Amherst, New Glasgow, Truro and Yarmouth. The battalion departed for England on May 20, 1915 and was assigned to the 2nd Canadian Division’s 5th Brigade shortly after its overseas arrival.

The 25th’s soldiers crossed the English Channel to France on September 15, 1915 and entered the trenches of Belgium’s Ypres Salient one week later. The battalion subsequently saw action at all major Canadian Corps battles—Hill 62 (June 1916), the Somme (September - November 1916), Vimy Ridge (April 9, 1917), Passchendaele (October - November 1917) and Canada’s “100 Days” (August - November 11)— its soldiers serving with distinction throughout the war.

The 85th Canadian Infantry Battalion, officially authorized on September 14, 1915, was the second “volunteer” unit raised through province-wide recruitment. Commonly known as "The Nova Scotia Highlanders,” its Scottish connections were readily apparent. The battalion included a pipe band, its official air was the Scottish tune "The Cock o' the North,” and its motto was the Gaelic phrase "Siol Na Fear Fearail" ("Breed of Manly Men"). Under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Allison Hart Borden, the 85th established its headquarters at Camp Aldershot.

85th Battalion cap badge.
The battalion immediately launched a province-wide drive, during which each of its four companies targeting specific regions. "A" Company drew its personnel from Pictou, Colchester and Cumberland Counties. "B" Company covered the largest area, canvassing Lunenburg, Queens, Shelburne, Yarmouth, Digby, Annapolis, Antigonish, Guysborough and Inverness Counties. "C" Company’s ranks came from Halifax, Hants and Kings Counties, while “D” Company concentrated on Richmond, Victoria and Cape Breton Counties.

Within one month of its inception, military officials relocated the unit’s headquarters to Halifax, where the battalion mobilized 200 men "over strength" on October, 14, 1915. “A” Company entered quarters in the Armouries, while the remaining three companies were accommodated in huts erected on the adjacent Common. Throughout the fall and winter of 1915-16, its recruits enthusiastically trained, in anticipation of orders to proceed overseas.

In early 1916, recruitment efforts expanded to include an additional three units—the 193rd, 185th and 219th Battalions—as part of the "Nova Scotia Highland Brigade". The 85th formed the Brigade's senior unit. As subsequent events unfolded, it was the only battalion to enter service as a unit, its three counterparts eventually dissolved to provide reinforcements for other battalions in the field.

The call to overseas duty finally came more than a year after the 85th’s formation. On October 13, 1916, the 85th and its Brigade mates boarded HM Transport Olympic, ”sister" ship to the famous Titanic, at Halifax. The four battalions safely crossed the North Atlantic and disembarked at Liverpool on October 19. At the time of its arrival in England, the 85th consisted of 34 Officers and 1001 "other ranks” (OR).

The battalion spent the autumn and early winter in training at Witley Camp, Surrey, eagerly awaiting orders to depart for France. Shortly after the dissolution of the Highland Brigade in December 1916, the 85th was on the move, crossing the English Channel on February 10, 1917 and completing its final training for service in the line at Gouy Servins, Bouvigny and Bouvigny Wood, France.

In March 1917, the 85th was officially designated a “working unit” and temporarily attached to the 4th Canadian Division’s 11th Brigade. As its soldiers had no combat experience, the unit was assigned to "reserve" positions, in support of the Canadian Corps' assault on Vimy Ridge. Its soldiers were to follow the advancing units, carry ammunition, construct dugouts, establish and maintain communication trenches, clear entangled wire and guard prisoners of war as the battle progressed.

Prime Minister Robert Borden reviews 85th's ranks (France, March 1917).
Despite the 85th’s anticipated role, Lt.-Col. Borden insisted that his soldiers prepare for combat, its personnel training “over the tapes” on a model of the sector assigned to the 4th Canadian Division. Its Officers also received complete briefings on the plan of attack. As subsequent events unfolded, Borden’s directives proved invaluable on the day of battle.

As the April 9 attack unfolded, the battalion's role changed significantly. While advancing infantry units successfully captured most of their initial objectives along the well-fortified ridge, German positions in front of Hill 145—the ridge's highest and most strategically important feature—withstood the initial artillery bombardment. Emerging from their dugouts as the 4th Division’s 11th Brigade advanced up the ridge, the German soldiers held out against the 87th and 102nd Battalions and enfiladed the Canadian left flank with devastating machine gun fire.

As the overall success of the day’s assault hung in the balance, Canadian commanders hastily discussed their options. Late in the afternoon, they selected the 85th Battalion’s "C" and "D" to execute a direct assault on the strategic German position. At 6:45 p.m., the two companies advanced up the ridge without artillery cover, in the face of relentless machine gun fire. Dwindling German supplies and lack of reinforcements, combined with the determination of the assaulting troops, resulted in the position's capture and solidified the Canadian Corps’ hold on the ridge. Two decades later, the Canadian government erected the Canadian War Memorial atop the exact location where the 85th’s soldiers made their battlefield debut.

The entire 85th Battalion remained "in the line" on the newly captured ridge until relieved on April 14. Their first combat experience under their belts, the unit was permanently assigned to the 4th Canadian Division’s 12th Brigade, where it served alongside the 38th (Ottawa), 72nd (Seaforth Highlanders of Canada) and 78th (Winnipeg Grenadiers) Battalions for the remainder of the war.

85th Battalion's colours.
The 85th’s soldiers served a regular rotation in the trenches near Lens throughout the spring and summer of 1917. In October 1917, the battalion joined other Canadian personnel in Belgium’s treacherous Ypres Salient as the Canadian Corps prepared for its second major assault of the year—an attack on German positions along Passchendaele ridge.

The 85th’s soldiers participated in the third phase of the attack, carried out from October 28 to November 2, 1917. Prior to the advance, ”D” Company, consisting of Cape Breton recruits, responded to an enemy counter-attack. On the night of October 28, German infantry launched an assault during relief operations and seized a strategic portion of the front line. The 85th’s ”D” Company—the relieving unit—succeeded in recapturing the trench at a decisive point in the fighting, thus preserving the existing line.

Two days later, the 85th’s “A”, “B” and “C” Companies participated in the advance on Passchendaele village. “D” Company remained in support, entering the fight at a crucial moment and turning the tide in favour of the attacking forces. While the 85th succeeded in securing its objectives, the costs were considerable. Of the 26 Officers who entered the line at Passchendaele, 12 were killed and eight wounded, while 371 of the 662 OR who entered the trenches on October 28 were casualties by the time the battalion retired from the line on the night of October 31/November 1.

Its Passchendaele statistics represent the 85th’s greatest “single tour” losses of the entire war. Several months after the November 1918 Armistice, a group of its soldiers returned to the battlefield where so many of their comrades were killed or wounded and erected a monument in their memory. The structure remains there to this day, its plaque engraved with the names of the soldiers killed in action during the Passchendaele tour.

85th Battalion Passchendaele Memorial (April 2015)
The battalion's 1917 successes at Vimy and Passchendaele prompted other Canadian units to refer to the 85th as "The Never Fails". Throughout the following year, the unit served with distinction, participating in major battles at Amiens (August 8-11, 1918), Arras (September 2-5, 1918) and Cambrai (September 25 - October 2, 1918) during Canada’s “!00 Days.” Its performance solidified its reputation as a formidable infantry unit and reliable component of the Canadian Corps. 

Following the conclusion of hostilities, the battalion remained in Belgium until May 1, 1919, at which time its personnel returned to England. On May 3, the 85th’s distinguished brass band and a detachment of its soldiers joined thousands of British and Imperial troops in the Great March of Triumph through the streets of London. At month’s end, the battalion departed England for Canada, arriving in Halifax on June 8. An estimated 60,000 Nova Scotians crowded the city's streets to witness its homecoming parade.

85th Battalion's return to Halifax (June 1919)
While the unit was officially demobilized on the day of arrival, it took several days before all personnel were discharged. On June 15, 1919, the battalion's remaining members marched its regimental colours to Government House, where they were surrendered for posterity to the province's Lieutenant-Governor. On September 15, 1920, the 85th Battalion was officially disbanded by General Order, bringing to an end the story of its remarkable contribution to Canada's “Great War” service.
This post was revised on October 17, 2016.


“85th Battalion.”  Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group.  Available online.

“85th History: 85th Overseas Battalion C. E. F..”  Kintail to Cape Breton.  Available online.

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

For an extensive history of the 85th Battalion, refer to:

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

Lt. Col. Hayes was the battalion's Medical Officer and was named a member of the Distinguished Service Order (D. S. O.) in recognition of his valuable service to King and country.  The book's index lists the names and provides brief details on the service of every member of the battalion.