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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.