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Monday, 30 September 2013

Lance Cpl. Alexander Sutherland Chisholm - A 'Royal Canadian Regiment' Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: February 26, 1887

Place of Birth: Caledonia, Guysborough County

Mother's Name: Agnes Sutherland

Father's Name: James Angus Chisholm

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

Regimental Number: 877535

Rank: Lance Corporal

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force (Infantry)

Regiments: 185th Battalion (Cape Breton Highlanders); 17th Reserve Battalion; Royal Canadian Regiment

Location of service: England, France & Belgium

Occupation at Enlistment: Electrician

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Mrs. Angus Chisholm (mother), Caledonia, Guysborough County

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Lance Corporal Alexander Sutherland Chisholm
Born at Caledonia, Guysborough County on February 26, 1887, Alexander Sutherland Chisholm was the third of ten children raised in the home of James Angus and Agnes (Sutherland) Chisholm.  Alex's father passed away sometime prior to 1911, leaving his widowed mother with five dependent children.  By that time, the elder children had left home, Alex venturing as far as the Yukon in search of employment. 

Returning to Nova Scotia prior to the outbreak of war, Alex found work as an electrician in the Sydney area.  When the 185th Battalion ('Cape Breton Highlanders') launched a recruitment drive as part of a province-wide campaign to create a Nova Scotian 'Highland Brigade', Alex responded to the call, enlisting at Sydney on March 21, 1916.

After several months' training in Nova Scotia, Alex's battalion sailed from Halifax for England on October 12, 1916.  On board the SS Olympic with the 185th were the 85th ('Nova Scotia Highlanders'), 193rd and 219 Battalions, the other components of the Highland Brigade.  During the passage across the Atlantic, Pte. Alexander Chisholm was officially promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal with pay.  Upon arriving at Liverpool on October 18, Alex made his way to Camp Aldershot, where the battalion awaited the call to the battlefields of France and Belgium.

After its arrival in England, the 185th escaped the fate of two of its 'sister' battalions.  The 193rd and 219 were dissolved shortly after arriving in England, their members dispersed among several reserve units.  While the Cape Breton Highlanders remained hopeful of seeing combat as a unit, as the months of 1917 passed, orders to proceed overseas failed to materialize. During this time, Alex was hospitalized on several occasions.  On December 12, 1916, he was placed in isolation with a case of the mumps, remaining under care until January 10, 1917.  He was once again admitted to Connaught Military Hospital, Aldershot in late May 1917 with parotiditis - inflammation of the saliva glands - a condition most often caused by the mumps.  Alex was hospitalized a third time from August 29 to October 19, 1917 for treatment of an infection.

By early 1918, like many of his 185th comrades, Alex was growing impatient.  After spending almost eighteen months in England, his hopes of seeing action at the front were yet to be fulfilled.  Alex 'reverted to ranks' at his own request on February 23, 1918, to increase the opportunity for an overseas transfer.  The following day, he was 'taken on strength' by the 17th Reserve Battalion at Witley.  One month later - on March 29, 1918 - he proceeded across the English Channel to France for service with the Royal Canadian Regiment.

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The Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR) was founded at Halifax on December 21, 1883 and was one of only a handful of Canadian military units in existence at the time of the outbreak of war in Europe.  Its overseas deployment was delayed by a one-year garrison assignment in Bermuda (September 1914 - August 1915).  The RCR arrived in France in October 1915 as part of the 7th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Canadian Division, joining the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), the 42nd (Royal Highlanders of Canada - Black Watch) and 49th (Edmonton) Battalions in the field.

On April 3, 1918, Alex arrived at the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Camp in France, where he spent an additional three and a half months waiting to join his new battalion.  On July 21, he received orders to proceed to the front, reaching the RCR in the field six days later.  At that time, the battalion was training at Dainville, France after a recent tour of duty 'in the line'.

Royal Canadian Regiment badge.
Alex's arrival came at a pivotal time in the war.  Having withstood the onslaught of a massive German 'spring offensive', Allied commanders were preparing to launch a counter-attack that would eventually bring the conflict to an end.  Canadian troops played a pivotal role in their plan, being deployed as 'shock troops' in a series of battles that historians have labeled 'Canada's 100 Days'.  As a member of the RCR, Alex participated in these events as they unfolded on the battlefield.

On August 7, the RCR relocated to Gentelles Wood in preparation for an attack on Amiens, a strategic location on the main railroad line to Paris.  The following day, Alex received his first combat experience as the RCR advanced at 8:20 am and achieved its objectives by mid-day.  Considering the ferocity of the fighting in other areas of the battlefield, the RCR's casualties were light - 9 men killed in action, 1 died of wounds, 25 wounded and 1 missing at day's end.

The following week, the RCR participated in an attack at Parvillers, advancing toward German lines at 11:00 pm August 14 as the enemy "put down [a] heavy gas bombardment [,] making movement difficult".  Fighting continued into the early hours of the morning, with the battalion reaching its final objective at 3:20 am August 15.  Shortly afterward, Alex and the men of the RCR were relieved in the line and retired to a nearby rest camp.  The battalion suffered 39 casualties in the night's fighting - 2 men killed in action, 36 wounded and 1 missing.

During the following week of rest and training, Georges Clemenceau, the Premier of France, who was accompanied by Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, commander of British forces, inspected the 7th Brigade.  On August 25, Alex returned to the front lines east of Arras in preparation for an attack scheduled for the following day.  Fighting commenced at 9:45 am and continued for two more days before the RCR was relieved at 5:00 am August 29.  The battalion endured significant casualties on this occasion - 2 officers and 26 'other ranks' were killed in action, 2 officers and 2 'other ranks' (OR) died of wounds, 5 officers and 152 OR were wounded, and 7 OR missing as Alex and his comrades retired to billets.

The battalion spent the next three and a half weeks in training near Arras, enduring intermittent artillery shelling from nearby German guns.  On September 26, Alex returned to the front lines as the RCR prepared for an attack on Cambrai, another strategic location on the German front line.  The battle commenced on September 29, the RCR advancing at 5:30 am against little opposition.  Fighting intensified as the day progressed and dwindling numbers forced its officers to reorganize the battalion into three companies.

The men encountered "intense machine gun fire" when fighting resumed the following morning.  While successful in achieving its objectives, capturing 54 enemy machine guns and 130 prisoners of war, and inflicting an estimated 700 casualties, the battalion once again suffered significant losses.  Three officers and 31 OR were killed action, 2 officers and 2 OR died of wounds, 5 officers and 152 OR were wounded and 7 OR missing in action by day's end.

Once again, Alex's battalion retired to a rest camp, spending the next three weeks in training near Queant.  The RCR returned to the forward area near Cantaing-sur-Escaut on October 22, but was not engaged in military action.  For ten days, the men provided work parties for road construction and repair while training in anticipation of a return to the front lines.  On November 6, Alex and his mates marched in heavy rain through the recently liberated village of Valenciennes, where the "canal bridge had been blown up by the enemy in retreat, [as] had practically every cross-road and bridge along the way".

WW I 'Brodie' steel helmet with RCR logo.
The following day, as its 'sister' battalion the PPCLI rapidly advanced toward the Belgian city of Mons, Alex's battalion followed in support.  On November 9, the RCR reached the PPCLI's positions at Jemappes, Belgium and received orders to prepare for an attack on Mons the following day. The battalion's November 10 war diary entry describes the conditions as the fighting commenced:

"The morning was misty and no trouble was experienced until the mist cleared, when we found that the high ground north of Ohlin, the railway banks and canals north of Mons and the bridge crossing into Mons on the Mons-Ohlin road were heavily manned by machine guns."

Officers called in artillery fire on enemy positions, while gunfire by several of the RCR's companies prevented retreating German forces from destroying railroad tracks and bridges across a local canal.  Following the artillery barrage, the 42nd Battalion attacked the city from the south, while RCR personnel advanced from the north and northwest.

At 0900 hours November 11, RCR officers received news of the cessation of hostilities scheduled for 1100 hours that morning.  The day's diary entry commented on the significance of the battalion's location:

"Thus for us the war ended in almost exactly the same ground that the British Army had made their [sic] first stand in 1914.  Our men were in Mons.  One platoon of 'A' Company… had been the first to reach the square in the morning and the platoon commander had inscribed his name in the 'Golden Book of Mons'."

The following day, Alex and the men of the RCR settled into billets in the city, where they took part in thanksgiving parades and church services on November 16 and 17.  Ten days later, the battalion provided 72 OR "to line the streets" as King Albert I of Belgium paid a triumphant visit to the city.  The men took part in recreational football matches, route marches and classes on returning to civilian life over the next month and a half.

On December 11, the battalion relocated to Bourgeois, Belgium.  Small groups of OR were granted leave to nearby Brussels over the next several weeks, allowing Alex no doubt to take in the sights of the Belgian capital.  The RCR celebrated Christmas with an outdoor church service and dinner at Bourgeois before relocating to Estaimbourg, Belgium on January 2, 1919.  Alex and his comrades followed a schedule of training and educational sessions until the end of the month, when they packed their gear in preparation for the return voyage to England.

On February 1, the RCR entrained at 9:45 am, travelling in German box cars to Havre, France.  Arriving in the early hours of February 3, the men proceeded to the nearby Canadian Embarkation Camp.  On the night of February 6/7, Alex boarded a vessel for the voyage across the Channel to England.  The battalion war diary commented on the bittersweet occasion:  "As the Battalion reached the boat the Band played 'Tipperary' and when everybody was on board and the boat ready to leave the bugler blew the last post as a tribute to the men who were left behind on the battlefields."

Alex and the RCR arrived in Weymouth, England at 11:30 am February 7 and proceeded to a nearby camp.  The following day, the men entrained for Bramshott, where they received medical and dental examinations and completed the required documentation for discharge from military service.  All personnel received a welcome eight days' leave before reassembling in anticipation of the final stage of the journey home.

On March 1, 1919 the RCR departed England, arriving in Halifax eight days later.  Having participated in the most dramatic events of World War I, Pte. Alexander Sutherland Chisholm was formally discharged from military service on March 10, 1919.

*****

Shortly after returning home, Alex married Jessie Margaret Chisholm, a graduate nurse and native of Sunny Brae, Pictou County, in a ceremony held at the bride's home on October 14, 1919.  The newlyweds briefly resided in Alex's Caledonia family home before purchasing an adjacent property from a relative.  For the next ten years, Alex lived next door to his older brother, John Knox, where he farmed, worked in the woods, and drove logs to Sherbrooke each spring via the St. Mary's River.  During this time, Jessie gave birth to two children - James Ian (September 16, 1920) and Annie Florence (June 18, 1922).

In 1930, Alex sold his Caledonia property and moved his young family to his wife's home community of Sunny Brae.  Interest in owning and operating a business took him across the continent to Seattle, Washington, where he purchased a service station in partnership with another individual.  Alex proudly drove a black Pontiac with red trim all the way to Nova Scotia with the intention of relocating his family to the United States. 

Alexander Sutherland Chisholm in later life.
Illness, however, brought a change of plans when Alex contracted diphtheria.   He spent the following year recovering and eventually decided to remain in Nova Scotia, due in part to changes in American immigration rules in addition to health concerns.  Alex sold his stake in the Seattle business and worked as a supervisor for Anderson's, a Sherbrooke-based pulp wood company that operated several lumber camps between Caledonia and Sunny Brae.

In later life, health issues - specifically, diabetes - eventually forced Alex to retire from work in the lumber camps.  He spent his last years in Sunny Brae, Pictou County, passing away at New Glasgow on November 21, 1963 at the age of 76.

*****

Sources:

Macdonald, Clyde F.. Faithful Services in World War I and World War II: Veterans of Sunny Brae, Pictou County.  Published by Clyde F. Macdonald, New Glasgow, NS.  Printed by Advocate Printing & Publishing Ltd., Pictou, NS, 2001.

Regimental Record of Lance Corporal Alexander Sutherland Chisholm, No. 877535.  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1683 - 45.  Attestation papers available online.

War Diary of the Royal Canadian Regiment.  Library and Archives Canada: RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3 , Volume 4911 , Reel T-10703, File : 345.  Available online.

Pictures of Alexander Sutherland Chisholm courtesy of Clyde D. MacDonald, New Glasgow, NS.

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