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Monday, 31 March 2014

Pte. Samuel Rogers Willis - A Conscripted Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: June 14, 1891

Place of Birth: New Town, Guysborough County

Mother's Name: Susanna (Susie) Whidden

Father's Name: Samuel H. Willis

Date of Enlistment: March 15, 1918 at Halifax, NS

Regimental Number: 3180981

Rank: Private

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force (Infantry)

Units: 1st Depot Battalion, Nova Scotia Regiment; 4th Canadian Machine Gun Battalion

Location of service: England & France

Occupation at Enlistment: Farmer

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: James Willis, New Town, Guysborough County (brother)

*****

Pte. Samuel Rogers Willis (courtesy of Jennifer MacKay, Truro, NS)
Samuel Rogers Willis was the sixth of eight children - two boys and six girls - born to Samuel and Susanna (Whidden) Willis of New Town, Guysborough County.  His father passed away sometime between 1901 and 1911, leaving his older brother James (DOB March 9, 1885) and Samuel to support the family.  Their widowed mother died on November 23, 1913, at which time James took over the family farm.

By the spring of 1917, as the war in Europe entered its fourth year, voluntary enlistment was unable to keep pace with the increasing number of casualties suffered by the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  As a result, on August 29, 1917, the Canadian Parliament passed the Military Service Act and the Conservative government of Prime Minister Robert Borden set in motion a plan to implement compulsory military service.

By year's end, thousands of Canadian males received notices to report for a preliminary medical examination.  Considering the fact that Samuel was 26 years of age at that time, it is not surprising that he was amongst the first group of Guysborough men selected for service.  He completed a preliminary medical examination at Sherbrooke on October 30, 1917 and was placed in category 'A-2' - men who had not been in the field but lacked only military training.  The following spring, Samuel traveled to Halifax and entered military service with the 1st Depot Battalion, Nova Scotia Regiment, on March 15, 1918.

Prior to departing for overseas, Samuel assigned $ 15 of his monthly salary to his brother James.  On April 7, 1918, he sailed from Halifax on board the SS Ulua, landing in England twelve days later.  Upon arrival, Samuel was 'taken on strength' by the 17th Reserve Battalion at Frensham Pond, Bramshott, where he awaited a transfer to a front line unit.

On June 1, 1918, Samuel was assigned to the Canadian Machine Gun Depot at Seaford and immediately commenced 'gunner' training.  Five days after arriving in Seaford, he was admitted to No. 14 General Hospital, Eastbourne, Sussex, for treatment of rubella (measles) and tonsillitis.  He was discharged after twelve days and resumed training.

Samuel was transferred to the Canadian Machine Gun Overseas Pool on August 21, 1918 and crossed the English Channel to France the following day.  He made his way to the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Centre on September 17 and eleven days later was assigned to the 4th Canadian Machine Gun (CMG) Battalion.  On September 29, Samuel joined his new unit in the field.

At the beginning of the war, each Canadian infantry battalion possessed a machine gun section consisting of at least four guns.  As the weapon assumed a critical role on the battlefield, military commanders recognized the need to form specific units trained in its use.  As a result, on January 1, 1916, each Canadian Infantry Brigade received orders to create a separate Machine Gun Company whose initial personnel was drawn from existing battalion sections.

By the spring of 1917, the Canadian Expeditionary Force contained sixteen Machine Gun Companies, four per division.  In early 1918, military commanders once again reorganized the Machine Gun Corps into 16 battalions, each initially consisting of two Companies equipped with a total of 64 guns.  Within four months, General Arthur Currie, Canadian Corps Commander, ordered the creation of an additional company, increasing the number of machine guns per battalion to 96.  By year's end, battalions were expanded to the traditional four-company structure followed by infantry units.

Diagram of a Machine Gun Battalion (Source: 2nd CMG Bn. War Diary)
The machine gun played a crucial role during the war's final months as a massive Allied counter-attack set the previously 'static' front in motion.  Light and portable, the weapon could be quickly deployed to provide barrages of 'indirect fire' in support of advancing infantry battalions.  Machine gun batteries were also called to the front whenever stiff enemy resistance halted progress.

At the time of Samuel's arrival, 4th CMG Battalion consisted of 55 officers and 1459 OR.  Throughout this period, the battalion's companies were attached to advancing infantry units, allowing their commanders to quickly direct their deployment.  Several of its batteries were engaged in offensive action along the Douai - Cambrai Road as part of the Battle of Canal du Nord (September 27 - October 11, 1918).

The unit's war diary summarized the action on September 30, Samuel's first full day at the front:
"Good targets were obtained but casualties were heavy from enemy Machine Guns.  At night defensive positions were taken up.  The troops suffered heavy casualties, and the machine guns were dispersed to cover the gaps in the Infantry Dispositions."

In fact, the unit suffered significant casualties as the Canadian Corps' 3rd and 4th Divisions pressed the attack against German forces on the outskirts of Cambrai.  The war diary recorded 17 'other ranks' (OR) killed and 140 wounded on the day prior to Samuel's arrival, while a total of 5 officers and 48 OR killed in action during the month of September.

As of October 1, three of the battalion's four Companies - Nos. 1, 2, and 3 - were 'in the line' with advancing infantry battalions, while No. 4 Company remained in reserve.  All Companies were relieved by the night of October 5/6 and retired to rest camp at Anzin, where personnel cleaned their guns and equipment in preparation for their next assignment.  Three days later, Canadian forces crossed the strategic Canal du Nord that passed through the outskirts of Cambrai as they pursued retreating German forces in a north-easterly direction toward Valenciennes, France.

4th CMG spent one week at Anzin, where the men trained in the morning and enjoyed sports and recreational activities in the afternoon.  Batteries began to return to the line on the night of October 15/16 near Sauchy-LestrĂ©e,  north-west of Cambrai.  No. 1 and 2 Companies assumed responsibility for "machine gun defence" in the Arleux and Aubencheul sectors, while No. 3 and 4 Companies remained in reserve.

As German forces retreated to a line along the Canal d'Escaut from Bruay to Prouvy, No. 1, 2 and 3 Companies, attached to the 10th, 11th and 12th Canadian Infantry Brigades respectively, remained "in close touch with the enemy".  Meanwhile, 4th CMG's No. 4 Company acted "chiefly in a defensive role, being seldom required to supply cover fire for Infantry".   One of its batteries provided two hours of direct fire during an October 24th advance on the villages of Thiant and Maing.

Before month's end, 4th CMG's Companies were once again relieved in the line, allowing personnel to prepare for the advance's next significant engagement.  By that time, retreating German forces had halted at Valenciennes, the location of the strategic Canal de l'Escaut, and made preparations to defend the last major French city under their control.

Diagram of a Machine Gun Battery (Source: 2nd CMG Bn. War Diary).
The Canal de l'Escaut ran from north to south along the city's western side, posing a major obstacle to advancing Canadian forces.  To make matters worse, German troops opened or destroyed numerous sluices and dykes on the city's outskirts, turning much of the surrounding land into a muddy quagmire.  The canal itself was wired with explosives and German machine guns were strategically placed in buildings on the city's outskirts.

At 5:15 am November 1, 1918, Canadian units launched a coordinated attack on Valenciennes, with three of 4th CMG's Companies playing a critical role in the assault.  No 1 Company advanced with the battalions of the attacking 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade, assuming defensive positions in front of Mount Houy, a strategic area of high ground.  Two batteries from No. 2 Company and No. 3 Company respectively participated in a rolling barrage of machine gun fire "from positions north of Canal de l'Escaut… [while] two [additional] batteries [of] No. 3 Company… remained in position during the day for defence against counter-attacks."

Canadian forces reached the strategic canal by 10:20 am after four hours of heavy fighting in close quarters.  Two batteries of No. 3 Company "by diagonal fire assisted the 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade to cross the canal, and enter Valenciennes from the west side."  Soldiers of the Brigade's 38th and 72nd Battalions crossed the strategic location by raft and cork bridge before mid-day.  Meanwhile, the 10th Brigade's 46th and 47th Battalions, supported by 24 Vickers machine guns from 4th CMG, pressed the attack into the city.

Later in the day, two batteries of No. 2 Company moved forward at noon and "took up positions on Mount Houy to give greater defence in depth."  Fighting continued into the early hours of November 2, with advancing Canadian units reporting that the city "was clear of the enemy" by 8:30 am and German forces once again in full retreat.  In the battle's aftermath, 4th CMG's war diary reported: "No casualties occurred in any of the batteries during the fighting."

The 11th and 12th Canadian Infantry Brigades pressed forward in pursuit of German forces as 4th CMG's Companies continued to operate "with their respective Brigade groups".  Two of No. 3 Company's batteries advanced into St. Saulve, assuming "defensive positions" on the night of November 3/4, while two additional batteries pushed forward into the vicinity of Onnairy the following day.

At 4:55 am November 5, 4th CMG's officers received notice that the 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade would resume the advance at 5:30 am.  Its war diary noted:

"There was no time to issue instructions to Batteries.  Batteries had however been warned by Battalions and arrangements were made.  Two guns of J Battery moved forward with each attacking Company of the 78th Battalion and took up defensive positions east of Quarouble[; the] remainder of guns were held in reserve."

Two guns of 'M' Battery moved forward with a second wave of soldiers from the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders), while the remaining guns establishing defensive positions in support.  As Canadian forces continued to press the attack against retreating German forces, 4th CMG's personnel were relieved on November 6 and retreated to billets at St. Waast la Haut, on the western outskirts of Valenciennes.

While three Companies - Nos. 1, 2 and 3 - provided detailed descriptions of their role in the fighting at Valenciennes from November 1 to 5, only No. 3 Company specifically reported on casualties, stating that the numbers were "comparatively large considering the small space of time in the line" - 1 'other rank' (OR) died of wounds, while 2 officers and 21 OR were wounded. 

Canadian soldiers entering Valenciennes, November 1918 (Source: Library & Archives Canada).
As no lists are available indicating the personnel of specific companies and batteries, it is impossible to determine Samuel's role in the fighting at Valenciennes.  His service record, however, states that he was amongst the gunners wounded in combat.  On November 5, Samuel was admitted to No. 13 Canadian Field Ambulance suffering from "shrapnel wound[s] to his] face, arm [and] shoulder", probably inflicted by a German artillery shell.  The following day, he was evacuated to No. 6 Casualty Clearing Station, where he awaited transfer to hospital.

On November 8, Samuel was admitted to 83rd General Hospital, Boulogne.  Three days later, as the Allied forces implemented the Armistice that ended fighting at 11:00 am, Samuel traveled by hospital ship to England, where he was admitted to Northampton War Hospital, Duston.  An initial medical examination described a "shrapnel wound, face, rt. arm", noting that the facial wound had been excised and sutured and a "foreign body" removed from his right arm.

Doctors removed the stitches on his facial wound the day following his arrival.  By January 1, 1919, medical personnel reported considerable progress, stating that the facial wound was completely healed but his right arm was "not quite healed".  Later that day, Samuel was transferred to the Canadian Red Cross Hospital, Buxton, Derby.  A January 17, 1919 note on his medical records described his condition at the time: "Well developed man without physical signs or symptoms of disease in any of his organs."  Samuel was deemed fit and "discharged from hospital [as] Category A" - fit for military service - on March 7, 1919.

Samuel immediately reported to the Canadian Machine Gun Depot, Seaford, where he awaited further orders.  On April 2, he was transferred to Military District No. 6, Seaford.  Two weeks later, Samuel reported to the Dispersal Area, where he boarded SS Belgic for the return journey to Canada.  He landed at Halifax on April 23 and was formally discharged from military service on May 1, 1919.  His medical examination at that time describes a physically fit young man - 5' 11", 160 pounds, with "no disability".  The only visible evidence of his war experience was "one wound scar, right cheek and right upper arm".

*****

Samuel returned to New Town, where he resided on the family farm with his brother James.  He later traveled to Butte, Montana with a group of local men and worked for a period of time in the copper mines before returning to New Town and purchasing a property across from the Willis family farm.

After several years' farming, Samuel relocated to Cochrane, Ontario, where he worked in a local lumber mill.  On July 8, 1927, he married Mabel Catherine Cameron, a native of Pictou County, in a ceremony held at Cochrane.  The couple's first two children - daughters - were born there during the early years of their marriage.  In 1932, Samuel and Mabel relocated to Hanes, near Red Deer, Alberta, where Samuel purchased a quarter of land and once again took up farming.  In the ensuing years, Mabel gave birth to three more children - a third daughter and two sons.

As time passed, Samuel left farming for his preferred passion - working with his hands.  In 1944, the family moved to Lacombe, Alberta, where Samuel found employment as a carpenter at the Dominion Experimental Farm Station.  He worked at this location until his retirement, returning to New Town on several occasions for visits with family and friends.

Samuel Rogers Willis spent his last years in Lacombe, where he passed away in 1971 and was laid to rest in nearby Red Deer.  In the years following his return to Canada, Samuel received the British War and Victory Medals in recognition of his overseas military service in England and France.

*****

Sources:

Cook, Tim.  Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting in the Great War, Volume II 1917-1918.  Toronto: Penguin Group, 2008.

Regimental Record of Pte. Samuel Rogers Willis, number 3180981.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 10422 - 13.  Entire service record available online.

War Diary of 4th Canadian Machine Gun Battalion.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 4986, Reel T-10818, File: 624.  Available online.

Photograph of Samuel Rogers Willis courtesy of Colin MacKay, Willowdale, Pictou County, reproduced by his daughter Jennifer Mac Kay, Truro, NS.

A special thank you to Samuel's son, Jack Willis of Gainsborough, Saskatchewan, who provided valuable information on Samuel's life after the war.