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Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Gunner George Edward Croft - A "Siege Battery" Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: August 5, 1897*

Place of Birth: Gegogan, Guysborough County

Mother's Name: Bessie Jack

Father's Name: Edward George Croft

Date of Enlistment: January 20, 1917 at Halifax, NS

Regimental Number: 2163305

Rank: Gunner

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force (Artillery)

Units: 1st Reinforcement Draft, No. 8 Siege Battery, Royal Canadian Garrison Artillery (RCGA); No. 9 Siege Battery, RCGA

Location of service: England & France

Occupation at Enlistment: Labourer

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Edward Croft, Gegogan, Guysborough County (father)

* Date of birth obtained from 1901 census and family genealogy records.  George's attestation papers list his year of birth as 1898.

George's youngest sibling, Harold Reginald Croft, was born on October 20, 1917, eight months after George's departure for England.  Harold enlisted with the Canadian Armed Forces during the Second World War and was a member of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion.  He was amongst the first paratroopers dropped behind German lines at Caen, France on the night of June 5/6, 1944, as part of the Allied D-Day invasion of Normandy.  Although wounded in action, he returned to active duty before fighting came to an end.  After returning to Canada, Harold relocated to Boston, MA, where he married and raised a family of three children.  Harold passed away on July 25, 2007 and was laid to rest in Easton, MA.


George Edward Croft was the oldest of nine children — five boys and four girls — born to Edward and Bessie (Jack) Croft of Gegogan, Guysborough County.  Edward supported his growing family by fishing out of Gegogan Harbour and harvesting timber in the Liscomb area.  He was also known locally for his finely constructed rowboats.

Some time after the outbreak of war in Europe, young George relocated to Halifax in search of employment.  He enlisted for service with the Royal Canadian Garrison Artillery (RCGA) — a non-permanent, active militia unit — on October 27, 1916.  George's cousin, Percy Ellis Croft, likely accompanied him to Halifax, as Percy joined the militia unit three days prior to George's enlistment.

Gunners George Edward (standing) and Percy Ellis Croft.
The Gegogan boys spent the next several months training with the RCGA at Halifax Citadel.  On January 9, 1917, Lieutenant H. H. Lawson, an RCGA Officer, wrote the following letter to George's mother, Bessie:

"Mrs. Croft:

"Your son is in my company and I have been talking to him about going overseas.  He tells me he wants to go very much but that you don't wish him to go, so I thought I would write you about it.

"We are sending 50 men overseas in 2 or 3 months.  They will probably train in England for 6 months or so.  Nearly all the men in his company are going and it would be nice for your son to go over with his friends.

"Thousands of mothers have let their sons go overseas, so don't you think it is your turn now?  His cousin [Roy] wants to go too so I am writing his mother as well.

"Siege Artillery is the best part of the army to be in and by far the safest.  There are not very many casualties in siege artillery because their guns are over a mile behind the trenches and so the men live very comfortably.

"Please talk the matter over with your husband because your son wants to go very badly and doesn't think he should stay when nearly all his friends here are going.

"Remember he wouldn't be going for 2 or 3 months. I hope you will agree to let him come with us — he will be well looked after.  Please answer as soon as you can."

Apparently, both mothers agreed to Lt. Lawson's request.  George attested for overseas service with the 1st Reinforcement Draft, No. 8 Siege Battery, RCGA on January 20, 1917.  Eleven days later, Percy Ellis Croft enlisted with the same unit.  The cousins and their colleagues boarded SS Southland at Halifax on February 17, 1917 for the trans-Atlantic voyage, arriving at Liverpool, England after 10 days at sea.

On February 28, George and Percy reported to Siege Depot C, Royal Garrison Artillery, Stowlangtoft, east of Cambridge, England.  After completing the required training program, the cousins made their way to the Royal Canadian Artillery Reserve Brigade at Shorncliffe on May 25, but as fate would have it they soon parted ways.  The day following the cousins' arrival at Shorncliffe, Roy was "taken on strength" by the 23rd Battery, Reserve Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery.

Before year's end, Canadian military officials received notice that Roy had misrepresented his age at enlistment by one year.  Declared a "minor" as he would not reach the minimum requirement for service at the front — 19 years of age — until May 15, 1918, Roy was assigned to the Canadian Artillery Reserve Depot at Étaples, France.  Several subsequent health issues prevented him from serving with a front line unit during the war's remaining months.

Meanwhile, George passed the summer at Shorncliffe, finally receiving a transfer to the Canadian Reserve Artillery's 2nd Brigade on October 17, 1917.  The following day, he proceeded across the English Channel to Boulogne, France.  Before month's end, however, illness delayed George's journey to the front.  Upon reporting to No. 3 Australian Casualty Clearing Station on October 29, he was diagnosed with a bacterial infection.

On November 2, George was transferred to No. 51 General Hospital, Étaples, France for treatment.  He was discharged from hospital on December 15 and immediately reported to the Canadian Base Depot at Étaples.  One week later, he joined No. 9 Siege Battery, RCGA in the field.


When Great Britain declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary on August 4, 1914, the Royal Canadian Garrison Artillery (RCGA) immediately mobilized at forts in the Halifax area and assumed responsibility for the strategic harbour's defence.  Its personnel could not proceed overseas, as no other troops were available to replace them.  As time passed and the possibility of coastal attack diminished, Halifax became a bustling departure point for troop transport vessels and thus still required a defensive presence.

In mid-1916, Lieutenant-Colonel S. A. Heward, Acting Commander of Halifax Citadel, proposed recruitment of a Siege Battery from RCGA ranks.  Military officials agreed, on condition that Heward recruit and train men to take their place at Halifax's forts.  The resulting unit — No. 9 Siege Battery, Canadian Field Artillery (CFA) — consisted of Officers and men belonging to the Royal Canadian Garrison Artillery.  The majority of its initial "other ranks" (OR) personnel came from No. 1 and 2 Companies RCGA, Halifax, supplemented by a small number from No. 5 Company, Esquimault, BC, while RCGA Halifax provided all of the unit's Officers.

No. 9 Siege Battery departed for England on September 27, 1916.  Upon arrival, the unit was equipped with six-inch howitzer guns.  It personnel consisted of six Officers, a Warrant Officer, seven Staff Sergeants, and 144 OR.  The unit spent the winter of 1916-17 in England, departing for France on March 22, 1917.

The battery initially deployed at Mont. St. Eloi, France during the Battle of Arras (Vimy Ridge), and saw action at Cabaret Rouge, Angres and Hill 70 (Lens) in subsequent months.  During its time in France, the unit reportedly fired more rounds, received more shelling, and was the closer to the German front line than any other siege battery on the Western Front.

No. 9 Siege Battery relocated to Belgium for the Canadian Corps' attack on Passchendaele Ridge (October - November 1917).  Upon being relieved on December 13, its personnel retired to Ham-en-Artois, France, 60 kilometres from Ypres, Belgium, for a period of rest and training.  Nine days later, Gunner George Edward Croft arrived in camp.  On December 26, the battery relocated to Villers-au-Bois, France, where training continued until January 10, 1918.

The following day, No. 9 Siege Battery relieved No. 6 Canadian Siege Battery, assuming operation of two guns at Angres and four guns at Petit Vimy, France.  According to the unit's war diary, its initial assignment was "wholly counter-battery", targeting German artillery positions.

In subsequent days, the unit executed all of the typical siege battery "shoots".  When subjected to hostile artillery fire, infantry units in the front line placed an "SOS" call, requesting retaliatory fire on the active gun positions.  The battery's guns also conducted routine "harassing fire" on specific enemy locations, such as roads and supply lines.  On occasion, its guns carried out "targeted shoots", in which observation balloons or aircraft directed fire.

January 13, 1918 — George's third day "in the line" — provides an example of a routine day.  According to No. 9's daily war diary, its guns responded to one "SOS" call, firing four rounds, while "several shoots of neutralizing fire were carried out on Hostile Batteries, about 150 rounds being expended."  Personnel also carried out "harassing fire" on specific targets from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m..  In return, German artillery shelled the battery position and vicinity from 12:00 to 4:00 p.m., but inflicted neither casualties nor damage.

The January 21 diary entry described a common problem caused by the howitzer's powerful recoil: "Concrete gun pits giving trouble.  Roofs cracking up under concussion, causing guns and slides to be filled up with debris…[;] all guns put out of action for 24 hours to enable repairs to be effected."  The following day, personnel were back in action, launching neutralizing fire on hostile batteries, along with harassing fire on "enemy roads, dugouts and train movement".

On January 30, the battery conducted a relatively new tactic: "Our first attempt at a shoot by 'sound ranging' was carried out, and reported on as very successful.  At least 6 O. K.'s being noted.  A total of 60 rounds were fired."  Four days later, the unit relieved No. 326 Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, at Cité de Colonne, assuming responsibility for two guns at the new location, in addition to a pair at nearby Maroc.

Australian unit operating 9.2" Mark I Howitzer at Fricourt, Somme (August 1916)
Over the following three weeks, personnel conducted "neutralizing fire", airplane-coordinated shoots, harassing fire and occasional "SOS" shoots.  On February 11, "a wire-cutting shoot was carried out… but the result was unsatisfactory on account of the high wind."  For the first time since George's arrival, the battery fired "10 rounds of Gas shells" on February 19, followed by another 20 rounds three days later.

No. 9 Siege Battery was relieved on February 25, at which time personnel returned to billets at Thèlus and resumed operation of gun positions at Petit Vimy.  Once again, the battery was its Brigade's most advanced unit and thus called upon to fire at the most distant targets.  The location placed its personnel in a vulnerable position in the event of a German attack, as Vimy Ridge's steep slopes — located behind its gun emplacements — made rapid evacuation difficult.

The unit's March 1 diary entry described an unusual assignment:

"An enemy position in [a] House… was successfully engaged.  A total of 15 rounds were fired, and the house was reported demolished by F. O. O. [forward observation officer].  Much work carried out in building of alternative defensive position[s along the Arras - Bethune Road and at Carency], in preparation for an anticipated enemy offensive."

Meanwhile, its guns conducted routine "shoots".  On March 4, for example, the unit launched neutralizing fire on hostile batteries in the morning, responded to "SOS" calls near Avion and Lens, and carried out neutralizing and harassing fire in the evening.  By day's end, the war diary recorded an addition to its arsenal: "Two howitzers arrive from O. O. Calais, and put into Rear Position.  Battery now complete as a 6-gun unit."  Five days later, the new guns registered their first shots on enemy targets, firing a total of 29 rounds.

No. 9's proximity to the German front line made it more vulnerable to enemy shelling.  Within days of the unit's return to the Vimy area, the war diary reported the first of several such instances: "During the night the enemy fired a few gas shells into and near the battery position."

Meanwhile, the arrival of spring brought increased activity along the entire front line.  On March 11, the battery fired 200 rounds with the assistance of airplane observation and another 500 with ground observation.  In response, "the enemy scattered HE gas and shrapnel in the vicinity of battery position.  No damage and no casualties."

The following day, No. 9 Siege Battery's guns executed a 200-round "airplane shoot" on hostile batteries, in addition to neutralizing fire on other heavy batteries.  German guns replied with approximately 250 rounds of 5.9 artillery shells in the vicinity of No. 1 gun, although the unit's war diary once again reported no damage or casualties.

As the days passed, heavy exchanges of fire became the norm, reaching a peak toward month's end.  German forces launched their anticipated "Spring Offensive" on March 21, targeting a section of the line south of the battery's location.  One week later, there was considerable activity in the battery's sector, its guns responding to two "SOS" calls near Oppy, launching 50 rounds of harassing fire on enemy roads, and conducting neutralizing fire on German gun positions.

That same day — March 28 — the war diary noted a marked increase in German artillery fire: "Thèlus (billets) was very heavily shelled throughout the day, as was Vimy and Petit Vimy and roads Arras-Lens."  By month's end, fierce artillery shelling became the daily norm, although the unit still managed to avoid casualties and damage to its equipment.

Under such daily bombardment, however, it was only a matter of time before the enemy registered a successful strike.  The first such incident occurred on April 3: "During the morning the enemy carried out what appeared to be an observed shoot on our position….  No. 4 Gun Pit was damaged, and the gun was temporarily put out of action.  No casualties."

Later events suggest that George was amongst the gunners assigned to this position.  No doubt, the gravity of the situation registered with the unit's Officers, if not its OR.  If German guns succeeded in calibrating its location, the safety of the personnel manning its gun emplacements was in jeopardy.
Two days after the successful strike on No. 4 Gun Pit, the battery launched a massive response:

"At 11:30 p.m. we commenced a heavy gas bombardment with H.E. [high explosive] and gas shells.  This bombardment was maintained throughout the night.  We fired 600 gas shells and 128 H.E. shell [sic].  Our rear position maintained harassing fire on enemy roads, light railways, etc. during the day and night and fired 153 [rounds] of gas shells into Chez Bon-Temps, in conjunction with… gas bombardment orders."

The shelling continued until 11:30 a. m. the following morning, at which time the unit resumed its normal routine.  Meanwhile, German guns continued their search for the unit's gun emplacements.  On April 13, the unit's war diary reported a "few [enemy] rounds close to No. 1 Gun.  No damage."
April 15, 1918 began as another routine day in the line.  No. 9's guns launched 30 rounds of harassing fire on various hostile batteries from 6:00 to 7:00 a.m., two shoots of neutralizing fire — 55 rounds — during the night, and 50 rounds of harassing fire on enemy targets.  A mid-afternoon incident, however, overshadowed the day's offensive fire:

"At about 10 a.m. the enemy commenced shelling our position… firing about 20 time [sic] H. E., apparently for ranging.  At 2:30 p.m. he commenced a heavy bombardment on [the] same location, and fired about 200 rounds.  One shell burst in No. 4 Gun Pit, in which Lieutenant Mackenzie and gun crew were working."

While the war diary reported "no material damage", the unit incurred casualties in the line for the first time since George's arrival.  Lt. Mackenzie suffered shrapnel wounds, while Bomber J. T. Wentzell was instantly killed.  Amongst its OR, three "gunners" were severely wounded and later died, while three others received shrapnel wounds.  "Gunner Croft" was one of the three wounded OR immediately evacuated for medical treatment.


No. 9 Siege Battery continued to serve in the line for the remainder of the war, recording a total of one Officer and 67 OR fatalities during its entire war service.  While such numbers are tragic, they do bear testimony to Lt. Lawson's January 1917 letter, emphasizing the relative safety of artillery service, in comparison to front-line infantry duty.

Such assurances, however, were little comfort to George, as he was admitted to No. 57 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) on April 16, suffering from "sw [shrapnel wounds] head and 1st and 2nd fingers l. [left] hand".  According to his Field Hospital Card, metal fragments had penetrated the left hand's first, second and third fingers.  While several pieces were removed, they caused an intense infection that required an immediate operation for drainage at No. 57 CCS.

Telegram notifying parents of George's hospitalization.
Two days later, George was transferred to No. 12 General Hospital (St. Louis, MO), Rouen, where surgeons completed five more surgeries on his left hand.  Luckily, the shrapnel had merely grazed his forehead, inflicting only a superficial wound.  His hand, however, did not fare as well.  Following the last of his surgeries at No. 12 General, doctors noted a "marked deformity and complete absence of finger function", despite satisfactory healing of the wounds.

On June 20, George was evacuated to England aboard the hospital ship Aberdonian and admitted to 3rd Western Hospital at Cardiff, Wales the following day.  Medical records describe his condition at the time:

"Head wound healed.  Many incised wounds of left hand and wrist.  No acute infection now.  FB: Needle diagonally across palmar surface of metacarpal [bone] of middle finger."

A subsequent surgery at 3rd Western removed the "half needle" of metal from George's middle finger.  He spent 49 days at the Cardiff facility before being transferred to No. 16 General Hospital, Orpington on August 8.  A medical report at the time of his transfer described his left hand in detail:

"Scar of incision extending from joint of metacarpal 1/3 and distal of forearm to between the index and middle finger on the dorsal surface of left arm.  Scar of incision on lower third of solar surface, limited movement of the radius carpal [wrist] joint, ankylosis [joint stiffness] of metacarpal joint in small finger and thumb."

George was discharged from 3rd Western on September 4 and made his way to Granville Canadian Special Hospital, Buxton, Derbyshire, for further assessment and physiotherapy.  The condition of his left hand was not promising:

"Movement of wrist and fingers very slight.  Sensation lost in index and second fingers, muscles of hand and fingers quite wasted.  Other systems normal."

After almost two months' treatment at Granville, George was transferred to No. 5 Canadian General Hospital, Liverpool, where medical staff reported little sign of progress in his hand: "Voluntary movement slight only in little finger and thumb… considerable atrophy of muscles."

George spent four weeks at No. 5 Canadian General before he was "invalided" to Canada via HS Araguaya.  Upon arriving at Halifax on December 7, 1918, he was admitted to Camp Hill Hospital.  Medical staff described a scar on the back of George's left hand and lower forearm, in addition to impaired movement of his entire hand.  He had no use of the three middle fingers, very little use of his small finger, and only one inch of flexion in his thumb.

Despite several months' treatment, George was unable to flex or extend his remaining fingers and reported no sensation whatsoever in the first and second digits.  The left hand's muscles had "wasted" and two fingers had "ankylosed".  Medical authorities concluded that the shrapnel wounds had inflicted a "permanent" disability.  George was given six months to consider a complete amputation of his left hand, an option he later rejected.

After eight months at Camp Hill, Gunner George Edward Croft was formally discharged from military service as "medically unfit" on August 16, 1919.  Several years later, he received the British War and Victory Medals, in acknowledgement of his overseas service.


Within months of his discharge, George settled into civilian life.  On March 10, 1920, he married Hilda Maude Penney, a native of Cape Sable Island, Shelburne County, in a ceremony held at All Saints Anglican Cathedral, Halifax.  "Best man" as the ceremony was none other than Percy Ellis Croft, the young cousin who had accompanied George across the Atlantic to England.  The following year, the couple welcomed their first child, Douglas Reginald Croft, into the world.  Maude subsequently gave birth to two daughters, Phyllis and Joyce.

Meanwhile, George was ordained as a minister and served as Pastor of Yarmouth and Halifax area congregations, before settling in Pleasant Valley, near Brookfield, Colchester County.  He operated a small farm and subsequently opened a general store in Brookfield.  In later years, George worked as a "tallyman", grading and tagging wood for Brookfield Lumber and Building Supply Ltd..

In their later years, the couple relocated to Barry Street, Truro, where George passed away at home on June 26, 1976.  He was laid to rest in nearby Watson (Salmon River) Cemetery, Truro, NS..


Hunt, M. S..  "9th Canadian Siege Battery, CEF."  Nova Scotia's Part in the Great War - 1920.  Manotick, ON: Archives CD Books Canada, Inc., 2007.  Available online.

Service file of Gunner George Edward Croft, No. 2163305.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 2149 - 18.  Available online.

War Diary of No. 9 Canadian Siege Battery, Royal Canadian Garrison Artillery.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG9, Militia and Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 4977, Reel T-10805, File: 576.  Available online.

A special thank you to Cam and Janet Cruickshank of Halifax, NS, who provided photographs, letters and information on George's family and post-war life.  Cam and Janet also obtained information from George's only remaining sibling, Violet, Halifax, NS, and his daughter, Joyce Cameron, Bass River, NS.