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Thursday, 30 April 2015

Private Alexander Angus Fraser - An Inverness County Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: July 6, 1888

Place of Birth: Port Hastings, Inverness County

Mother's Name: Margaret McKillop

Father's Name: Angus Fraser

Date of Enlistment: July 14, 1915 at Vernon, BC*

Regimental Number: 442380

Rank: Private

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force (Infantry)

Unit: 54th Battalion (Kootenay)

Location of service: England, France & Belgium

Occupation at Enlistment: Miner

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Angus Fraser, Port Hastings, Inverness County (father)

* Alex's military record indicates that he initially joined the 54th Battalion at Camp Vernon, Kaslo, BC on May 31, 1915 and was assigned to "A" Company.  He officially attested for overseas service with the battalion at Camp Vernon, BC on July 14, 1915.

Author's Note:  A busy April 2015 schedule and delays in obtaining supporting information for several incomplete profiles made it impossible for me to post a Guysborough County soldier's profile.  Alex Fraser's story, researched and written for a family member, provides a most appropriate replacement.


Alexander Angus Fraser was the second youngest of 11 children born to Angus and Margaret (McKillop) Fraser.  The family initially resided on a farm at Lower South River, Antigonish County, where nine of Angus and Margaret's children — five girls and four boys — came into the world.

Alexander Angus Fraser, Port Hastings, NS.
In the late 1880s, the Frasers relocated to Port Hastings, where Angus worked as a telegraph lineman.  Alex was the first of two children born in their new home, followed a year later by a daughter, Agnes.  Tragically, Margaret died of a heart attack on January 25, 1894, at the young age of 44 years.  Angus never remarried, entrusting the care of his youngest children to their older siblings.

Alex remained in the local area into early adulthood.  According to 1911 census records, he was living with his father and older brother, Archibald in Port Hastings, the trio working as telegraph linemen.  His younger sister Agnes, her husband Archibald McIsaac, and their your son, Fraser, also resided in the family home.

Sometime after 1911, Alex headed west, eventually finding employment at a mining camp in British Columbia's Kootenay district.  After the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914, the province's abundant supply of able-bodied, young men attracted the attention of military recruiters.  Caught up in the wave of excitement, Alex enlisted for service with the 54th Battalion at Kaslo, north of Nelson, BC, on May 31, 1915.


The 54th Battalion (Kootenay) was authorized on May 1, 1915 and recruited its ranks from British Columbia's southern interior communities.  Its personnel spent more than a year in training at nearby Camp Vernon before traveling across the country by rail and departing for England on November 22, 1915.

Military authorities assigned the 54th to the 4th Canadian Division's 11th Brigade, along with the 75th (Mississauga), 87th (Canadian Grenadiers) and 102nd (Northern BC) Battalions.  Alex and his comrades spent nine more months training at Camp Bramshott, England and were no doubt impatient to see action at the front after such a lengthy wait.

Their opportunity finally came in the early days of August 1916, when the 54th received orders to break camp.  On August 7, Canada's Minister of Militia, Sir Sam Hughes, and British Minister of Munitions, David Lloyd George, reviewed 990 of its "other ranks" (OR) in "brilliant weather" at Hankley Common, north of Bramshott.  That same day, the unit's war diary reported: "Preparations for departure overseas are going on rapidly."

On August 13, the 54th's 34 Officers and 1111 OR entrained at Liphook for Southampton, arriving in the early afternoon.  Alex followed his chums up the gangway onto SS Connaught for the passage to France, arriving at Le Havre in the early morning hours of August 14.  The men disembarked at 7:00 a.m. and marched to a nearby rest camp.

Alex Fraser (center) and co-workers, Kootenay, BC mining camp.
The following day, personnel completed a short route march and gas drill.  Twenty-four hours later, they boarded train cars at Le Havre and made their northward toward the Belgian frontier.  Upon arriving at Houpoutre, Belgium at 8:30 p.m. August 17, the men marched to nearby Wippenhoek, where they set up tents in a camp that the war diary described as "very dirty".

Two days later, the first group of personnel — the Officer Commanding (OC) and 200 OR from "A" Company — "left for 48 hours duty in the trenches (24 hours instruction and 24 hours taking over Front Line) with 24th [Victoria Rifles, Montreal] and 25th [Nova Scotia] Battalions."  Over the following three days, each of the 54th's remaining three Companies left camp for similar tours.

The unit's war diary recorded its first casualties — one OR killed and five wounded — on August 21, as the 54th received orders to enter the front trenches in three days' time.  "A" and "B" Companies departed camp at 5:00 p.m. August 24, relieving the 25th Battalion and joining the two remaining Companies already deployed in the "South Centre, Sub-Sector, St. Eloi", near Ypres, Belgium.

Alex and his comrades received a blunt introduction to the perilous Belgian trenches.  The unit's war diary described "heavy bombardment on [the] afternoon of [the] first full day", although casualties were "very slight, there being only five wounded."  Personnel experienced heavy shelling once more on August 28 before being relieved two nights later and retiring to Brigade Reserve.

The 54th provided work and carrying parties for the 11th Brigade's front line units for several nights, returning to the firing line at St. Eloi on September 6 for five days before once again retiring to Brigade Reserve.  On September 16, Alex and his chums moved out to rest billets on farms near Westoutre, having completed their first rotation on the Western Front.

Two days later, the soldiers exchanged their Canadian-manufactured Ross Rifles for British Lee-Enfields.  Initially designed for target shooting, the Ross's lengthy barrel made it difficult to manoeuvre in cramped trenches.  Its tendency to overheat and jam when fired repeatedly made it most unpopular amongst Canadian soldiers, who were delighted to dispose of the unreliable weapon.

The 54th departed the Ypres area on September 20, making its way to St. Omer, France.  Personnel encamped at nearby Mentque-NortbĂ©court for training on September 21, remaining in the small village for almost two weeks.  The unit moved out by train to Doullens on the night of October 3/4 and marched to billets at GĂ©zaincourt in "very wet" conditions.  The following day, the battalion continued on to Harponville, where its soldiers established camp and resumed training in preparation for deployment on the battlefields of the Somme.

Private Alexander Angus Fraser.
Alex and his comrades marched out to "The Brickfields", near Albert, France, on October 10, moving forward to "advance positions" at 3:00 p.m. the following day.  "B" and "C" Companies entered the trenches in front of the village of Courcelette during the evening of October 13, while "A" and "D" Companies assumed support positions.

Personnel endured considerable artillery shelling for several days, the Companies briefly exchanging positions before being relieved in the early morning hours of October 17 and retiring to "bivouacs".  The men once again provided work and carrying parties for front line duty over several days.  Small groups also assisted in "clearing [the] battlefield and carrying wounded" as their Brigade mates launched an attack on German positions at a strategic location known as Regina Trench.

The 54th returned to the front line on the night of October 23, enduring particularly heavy artillery fire for three days before once again retiring to support positions.  Alex and his mates were no doubt relieved to withdraw to billets at Albert on October 30 for a brief rest.  It was back into the line on the night of November 2/3, the unit's personnel occupying sections of the newly captured Regina Trench and the "Old Front Line".

The men laid out stakes for a new section of front line trench, withdrawing to Brigade Support the following night.  The 54th provided work parties for trench construction for one week amidst "very wet" conditions, withdrawing to billets at Albert on November 11 as Canadian units captured several more positions along the German Regina Trench defensive line.

On November 13, the 54th commenced preparations to return to the trenches as part of an operation slated for two days hence.  The attack was subsequently rescheduled for the early hours of November 18.  In the interim, the men endured consistent artillery shelling as they awaited orders to move forward.

Alex and his comrades returned to the front trenches on November 17, "all Companies [digging an] Assembly trench in preparation for [the scheduled] attack."  The weather the following morning — November 18, 1916 — was particularly uncomfortable: "Very cold and commenced snowing in early morning, which later turned into rain."  Preparations for the assault nevertheless proceeded as 12 Officers and 500 OR gathered in two trenches about 100 yards in front of Regina Trench.

Alex's older brother, Frank, served overseas with the American Expeditionary Force.
A routine, fifteen-minute artillery bombardment commenced at 5:45 a.m., the "real barrage" resuming at 6:10 a.m..  The 54th's war diary described the ensuing attack:

"The Battalion moved out from the trenches and formed up close behind the barrage, opening out into four waves as the barrage advanced.  Rate of advance of barrage, 50 yards every two minutes.  The objective, Desire Support Trench, was taken according to program and a line established 100 yards beyond it."

One German Officer and 51 OR were taken prisoner in the attack.  The battalion held and consolidated the newly captured position until relieved in the early morning hours of November 20, its war diary praising its soldiers' performance: "The operation was conducted with great precision and exactly in accordance with orders received, the men showing the greatest intelligence, endurance and courage."

The 54th's success at Regina Trench was overshadowed by its human cost.  Two of its Officers were killed and 11 wounded in the attack.  The impact on its OR was even more devastating: 42 were killed, 160 wounded and 23 missing in the battle's aftermath.

Private Alexander Angus Fraser was amongst the 42 OR killed in action at Regina Trench on November 18, 1916.  His remains were laid to rest in Adanac Military Cemetery, Miramount and Pys, France.  Several years after the war, Alex's father, Angus, received his British War and Victory Medals, in addition to a Memorial Plaque and Scroll bearing his name.
Alex's CEF Death Certificate.
The loss of Angus's youngest son was only one of several tragedies to strike the Fraser family during the war years.  Colin — the older brother closest in age to Alex — died unexpectedly in Spokane, Washington in 1915.  An older sister, Florence, passed away at Creignish, Inverness County on February 6, 1917, nine days shy of her thirty-sixth birthday. 

Angus's health was no doubt affected by the loss of three adult children.  He passed away at Port Hastings, Inverness County on January 13, 1920 and was laid to rest beside his wife, Margaret, in Creignish Catholic Cemetery, Inverness County.


Service Record of Private Alexander Angus Fraser, No. 442380.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 3274 - 22.  Attestation papers available online.

War Diary of the 54th Canadian Infantry Battalion, CEF.  RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 4942, Reel T-10748-10749, File: 445.  Available online.

Photographs and family information courtesy of Debbie Helm, Antigonish, NS, great-niece of Alexander Angus Fraser.