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Monday, 16 January 2017

Remembering Pte. Roland "Rollie" Ash & Pte. James William Clooney - KIA January 16, 1917

Roland "Rollie" Ash was born at Guysborough, NS on September 6, 1894, the eldest child of Esther Ann (Parris) Shepard and James Stanley Ash. Several years later, the family relocated to Antigonish, where Esther and James raised a family of 11 children.

Rollie married Reta Jackson, a native of Boston, Massachusetts, in a Baptist ceremony held at Antigonish on May 27, 1915. A little more than a year later, he entered military service, enlisting with the 106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) at Truro, NS on July 11, 1916. The fact that Rollie’s younger brother, Norman, had enlisted with the same unit four days previously likely influenced his decision to serve overseas. One of several infantry battalions recruited across the province in 1916, the 106th accepted at least 16 African Nova Scotian men into its ranks, a fact that
distinguished the unit from the vast majority of Canadian battalions.

The 106th's ranks also contained several other Guysborough natives. Private James William Clooney, born at Sherbrooke on November 8, 1889, was the third of six children and eldest son of Elizabeth Ann "Bessie" (Bennett) and William H. Clooney, James enlisted with the 106th at Truro on December 27, 1915. As with the Ash family, James' brother, Garfield, joined the same unit two months later. Prior to departing for England, James married Elizabeth Mary Reinhof, a native of St. George's NL, at Bible Hill on March 1, 1916.

The Ash and Clooney brothers departed Halifax on July 15 and arrived in England ten days later. Shortly afterward, the 106th was disbanded and its personnel assigned to various units in the field. The pairs of brothers, however, managed to stay together. Rollie and Norman Ash received a transfer to the 26th Battalion (New Brunswick) on September 27, while James and Garfield joined them one week later.

The four inexperienced soldiers arrived in the 26th's camp at Bouzincourt, west of Albert, France, in  early October as the battalion rebuilt its ranks following significant losses at the Somme. Several days later, the unit moved northward  and returned to the trenches near Lens at mid-month.

While the arrival of cold, damp weather ended major combat operations throughout the winter months, trench raids, probing the enemy's defences and gaining valuable intelligence, were a regular occurrence. On the night of November 23/24, 1916, the 26th conducted one such operation. Its soldiers destroyed German trenches and dugouts and inflicted an estimated 15 casualties on the enemy, before returning to their trenches. The unit suffered only light casualties, its war diary reporting one "other rank" (OR) killed, one Officer and one OR wounded.

Personnel were not so fortunate during a second raid, launched late in the afternoon of January 16, 1917. Three parties of 26th Battalion soldiers, each consisting of one Officer and 45 OR, entered No Man's Land under the protection of an artillery barrage. While one party provided cover, the other two groups entered the German front line following the detonation of an underground mine.

The soldiers proceeded to destroy several dugouts, gun emplacements and sentry posts and inflicted an estimated 45 casualties on enemy forces. German artillery fire, however, inflicted several casualties as the raiding parties returned across No Man's Land. In the raid’s aftermath, five OR were reported killed, while 14 were wounded and one soldier was missing.

Pte. Rollie Ash was the "missing" OR. He never returned to the 26th's trenches and his remains were never located. Rollie’s name is inscribed on the Canadian War Memorial, Vimy Ridge, one of more than 11,000 Canadian soldiers "missing, presumed dead" somewhere on the battlefields of northern France.

Pte. Rollie Ash's name engraved on the Canadian War Memorial.
Pte. James William Clooney was one of the five OR killed during the raid. He was laid to rest in Tranchée de Mecknes Cemetery, Aix-Noulette, France. Before year's end, his widow Elizabeth, who had given birth to a daughter after James' departure, fell ill with tuberculosis and passed away at Trenton, NS on November 23, 1917. Young Elizabeth J. Clooney was subsequently adopted by a local family.

Pte. James Clooney's headstone, Tranchée-de-Mecknes Cemetery.
Pte. Norman Ash was later killed in action at Hill 70 on August 15, 1917 while serving with the 26th. Pte. Garfield Clooney served in the trenches with the 26th until mid-November 1917, at which time he was transferred to 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade Headquarters for service as a "batman." He returned to Nova Scotia following the war, married and raised a large family at Maitland, NS, where he passed away on August 23, 1963.

Detailed versions of Rollie Ash's and James Clooney's stories are included in First World War Honour Roll of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, Volume I: 1915 - 1917, available for purchase online at bantrypublishing.ca .

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