|The Chisholm Family Farm, Antigonish Harbour (c. 1940)|
Several of Christine Chisholm’s nine children later pursued careers in medicine. Two daughters—Christine and Lydia “Lilly”—entered the nursing profession, while her second-youngest, Hugh Gillis, completed medical studies at McGill University, Montreal. Christine and Hugh also served with the Canadian Army Medical Corps during the First World War.
Sometime after 1891, John Alexander Chisholm headed to the west coast, where two of his paternal uncles resided. Family lore suggests that his younger brother and closest sibling, William “Will,” may have accompanied him. Following their father’s passing in late 1902, Will assumed responsibility for the family’s Antigonish Harbour farm. On June 22, 1909, he married Mary McDougall, daughter of Angus and Jessie (Hanrahan) McDougall, Antigonish Harbour, and raised a family of six children on the Chisholm homestead.
John Alexander, however, remained on the west coast, where he worked as a miner. Documents indicate that he resided at several locations—Vancouver, British Columbia; Dawson, Yukon Territory; and Alaska—at various times prior to and after the First World War. Several of John Alexander’s younger siblings—sisters Christine and Lilly, and brothers Alexander, Vincent and Hugh—eventually followed him west. While Lilly and Vincent settled in California, Christine, Alexander and Hugh resided in British Columbia.
As with most families of the time, the outbreak of the First World War soon impacted the Chisholm clan. Hugh was the first to enlist, attesting for overseas service with No. 8 Canadian Field Ambulance at Calgary, AB, on November 18, 1915. A fully trained physician, he received the commissioned rank of Captain and served with the unit in France and Belgium for 18 months. In late November 1917, Hugh was transferred to a hospital in England, where he remained for the duration of his overseas service.
Alexander Chisholm was conscripted into the Canadian Expeditionary Force at Vancouver, BC on January 17, 1918. Transferred to the 72nd Battalion (Seaforth Highlanders of Canada) in late July 1918, he joined the unit in France shortly afterward. Wounded in the leg on August 11, 1918 during the final stages of the Battle of Amiens, Alexander was invalided to England, where he made a full recovery. Meanwhile, in Canada, Christine Chisholm served as a Nursing Sister at Shaughnessy Military Hospital, Vancouver, BC, from April 1918 to February 1919.
Perhaps the most surprising enlistment was John Alexander, who attested with No. 2 Tunnelling Company, Canadian Engineers, at Vancouver, BC on January 11, 1916. At the time, he was almost 43 years old, stood five feet eleven inches, and weighed 180 pounds. John Alexander listed his occupation as “miner” and passed the thorough medical examination without any difficulty.
No. 2 Tunnelling Company was authorized in September 1915 and recruited its personnel from British Columbia and Alberta’s mining communities. Following mobilization at Calgary, AB, the unit travelled by train to Halifax in early 1916 and departed for England aboard SS Missanabie on January 22, 1916. Six weeks later, its personnel crossed the English Channel to France. Upon landing on the continent, the unit was attached to the 2nd Canadian Division and commenced service in Belgium’s Ypres Salient shortly afterward.
Tunnelling companies put their men’s mining skills to good use, constructing underground dugouts to accommodate soldiers in the front trenches. Personnel, known as “sappers,” also dug lengthy tunnels beneath No Man’s Land, where they established “listening stations” to detect German tunnelling activity. Sappers occasionally planted explosives beneath the enemy’s front line for use prior to an attack, and detonated “camouflets,” small charges designed to destroy nearby German tunnels. It was challenging work, the men toiling in cramped quarters where enemy detonation of a camouflet could trigger a collapse at any time.
|Australian Sappers at work near Hooge, Belgium|
Work continued without incident throughout the month of May, as Sapper John Alexander Chisholm and his mates adjusted to front line routines. On June 1, No. 2 Tunnelling Company started work on two projects at a location near Zillebeke, Belgium, variously known as “Tor Top” and “Hill 62.” One group commenced construction of “shallow defensive galleries and listening posts in front of trenches… [, and] deep dugouts” in another section of the line. At a second location, sappers continued work on a “system of deep dug-outs” connected to “50 feet of [ an existing] gallery.” A total of five officers and 101 sappers toiled underground, unaware of the danger about to befall them.
On the morning of June 2, 1916, German artillery launched a massive artillery bombardment on 3rd Canadian Division units holding the front line at three elevated locations near Zillebeke, Belgium—Mont Sorrel, Tor Top (Hill 62), and Hill 61. During the early afternoon, enemy forces detonated four mines beneath the Canadian trenches, after which six German battalions advanced across No Man’s Land toward the Canadian line. By day’s end, German units had captured and secured two of their three targets—Mont Sorrel and Hill 61—and advanced more than one kilometre into Canadian-held territory.
That same day, the daily entry in No. 2 Tunnelling Company’s war diary tersely reported: “The Germans attacked and captured the area in which our workings were situated.” In the aftermath, the unit reported one Officer killed and four others missing, while five of its sappers were killed, 11 wounded and 75 missing.
On the morning of June 3, a hastily organized Canadian counter-attack failed to dislodge German forces from the captured positions. Meanwhile, the fate of numerous personnel in the line at the time of the previous day’s attack remained a mystery as Allied commanders scrambled to re-establish a new defensive line. While Canadian soldiers re-captured most of the lost ground on June 13, by that time the dugouts where the tunnellers were working 11 days previously were “full of water.” Several “saps”—narrow trenches reaching into No Man’s Land—where other sappers were located were “still within the enemy’s lines.”
Gradually, word of its missing soldiers’ fate reached No. 2 Tunnelling Company. By month’s end, military officials confirmed that three of its Officers were prisoners of war, while a fourth remained “unaccounted for.” It was not until the following month, however, that the unit received word of its sappers’ whereabouts. On July 12, Sapper John Alexander Chisholm was “unofficially reported Prisoner of War [POW] at Dülmen.” Six days later, military authorities officially confirmed his fate.
Approximately 3,300 Canadian soldiers were taken prisoner on the Western Front during the First World War. While an estimated 10 % escaped from detention camps in Germany, only 200 escapees managed to reach neutral or Allied-held territory. If recaptured, escaped POWs received 14 days in solitary confinement, a punishment that increased to 21 days for a second offence. Detained in small, ventilated cells with a plank bed but no bedding, prisoners were permitted to wear their great coats during their sentence. Food was limited to bread and water for three days, with a regular meal provided every fourth day.
Apparently, John Alexander was wounded during the June 2 attack and was hospitalized at Dülmen Camp following his capture. The first of three POW facilities where he was detained, the camp was located in the northwestern German state of North Rhine - Westphalia, which shared a portion of its border with neutral Netherlands. Shortly after the outbreak of war in August 1914, German authorities cleared a local pine forest to make way for a detention camp and used the harvested timber to erect wooden barracks. The facility opened in May 1915 and initially housed 3,000 POWs, expanding to 5,000 before year’s end.
|Location of Dülmen POW camp|
Large, airy huts contained 120 to 140 enlisted men, while small rooms within each structure accommodated non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Hammocks provided an upper tier of sleeping accommodations. Sentries guarded the camp and its perimeter, where a barbed wire fence was erected. Searchlights swept the area throughout the night, providing additional security.
New arrivals were quarantined for 48 hours, their clothing “de-loused” to reduce the spread of the pesky parasites. For additional protection, hair was cut and kept short. Weekly baths were compulsory, although more frequent bathing was usually available. While POWs were vaccinated for smallpox, cholera and yellow fever, the camp provided little treatment for serious illness. While authorities established a separate compound for sick POWs, conditions were often unsanitary, with limited medical personnel and supplies.
Under the terms of the Hague Convention on Land Warfare (1907), all able-bodied, rank and file POWs were required to work, and received a modest daily wage in return. [Commissioned officers, who were detained in separate facilities, were exempt from such duties.] The day usually commenced with roll call at 6:00 a.m., followed by breakfast. Work parties commenced at 7:00 a.m., pausing for a mid-day meal. Following a brief rest period, work resumed at 2:00 p.m. and continuing until sundown. POWs received one-quarter of their daily wages—17 cents a day—in German marks, to purchase items at a camp store or, in some instances, in neighbouring communities. The remaining funds were deposited in a personal bank account.
Tasks generally consisted of light work—digging and grading on the camp grounds and adjacent property, repairing or erecting new barracks and camp facilities. In some cases, POWs were assigned to labour in German coal mines or local factories, while others carried out work on various civic projects in neighbouring communities. Under the Hague Convention’s terms, POWs were not permitted to directly assist in the production of “war material.”
Perhaps the greatest complaint amongst POWs was the food, or lack thereof. For instance, morning “coffee” at Dülmen was brewed from roasted chestnuts. Lunch consisted of a half-litre bowl of cabbage soup, occasionally sprinkled with fresh peas or pieces of grain. Potatoes formed a basic part of the menu. Fresh meat and other basic dietary items were scarce, as food shortages plagued Germany throughout the war. In response, the German government rationed all commodities, including provisions for POW camps. Many prisoners relied on food parcels from home for their primary sustenance, and scrounged through camp garbage for such treasured items as potato peelings.
Throughout their internment, POWs received regular mail, parcel and banking services. Incoming weekly mail was limited to one package, while prisoners were permitted to write two letters to family and acquaintances. The International Red Cross handled all incoming and outgoing items. While many camps contained a football (soccer) field, recreational opportunities were usually limited. Some camps established libraries, but books were in scarce supply.
|Dülmen POW Camp|
“They made the worst slaves they could out of us, compelling us to work from 5 a.m. until 7 p.m. and punished us severely. Some 100 of us English prisoners were building a steel bridge on the Rhine at Engers [50 kilometres from Limburg]. I was at that fifteen months.”
John Alexander spent the winter and spring of 1916-17 at the Wahn facility, which much larger than Dülmen, housing as many as 50,000 Allied POWs at various times. According to his correspondence with Will, he managed to escape from the facility in December 1916, but “was caught, brought back, and terribly punished.”
|Wahn POW Camp, Köln, Germany|
The fact that Limburg was more than 200 kilometres from the nearest “neutral” border allowed for a more relaxed routine. POWs were permitted to leave camp to purchase rations and other items in the nearby town. As might be expected under such an arrangement, escapes were frequent. Undeterred by his first failure and perhaps motivated by the opportunities his Limburg circumstances provided, Sapper John Alexander Chisholm was determined to end his captivity.
|Limburg POW Camp|
“By great luck, we secured a fine little compass from a Russian. Then early one evening, when the guard had begun to make the regular count of prisoners, my partner—a young Englishman [named Frank Coombes]—and myself just faded away. We hiked across an open space and into a patch of woods, then out on a road…. [We] had just gained that road, when along came some civilians. We lay flat and they passed. We travelled across country all that night, and every other night, finally striking the Rhine, further north. We were near Coblenz and Bonn.”
John Alexander and Frank took cover during daylight hours and moved only under cover of darkness. A later letter to John Alexander’s brother, Will, also provided details of the remarkable journey: “We had our prison clothes on. We could not get anything else….. For a long time after being captured I had no clothes[,] loosing [sic] them all that day in June  at Ypres, and the Germans wouldn’t give me any.” Their prison attire “had white and yellow facings—but we just had to take the best of it. Before long, however, we put shoe blacking all over the white and yellow.”
The escapees “swam rivers and crossed swamps to get out, but God was with us, and we got through all right.” One night, “by great good luck, we got hold of a small boat, which we saw anchored out in the river. It was a case of swimming out to that boat, lifting up the little anchor and bringing her to the shore, where we used small boards for oars. In one night, we made 34 miles.”
Upon reaching the German border with neutral Netherlands, the fugitives managed to pass undetected through “three lines of sentries,… posted chiefly to check the Germans themselves from flocking into Holland.” Having survived “on what they could pick up as they went along through the fields,… when they finally passed the border, they were bordering on exhaustion.” John Alexander noted, however, that “the [Dutch] people treated us well. We came down to Rotterdam, and the British Consul took charge of us.”
Quarantined for 14 days as a precaution, John Alexander and Frank crossed the North Sea to England at month’s end. An entry in John Alexander’s service record, dated December 1, 1917, provided an official update on his circumstances: “Now reported ESCAPED.” The following day, Canadian authorities informed will that his older brother was no longer in German custody and had safely arrived in England.
On December 3, John Alexander wrote a lengthy letter to Will, in which he reflected on his time in captivity and journey to freedom:
“It is a very hard country to get out of. Very few English prisoners get out. All the time we were very heavily guarded. I am sorry for the ones left behind. We suffered terribly in Germany…. It if were not for the parcels from home, we would all starve. They were just great. I know we do not get them all. For over three months last spring we got none. Hope the Red Cross has notified you now to stop sending.”
John Alexander closed by assuring Will that “my health is great, never felt better, after all the hard knocks…. I intend to go back to the front just as soon as I can.”
Military authorities, however, had other plans. A memo to the Canadian Engineers Regimental Depot (CERD), Seaford, bearing the same date as John Alexander’s letter to Will, stated:
“The marginally noted soldier, who is an escaped prisoner of war, has been instructed to report to your HQ. He should be taken on strength of his Regimental Depot and instructions issued that he is to be returned to Canada by the first available sailing, for disposal by the Military Authorities, in accordance with the policy at present in force governing the disposal of Escaped Prisoners of War.”
One week later, John Alexander reported to CERD Seaford, where he spent the remainder of the year. On January 3, 1918, he was transferred to the Canadian Discharge Depot, Buxton, “pending return to Canada.” Before month’s end, John Alexander departed from England and made his way by train to British Columbia after arriving in Canada. On February 25, he was officially “taken on strength” at New Westminster, BC, “for duty” with Military District No. 11, Victoria. After conducting a thorough medical examination, medical personnel noted that, despite his age, lengthy internment and arduous escape, 45-year-old John Alexander “is physically fit.”
On March 14, 1918, Sapper John Alexander Chisholm was officially discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force at New Westminster, BC. While given a clean bill of health after his medical examination, his service record identified the reason for discharge as “medically unfit (POW).” A second entry described his character as “Very Good.” On January 20, 1920, John Alexander received the Military Medal for “bravery in the field,” in recognition of his daring escape from captivity.
|Sapper John A. Chisholm's Military Medal, British War & Victory Service Medals|
In early February 1926, John Alexander was travelling by train from Alaska to Seattle, WA, when he fell ill. Rushed to hospital upon arrival, he passed away at Seattle on February 11, 1926. While his final medical examination detected no health issues, a news item published in the Antigonish Casket stated: “His death was not altogether unexpected by his friends in the west, as he had been troubled with his heart for some time. Sober, industrious and God-loving, John Chisholm was a sterling character and highly respected wherever known.”
John Alexander’s remains were transported to New Westminster, where his younger sister Christine, brother Hugh, and “a large number of friends” attended “High Mass for the repose of his soul” at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church. Following the service, Sapper John Alexander Chisholm was laid to rest in the church’s cemetery, his Casket death notice suggesting: “His terrible experiences while in prison no doubt hastened his death” two months shy of his 54th birthday.
|John A. Chisholm's Headstone|
On January 20, 1916, Dougald received a second transfer to the 28th Battalion (Northwest), which was deployed in Belgium’s Ypres Salient with the 2nd Canadian Division’s 6th Brigade. He joined the unit in the field on March 1, 1916 and served in the line without incident until June 6, 1916, when German units over-ran the 28th’s front trenches, following the detonation of four mines beneath the position. Dougald was taken prisoner and sent to Dülmen Camp, where John Alexander Chisholm was also detained.
Dougald and John Alexander spent the next 17 months together at Dülmen, Wahn and Limburg POW camps. According to John Alexander’s December 3, 1917 letter to his brother Will, at the time of his daring escape, Dougald was in hospital, having suffered an injury while working on a steel bridge across the Rhine at Engers. He spent the remainder of the war at Limburg, returning in England in early December 1918. Upon landing at Halifax, NS in early February 1919, he received a two-month furlough “with sustenance,” and may have returned home to Antigonish. Dougald was discharged at Halifax, NS, on April 22, 1919 and eventually made his way back to western Canada, where he returned to his pre-war occupation as a carpenter.
On October 1, 1932, 58-year-old Dougald married Cicely Harriet (Cox) Kraitz, a 49-year-old native of England, in a ceremony held at Victoria, BC. The couple established residence in the Vancouver Island community. Dougald McPherson passed away at Veterans’ Hospital, Victoria, BC, on December 4, 1961.
Photograph of Chisholm family farm, Antigonish Harbour, courtesy of John A. Chisholm's great-nephew, Hugh John Chisholm, Antigonish. Photograph of John A. Chisholm's medals courtesy of great-niece Marg Tighe, Victoria, BC.