Date of Birth: March 25, 1880 at Norton, NB*
Parents: Noel & Madeline (Martin) Bernard
Marital Status: Married
Enlistment: July 14, 1915 at Sussex, NB
Regimental Number: 445215
Units: 55th Battalion (NB & PEI); 58th Battalion (Central Ontario)
Previous Military Service: None
Next of Kin: Isabella “Bella” Bernard, Bayfield Road, Antigonish, NS (wife)
Date of Death: September 19, 1916 near Courcelette, France
Memorial: Commemorated on Canadian War Memorial, Vimy Ridge, France
* Based on information recorded on James’ attestation. The 1911 census lists James’ date of birth as August 1875. Other sources list his birthplace as Truro and Sydney, NS. His 1901 marriage record gives his occupation as “cooper.”
James Bernard was of Mi’kmaq ancestry, born to Noel and Madeline (Martin) Bernard at Norton, New Brunswick sometime between 1875 and 1880. The 1891 Canadian census lists James and a “Joseph Bernard”—possibly a brother—as “farm labourers” residing on the farm of Thomas Davidson, Simonds Parish, Saint John County, a location close to his native community.
Sometime during the following decade, James relocated to Bayfield, Antigonish County, and married Isabella “Bella,” daughter of Michael and Susie Lafford, at Heatherton on July 29, 1901. Bella gave birth to a son, Andrew, at Lower South River on December 10, 1910, and the family was residing on the Paqtnkek First Nation Reserve, Afton, at the time of the 1911 Canadian census.
Despite his age and family circumstances, James enlisted for military service with the 55th Battalion at Sussex, NB on July 14, 1915. Authorized on November 7, 1914, the 55th recruited its personnel in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, and embarked for England aboard SS Corsican on October 30, 1915. The unit provided reinforcements for Canadian units in the field until July 6 1916, at which time its remaining personnel were absorbed by the 40th Battalion (Nova Scotia).
James spent the winter of 1915-16 in England, receiving a transfer to the 58th Battalion on April 12, 1916. An Ontario unit authorized on April 20, 1915, the 58th mobilized at Niagara-on-the-Lake and embarked for England six months later. Its personnel crossed the English Channel to France on February 22, 1916 as part of the 3rd Canadian Division’s 9th Infantry Brigade, and entered the trenches of Belgium’s Ypres Salient shortly afterward.
James arrived in the 58th’s camp near Poperinge, Belgium on May 8, 1916 and immediately commenced regular trench rotations alongside his new comrades. Dispatched to No. 3 Divisional Rest Station for treatment of “pyrexia [fever of unknown origin] and trench feet” on June 14, he rejoined the unit in the field after three days’ treatment.
The 58th served on rotation in Belgium for two months after James’ return, relocating to Steenvoorde, France on August 27 for training. Ten days later, according to the unit’s war diary, the men were “in good spirits” as they boarded a train for the Somme sector, “36 to the box car.” Arriving at Auxi-le-Château in the early hours of September 8 “a bit jaded from long night in train,” personnel “bucked up wonderfully and finished the march to billets… in good style.”
Over subsequent days, the 58th made its way southward on foot, arriving at Albert on September 14. The following day, its soldiers prepared to return to the line as other Canadian units attacked the nearby village of Courcelette. After moving into support positions in the late afternoon hours of September 16, a “heavy artillery pounding” commenced and continued throughout the following day, inflicting considerable casualties on its ranks.
The shelling continued on September 18, as the 58th’s soldiers advanced to the front trenches. By day’s end, its war diary reported four “other ranks” (OR) killed, two Officers and 30 OR wounded, three OR missing and three cases of “shell shock.” Private James Bernard was among the soldiers evacuated to the unit’s Regimental Aid Post for treatment. He “died of wounds” the following day and was buried nearby. After the war, officials could not locate James’ grave. His name is engraved on the Canadian War Memorial, Vimy Ridge, France, one of more than 11,000 soldiers who died on France’s battlefield and who have no known final resting place.
James’ widow, Bella, was awarded a pension shortly after her husband’s death. She subsequently remarried J. John Prosper on November 18, 1918. Following the war, Bella received James’ British War and Victory service medals, in addition to a Memorial Plaque and Scroll and Memorial Cross bearing his name. James’ son, Andrew, married Mary, a native of St. Peter’s and daughter of Joseph and Kate (Prosper) Joe, at Heatherton, NS on September 28, 1931. The couple later relocated to a farm at Eskasoni. Andrew passed away at St. Rita’s Hospital, Sydney on July 23, 1962 and was laid to rest in Holy Family Cemetery, Sydney, NS.