January 16, 1917: Pte. Roland “Rollie” Ash

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Date of Birth: September 6, 1894 at Guysborough, NS

Parents: James & Esther (Parris) Ash

Family: Sisters Mary Jane, Cora, Eva and Ella; brothers Norman, Fred, Clovis, Thomas, Howard and Frank

Marital Status: Married

Occupation: Horseman

Enlistment: July 10, 1916 at Truro, NS

Units: 106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles); 26th Battalion (New Brunswick)

Service #: 716258

Rank: Private

Previous Military Service: None

Next of Kin: Reta Ash, New Glasgow, NS (wife)

Date of Death: January 16, 1917 near Angres, France

Memorial: Canadian War Memorial, Vimy Ridge, France

*****

Roland “Rollie” Ash was the second of eleven children and eldest son born to James and Esther (Parris) Ash. The family was residing in Guysborough at the time of Rollie’s birth, but later relocated to Antigonish.

A horseman by trade, Rollie married Reta Jackson, a native of Boston, MA, at Antigonish on May 27, 1915. Barely six weeks later—perhaps spurred on by his younger brother, Norman, who had joined the same unit four days previously—Rollie enlisted with the 106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) at Truro, NS on July 10, 1916. At a time when most CEF infantry units rejected African Canadian volunteers, the 106th accepted at least 16 Nova Scotians of African descent into its ranks before departing for England on July 15, 1916.

Two months after its arrival, the 106th was dissolved and its personnel assigned to existing units in the field. Rollie and Norman were part of a large group of 106th soldiers transferred to the 26th (New Brunswick) Battalion on September 27. The draft crossed the English Channel to France the following day, a total of 251 reinforcements arriving in the 26th’s camp at Bouzincourt, 25 miles west of Albert, France, on October 9 and 10.

One week later, the 26th returned to the trenches near Lens, France, serving in the line throughout the autumn and winter of 1916-17. While full-fledged combat was rare during this time of year, Canadian units regularly conducted raids into the German line. For example, a party of 40 soldiers from the 26th crossed No Man’s Land on the night of November 23/24, 1916 and destroyed enemy trenches and dugouts before returning to their positions at 1:28 a.m..

The 26th enjoyed its “holiday” break from the line during the first week of January 1917 before returning to the trenches near Angres, France on January 9. At 4:30 p. m. January 16, three parties of its soldiers, each consisting of one Officer and 45 “other ranks” (OR), entered No Man’s Land, one group providing support while the other two entered the German line. Each soldier was outfitted with a rifle, bayonet and four bombs, while the two raiding parties also carried ten mobile charges.

As the raid commenced, sappers detonated a mine beneath the German position, causing significant damage and casualties along its left flank. The 26th’s soldiers used the mobile charges to destroy three remaining dugouts in this section and four other structures further along the line. On the right flank, where the trenches were largely intact, German soldiers offered stiff resistance, which prevented the raiders from entering their position.

German artillery targeted No Man’s Land during the raid, one shell killing a party of four German prisoners of war and their escorts as they returned to the 26th’s line. The raiding party withdrew at 5:20 p.m., having inflicted an estimated 45 casualties on enemy forces. The unit’s war diary reported one Officer wounded and another missing, five OR killed, 14 wounded and one missing after the raiders’ return.

The missing OR was Private Rollie Ash. His remains were never recovered from the battlefield. Rollie’s name is inscribed on the Canadian War Memorial, Vimy Ridge, one of more than 11,000 Canadian soldiers who were killed on the battlefields of northern France and have no known final resting place.

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