April 9, 1917: Private John Angus Sheehan

Sheehan John Angus 902014

Date of Birth: July 17, 1895 at Gloucester, MA

Parents: Joseph and Mary (MacDonald) Sheehan, Gloucester, MA

Father’s Occupation: Mariner

Siblings: Sister Lucretia, a second sister died birth; one brother, unknown name

Marital Status: Single

Occupation: Farmer

Enlistment: March 16, 1916 at Antigonish, NS

Units: 193rd Battalion; 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders)

Service #: 902014

Rank: Private

Previous Military Service: None

Next of Kin: Alexander MacDonald, Clydesdale, Antigonish County, NS (uncle)

Date of Death: April 9, 1917 at Vimy Ridge, France

Final Resting Place: Givenchy Road Canadian Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France

John Angus Sheehan was born at Gloucester, MA on July 17, 1895. His father, Joseph, a Halifax native, worked as a mariner in the lucrative offshore fishery. His mother, Mary, was a daughter of John and Catherine MacDonald, Upper Springfield, Antigonish County.

For reasons unknown—perhaps his mother’s death—John Angus moved to Nova Scotia sometime before 1901, taking up residence at Upper Springfield with his grandfather, John MacDonald. There is no record as to the fate of his older siblings. Several years later, John Angus relocated to the home of his maternal uncle, Alexander MacDonald, who had married Mary Bigley, daughter of Patrick and Mary (Sallenger) Bigley, in 1900 and was living on the Bigley farm at Brown’s Mountain.

John Angus enlisted with the 193rd Battalion at Antigonish on March 16, 1916. The battalion mobilized at Camp Aldershot in May and made its way to England aboard HMS Olympic in October 1916. The 193rd was one of several units dissolved during the winter of 1916-17, after the Canadian Corps suffered major casualties in battles at Courcelette (September) and Ancre Heights (October), during the Somme offensive’s final months.

John Angus was transferred to the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) on March 17, 1917 and joined his new unit in France shortly afterward. The 85th had been in France for only five weeks, small groups of its inexperienced soldiers completing introductory “tours” in the trenches with veteran units.

In the days prior to the Canadian Corps’ attack on Vimy Ridge, the 85th was attached to the 4th Division’s 11th Brigade as a “working” battalion. Its soldiers were assigned a number of tasks in the upcoming battle—constructing dugouts and communication trenches; moving ammunition and supplies to front line units; guarding and escorting prisoners of war. While not expected to see combat, Lt. Col. Allison Hart Borden, the 85th’s Commanding Officer, nevertheless insisted that his personnel rehearse attack formations over a model of the sector assigned to the 11th Brigade. Borden’s foresight later proved most beneficial to his charges.

Military commanders assigned the most challenging part of the assault to the 4th Division—the capture of Hill 145, the ridge’s highest major feature. The terrain over which its units were to advance contained the steepest slopes, making the task even more daunting. As the attack progressed in the early morning hours of April 9, the three Canadian Divisions to the 4th Division’s right made steady progress toward their objectives. However, the 54th (Kootenay, BC), 87th (Canadian Grenadier Guards) and 101st (Winnipeg Light Infantry) Battalions—the 11th Brigade’s three attacking units—failed to keep pace with their comrades, their ranks shredded by enemy fire from defensive positions in front of Hill 145.

By mid-day, German machine guns atop the hill subjected Canadian units on the 4th Division’s right to devastating fire on their flank, placing the morning’s advance in jeopardy. Brigadier General Victor Odlum, the 11th Brigade’s Commanding Officer, ordered Lt. Col. Borden to prepare two of the 85th’s Companies for a direct assault on the German position. Borden selected “C” and “D” Companies—Halifax/Hants/Kings Counties and Cape Breton respectively—for the task and organized his personnel in Tottenham Tunnel, behind the Canadian front line.

Late in the afternoon, the two Companies entered the jumping off trenches from which the 87th Battalion had departed earlier that morning, and went “over the top” toward Hill 145 at 6:45 p.m., without the benefit of artillery support. Despite ferocious enemy machine gun and rifle fire, the inexperienced Nova Scotians steadily advanced up the slope and successfully drove the German defenders from the strategic position in a fierce firefight.

The 85th’s successful capture of Hill 145 preserved the day’s gains and allowed Canadian soldiers to consolidate the line throughout the night. On April 10, units on the ridge removed remaining pockets of resistance and pushed German forces down its slopes and onto the Douai plain below in subsequent days.

The 85th’s military debut, while a military success, came at a price. The battalion suffered a total of 172 casualties during four days on the ridge. Private John Angus Sheehan was among its 47 Vimy fatalities, killed by enemy fire sometime during the April 9 evening assault. His remains were recovered from the battlefield and laid to rest in nearby Givenchy Road Canadian Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France.

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