April 10, 1917: Private John Angus MacGillivray (aka MacDonald)

MacGillivray John Angus headstone

Date of Birth: April 9, 1892 at MacPhersons Post Office, Frasers Mills, Antigonish County

Parents:  Alexander and Margaret “Maggie” (Cameron) MacGillivray

Siblings:  Brothers Archibald, Hugh, Duncan and Angus; sisters Catherine and Sarah

Fathers Occupation:  Farmer

Marital status:  Single

Occupation: Labourer

Enlistment:  April 18, 1916 at Weyburn, Saskatchewan

Units:  68th Battalion (Saskatchewan); 28th Battalion (Northwestern)

Service Number:  104059

Rank:  Private

Previous Military Service:  None

Next of Kin: Maggie MacDonald, MacPherson P.O., Antigonish, NS (mother)

Date of Death:  April 10, 1917 at Vimy Ridge, France

Final Resting Place: Écoivres Military Cemetery, Mont-Saint-Éloi, France

John Angus MacGillivray was the third of seven children born to Alexander and Margaret “Maggie” (Cameron) MacGillivray of Frasers Mills, Antigonish County. His father, Alexander, was born at Middle South River [Dunmore], the son of Archibald (Tailor) MacGillivray and Flora MacDonald and grandson of John (Glas) MacDonald, Big Brook [Dunmore]. John’s mother, Maggie, was the daughter of Duncan Cameron, Middle South River, and Sarah MacGillivray, Lismore.

During the years prior to the outbreak of the First World War, John and his brother, Duncan, ventured to British Columbia, where Duncan became a policeman. John later relocated to Saskatchewan, where he worked as a labourer.

John attested with the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s 68th Battalion at Weyburn, Saskatchewan on April 18, 1916. For unknown reasons, he enlisted as John “MacDonald,” and listed his next of kin as mother “Maggie MacDonald,” MacPherson Post Office, Antigonish, NS.

On May 1, 1916, John’s unit departed Halifax aboard the troop ship Olympic. Six days later, the soldiers arrived at Liverpool, England. John was transferred to the 28th Battalion on June 28 and crossed the English Channel to the Canadian Base Depot at Le Havre, France the following day.

The 28th Battalion was authorized on November 7, 1914 and recruited its personnel in Saskatoon, Regina, Moose Jaw and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, as well as the Fort William and Port Arthur (Thunder Bay) areas of northern Ontario.  The unit mobilized at Winnipeg, MB and departed for England on May 29, 1915.

On September 18, 1915, the 28th embarked for France as part of the 2nd Canadian Division`s 6th Infantry Brigade. Throughout the winter and spring of 1915-16, its soldiers served in Belgium’s Ypres Salient, alongside the 27th (City of Winnipeg), 29th (Vancouver) and the 31st (Alberta) Battalions.

John joined the 28th’s ranks near Poperinghe, Belgium on July 30, 1916. One month later, he was temporarily assigned to 6th Field Company, Canadian Engineers. While he returned to 28th on October 4, ten days later he was attached to the 255th Tunnelling Company for “duty at the front.” On January 12th, 1917, John returned to the 28th Battalion`s camp near Souchez, France. Throughout the winter and early spring of 1917, he served a regular rotation in the line as the Canadian Corps prepared for its historic attack on Vimy Ridge, France.

The 28th’s April 9, 1917 war diary entry indicates that the unit was involved in the assault’s second phase. Approximately two and a half hours after the attack commenced, its soldiers advanced to an assembly position along the Lens – Arras Road and moved forward toward their objective at 9:35 a.m.. The 28th sustained light casualties—11 “other ranks” (OR) killed, one Officer and 33 OR wounded—during the advance and the day’s subsequent events.

On April 10, the unit’s war diary reported: “Consolidation of new line complete and trenches firmly secured.” During the afternoon, “one Company advanced to Tarte Trench in support of 27th Battalion.” While the “enemy shelled consistently” throughout the day, casualties were once again light—one OR killed in action, two OR died of wounds and five OR wounded.

Private John MacGillivray was one of the two soldiers who “died of wounds” that day at a nearby field ambulance. While his “circumstances of casualty” card provides no details, he was most likely a victim of the artillery shelling mentioned in the war diary entry. John was laid to rest in Écoivres Military Cemetery, Mont-Saint-Éloi, France.

When the War Department in Ottawa sent a notice of John’s death to his listed next of kin—Mrs. Maggie MacDonald, MacPherson’s Post Office, Antigonish County—the item was returned as “undeliverable,” as no such person resided in that district. For 15 months, officials searched unsuccessfully for “Mrs. Maggie MacDonald,” before finally enlisting the services of Mr. W. D. Cameron of Dunmore to investigate the matter.

Mr. Cameron was very familiar with the area, having authored a local history and genealogy column titled “Drummer on Foot” that was printed in The Casket from 1913 to 1918. He concluded that John MacGillivray, son of Alexander and Maggie (Cameron) MacGillivary, was the only match for the soldier from MacPherson Post Office. Following considerable correspondence, which included a detailed description of Mr. MacGillivray—he was six feet two and a half inches tall, with a “ruddy” complexion, blue eyes and light brown hair—the War Department concluded that the deceased “John MacDonald” was actually “John MacGillivray.”

The news came as a shock to John’s family and acquaintances, as they “had not heard from him since April 1916.” The War Department forwarded to Mrs. MacGillivray a box that contained her “soldier boy`s” prayer beads, scapular medal, prayer book and his “Canada” shoulder badge, “with the soil of France still adhering to it.”

Two months prior to receiving confirmation of John`s death, Maggie received word that her son Duncan, a policeman in Vancouver, BC, had been killed. Besides the “doubly afflicted mother,” a brother Hugh D., at home, another brother Angus, in Vancouver—also a policeman—and a married sister Catherine—Mrs. Archibald D. MacEachern—of Ballantyne`s Cove were left to mourn the tragic loss of two family members in such a short period of time.

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