April 27, 1917: Sergeant John Daniel MacDonald

MacDonald John Daniel military oval crop

Date of Birth: April 3, 1884 at Arisaig, Antigonish County*

Parents: Donald & Florence “Flora” (MacDougall) MacDonald

Siblings: Brothers Michael, Angus, Anthony & Joseph; sisters Mary & Sarah

Marital Status: Married

Occupation: Locomotive fireman

Enlistment: November 2, 1915 at Halifax, NS

Unit: 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders)

Service #: 223345

Rank: Sergeant

Previous Military Service: None

Next of Kin: Mrs. Margaret MacDonald, Mulgrave, NS (wife)

Date of Death: April 27, 1917 near Avion, France

Final Resting Place: La Chaudière Military Cemetery, Vimy, France

* Birth date obtained from John Daniel’s attestation papers. The 1901 census records the date as April 1884, while the 1911 census lists his birth year as 1882.

John Daniel MacDonald was the fourth of seven children born to Donald M. and Florence “Flora” (MacDougall) MacDonald of Arisaig, Antigonish County. Donald, the son of Michael and Sarah “Sally” (McKinnon) MacDonald, was born at Arisaig, while Flora was a native of Georgeville. John Daniel’s paternal great-grandfather, Donald (Ban), was among the pioneers who settled the Arisaig area.

The family experienced its share of tragedy in the years prior to the First World War. Both of John Daniel’s younger sisters died in infancy, and his youngest brother, Joseph, drowned on May 28, 1907 while working with a survey crew along the banks of the White Fish River, Quebec.

Sometime before 1911, John Daniel married Margaret Mann, a native of Mulgrave, NS. The couple took up residence in the Guysborough community, where John Daniel worked as a locomotive fireman on the Intercolonial Railroad. While considerably older than the majority of First World War volunteers, John Daniel travelled to Halifax in the autumn of 1915 and trained with the 85th Battalion for six weeks. On November 2, 1915, he formally attested for overseas service with the unit.

The 85th’s soldiers trained on the Halifax Common throughout the winter of 1915-16. The formation of the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade in January 1916 delayed its overseas departure, as the battalion reported to Camp Aldershot in May 1916 for a summer of training alongside the Brigade’s three recently recruited battalions. The entire Brigade departed Halifax on October 13 and made its way to Witley Camp, Surrey upon arriving in England.

The significant number of Canadian Corps casualties incurred at the Somme during September and October 1916 led to the dissolution of the 193rd and 219th Battalions, two of the Highland Brigade’s units. However, as the Brigade’s senior unit, the 85th remained intact and crossed the English Channel to France on February 10, 1917.

Due to its lack of combat experience, the 85th entered the forward area for “supervised tours” under the command of experienced units and was not immediately assigned a regular rotation in the line. As Canadian Corps commanders planned the impending attack on Vimy Ridge, France, the battalion was attached to the 4th Canadian Division’s 11th Brigade as a “working unit” and assigned support roles behind the line.

As the historic attack progressed throughout the morning hours of April 9, 1917, German forces atop Hill 145—the ridge’s highest point—stubbornly held out against the 11th Brigade’s attacking units. Late in the day, military commanders ordered two of the 85th’s Companies into the line, the inexperienced soldiers going “over the top” without artillery support at 6:45 p.m. and successfully capturing the position.

On the morning of April 10, the 85th’s remaining personnel advanced up the ridge and assisted in clearing several pockets of German resistance. As the 85th retired to billets three days later, John Daniel was promoted to Acting Sergeant, an acknowledgment of his character and leadership.

Within days of withdrawing from Vimy Ridge, the 85th commenced regular service in the line with the 4th Division’s 12th Brigade. The battalion returned to the trenches south of Avion on the night of April 24 for its first regular tour, its soldiers constructing a new section of front line and communication trench on their first full day in the line.

On April 26, an Allied “practice barrage” in preparation for an impending attack provoked “very heavy enemy retaliation[,] resulting in 13 casualties” among the 85th’s personnel. Sergeant John Daniel MacDonald was one of soldiers wounded in the bombardment. Evacuated to field ambulance for treatment, John Daniel “died of wounds received in action” on April 27, 1917 and was laid to rest in La Chaudière Military Cemetery, Vimy, France.


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