August 7, 1917: Lieutenant Alexander MacIntosh O’Brien

O'Brien Alexander MacIntosh

Date of Birth: October 26, 1894 at Antigonish, NS

Parents: John S. and Margaret Ellen (MacIntosh) O’Brien

Siblings: Sisters Mary, Alice & Hildegarde; brothers Leo and Basil

Marital Status: Single

Occupation: Student

Enlistment: March 19, 1916

Units: 106th, Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles); 75th Battalion (Mississauga, ON)

Service #: None (commissioned officer)

Rank: Lieutenant

Previous Military Service: 18th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery

Next of Kin: John S. O’Brien, Antigonish, NS (father)

Date of Death: August 7, 1917 near Souchez, France

Final Resting Place: Villers Station Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France

Alexander MacIntosh O’Brien was born on October 26, 1894 at Antigonish, the son of John S. and Margaret Ellen (MacIntosh) O’Brien. His grandfather, James Jr., was born at Afton, son of James O’Brien Sr., an emigrant from County Wexford, Ireland. James Sr. started work in the tannery trade when he was a boy and later established his own business on Church Street.

By 1871, James Sr. had two employees, with a payroll of $600.00 a year. The tannery was adjacent to Brierly Brook, and according to one account obtained some of its power from its water flow. James Sr. died in 1876, at which time James Jr. took over the business. He eventually purchased a leather-spinning machine and steam engine, innovations that ended the mills’ days as a hand run operation, dependant on the brook’s water level.

John S. O’Brien took over the business from his father in 1910, following James Jr.’s death. John S., a well-established citizen and merchant, was actively involved in local affairs. He joined the Antigonish Fire Rescue Company—predecessor to the Antigonish Town Fire Dept.—in 1868, four years after its formation, and was involved with the organization for many years. His name is listed on the Department’s Honour Roll.

John S. was elected to Town Council in 1891 and served as a Councillor for two years. He was later elected Mayor of Antigonish from 1903 to 1904, and was also a Charter Member of the new Knights of Columbus Council, established in Antigonish in 1906. A lifetime KOC member, John S. served as second Grand Knight of the Local Council from 1907 to 1908.

Alexander, John S. and Margaret’s oldest son, served with the 18th Battery Canadian Field Artillery militia unit, authorized on May 9, 1905 and headquartered at Antigonish. After the outbreak of the First World War, Alexander enlisted with the 106 Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) at Pictou on March 31, 1916. Officially authorized on November 8, 1915 with its Headquarters at Truro, the unit was Nova Scotia’s first rifle battalion, attracting considerable interest from the province’s many rifle clubs.

Shortly after his enlistment, Alexander received a commission as a Lieutenant with “B” Company. The battalion departed for England on July 21, 1916, encamping at Lower Dilgate, Shorncliffe for training. The unit met the fate of many others arriving in England at that time, when it was dissolved to provide reinforcements for existing units in the field.

Alexander was subsequently transferred to the 67th Battalion (Western Scots), an infantry unit that was re-designated a “pioneer” battalion after its arrival in England and assigned to the newly formed 4th Division. The unit crossed the English Channel to France on August 14, 1916, its personnel responsible for constructing trenches, dugouts, gun emplacements and other facilities required by its infantry comrades.

The 4th Division received its “baptism of fire” at the Somme in October 1916, when its soldiers participated in the final capture of Regina Trench. By that time, Alexander was in the field, becoming a “veteran” of the trenches alongside his inexperienced comrades. Subsequent organizational changes led to Alexander’s transfer to the 75th Battalion (Mississauga, ON). His new unit was part of the 4th Division’s 11th Brigade, where it served alongside the 54th (Kootenay, BC), 87th (Canadian Grenadier Guards) and 102nd (Northern BC) Battalions.

Alexander participated in the Canadian Corps’ April 9, 1917 assault on Vimy Ridge, his battalion following the 87th up the ridge’s steepest slopes. The 87th was cut pieces by German machine gun fire from Hill 145, the ridge’s highest feature. For most of the day, ferocious German fire pinned down the 75th ’s soldiers, but they managed to seize their assigned objectives. In a moving letter to his father, John S., 22-year-old Alexander described what he saw that day:

“The ground over which we passed was churned beyond imagination. We reached Fritzi’s first line and then pushed right on to his second. Not a vestige of the trenches remained. The ground over which we passed was churned beyond imagination. His lines were distinguishable only by the dead bodies, dugouts, and broken fragments of wood…. The shelling continued all through the day. One young officer close to me got four bullet wounds in his body, but stubbornly refused to leave the fight until he collapsed from loss of blood.”

By August, the Canadian Corps had pushed its way beyond Vimy Ridge and onto the Douai Plain, spread out before the town of Lens. Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie, the Canadian Corp’s new Commanding Officer, commenced plans for an attack on Hill 70, north of Lens, the 11th Brigade entering the line with the 2nd Division’s 4th Brigade to its left and the 4th Division’s 10th Brigade to its right. The 4th Division’s role was to launch a diversionary attack, drawing fire away from the actual objective, the 1st and 2nd Division’s attack on Hill 70.

Germans forces occupying the higher ground were aware of the Canadians’ presence and anticipated an attack, as the Canadians had earned a well-deserved reputation as “shock troops.” As a result, in the days prior to the Canadian Corps’ August 15 assault, German forces conducted regular patrols in No Man’s Land and launched numerous raids along the Canadian line.

While the 75th Battalion’s war diary described August 7, 1917 as a “fairly quiet day,” it also mentioned a German raid on its lines at 1:30 a.m. that morning, but provided no further details. Lt. Alexander MacIntosh O’Brien was reported “killed in action” in the trenches south of the Souchez River on that “fairly quiet day,” most likely a victim of the early morning raid. His remains were laid to rest in Villers Station Military Cemetery, Villers-au-Bois, Pas de Calais, France.

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