August 15, 1917: Private Norman Ash

Ash Norman Cdn War Memorial
Pte. Norman Ash’s name engraved on the Canadian War Memorial, Vimy Ridge, France.

Date of Birth: December 12, 1898 at Antigonish, NS*

Parents: James & Ester (Parris) Ash

Father’s Occupation: Labourer

Siblings: Brothers James, Rollie, Freddie, Thomas, Clovis, Howard & Frank; sisters Mary Jane, Cora, Eva & Ella

Marital Status: Single

Occupation: Labourer

Enlistment: July 6, 1916 at Truro, NS

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

Service #: 716254

Rank: Private

Previous Military Service: None

Next of Kin: James Ash, Antigonish, NS (father)

Date of Death: August 15, 1917 at Hill 70, near Lens, France

Memorial: Canadian War Memorial, Vimy Ridge, France

* Norman’s date of birth obtained from 1901 census. The 1911 census gives Norman’s birth date as October 1898, while his attestation papers record the date as June 2, 1897.

Norman Ash was the fourth child and second son born to James and Ester (Parris) Ash of Antigonish, NS. James was a native of Middle Manchester, Guysborough County, the eldest son of Thomas Henry and Mariah (Izzard) Ash, while Ester was born at Tracadie, Antigonish County, daughter of Isaac and Ann Parris.

Norman enlisted with the 106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) at Truro, NS on July 6, 1916, exaggerating his age by two years on his attestation papers. Four days later, his older brother, Rollie, joined the same unit. Coincidentally, No. 2 Construction Battalion, a unit established to provide African Canadians with the opportunity to serve with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, was authorized the day prior to Norman’s enlistment. The 106th was one of a handful of Canadian infantry units to accept African Canadians into its ranks, an estimated 16 “black” soldiers on its nominal roll.

The Ash brothers’ days in Nova Scotia were brief, as the 106th departed Halifax on July 15 aboard SS Empress of Britain and landed in England ten days later. Within weeks of its arrival, the unit was disbanded and its soldiers dispersed to existing units in the field. Norman and Rollie were part of a large group of 106th soldiers transferred to the 26th Battalion (New Brunswick) on September 27, 1916. They crossed the English Channel to France the following day and joined their new unit in the field on October 13.

The 26th Battalion was authorized on November 7, 1914 and recruited its soldiers across the entire province of New Brunswick. After arriving in England, the unit was assigned to the 2nd Canadian Division’s 5th Brigade, where it served alongside the 22nd (“Vandoos,” Quebec), 24th (Victoria Rifles of Canada, Montreal, QC) and 25th (Nova Scotia Rifles) Battalions. The 26th landed in France on September 16, 1915 and served in the trenches of Belgium’s Ypres Salient for one year before relocating to the Somme region of France with the Canadian Corps in September 1916.

The 26th participated in the Corps’ successful attack on the village of Courcelette on September 15 but paid a heavy price, suffering 300 casualties in the advance. Before month’s end, the unit lost an additional 182 soldiers in fighting at Regina Trench. On October 2, the unit retired to billets at Albert, France with fewer than 300 men in its ranks. In subsequent weeks, the arrival of 251 soldiers from the 106th Battalion—a group that included Norman and Rollie Ash—significantly bolstered its depleted numbers. On October 15, the new arrivals relocated with the 26th’s veterans to quieter sectors near Lens, France for their first tour in the line.

The 26th served in the Lens area throughout the winter of 1916-17, spending much time repairing collapsing trenches caused by wet conditions. While combat was a rarity during the winter months, patrols in No Man’s Land and trench raids were regular occurrences. A late afternoon raid on January 16, 1917 claimed the lives of five 26th Battalion “other ranks” (OR), Norman’s brother, Rollie, “missing, presumed dead” in its aftermath.

Norman participated in the capture of Vimy Ridge on April 9, the 26th and 24th Battalions making their way up the slope in front of the village of Neuville-St.-Vaast and capturing their objectives within thirty minutes. Throughout the following month, the unit served on rotation in the Vimy sector. While in close support at the “Railway Embankment” on May 2, its war diary reported “lively shelling all day.” Sometime during the bombardment, Norman suffered a contusion to his left knee and leg and the following day was evacuated to field ambulance for treatment. On May 5, he was admitted to No. 4 Canadian Stationary Hospital, Saint-Cloud and spent four weeks recovering from his injuries before rejoining the 26th in the forward area in late June.

The 26th spent the first three weeks of July in the Lens and Laurent trenches, retiring to Bois de Bouvigny afterward for a period of training. On August 14, the battalion marched out to Bully Grenay, where its soldiers prepared for the following day’s assignment—the Canadian Corps’ attack on Hill 70, near Lens, France. Its soldiers “pushed off” at 4:20 a.m. August 15, reaching the second assembly area “with very few casualties.” From this point forward, “a great deal of machine gun and rifle fire was met with and most of the casualties took place just after leaving the 22nd Battalion[’s] Objective.”

Upon reaching and consolidating Norman Trench—the unit’s objective—personnel withstood three German counter-attacks before day’s end. To their dismay, the soldiers found that the location “was nothing more but a succession of shell holes. The men… had to lie on their stomachs and use their entrenching tool and hands to make cover for themselves.”

Private Norman Ash was among the soldiers killed during the August 15, 1917 advance. His remains were never recovered from the battlefield. Norman’s name is engraved on the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, erected in memory of Canadian soldiers who were killed on the battlefields of northern France and have no known grave.

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