August 16, 1917: Private James Ambrose “Jim” MacLean

Canadian War Memorial horizontal
Canadian War Memorial, Vimy Ridge, France.

Date of Birth: April 16, 1889 at Ohio, Antigonish County

Parents: Hugh & and Catherine (MacDonald) MacLean

Siblings: Sisters Janet “Jessie Ann” and Hannah; brothers Roderick “Roddy Buckey” and Daniel Henry (died in infancy); half-sisters Catherine and Christine; half-brothers John and William

Marital Status: Single

Occupation: Lumberman

Enlistment: March 4, 1916 at Saskatoon, SK

Units: 96th Battalion (Canadian Highlanders); 13th Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada)

Service #: 204376

Rank: Private

Previous Military Service: None

Next of Kin: Hugh MacLean, Ohio, Antigonish County, NS (father)

Date of Death: August 16, 1917 at Hill 70, near Lens, France

Memorial: Canadian War Memorial, Vimy Ridge, France

James Ambrose “Jim” MacLean was born at Ohio, Antigonish County on April 16, 1889. His father, Hugh, was the great-grandson of Angus (Pioneer) MacLean, who arrived at Pictou in 1801. Angus and his family first settled at River John, Pictou County. In 1802, they moved to West River, Antigonish County, settling on lands at the end of the present-day Purl Brook Road. In 1813, Angus assigned this land to his eldest son John, and moved to Ohio, settling on his second land grant with his remaining sons, Donald, Angus and Duncan.

Donald, son of Angus, later obtained land beside his father on the west side of the Ohio River, and raised a large family. Donald’s son, John, married Johanna Hewette, a native of Havre Boucher. Johanna’s father managed the gold mines in and around Sherbrooke and Goldenville, Guysborough County. John MacLean worked there as a hard rock miner while the gold mines were booming and later settled on a farm at Ohio.

Hugh, son of John, was married twice, first to Catherine MacDonald, and then to Anne Gray. Hugh and Catherine had five children, one of whom died in infancy. James Ambrose “Jim” and a younger brother, Roderick, were their only two sons. Catherine passed away in 1890—only months after Roderick’s birth—leaving Hugh to care for four young children. Relatives adopted them, only Roderick remaining in the area, taken in by Janet (MacLean) and John “Buckey” MacMillan of Ohio. Roderick thereafter received the nickname “Roddy Buckey,” and has numerous descendants still residing in the Antigonish area. Following the death of his first wife, Hugh married Ann Grey and subsequently had four more children.

Jim MacLean headed west as a young man and was working in Saskatchewan when he joined the 96th Battalion (Canadian Highlanders) at Saskatoon on March 4, 1916. Authorized on December 15, 1915, the unit departed for overseas on September 27. The 92nd Battalion subsequently absorbed its personnel, who eventually provided reinforcements for existing units in the field. Jim was assigned to the 13th Battalion, an affiliate of Montreal’s Royal Highlanders of Canada militia unit, known unofficially as the “Black Watch.” Its soldiers wore kilts in combat, regardless of the season. By the time Jim joined its ranks, the 13th Battalion was an experienced outfit, having served in Belgium and France with the 1st Division’s 3rd Brigade since early 1915.

The Canadian Corps had learned some hard lessons from its days on the Somme (September – November 1916), one being to eliminate the use of broad waves of soldiers in attack. General Julian Byng, Canadian Corps Commander, and his successor, Lieutenant General Arthur Currie, noted that the tactic created the problem of maintaining battle supply lines over a wide area, if indeed it succeeded in capturing its objective. As a result, Byng and Currie developed the “bite and hold” technique. Units attacked along a narrow front, with appropriate artillery support, and then reinforced that “bite.” The Canadian Corps successfully employed this technique at Vimy Ridge and in later operations at Arleux (April 28, 1917) and Fresnoy (May 3, 1917).

During the summer of 1917, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the British Army’s senior Officer, sought to open a new campaign in Flanders to relieve the excessive pressure on the French Army to the south. Haig commenced the attack in the Ypres Salient on July 31, 1917. To prevent German reserves from being diverted northward in response to this action, Haig ordered the British First Army—to which the Canadian Corps was attached—to capture the city of Lens, France.

Lt. General Arthur Currie, a British Columbia native who had assumed command of the Canadian Corps the previous month, examined the situation and realized that attacking Lens, an urban settlement located in a low-lying area, was unlikely to yield desirable results. Even if the Corps succeeded, the German Army would still hold the high ground to the city’s north—an area called Hill 70—and south—Sallaumines Hill. As an alternative, Currie proposed to General Henry Horne, First Army Commander, that the Canadians capture and reinforce Hill 70. The German Army would then be forced to attack Canadian positions on the high ground.

After weeks of training, the attack commenced at 4:25 a.m. August 15, 1917, the 1st Canadian Division on the left, north of Hill 70, and the 2nd Canadian Division aimed directly at the hill. Ten Canadian battalions advanced along a 4,000-yard front. The 3rd Canadian Brigade, on the attack’s far left, focused on capturing a German trench called “Hugo.” The 46th British Division supported its left flank,whilt the 13th Battalion occupied the front line between its Brigade mates, the 15th and 16th Battalions. The Canadians crashed through the first German lines in twenty minutes and seized their first objective. By 6:00 p.m., the Corps had achieved all of its objectives and the units halted. In the words of one writer, the soldiers exchanged their rifles for shovels and consolidated their newly captured positions.

True to form, the Germans moved to counterattack, but the Canadians were prepared, having establishing defences, anchored by machine guns, at key points. Due to Currie’s foresight, the Canadians now held the high ground and could observe the Germans massing for attack. Forward artillery officers directed the artillery fire, shattering enemy formations with pinpoint accuracy. By 9:00 a.m. August 16, German forces had launched four counterattacks, mounting an additional 21 over the next three days. Canadian units successfully repelled each wave, holding fast to the high ground captured during the August 15 attack.

Private James Ambrose MacLean was killed on August 16, 1917, the first day of fighting in defence of the newly captured Hill 70. Shrapnel from a German artillery shell struck him in the head and leg, killing him instantly. His remains were never recovered from the battlefield. Jim is among the thousands of soldiers whose names are inscribed on the Canadian War Memorial, Vimy Ridge, France, killed in action and buried somewhere beneath the battlefields of northern France.


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