August 16, 1917: Sapper John Angus MacPherson

MacPherson John Angus headstone

Date of Birth: March 28, 1880 at Lower Springfield, Antigonish County, NS

Parents: John (Ban) and Catherine (MacFarlane) MacPherson

Siblings: Brothers Daniel, Dougald A., Colin Francis, William Henry, Roderick Joseph, Hugh J., Angus A. & James F.; sisters Flora Ann, Mary Margaret, Ann A., & Isabella

Father’s Occupation: Farmer

Marital Status: Single

Occupation: Electrician/Lineman

Enlistment: April 18, 1916 at Dawson, YT

Units: 231st Battalion; 238th Battalion; 14th Field Company, Canadian Engineers

Service Number: 1015597

Rank: Sapper

Previous Military service: None

Next of Kin: John B. MacPherson, Antigonish, NS (father)

Date of Death: August 16, 1917 at Camp Bramshott, England

Final Resting Place: Milford Cemetery, Witley, Surrey, UK

John Angus MacPherson was born at Lower Springfield, Antigonish County, the second of John and Catherine (MacFarlane) MacPherson’s thirteen children. John Angus was a direct descendant of Pioneer Dougald and Margaret (MacDonnell) MacFarlane—the progenitors of the MacFarlanes of Antigonish and Inverness Counties—on both sides of his family.

John Angus’s mother, Catherine, was the daughter of John, a granddaughter of Patrick, and a great-granddaughter of Pioneer Dougald MacFarlane. His father, John Ban MacPherson, was the son of Donald (Ban) MacPherson, and his grandfather, Angus (Pioneer) MacPherson, married Isabel MacFarlane, daughter of Pioneer Dougald and Margaret (MacDonnell) MacFarlane.

Six of John Angus’s siblings died young—brothers Dougald (age 33), William (age 21), Roderick Joseph (age 20) and Angus (age 15), and sisters Flora (age 21) and Isabella (age 12). His father died in 1920, when he was struck by a falling tree while working in the woods. His mother died in 1947. All are buried in the old MacFarlane Cemetery at South River, Antigonish County. John Angus’s name was also added to the family stone in the cemetery.

John Angus left home at age 18, working his way west as a lineman constructing electrical power lines. By 1916, he was working as a lineman in a mine at Dawson, Yukon Territory. John Angus enlisted with the 231st Overseas Battalion at Dawson on April 18, 1916 and was subsequently transferred to the 238th Battalion on August 19. Perhaps due to the nature of his civilian work, he was re-assigned to the Royal Canadian Engineers four months later. Upon landed in England on December 29, 1916, he reported to the Canadian Engineers Training Depot. Crowborough and commenced training as a “sapper.”

On April 24, 1917, John Angus was assigned to the 5th Canadian Division’s 14th Field Company, Canadian Engineers, which was completing its training at Camp Witley, England. He spent the spring and summer at Witley, where he developed a “thorough knowledge of fuses and explosives of all kinds [,] both from his training as a sapper and… [his] civil life work[ing] in mines in all parts of Canada.”

On August 16, 1917, John Angus, another sapper and two non-commissioned officers (NCOs) “were proceeding across country to the 14th Canadian Infantry Brigade Training Area, Thursley Common, where they were to meet and supervise the engineer training of an infantry party.” Unknown to the group, their route lay “across a patch of ground where a number of small land mines had been buried” approximately three feet underground.

The explosives were not “contact mines,” ’but “were so designed and placed as to make it practically impossible for them to be fired unless the exposed end of the fuse above ground came in contact with fire of some sort.” Personnel familiar with the devices estimated that “probably two feet of fuse [lay] exposed above ground.” John Angus was smoking a pipe as he crossed the field and a later inquiry concluded that sparks from his pipe ignited a fuse lying on the ground.

The mine exploded instantaneously and John Angus sustained wounds to his hands, arms and face. A Medical Officer who happened to be nearby provided immediate assistance. While he was quickly evacuated to Bramshott Military Hospital, Sapper John Angus McPherson died of shock approximately five minutes after his arrival.

A subsequent inquiry described John Angus as “a steady and reliable man of good character” and concluded it was “improbable that he would light the end of an instantaneous fuse, not knowing to what it was connected.” The cause of death was therefore ruled “accidental.” John Angus was laid to rest in Milford Cemetery, Witley, Surrey, England.

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