September 2, 1917: Sapper John “Jack Duncan” MacDonald

MacDonald Sapper John "Jack Duncan"

Date of Birth: June 8, 1881 at Lanark, Antigonish County

Parents: Angus John and Mary (MacInnis) MacDonald

Siblings: Sisters Kate (Mrs. “Red Collie” MacDonald), Mary (Mrs. Rod A. “Rory Allan” MacDonald), & Jannie (Mrs. Harry Bailey); brothers Jim & Hughie A.

Marital Status: Single

Occupation: Farmer

Enlistment: March 28, 1916 at Antigonish, NS

Units: 193rd Battalion; 10th Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops

Service #: 902447

Rank: Sapper

Previous Military Service: None

Next of Kin: Mary MacDonald, Lanark, Antigonish County, NS (mother)

Date of Death: September 2, 1917 at Coxyde (Koksijde), Belgium

Final Resting Place: Coxyde (Koksjide) Military Cemetery, Belgium

John Duncan MacDonald was born at Lanark, Antigonish County, the second of six children (three girls and three boys). His parents were Angus John MacDonald of Lanark and Mary MacInnis of the Keppoch. Mary was the daughter of Hugh MacInnis and Jennie MacPherson, and a granddaughter of Angus “Sergeant” MacInnis and Dougald (Capach) MacPherson.

Angus John MacDonald was the grandson of John MacDonald, who purchased Lot #11 of the original Hierlihy land grant. The land has been continuously farmed by #11 MacDonald descendants to the present day. It is believed that Angus John’s mother, Catherine Fraser, was the daughter of Alexander Og Fraser, Gaspereaux Lake, and Ann Fraser of the West River Frasers.

“Jack Duncan,” as he was known to family and friends, was a talented fiddler from a musical family. His brother, Hughie A. MacDonald, was a well-known Antigonish fiddler and his sister, Jannie Bailey, was a talented piano player. His brother, Jim, was a composer, in addition to being quite handy with the fiddle.

Jack Duncan enlisted with the 193rd Battalion at Antigonish on March 28, 1916. He reported June 7, 1884 as his date of birth on his attestation papers, although his actual birth date was June 8, 1881, thus removing three years from his age. Jack Duncan also listed his occupation as farmer, but it is known that he also worked with his father on railroads in the American west for several years prior to enlistment.

As a member of the 193rd Battalion, Jack Duncan spent the summer of 1916 participating in intense military training at Camp Aldershot, alongside three other Nova Scotia Highland Brigade battalions. Upon completing their training, the unit moved to Halifax in preparation for their trans- Atlantic journey. On October 13, 1916, the 193rd Battalion departed Halifax on SS Olympic. The unit landed at Liverpool, England on October 18th and travelled by train to Witley Camp, Surrey Hills, England for further training.

Military officials initially intended to deploy the Highland Brigade at the front in early 1917 as part of a new 5th Canadian Division, but due to a great demand for reinforcements In autumn 1917, the 193rd Battalion was dismantled and its personnel reassigned to several existing units. Jack Duncan MacDonald found himself transferred to the 10th Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops (CRT).

Jack Duncan’s new assignment was in keeping with his civilian work experience. CRT units constructed, repaired, maintained, operated and administered all gauges of the entire railway network for the five British Army areas in France and Belgium. The actual repairing of railroad lines was a constant activity and the threat from shelling a daily occurrence. Men in these units were killed due to accidents, artillery fire and aerial bombing, as well as machine gun and rifle fire. The number of men injured from such incidents was even greater.

While troops in the front lines had the protection of their dugouts and trenches during artillery shelling, railway troops usually worked in the open, either moving supplies forward or repairing lines that had been damaged by shelling, while the troops in the trenches went about their business in comparative safety.

From 1917 to 1918, CRT units constructed 1,404 miles of light gauge and 1,169 miles of broad gauge rail line on the continent. Experiences gained from massive North American railway projects easily translated to the construction and maintenance of railway lines throughout the Western Front, thus allowing for rapid movement of supplies and personnel. Temporary lines and bridges were a standard way of doing business in North America, and this was easily adaptable to any situation during the war years on the European front.

Jack Duncan MacDonald was amongst the 10th Battalion CRT personnel who crossed the English Channel and landed at Le Havre, France on June 19, 1917. The unit spent several weeks working behind the front lines near Albert, France before relocating in July to Coxyde (Koksijde), Belgium, where personnel immediately commenced operations at nearby La Panne.

During the month of August, the unit engaged in repairing, grading, ballasting, laying of steel and switches, bridgework and general maintenance of many miles of track. As August gave way to September, the unit continued its work on general maintenance, in addition to building dugouts.

On the evening of September 2, 1917, bombs from an air raid struck the area where the unit was located, killing Jack Duncan and a fellow comrade. Jack Duncan’s Commanding Officer subsequently wrote to his mother: “Madam, It is with deep regret that I have to inform you that your son made the supreme sacrifice yesterday, September 2nd. While engaged in improving their shelter, in the close vicinity of their work, a shell fell among his section of men, and when we were able to get to them, your son and one other were no more, and two others were wounded. It grieves me to state that after ten weeks under-fire, this is the first fatal casualty that my Company has suffered.” Sapper Jack Duncan MacDonald was laid to rest in Coxyde (Koksjide) Military Cemetery, Belgium.

2 thoughts on “September 2, 1917: Sapper John “Jack Duncan” MacDonald

  1. Researching my family ties to Nova Scotia brought me here. From what I read I can only imagine how brave you were. Thinking about how the musical connection you shared with your family was cut short saddens me. Rest in peace.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Brendan. We hope that the story has added to your knowledge of your Nova Scotia family ties.


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