Date of Birth: August 21, 1899 at Antigonish, NS*
Parents: John J. & Mary (MacGillivray) Gillis
Siblings: Sisters Flora, Ruth Amelia “Minnie”, Mary A., & Annie; brothers Daniel & Hugh
Marital Status: Single
Enlistment: March 13, 1916 at Antigonish, NS
Units: 193rd Battalion; 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders)
Service #: 901732
Previous Military Service: None
Next of Kin: John Gillis, Antigonish, NS (father)
Date of Death: October 30, 1917 at Passchendaele, Belgium
Commemoration: Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium & 85th Battalion Memorial, Passchendaele, Belgium
*Both 1901 and 1911 censuses and baptismal records confirm Joseph’s year of birth as 1899. His attestation papers list his birth year as 1897.
Joseph Bernard Gillis was born in Antigonish on August 21, 1899. His father, John J., was the son of John Gillis and grandson of Donald (Ban) Gillis, a pioneer who settled at William’s Point, Antigonish County. John J. was baggage master at the Antigonish train station, and lived in a house at the corner of Bay and Adam St.. He purchased the property in 1886, his family and descendants living there until 1970. The house was lost to fire in 2001.
John J. married Mary MacGillivray of Glen Road, daughter of Donald MacGillivray, and a great-granddaughter of Andrew (Andrea Ban) MacGillivray, an Antigonish County pioneer settler. The couple’s oldest son, Daniel, became Canadian National Railroad agent in Sydney Mines, while their other son, Hugh, was a night operator at the Antigonish station.
During the autumn and winter of 1915-16, military authorities launched numerous Nova Scotian recruitment campaigns. The 85th Battalion, authorized on September 14, 1915, recruited its ranks across the entire province. Response was so impressive that officials approved the formation of a Nova Scotia Highland Brigade, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Allison H. Borden, the 85th’s Commanding Officer. Three additional battalions joined the 85th to form the Brigade—the 185th recruited in Cape Breton, the 193rd canvassed northern Nova Scotia, while the 219th organized in Halifax and southwestern Nova Scotia.
Joseph Bernard Gillis enlisted with the 193rd Battalion at Antigonish, probably at the Celtic Hall, Main St., where recruiters established their offices. The Brigade mobilized at Camp Aldershot in late May and proceeded overseas in early autumn. All four units departed Halifax aboard SS Olympic, sister ship to the famous Titanic, on October 12, 1916 and traveled to Witley Camp, Surrey, for training following their arrival In England.
While the Brigade expected to enter the line as unit, significant Canadian Corps casualties at the Somme in September and October 1916 resulted in a change of plans. Two of its units—specifically, the 193rd and 219th Battalions—were disbanded before year’s end. Some of the 193th’s soldiers were assigned to the 13th, 42nd, 85thand 185th Battalions, as all four were Highland units. Others were transferred to engineering and machine gun units. The remainder joined the 17th Reserve Battalion, which serviced Nova Scotian units in the field.
Initially transferred to the 17th Reserve Battalion, Joseph was assigned to the 85th Battalion on April 21, 1917 and joined the unit in the field on May 14. The 85th had landed in France on February 10, 1917 and was temporarily attached to the 4th Division’s 11th Brigade as a labour unit in the days leading up to the Canadian Corps’ attack on Vimy Ridge. Its soldiers received their baptism under fire when two of its Companies were called into the line in the late afternoon of April 9, going “over the top” without artillery support and capturing Hill 145—the ridge’s highest point—in the early evening hours.
Following their successful debut, the 85th was permanently assigned to the 12th Brigade and served a regular rotation in the line near Lens, France throughout the spring and summer of 1917. The battalion moved north to Staple, France, close to the Belgian border, in early October and commenced preparations for a Canadian Corps operation in Belgium’s Ypres Salient.
At the request of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, the Corps received orders to capture Passchendaele ridge before the onset of winter. Lieutenant General Arthur Currie, Canadian Corps Commander, was not pleased with the assignment. As the battlefield was a quagmire, Currie initially told Haig to let the Germans keep it and “rot in the mud.” Currie, however, followed orders and gradually moved the Corps to Belgium, planning to take the ridge in four set piece battles scheduled for October 26 and 30, November 6 and 10. Slowly and methodically, the Canadians would claw their way up the ridge.
The 85th entered the line on the night of October 28, its October 30 objective being a position called Vienna Cottage. The battalion was located on the Corps’ extreme right flank, adjacent to a railroad cut and the Anzac Corps. “D” Company, to which Joseph Bernard was assigned, was under the command of Major Percival W. Anderson of Baddeck, NS, and was the designated “reserve company” in the impending attack. Anderson received instructions to reinforce the attack if necessary, based upon his own judgment. Meanwhile, the Company maintained the communication lines leading to the three forward Companies.
At Zero Hour—5:50 a.m. October 30— the three front line Companies advanced. An ineffective artillery barrage did little to weaken German positions, the soldiers facing “withering fire” as they moved toward their objective. Within ten minutes lost nine Officers, including “A” and “C” Companies’ Commanders, were killed or wounded. Anderson, observing the attack faltering, ordered “D” Company forward. The German machine guns shifted their fire to his soldiers, allowing the leading Companies to resume the advance. The 85th reached its objective at 6:38 a.m. and set about consolidating its position.
Of the 688 soldiers who went into combat that morning, 394 were listed as killed, wounded or missing as the 85th withdrew on the night of October 31/November 1, the unit’s greatest combat losses of the entire war. 18-year-old Private Joseph Bernard Gillis of Antigonish was killed in “D” Company’s advance, his remains lost somewhere on the mud-covered battlefield. Joseph is one of 54,000 British and Imperial soldiers commemorated on the walls of the Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium, killed in combat and buried somewhere beneath the battlefields of Flanders.