June 3, 1918: Captain William Fielding MacIsaac

McIsaac William Fielding woodpile

Date of Birth: May 4, 1894 at Antigonish, NS

Parents: Colin Francis & Mary Helena (Howlett) MacIsaac

Father’s Occupation: Barrister

Siblings: Brothers Colin Francis & Donald; sisters Mary Gertrude & Helen

Marital Status: Single

Occupation: Physician

Enlistment: February 10, 1917 at Montreal, QC

Units: No. 12 Canadian General Hospital, Bramshott, UK; No. 9 Canadian Stationary Hospital (StFX Unit)

Service #: None (Commissioned Officer)

Rank: Captain

Previous Military Service: Member of Active Militia (CAMC)

Next of Kin: Colin Francis MacIsaac, Antigonish, NS (father)

Date of Death: June 3, 1918 at Étaples, France

Final Resting Place: Étaples Military Cemetery, Étaples, France

William Fielding MacIsaac was born at Antigonish, NS, on May 4, 1894, the oldest of Colin Francis and Mary Helena (Howlett) MacIsaac’s five children. Fielding’s paternal grandfather, Donald MacIsaac, was born at Upper South River around 1811. Donald’s wife, Catherine, was the daughter of John and Margaret (McDonald) McGillivray, Malignant Brook [Maryvale]. John, his father Hugh, and brother, Andrew, purchased land in the Maryvale area in 1813.

Donald and Catherine MacIsaac raised a family of 15 children, including two sets of twins. One set included Fielding’s father, Colin Francis, and his brother Alexander. Several children became prominent figures in the local community. Angus, born around 1838, studied law and was later appointed to the bench. John, three years Angus’s junior, became a well-known sculptor and marble worker, warranting the local nickname “Stonecutter.”

While Colin Francis was among the younger children—he was born at Upper South River on February 17, 1854—he became perhaps the family’s most distinguished member. After graduating from St. Francis Xavier University, he completed legal studies and was called to the bar in 1884. Colin established a law office in Antigonish and entered politics in 1886, when was elected to the Nova Scotia House of Assembly as MLA for Antigonish.

Re-elected in 1890, Colin served as Minister Without Portfolio in the Provincial Cabinet of Premier William Stephen Fielding, after whom his first-born was later named. In 1895, Colin made the leap to federal politics, where he represented Antigonish in the Canadian House of Commons for a decade. In 1905, he left politics to accept an appointment with the National Transcontinental Railway Commission, and was named King’s Counsel that same year.

On June 8, 1892, Colin married Mary Helena Howlett—a native of Boston, MA, according to their marriage registration—in a ceremony held at Halifax. The couple established residence in Antigonish, where their first child, Fielding, was born two years later. Four more children joined the family over the next 12 years years. At the time of the 1911 Canadian census, the family was residing at Ottawa, ON, but also maintained a home in Antigonish.

After completing his education at Ottawa Collegiate Institute, Fielding enrolled in the medical program at McGill College, Montreal, at age 18. According to a later account in The Casket, “for every year of his five years’ course in that famous institution, he distinguished himself for the excellence of his work.” Fielding graduated in January 1917, placing second in his class, and immediately completed a “Captaincy course,” in preparation for military service.

McIsaac William Fielding grad photo
William Fielding MacIsaac’s McGill Graduation Portrait

On February 10, 1917, Fielding enlisted with the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) at Montreal, with the intention of serving with No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill Unit) in France. As with other qualified physicians, he received the commissioned rank of Lieutenant upon enlistment.

After arriving in England in early May 1917, Fielding was posted to the CAMC Depot. Temporarily attached to the 1st Canadian Command Depot, Hastings, in mid-July 1917, Fielding finally received a transfer to No. 12 Canadian General Hospital, Bramshott, England, on November 14, 1917. His time at Bramshott was brief, as one week later an opportunity arose to proceed to France with No. 9 Stationary Hospital (StFX Unit).

On December 5, Fielding crossed the English Channel with No. 9 Stationary. Promoted to the rank of Temporary Captain in early February 1918, he soon assumed the duties of Acting Paymaster with the unit, in addition to his medical duties. By that time, No. 9 Stationary had established an operating hospital at St. Omer, France, approximately 50 kilometres west of Armentières.

The launch of the German Spring Offensives soon disrupted the hospital’s operation. The initial German attack, launched on March 21 in sectors to the south of St. Omer, did not pose a threat, but a second offensive, west of Armentières, France, commenced on April 9. Within days, German forces were within artillery range of No. 9 Stationary’s location.

In response, CAMC officials ordered the hospital evacuated on April 12 and personnel withdrew to Étaples, on the French coast, several days later. While non-medical personnel set about erecting a facility at nearby Lefaux, No. 9’s medical officers were re-assigned to hospitals in the Étaples area. On April 27, Fielding reported to No. 51 General Hospital, a British Army Medical Corps unit, “for temporary duty.”

Located along the French coast, Étaples was an important supply depot, as well as a major centre for British and Canadian medical facilities. During the later months of 1917, German forces had launched several air raids on the area, using the recently developed Gotha bomber to carry out night missions. In the weeks following the German Spring Offensives, air raid activity increased noticeably.

On the night of May 19, 1918, German aircraft conducted a major attack on the Étaples area. While the primary targets were supply depots, railway yards and tracks, bombs also landed on several British and Canadian hospital facilities. No. 51 General Hospital was among the locations struck from the air. During the raid, shrapnel from an exploding bomb struck Fielding in the chest and right ankle. Onsite personnel provided immediate first aid and he was admitted to No. 1 Canadian General Hospital, Étaples, on May 20 for treatment of wounds “received in action (Enemy Aircraft).”

Immediately following the air raid, Lt. Col. Ronald St. John MacDonald, No. 9 Stationary’s Commanding Officer, wrote to Fielding’s parents, describing his injuries in detail:
“There is a small piece of shrapnel, about the size of a bean, in the left apex of the lung, also a small wound on the right foot. The wound in the foot is very slight. He is doing well—is strong, vigorous, and cheerful, and unless any unforeseen complications set in, will make a quick recovery.”

By month’s end, Fielding felt well enough to write a note to his father. While “still very weak and [experiencing] considerable pain in [his] chest and ankle,” he felt that “things are really going satisfactory [sic]. It will be a long time before I’m myself again, but I’m sure everything will go all right. It was surely hard luck to get hit like that…. Hope you people don’t worry too much, as I’m having every attention here.”

Within days of writing his father, Fielding’s health took a dramatic turn for the worse. The tiny piece of shrapnel embedded in his right lung led to the development of an “infective hemothorax,” a condition in which fluid—in this case, blood—accumulates in the space between the lungs and the inner lining of the chest cavity. Medical staff performed emergency surgery but were unable to resolve the situation. Captain William Fielding MacIsaac “died of wounds” at No. 1 Canadian General Hospital on June 3, 1918.

The following day, Reverend Joseph Paul, the hospital’s Chaplain, wrote a letter to Colin, in which he described his son’s final days:

“He… did not appear to suffer much pain. I saw him once or twice a day, and he received all the last sacraments the day on which he died, and was fully conscious at the time and joined in the prayers. Lying with his rosary around his neck and crucifix which he had borrowed clasped in his hands [sic]. When he went for [his] operation, he still had his crucifix…. I said Mass for your boy this morning. It was his last request to me.”

Captain Fielding MacIsaac was laid to rest in Étaples Military Cemetery, Étaples, France. His death at the age of 24 was but the first of several tragedies that befell the MacIsaac family in the ensuing years. Fielding’s younger brother, 22-year-old Donald, died of cerebrospinal-spinal meningitis at Antigonish on August 7, 1924. His father, Colin, died of stomach cancer at Antigonish on March 14, 1927 at the age of 72. Helen, the youngest family member, died of pulmonary tuberculosis at the Victoria General Hospital, Halifax, on January 8, 1930, at the age of 22.

Having endured the loss of her husband and three children in the span of 12 years, Helena MacIsaac passed away at Antigonish on July 20, 1935. Her second daughter, Mary Gertrude, entered the Congregation of Notre Dame and took her religious vows as Mother St. Helen Marie. Helena’s remaining son, Colin Francis Jr., followed in his father’s footsteps, entering the legal profession and establishing a law practice law in Antigonish. Colin never married and passed away at Antigonish on April 23, 1965 at 65 years of age.

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