August 10, 1918: Private William Alexander Henry

Henry William Alexander headstone

Date of Birth: March 26, 1879* at Halifax, NS

Parents: Robert Nesbit and Laura (Smith Cunningham) Henry

Siblings: Brother Courtney Mortimer; sisters Roberta H., Alice L. & Sophia

Marital Status: Single

Occupation: Mining Chemist

Enlistment: February 22, 1917 at Stanley Barracks (New Fort York), Toronto

Unit: “B” Squadron, Royal Canadian Dragoons; 1st Battalion Canadian Mounted Rifles

Service #: 550377

Rank: Private

Previous Military Service: Royal Northwest Mounted Police (23 months); Canadian Mounted Rifles, South Africa (one year—Sergeant)

Next of Kin: Mrs. Laura Henry, Antigonish, NS (mother)

Date of Death: August 10, 1918 near Parvillers, France

Final Resting Place: Bouchoir New British Cemetery, Bouchoir, Somme, France

*According to the 1881 Canadian census, William Alexander was born in 1879. At the time of his attestation, he reported his birth year as 1887.

William Alexander Henry was born into a very distinguished Antigonish family that traced its roots to Newry, Ireland. His great-grandfather, Robert N. Henry, arrived at Halifax in 1812. Four years later, in a ceremony that took place at Halifax, he married Mrs. Margaret (Hendricken) Forrestall, widow of Michael Forrestall, a Halifax merchant who owned property in the Antigonish area.

Forrestall had applied for a land grant, which was issued to his widow on September 20, 1814. One description located the property in Pleasant Valley and North Grant, but the grant was actually within the present-day town, extending north of Main St., past present-day Pleasant and Brookland Streets. The family home still stands at 133 College Street and was known as “Dan the Plasterer’s” house for many years.

In 1817, Robert Henry moved to Antigonish with his new bride, seven children by her previous marriage, and their first child, William Alexander Henry, born at Halifax on December 30, 1816. The Henry family arrived only 13 years after Nathaniel Symonds erected the town’s first shop, where he manufactured potash from the wood ashes of trees being cleared along the river. Robert became involved in the local timber trade, moving large quantities of logs down various streams to Antigonish Harbour.

William Alexander Henry, a future Father of Confederation, grew up in Antigonish with seven older half-brothers and sisters, a younger brother, Robert N. Henry 2nd, and a sister Elizabeth. He started work with his father at age 15, but soon moved on to study law, subsequently completing a lengthy, distinguished career as a barrister and politician. On October 4, 1841, William Alexander married Sophia Caroline MacDonald, daughter of Dr. Alexander and Charlotte (Harrington) MacDonald. Dr. Alexander was the Antigonish County’s first medical doctor. The only child of William Henry’s first marriage was Robert N. Henry, born in 1845. Sophia passed away on October 4, 1845 and William Henry remarried Christiana MacDonald of South River. The second marriage resulted in four more children.

William Alexander’s first-born, Robert N. Henry, also practiced law in Antigonish. He married Laura Smith Cunningham, daughter of John Day and Harriet (Philips) Cunningham. Robert and Laura subsequently had four children—Courtney Henry (father-in-law of Eileen “Cameron” Henry, noted Antigonish town Councillor), Alice Roberta, Sophia and William Alexander Henry 3rd. Following Robert N.’s death on February 24, 1889 at the early age of 48 years, his wife moved the family into the Cunningham Hotel on Main Street. The property, later known as the Merrimac Hotel, eventually became the People’s Co-Op Building.

Sometime in the late 1890’s, young William Alexander Henry 3rd travelled to the Canadian West, where he served with the Royal Northwest Mounted Police for almost two years. After the outbreak of the South African (Boer) War, he enlisted with the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles (CMR), a unit recruited mainly from NWMP posts across Western Canada. William spent one year with 1st CMR in South Africa, advancing to the rank of Sergeant. The unit’s soldiers earned a reputation for aggressive scouting during their time overseas.

William listed his occupation as “Mining Chemist” when he attested for overseas service with the Royal Canadian Dragoons at Stanley Barracks (New Fort York), Toronto, on February 23, 1917. According to his service record, he was on the unit’s pay list as of November 3, 1916. At the time of enlistment, the aging recruit misreported his year of birth, fearing that his actual age—38 years—would disqualify him for overseas service. His stated birth year—1887—would have meant that William was 13 years old when he arrived in South Africa with 1st CMR on February 27, 1900!

William arrived in England on April 7, 1917 and made his way to Shornciliffe Camp. Perhaps due to his age, he was transferred to the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) on July 31, 1917, and crossed the English Channel to the CAMC Depot in France on November 8. Three days later, he was assigned to stretcher bearer duty with No. 8 Canadian Field Ambulance (CFA) and arrived in the unit’s camp at Wieltje, near Ypres, Belgium, on November 12.

William reached the forward area on the final day of the Canadian Corps’ Passchendaele offensive, and served with No. 8 CFA throughout the winter of 1917-18. Considering his previous military experience, he no doubt longed to see action at the front, a sentiment typical of many CAMC non-medical personnel. On May 2, 1918, William A. secured a transfer to 1st Battalion Canadian Mounted Rifles (CMR).

His former South African unit had departed Montreal aboard SS Megantic on June 12, 1915, and crossed the English Channel to France with the 2nd Canadian Division on September 22, 1915. In response to the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s pressing need for more infantry units on the Western Front, military authorities ordered all CMR units to relinquish their horses in January 1916. Six CMR mounted regiments were reorganized into four infantry battalions to form the 3rd Canadian Division’s 8th Brigade. At that time, 1st CMR was re-designated 1st Battalion Canadian Mounted Rifles, an allotment of personnel from other CMR units bringing its numbers to full battalion strength.

William’s service record indicates that he participated in the Ceremonial Bastille Day Parade, held in Paris on July 14, 1918. All Allied forces provided detachments for the event. In the opinion of one observer, the pageantry on a brilliant, sunny day conveyed the impression that the war had been won.

Several months previously, Germany launched a massive spring offensive, with the goal of ending the war in its favour. Having signed a peace treaty with Russia in December 1917, Germany was able to transfer its Eastern Front forces—a total of 50 Divisions—to the Western Front and gained a numerical advantage. Planning for the offensive actually commenced in late 1917, as the Germans wanted to act before the American Expeditionary Force established large numbers of men in the field.

The offensive, code-named “Operation Michael,” opened on March 21, 1918. During a bombardment along 150 miles of the front line, German guns fired over 1.1 million shells at the British 5th Army and the right wing of the British 3rd Army. In the ensuing days, German forces pushed British forces back across the Avre River, a tributary of the Somme, in an effort to force a retreat to the Channel ports.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Corps, located in the centre of the British line, held fast to Vimy Ridge, which the Germans avoided attacking. The second phase of the offensive took place north of Vimy, against the First and Second British Armies. At one point, three of the Canadian Divisions hastily moved north to assist but were never called into action. German forces also launched two other offensives against French Armies in sectors to the south.

Time, however, was not on Germany’s side. The Americans were entering the line in support of the French, and while the British armies lost ground, they did not break. By mid-year, the Allies perceived that the situation was ripe for a counter-attack, as German forces were overextended, exhausted and demoralized. Having lost over 800,000 men in the spring offensive, the Germans now faced the challenge of holding a longer front line.

By mid-summer, Allied commanders began to implement their plan. On July 15, 1918, the French launched a counter-offensive in their section of the line. Two weeks later, the well-rested Canadian and Australian Corps moved southward from the Vimy area and prepared for a second attack east of Amiens, under command of the British 4rd Army.

All four Canadian Divisions entered the line in early August, with five Australian Corps Divisions on their left and the French First Army to their right. The attack commenced in the early hours of August 8, 1918, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions spearheading the advance south of Villers-Bretonneux. The 3rd Division’s Brigades, located on the extreme right, would leap frog one another to maintain the attack.

1st CMR commenced its advance at Hangard and reached the village of Courcelles by day’s end. The Canadian Corps advanced 13 miles on the first day, an unprecedented accomplishment after months of stalemate. Meanwhile, the Australians gained 11 miles of territory on a day that German General Eric Von Ludendorff later described as the “The Black Day of the German Army.” The battle marked the start of what is known today as the Canadian Corps’ “Hundred Days.”

The Allies now faced the challenge of maintaining the attack’s momentum. On August 10, 1st CMR were located in front of Le Quesnoy, with 2nd CMR on their right flank. The battalion assembled at 6:30 a.m. and the two units jumped off 75 minutes later. While 2nd CMR headed straight for the village, 1st CMR swung to the left, passing in front of Le Quesnoy and on to Parvillers on their left. The unit encountered machine gun and artillery fire but succeeded in pushing the Germans back another two miles. 1st CMR casualities for the day were three Officers wounded, 25 “other ranks” (OR) killed, and 107 OR wounded.

Private William A. Henry of College St., Antigonish, was among the day’s fatalities. His “circumstances of casualty” card describes the details of his death: “[As] his company reached their final objective in front of Parvillers, he was hit by a bullet to the forehead and instantly killed.” William’s body was recovered from the battlefield and laid to rest in Bouchoir New British Cemetery, five miles north west of Roye, France.

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