August 26, 1918: Private Stephen Joseph MacNeil

MacNeil Stephen Joseph

Date of Birth: February 26, 1871 at Lanark, Antigonish County, NS*

Parents: Captain Alexander and Mary (MacDonald) MacNeil

Siblings: Brothers Roderick, John P., Colin, Daniel & Alex; sisters Margaret, Mary, Flora & Catherine

Marital Status: Single

Occupation: Miner

Enlistment: May 16, 1916 at Dawson City, Yukon

Units: 231st Battalion (Sidney, BC); Yukon Infantry Company; 17th Machine Gun Company; 2nd Battalion, Canadian Machine Gun Corps

Service #: 1015593

Rank: Private

Previous Military Service: None

Next of Kin: John P. MacNeil, Lanark, Antigonish County, NS (brother)

Date of Death: August 26, 1918 near Vis-en-Artois, France

Final Resting Place: Tilloy British Cemetery, Tilloy-lès-Mofflaines, France

*Date of birth obtained from Stephen’s attestation papers, confirmed by St. Ninian’s Parish baptismal records.

Stephen Joseph MacNeil was the son of Captain Alexander and Mary (Big Rory MacDonald) MacNeil. He was born and raised on a Lanark, Antigonish County, farm where family descendants still own property. Stephen’s father, Alexander, was the son of Rory (Ban) MacNeil, who first settled at Malignant Cove. Rory lost the farm there when his brother, Donald, fell into debt and Alexander sold the property to provide him with the necessary funds. Rory relocated to New France, Antigonish County, where he became one of the area’s first settlers. Another brother, Angus, later settled nearby. Rory’s son, Alex, became a Ship’s Captain and moved to Lanark, where he married Mary (Big Rory) MacDonald, Southside Harbour, a sister-in-law of Alexander (Big Painter) MacDonald.

Stephen was working as a miner in Dawson City, Yukon, when military recruiters visited the area. He enlisted with the 231st Battalion, the second unit raised by the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada (Vancouver, BC) for service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Vancouver’s Scottish community had established the Seaforths in May 1909, requesting and receiving the militia designation “72nd,” the same number as the unit’s Scottish namesake.

Immediately after the British declaration of war, the militia regiment offered its services to Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia, but the Canadian government subsequently decided that local militia units would not serve overseas. Instead, the Seaforth Highlanders contributed soldiers to the 16th Battalion, which consisted of volunteers from four Highland militia units and thus adopted the title “Canadian Scottish.” The 16th went on to serve with the 1st Canadian Division’s 3rd Brigade in Belgium and France. In July 1915, the Seaforth Highlanders recruited the 72nd Battalion, which bore the same number as its militia regiment and later served in the 4th Canadian Division’s 12th Brigade, alongside Nova Scotia’s 85th Battalion.

In July 1916, Canadian officials authorized the formation of the 231st Battalion. The Seaforths commenced recruitment before that time, as Stephen’s attestation papers were initially dated May 15, 1916, and were later altered to read “July 6.” Stephen was 45 years of age at the time, but the unit’s Medical Officer declared him “fit for service.”

Stephen spent five months training with the 231st, after which he was transferred to the Yukon Infantry Company on October 25, 1916. His new unit departed from Halifax on January 24, 1917, and arrived at Liverpool, England, on February 6. Stephen remained with the Yukon Company until March 24, when he was assigned to the recently formed 5th Canadian Division’s 17th Machine Gun Company. He immediately reported to the 17th’s camp at Seaford, England.

Stephen’s transfer to a machine gun company coincided with major changes to the Canadian military‘s organization and deployment of this new weapon. In April 1917, military officials created the Canadian Machine Gun Corps (CMGC), which assumed responsibility for all Canadian Corps machine gun companies. To increase firepower in the field, officials added more light machine guns, specifically the American-designed Lewis Gun. Each platoon received two Lewis Guns, which was primarily an offensive weapon. Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie, Canadian Corps Commander, also requested more “heavy” machine guns, such as the British Vickers. The dissolution of the 5th Canadian Division later that year provided the CMGC with 32 additional Vickers guns.

Prior to the CMGC’s creation, each infantry brigade possessed one Machine Gun Company, which bore the corresponding number (i.e., 1st Machine Gun Company was under the command of the 1st Brigade.) Under the new system, brigade machine gun companies were combined into “machine gun battalions.” While the new units continued to operate within their Divisions, they were no longer attached to a specific brigade, making it easier for military commanders to deploy the weapon.

After his transfer to the 17th Machine Gun Company, Stephen remained in England for almost a year. On March 23, 1918, he crossed the English Channel to France with the 17th. Following the unit’s dissolution, Stephen was re-assigned to the Canadian Machine Gun Reinforcement Pool on June 7. Two months later, he was transferred to the 2nd Battalion CMGC and joined his new unit in the field on August 10.

Established on the same day that Stephen had departed for France, 2nd Battalion CMGC served with the 2nd Canadian Division, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel J. G. Weir. On August 26, 1918—barely two weeks after Stephen’s arrival in the forward area—2nd Battalion CMGC was in the line south of the Arras-Cambrai Road, the 3rd Canadian Division located north of its position. Following an August 8 attack on the German line east of Amiens, Canadian units had received a brief respite. The impressive 11-mile push forward sent the German Army reeling, and Allied Commanders sought to maintain the momentum gained at Amiens. The advance marked the beginning of what later became known as “Canada’s 100 Days.”

After a few day’s rest, the Canadian Corps attacked again, this time targeting the German line east of Arras. At 3:00 a.m. August 26, under a moonlit sky, the 5th Infantry Brigade swung right around the village of Neuville-Vitasse, and then proceeded to the south of Wancourt, where its soldiers assumed positions in front of Chérisy, south of Vis-en-Artois. Several 2nd Battalion CMGC Companies supported the Brigade’s advance.

Private Stephen Joseph MacNeil was initially reported “missing after action” following the day’s events. A subsequent entry in his file indicated that he had been killed in action. His circumstances of casualty card states that Stephen was “killed during the attack south of Vis-en-Artois,” but provides no further details on his death.

Stephen was buried in Tilloy-lès-Mofflaines British Cemetery, one-half mile south-southeast of Arras, France. The advance continued until September 5, 1918, bringing the Canadian Corps close to the Canal du Nord and Cambrai, a key German railroad hub in northern France. The attack in which Stephen died became known as the Battle of Arras, the event after which Antigonish’ s Legion Branch 59 is named.

Of particular interest in relation to Legion Arras Branch 59, its last surviving First World War veteran was Daniel Alexander MacNeil of Lanark, a nephew of Stephen Joseph MacNeil. Dan joined the 193rd Battalion at Antigonish on March 11, 1916, during its local recruitment drive. The 19-year-old went overseas aboard SS Olympic with the Highland Brigade on October 12, 1916 and was transferred to the 42nd Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada) two months later. He immediately departed for France and joined the 42nd in the field before year’s end.

Wounded in the right shoulder at Vimy Ridge, France, on April 9, 1917, Dan was invalided to England, where medical staff determined that he was no longer “physically fit” for service. He returned to Canada in early November 1917 and was discharged from military service at Halifax on March 8, 1918. Dan MacNeil returned to his Lanark farm, married and raised a large family. He was active in Legion activities throughout his later life and passed away at his Lanark home on July 28, 1992.

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