October 1, 1918: Sapper Colin Francis Chisholm

Chisholm Colin Francis

Date of Birth: December 7, 1896 at Acadia Mines (Londonderry), Colchester County, NS

Parents: John R. and Mary (MacIsaac) Chisholm

Siblings: Sisters Mary Ann “Alma,” Catherine and Janet; brother John Archibald

Marital Status: Single

Occupation: Mill hand

Enlistments: July 14, 1915 at Camp Aldershot, NS & January 23, 1917 at Yarmouth, NS

Units: 40th Battalion (Halifax Rifles); 256th Railway Construction Battalion; 10th Battalion Canadian Railway Troops

Service #’s: 414707 & 1099767

Rank: Private

Previous Military Service: 18th Field Battery, Canadian Field Artillery (two months)

Next of Kin: Alma Chisholm, Halifax, NS (sister) & Mary Ellen Hay, Antigonish, NS (aunt)

Date of Death: October 1, 1918 near Poperinghe, Belgium

Burial: Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Poperinghe, Belgium

Colin Francis Chisholm was born at Acadia Mines, now known as Londonderry, Colchester County. He was the grandson of John “Seoc” Chisholm of Strathglass, Scotland, who immigrated to Canada with his parents in 1812. John married Mary MacDonald of Beaver Meadow in a ceremony performed by Bishop Fraser at Antigonish in 1836. The couple made their home at James River, on a farm later occupied by Forbes and Christine MacGillivray. The last surviving member of John and Mary’s 14 children was Dan Chisholm, retired section foreman, who died there in 1945.

John R., another of John and Mary’s sons, married Mary Ann MacIsaac, the daughter of Archibald MacIsaac and Catherine MacGillivray of Mayfield, located in the Keppoch area of the county. In the late 1800s, John R. and Mary moved from Antigonish to Acadia Mines. At that time, the settlement was a bustling iron ore mining and steelmaking town, boasting a population of approximately 5,000. John R. worked as a blacksmith, while he and Mary raised a family of three girls and two boys, Colin Francis being the youngest of their children. Mary passed away in 1904, while John R. died in 1909 after a short illness, leaving behind a young family that was then disbursed among relatives. Colin Francis went to live with his father’s sister, Mary Ellen—Mrs. James Hay—of Antigonish.

Interestingly, Colin Francis Chisholm was a member of two overseas battalions. He first enlisted with the 40th Battalion (Halifax Rifles) on July 14, 1915. Several of the regiments recruited in Nova Scotia during the First World War were built upon existing militia or military units, the 40th being one such example. The unit formed around a nucleus of volunteers from the Halifax Rifles, a militia unit in existence at the time of the war’s outbreak. Created on May 14, 1860, in the aftermath of the Crimean War, the “Halifax Volunteer Battalion” was renamed the Halifax Battalion of Rifles in 1869 before being formally designated the 63rd Regiment (Halifax Rifles) on May 8, 1900.

When Britain declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary in the summer of 1914, the Halifax Rifles responded by sending a draft of volunteers to the 14th Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment), one of the units that sailed to England in October 1914 as part of the First Canadian Contingent. The Regiment’s officers, however, were not satisfied with simply providing personnel for other units. On January 1, 1915, the Canadian government authorized the creation of the 40th Battalion, initially under the command of Lt. Col. W. H. Gilborne (R.C.R.).

Built around military personnel enlisted with the Halifax Rifles, the newly created regiment immediately set out to raise a Nova Scotian battalion for overseas service. After four months of recruiting across the province, the battalion mobilized at Camp Aldershot on May 11, 1915, where military training continued. On June 21, the 40th relocated to Camp Valcartier, QC. The battalion had one commanding officer, Lt-Col. A.G. Vincent, who served in that capacity from October 18, 1915 to January 4, 1917.

Colin was among the unit’s later enlistments, attesting for service following its departure for Quebec. After spending the remainder of the summer in training at Camp Valcartier, Colin and his 40th Battalion mates boarded SS Saxonia and departed Canada on October 18, 1915. Its personnel—1,143 “all ranks”—landed at Plymouth, England, 11 days later and proceeded to Bramshott Military Camp, becoming the first Canadian infantry battalion stationed there. The 40th was assigned to the 3rd Canadian Division’s 9th Brigade and continued its training, in anticipation of deployment in France.

While Colin was initially stationed at Camp Bramshott, on April 1, 1916, he was transferred to the Canadian Casualty Assembly Center, Camp Shorncliffe, and placed on base duty for medical reasons. A detailed medical report indicated that 10 years previously, a piece of glass had struck Colin’s left eye, causing significant visual impairment. He also suffered from “flat feet” and was unable to complete route marches. As a result of these impairments, Colin departed for Canada on October 18, 1916, and was discharged from military service as “physically unfit” on November 21.

Following his return to Canada, Colin travelled to Yarmouth, NS, where he resided with his uncle, Finlay Chisholm. A “roadmaster” with the Halifax and Southwestern Railway, Finlay had moved to the community some years earlier. Determined to serve overseas, Colin enlisted with the 256th Overseas Canadian Railway Battalion at Yarmouth on January 23, 1917. His attestation papers indicate that that he was working as a mill hand at the time.

Prior to the outbreak of the First World War, more new railways had been built in Canada than anywhere else in the British Empire. In October 1914, Canada had proposed sending railway units to Europe, but British authorities initially rejected the offer. On January 21, 1915, the British Army Council reconsidered and asked the Canadian Pacific Railway to provide their expertise. Its management selected 500 experienced railway men who had passed a series of technical tests.

On March 12, 1915, military authorities commenced recruitment of the Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps. The initial campaign ended on May 15, at which time the force mobilized at Saint John, NB, and departed for England. The railway men did not receive military training other than basic drills, courtesies and protocols. Being specialists and considered non-combatants, they immediately went to work at their trades.

Railways behind the lines were a critical component of the Allied war effort, moving immense quantities of supplies and ammunition, transporting troops to the front, and evacuating casualties. Although the circumstances were less than ideal, laying and maintaining track on the Western Front was similar to conditions in Canada’s frontier regions. In the Canadian West, it was common to build temporary lines and bridges to deal with unique circumstances and rugged terrain. The Canadian Railway Troops (CRT), as the unit was later renamed, possessed these special skills and was in such demand that military officials soon authorized the formation of additional railway battalions.

The 256th Battalion was organized in January 1917 under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel W. A. McConnell. Its recruiting poster offered $1.00 per day wages and 10 cents per day field allowance, plus clothing and equipment. The terms were an attractive enticement for young men like Colin Francis Chisholm. The 256th left Halifax aboard SS Northland on April 18, 1917, and disembarked at Liverpool, England, 11 days later. In late May, the 256th was re-designated the 10th Battalion Canadian Railway Troops (CRT) and proceeded to France on June 17, 1917.

From April 1917 until Armistice Day, CRT units constructed 1,169 miles of standard gauge and 1,404 miles of narrow-gauge railways. In addition, constant maintenance and repair of damaged lines was as much a part of their work as construction. The force recorded a casualty rate of more than 13 percent, as 1,911 CRT personnel were killed, wounded or captured by the enemy. While the troops on the front lines had the protection of trenches and dugouts during artillery shelling, railway troops worked in the open, without the benefit of such facilities. Enemy shelling, aerial bombing, machine gun and rifle fire were responsible for the majority of casualties, although some were the result of workplace accidents.

By the autumn of 1918, Allied forces in France were advancing to victory, but the war still raged in other sectors of the Western Front. The Allied advance in Belgium commenced in late September, when British and Belgian forces attacked the German line in what became known as the Fifth Battle of Ypres. As Allied troops and supplies moved from France to Belgium via railway, maintaining these lines was vital to the war effort. The fact that German forces surrounded the Ypres Salient on three sides meant that virtually all locations were subjected to constant artillery fire. Roads and rail lines were therefore in constant need of repair.

Throughout the summer and autumn of 1918, 10th CRT’s personnel were hard at work, maintaining rail lines in the Ypres area. On October 1, 1918, Sapper Colin Francis Chisholm was first listed as injured and later reported killed, as a result of an accident near Poperinghe, Belgium, where his unit was stationed. Colin Francis and a comrade, Sapper A. Latendresse, were both struck and killed by a motorcar on a road. It was dark at the time of the incident and the staff car involved belonged to a French officer who apparently stopped and reported the accident but was never identified. Both men were subsequently laid to rest in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Poperinghe, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium.

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