November 6, 1918: Private Vincent M. MacEachern

MacEachern brothers l to r Hugh Joseph and Vincent
Brothers Hugh, Joseph & Vincent MacEachern (left to right)

Date of Birth: September 28, 1892 at Cape George, Antigonish County

Parents: John D. and Janet (MacDonald) MacEachern

Siblings: Brothers Joseph, John R., Hugh (“Teacher”), Cameron, & Dougald; sisters Penelope, Mary & Annie Jane

Marital Status: Single

Occupation: Brakeman

Enlistment: October 19, 1917 at Halifax, NS

Unit: 1st Depot Battalion, Nova Scotia Regiment; 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders)

Service #: 3181365

Rank: Private

Previous Military Service: None

Next of Kin: John D. MacEachern, Cape George, Antigonish County, NS (father)

Date of Death: November 6, 1918 near Quiévrechain, France

Final Resting Place: Valenciennes (St. Roch) Communal Cemetery, France

Vincent MacEachern was the son of John D. MacEachern, Cape George, a grandson of Donald (Tanner) MacEachern, and a descendant of Donald (Pioneer) MacEachern. In 1855, Donald (Tanner) married Penelope MacGillivray, daughter of Allan (Bridge) MacGillivray, so-called as they lived beside the bridge on the Dunmore side of St. Andrews. Donald raised a large family at St. Andrew’s. His son, John D., farmed and taught school at the Cape, and married Janet MacDonald, daughter of Donald (Gobha) and Mary (Boyd) MacDonald, Big Marsh. Among their eight children were twin boys, Vincent and Hugh.

Vincent MacEachern was working at Mulgrave as a brakeman on the Intercolonial Railroad when he was conscripted under Military Service Act (1917). He completed his medical examination at Antigonish on October 19, 1917 and was ordered to report to Halifax on November 10, 1917, at which time he attested with 1st Depot Battalion, Nova Scotia Regiment.

The 1st Depot Battalion was established on September 25, 1917 to accommodate the expected flood of soldiers drafted under the Military Service Act. While the Halifax explosion (December 6, 1917) disrupted its training, many of the unit’s personnel assisted in retrieving dead and wounded civilians from the ruins, and cleared debris from the city’s devastated neighbourhoods. Following completion of its “disaster relief” work, 1st Depot Battalion moved to Aldershot, where Vincent was “taken on strength” on March 29, 1918. A regular battalion usually contained approximately 1,000 men, but at times No. 1 Depot reached 5,000 before drafts departed for overseas.

Vincent embarked from Halifax aboard SS Melita on April 16, 1918 and arrived at Liverpool, England 12 days later. While his comrades went directly to Frensham Segregation Camp, Bramshott, Vincent was admitted to 1st West General Hospital, Liverpool, with a case of the mumps, likely contracted aboard the ship’s crowded quarters. He remained in hospital until May 17, at which time he reported to the 17th Reserve Battalion—the unit that serviced Nova Scotian battalions in the field—for additional training. On September 9, Vincent crossed the English Channel to France and was “taken on strength” by the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) in the field four days later.

The 85th Battalion received its “baptism under fire” at Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. Temporarily attached to the 4th Division’s 11th Brigade, the unit was designated a “working unit,” as its soldiers had no prior combat experience. When German soldiers atop Hill 145 successfully resisted the 11th Brigade’s morning assault and enfiladed the Canadian Corps’ left flank with devastating machine gun fire, two of the 85th’s Companies received orders to take the hill. They did so during the early evening hours, securing the Canadian Corps’ hold on the ridge.

Before month’s end, the 85th was assigned to the 12th Brigade and served a regular rotation in the Lens area throughout the spring and summer of 1917. The battalion also fought at Passchendaele, Belgium, in late October 1917. Its soldiers’ uncanny ability to fulfil their assignments under challenging circumstances earned them the nickname, “The Never Fails.”

The Canadian Corps returned to the Vimy area for the winter of 1917/18 and was not involved in spring combat, despite the German “Spring Offensive” that occurred to the north and south of its location. The 85th participated in the Allied counter-offensive launched at Amiens (August 8, 1918) and was in the line during the Battle of Arras, a series of advances that commenced on August 26. Its soldiers participated in the attack that broke through the Drocourt – Quéant line—part of the German Army’s “Hindenburg” defense system—on September 2.

These successful advances brought the Canadian Corps to the unfinished Canal de Nord, on the outskirts of Cambrai. The incomplete canal formed a huge ditch that, even though dry in sections, required bridges to enable soldiers to cross. Young Vincent MacEachern joined the experienced 85th on September 13, as the 4th Division prepared for its role in the Canadian Corps’ assault on the Canal. Lieutenant Sir Arthur General Currie, Canadian Corps Commander, organized a four-battalion, narrow assault on a dry, incomplete section, scheduled to commence on September 27.

Well-entrenched German defensive positions lay behind the canal. After several Canadian units managed to establish “bridgeheads” on the other side, Canadian Engineers erected bridges across the canal and “follow up” assault battalions quickly made their way toward their objectives. The 85th advanced on the southern flank toward its target—the village of Bourlon, north of an ancient forest called Bourlon Wood. While the unit captured its objective, it suffered numerous casualties, including its Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. J. L. Ralston—a future Minister of National Defense—who was wounded in the face by shrapnel.

The Bourlon attack provided Private Vincent MacEachern with his first combat experience. The advance across the canal once again unhinged the German line and prompted enemy soldiers to surrender in large numbers. Sensing that the German Army was a spent force, French Field Marshall Foch and British Field Marshall Haig urged their armies forward. On October 11, the Canadian Corps received instructions to push beyond Cambrai and on to the next objective, Valenciennes—the last major city in northern France under German control. The 4th Division’s 10th and 12th Brigades succeeded in liberating the city on November 2, 1918.

The 12th Brigade continued the advance through Saint-Saulve and Quarouble, with the Aunelle River and Belgian frontier located just beyond the villages. While the 78th (Winnipeg Grenadiers) advanced on the left flank, opposite the town of Quiévrechain, a large mining area called Fosse # 2 separated the 85th from the river and border. At 5:20 a.m. November 5, the 12th Brigade resumed the attack. The 78th advanced toward Quiévrechain, while the 72nd (Seaforth Highlanders) approached Marchipont on the right flank.

Heavy machine gun fire from Fosse # 2 in the center and Marchipont to the right checked the 85th’s advance. Unable to move forward until the 72nd secured its objective at 10:00 a.m., the 85th once again encountered heavy machine gun fire when it attempted to advance. Its Officers therefore postponed the attack and ordered the 85th ‘s “C” Company to “dig in” at its present location. Meanwhile, heavy artillery fire bombarded Fosse # 2 throughout the day, in an effort to suppress enemy fire.

At 5:30 a.m. November 6, the 85th‘s “A” Company dispatched two Platoons to the left and two to the right, completely enveloping “The Fosse.” “D” Company on the left headed toward Quiévrechain, where it established contact with the 78th Battalion. Meanwhile, “B” Company received orders to send patrols across the Belgian border (the Aunelle River). The soldiers pushed into Belgium as far as the Honnelle River, where they made contact with “D” Company.

The 85th Battalion then received orders to hold its positions until relieved by the 22nd Battalion. Before relief commenced, however, the unit received instructions to retreat across the Aunelle River. A significant rise in its water levels during the day forced some soldiers to swim to the other side. The withdrawal signified the end of major combat for the 85th Battalion, as the 2nd Division’s 5th Brigade assumed the 12th Brigade’s positions and continued the advance toward Mons, Belgium.

The day’s fighting resulted in the deaths of 18 of the 85th’s soldiers, while another 53 were wounded. Private Vincent M. MacEachern was among the day’s fatalities: “While advancing with his Company [toward Quiévrechain], he was struck in the body by enemy bullets and killed instantly.” Vincent was laid to rest in Valenciennes (St. Roch) Communal Cemetery Extension, France. Five days later, the November 11, 1918 Armistice brought more than four years of fighting to an end.

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