December 17, 1918: Private John Angus MacGillivray

MacGillivray John Angus Doctors Brook

Date of Birth: July 8, 1895 at Rear Doctor’s Brook, Antigonish County

Parents: Ronald D. and Catherine (McIsaac) McGillivray

Siblings: Brothers Ronald, Daniel & John Hector; sister Anna Belle

Father’s Occupation: Farmer

Marital Status: Single

Occupation: Farmer

Enlistment: July 14, 1916 at Halifax, NS

Units: 23rd Reserve Battalion; 60th Battalion (Victoria Rifles of Canada); 87th Battalion (Canadian Grenadier Guards)

Service #: 488356

Rank: Private

Previous Military Service: “D” Company, Composite Battalion, Halifax, NS (five months)

Next of Kin: Ronald D. McGillivray, Rear Doctor’s Brook, Antigonish County (father)

Date of Death: December 17, 1918 at Orpington, Kent, UK

Final Resting Place: Orpington (All Saints) Churchyard Extension, Kent, UK

Private John Angus McGillivray was a son of Ronald D. McGillivray and Catherine McIsaac of Rear Doctor’s Brook (Highfield). He was also a direct descendant of Pioneer Hugh McGillivray (son of Duncan McGillivray of Arisaig, Scotland), who first migrated to Prince Edward Island and eventually relocated to what is today Maryvale. In 1813, Hugh and his son, John McGillivray, purchased 450 acres of land on the west side of the Malignant Brook from a certain John Cameron of Grand Judic Island, Cape Breton, for the sum of sixty-seven pounds lawful money of Nova Scotia. John was deeded the 250 acres to the north and Hugh was granted title to the rest.

John and his wife, Margaret McDonald, raised a family of at least seven children: Rev. Ronald McGillivray, long time pastor at St. Andrew’s and Broad Cove Chapel; John, who died while a seminarian in Quebec; Alexander, Donald and Hugh, who inherited the lands belonging to their father; Mary, who married John Allan, son of Allan McDonald “Pioneer” of Malignant Brook; and Catherine, who married Donald McIsaac of Dunmore.

Notable grandchildren include: John McIsaac, founder of MacIsaac’s Funeral Home on Pleasant Street; John McIsaac, sculptor and founder of the monumental works at St. Andrews; Judge Angus McIsaac, who represented Antigonish in the House of Commons as a Liberal from 1873 – 1885; Colin F. McIsaac, barrister who represented Antigonish in the NS House of Assembly (1886-1984) and in the House of Commons as a Liberal (1895-1905 and 1922-1925); and Most Rev. John Hugh McDonald, Archbishop of Edmonton.

John McGillivray’s last will and testament, dated March 20, 1859, is clear evidence of his strong immigrant work ethic. Having developed and cultivated his original acreage, he expanded his landholdings with another 500 acres at the rear settlement. By his twilight years, John was the proud owner of a considerable amount of land, a barn, a sawmill and a lumberyard.

John’s sons, Hugh and Alexander, inherited their father’s land at Malignant Brook, while Donald received land at the back settlement on the Eigg Mountain Highlands, an area also known as Highfield or Rear Doctor’s Brook. He and his wife Mary, daughter of Angus McFarlane of South River, raised a large family there. Donald lived at Rear Doctor’s Brook until his death in April 1896, Mary passed away in March 1907.

The 1881 Census shows John Angus’ father, Ronald D. McGillivray, farming at Rear Doctor’s Brook next door to his parents and his younger siblings. At the time, Ronald’s family included his wife, Catherine, and their firstborn, a son called Ronald.

John Angus’ mother, Catherine, was born at Eigg, Scotland, in 1851, the daughter of Hector McIsaac and Mary McQuarrie. When Catherine was still a young girl, the family left Scotland for Nova Scotia and settled at Cape Breton for a few years before securing a piece of land at Rear Doctor’s Brook. Ronald and Catherine married in 1877 and raised their family at the rear settlement. Daughter Anna Belle’s obituary noted that Gaelic was her first language.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, families began moving down off the mountain. In 1921, Ronald and Catherine left Rear Doctor’s Brook for the comforts of town. They settled into a little house on West Street, where Ronald and Catherine both lived to the ripe old age of 87. Ronald died in 1934, while Catherine passed away in 1938. They were survived by two sons and one daughter: Ronald “the Plumber,” who for a time worked for K. Sweet & Son, Antigonish; John H., Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Anna Belle (Mrs. John A. Boyd), St. Mary’s Street, Antigonish. Sons Daniel and John Angus served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and “made the supreme sacrifice” in the Great War. Three other children died young.

On February 21, 1916, young John Angus McGillivray enlisted with the Composite Battalion, Military District No. 6, at Halifax, NS. After five months of service with “D” Company, he attested for overseas service on July 14. One month later, John Angus sailed for England, where he was “taken on strength” by the 23rd Reserve Battalion.

Assigned to the 60th Battalion on October 21, 1916, John Angus departed for France the following day. The 60th had been recruited by the Montreal-based Victoria Rifles of Canada militia unit and arrived in France with the 3rd Canadian Division’s 5th Brigade in late February 1916. After a brief stay at the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Centre, John Angus joined the 60th’s ranks near Thèlus, France, on November 24, 1916.

Unfortunately, health issues significantly impacted John Angus’s military service. He had served in France for barely one month when the first problems surfaced. On December 22, 1916, John Angus was admitted to field ambulance for treatment of pleurisy. A week and a half later, he was admitted to No. 3 General Hospital, Le Tréport, where he was diagnosed with bronchial pneumonia. The following day—January 2, 1917—John Angus was invalided to England for further treatment and spent two months in hospital before being discharged to the Canadian Convalescent Hospital, Epsom.

In early April 1917, John Angus was deemed fit for duty and reported to No. 1 Quebec Regimental Depot. He returned to the 23rd Reserve Battalion on July 27 and awaited orders to return to the continent. During his time in England, a lack of reinforcements forced military authorities to dissolve the 60th Battalion and disperse its personnel to the 116th (Ontario County) and 87th (Canadian Grenadier Guards) Battalions. As a result, on August 26, 1917, John Angus was assigned to the 87th Battalion and once again crossed the English Channel.

Once in France, John Angus endured a three-month wait before finally joining the 87th at La Thieuloye, west of Lens, France, on November 28, 1917. He served with the battalion in the Chaudière and Lens Sectors for two months before health issues resurfaced. On February 8, 1918, John Angus reported to a field ambulance for treatment of bronchitis. Nine days later, he was transferred to the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade, Étaples, and was once again invalided to England.

John Angus spent three months at Lakenham Military Hospital, Norwich, and was almost fully recovered when he developed acute appendicitis in late May. While medical records indicate that he made a “good recovery” following surgery, respiratory problems soon returned. On July 3, John Angus was admitted to No. 16 Canadian General Hospital, Orpington, with bronchitis, and remained in its care throughout the summer and autumn months.

By late November, notes in John Angus’s service file state that he was “seriously ill.” Although medical staff indicated that his “condition improved” early the following month, the recovery was short-lived. By mid-December, John Angus was “dangerously ill” and showed no signs of improvement in subsequent days.

After more than 10 months in various medical facilities, Private John Angus MacGillivray died at No. 16 Canadian General Hospital on December 17, 1918. While documents in his service file identify the cause of his death as “toxemia”—blood poisoning caused by toxins from a bacterial infection—the hospital’s monthly war diary stated that his passing was due to meningitis. Just 23 years old at the time of his passing, John Angus was laid to rest in Orpington (All Saints) Churchyard Extension, Kent, UK.

“The signing of the Armistice in the great world war did not end the war casualties,” The Casket reported on January 2, 1919. “It is exceedingly sad for friends and relatives of the men overseas to receive advise that there (sic) loved ones are still passing out or have met with injury. Mr. Ranald D. McGillivray of Doctor’s Brook, Antigonish, has just received announcement that his son, John A. had died in England. Mr. McGillivray was bereaved previously by the war, another son having been killed in action.”

John Angus’ brother, Lance Corporal Daniel McGillivray, had been killed in action on November 17, 1917, but later became an unforgettable figure in the person of “Mickey” in two compelling memoirs of the Great War. Private Will R. Bird (1891-1984), a 42nd comrade of Mickey’s and renowned Nova Scotian author, kept detailed diaries during his two years at the front. He later transcribed his notes into two volumes on the First World War: And We Go On (1930) and Ghosts Have Warm Hands (1968). Will Bird’s books and articles have long been regarded as among Canada’s best Great War accounts.


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