Date of Birth: September 18, 1894 at Malignant Cove, Antigonish County
Parents: William J. and Margaret “Maggie” (McLean) McDonald
Father’s Occupation: Farmer & Postmaster
Siblings: Sisters Elizabeth (Bessie Campbell, Chicago), Margaret (died young), Sarah (Sadie Foze, Chicago), & Catherine (Kathleen Beaulieu, Chicago); brother Dougald A. (“ Dougald “Willie,” Malignant Cove)
Marital Status: Single
Enlistment: March 21, 1916 at Antigonish, NS
Units: 193rd Battalion; 42nd Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada)
Service #: 902004
Previous Military Service: None
Next of Kin: Mrs. Margaret McLean, Malignant Cove, NS (grandmother)
Date of Death: August 30, 1919 at Ripon, UK
Final Resting Place: Ripon Cemetery, Yorkshire, UK
Ronald William McDonald was born at Malignant Cove on September 18, 1894, the second of William J. and Maggie (McLean) McDonald’s six children. Ronald’s paternal grandfather, Angus, was the son of Dougald (Mor) McDonald, who immigrated to Nova Scotia from Moidart, Scotland, with his three brothers. Angus “Dougald Mor” made his living farming and fishing at Malignant Cove.
The 1871 Census lists Angus as the head of a household that included his wife, Elizabeth—the former “Betsy” Ross—and eight children: Dougald, Catherine, Ann, James, Amanda, Mary Ann, Donald H. and four-year-old William. The family home was set back on a slight hill across the road from the old Cove Store. Predeceased by his wife, Angus was found dead in his bed one Sunday morning in the middle of June 1884. “The deceased was about sixty-five. He went to bed apparently in good health after setting his salmon nets,” The Casket reported at the time.
Angus Dougald Mor’s eldest son, Dougald, inherited the family farm. A sister, Amanda, married Colin Grant of Malignant Cove. [Their son, John, was killed overseas in the Great War.] Another sister, Mary Ann, married Angus P. McGillivray of Malignant Brook/Maryvale. The couple lived for several years in Colorado and Arizona until Angus’ untimely death in 1906. A sister, Ann, married Alexander McDonald, a shoemaker from Lismore. Daniel (Donald) worked in the “Western States” for several years until the deadly tuberculosis forced him to return home. Details on Catherine and James are scarce.
In June 1894—two weeks before he passed away—45-year-old Dougald, son of Angus “Dougald Mor,” wrote his last will and testament, in which he left his young wife and unborn child a sum of money, and willed the farm at Malignant Cove to his youngest brother, William.
Private Ronald W. McDonald’s maternal grandfather, Donald, was a son of Alexander McLean and a Miss McInnis, Ohio, Antigonish County. Young Donald was working as a miller when he met the parish priest’s younger sister, Margaret McGillivray (Dunmaglass), who was living there at the time. The couple married in 1868, with Father Ronald McGillivray officiating.
A daughter, Maggie, was born in 1869, followed by a son, Daniel. In June 1871, at only 29 years of age, Donald McLean died of consumption. Two weeks later, his infant son passed away, whooping cough perceived to be the cause of death. Not to be undone, Margaret, with little Maggie in tow, moved into the glebe house at St. Joseph’s, where she served as her brother’s housekeeper.
Margaret and her brother, Father Ronald, were close in age and two of a family of 13 children born to John McGillivray (son of Andrew Ban McGillivray, Pioneer) and Catherine Smith, Dunmaglass. Besides fulfilling his parish duties and building a new glebe house and church at St. Joseph’s, Father Ronald McGillivray, or “Sagart Arisaig” (Gaelic for “Priest of Arisaig”) as he was locally known, was devoted to recording the early history and traditions of the County of Antigonish. His manuscript was first published in The Casket (1890-1892) and later edited by Dr. Ray MacLean. Father Ronald had a great love for literature and learning. Fluent in English and Gaelic, he composed several pieces of Gaelic poetry.
The Dunmaglass McGillivrays were an accomplished family. A younger brother, Alexander, served in the local diocese until he was transferred to the Diocese of Charlottetown. Two brothers were teachers, including Andrew “Teacher,” who reportedly started teaching school at the age of fourteen and was remembered as a “first first-class teacher in this pioneer community.” Another brother, Angus, was a lawyer with the Justice Department, Ottawa.
Margaret was a remarkable woman in her own right. When Father Ronald was transferred to Arisaig in 1885, she and Maggie accompanied him. Affectionately known as “Peigi an t-Sagairt” or “Pegi Priest,” Margaret McLean was remembered for her tremendous hospitality in her 1928 obituary: “The big glebe house kitchens at St. Joseph’s and Arisaig, day after day during her regime, were thronged with humble guests who always found a welcome there, even for an extended visit.” When Father Ronald McGillivray accidentally drowned in 1892, Margaret took up residence with her daughter and son-in-law at Malignant Cove. Family stories reveal that Margaret spoke Gaelic in the home.
Margaret’s daughter apparently inherited the Dunmaglass McGillivray love of learning. Educated at both Mount St. Vincent and Mount St. Bernard Convents, Maggie’s gentle disposition, according to her obituary, was said to have endeared her to both teachers and classmates. Maggie was in her early 20s when she married William J. McDonald of “The Cove.” The 1901 Census lists William J. as head of a household that included his wife Margaret (“Maggie”), five children (Bessie, Ronald, Margaret, Sarah Jane, and Catherine) and his mother-in-law. Another son, Dougald, was born soon after. In September 1904, Maggie passed away following “a lingering illness.”
For a number of years, William “Angus” operated a general store at Malignant Cove and covered the mail route between his home and Merigomish. He was local postmaster at Malignant Cove from 1894 to 1908, at which time he resigned his position, left his children in the care of his mother-in-law, and ventured west. His son Ronald’s military records reveal that William was living in Chemainus, BC, at the time of his enlistment.
According to Henderson’s Greater Victoria City Directory, William J. McDonald was employed with the Victoria Lumber and Manufacturing Co. from 1915 to 1921, first as an engine wiper and eventually as a watchman. VL&M Co. was the principal industry in the area and provided employment to a large number of men. William clearly returned home for a brief period, as he is registered in the 1921 Census as living at Malignant Cove, and in an obituary following his sister Mary Ann’s funeral later that same year. By 1928, William was once again out west – this time at Ladysmith, BC, a fact verified by Dougald “Willie’s” late birth registration. Family lore suggests that he also spent time working in Colorado.
According to his obituary, William returned home permanently in 1934 to build and once more operate a general store. He was living at the old homestead across the road with his son, Dougald, and family when, according to parish records, he died “of a stroke” on August 20, 1945. William was 80 years old at the time. His obituary reveals that he “had been a noted local musician, was well known and highly regarded.” Grandson Rickey MacDonald recalls hearing that his grandfather was “a good piper.” Father Colin Ross of Maryvale—William’s first cousin—assisted with the burial.
On March 21, 1916, at the age of 21, Ronald William McDonald enlisted with the 193rd Battalion at Antigonish, NS. In late May, he travelled to Camp Aldershot, near Kentville, NS, with other local recruits. For the next four months, the 193rd trained alongside its Nova Scotia Highland Brigade mates—the 85th (Nova Scotia Highlanders), 185th (Cape Breton Highlanders) and 219th Battalions. The four units departed from Halifax aboard SS Olympic on October 12, 1916 and arrived at Liverpool, England, six days later.
The Highland Brigade’s overseas arrival coincided with the Canadian Corps’ service during the final two months of the Battle of the Somme. Severe casualties incurred in combat at Courcelette, France (September 15, 1916) and Regina Trench (September – October 1916) created a significant demand for reinforcements at the front. In response, military authorities dissolved the 193rd and 219th Battalions before year’s end and transferred their personnel to other units.
Private Ronald W. McDonald was part of a draft of 193rd soldiers assigned to the 42nd Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada) on December 5, 1916. The reinforcements departed for France the following day and joined their new unit in the field on January 2, 1917.
The 42nd was the second of three battalions recruited for overseas service by the Royal Highlanders of Canada, a Montreal-based militia unit affiliated with Scotland’s Black Watch. The unit had landed in France in October 1915 as part of the 3rd Canadian Division’s 7th Brigade and served alongside the Royal Canadian Regiment, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, and the 49th Battalion (Edmonton, AB) throughout its time in France and Belgium.
After joining the 42nd’s ranks, Ronald served in the trenches without incident for six months. On the morning of April 9, 1917, he and his comrades advanced up the slopes of Vimy Ridge adjacent to Hill 145, the ridge’s highest feature. Throughout the morning, the battalion endured fierce fire from German soldiers atop the hill, as they successfully held out against attacking 11th Brigade units. An early evening assault by two Companies of the 85th Battalion finally secured Hill 145’s western slope before nightfall and relieved the pressure on the 42nd’s flank.
Ronald came through his Vimy experience without injury and completed routine rotations in nearby sectors throughout the spring and summer months. Wounded in the left hand by shrapnel during a July 8, 1917 trench raid near La Chaudière, he was evacuated to a nearby field ambulance, where he made a rapid recovery and rejoined the battalion before month’s end.
The Canadian Corps served in sectors near Lens into the early autumn of 1917, at which time its personnel relocated northward to Belgium’s Ypres Salient. On the morning of October 26, 1917, Canadian units launched the first component of a four-stage attack on Passchendaele Ridge. On the night of October 31/November 1, the 42nd’s soldiers made their way into the trenches in the aftermath of the attack’s second phase.
On the morning of November 2, 1917, Ronald and his 42nd mates occupied positions behind the front line as Canadian units attacked Passchendaele village and adjacent areas of the ridge. Sometime during the day, a bullet struck Ronald in the right thigh and he was immediately evacuated to field ambulance.
On this occasion, Ronald’s wounds proved more severe and he was transported by ambulance train to No. 7 Canadian General Hospital, Étaples. One week later, he was invalided to England and admitted to 1st Southern General Hospital, Birmingham. Ronald spent the next six months under medical care. Following his discharge from hospital on May 13, 1918, he remained in England throughout the summer months and finally returned to France in early autumn.
When Ronald rejoined his 42nd mates on October 11, the soldiers were encamped in the recently captured village of Quèant. During the previous two months, the unit had participated in a major Allied counter-offensive, commencing at Amiens on August 8 and continuing at Arras later in the month. Following the capture of Canal du Nord in late September, the 42nd retired to Quèant as Canadian Corps units gradually encircled the strategic city of Cambrai.
Throughout the month of October, the 42nd followed attacking Canadian units as they pushed German forces northward into Belgium. On the night of November 10/11, the battalion returned to the line, its soldiers “press[ing] the attack on Mons [Belgium] from the Western and Southern outskirts and penetrat[ing] the city… at 01.00 Hours on the 11th.” By daybreak, “the whole city of Mons had been mopped up.” The 42nd’s war diary described the morning’s events:
“The [42nd’s] Pipe Band played its way into the city about 07.00 Hours and created tremendous enthusiasm. Thousands of civilians lined the streets and the Grand Place, and the Battalion was given such a welcome as it had never seen before.”
At 9:00 a.m., the unit received word of the impending ceasefire, to commence two hours later. As hostilities came to an end, the local Mayor presented the 7th Brigade’s Commanding Officer with the keys to the city in Mons’ Grand Place.
Following the cessation of hostilities, the 42nd remained in the Mons area. While personnel commenced preparations for a return to civilian life, health problems soon disrupted Ronald’s service. On January 28, 1919, he was admitted to field ambulance, complaining of neck pain. Six days later, Ronald was admitted to No. 4 General Hospital, Camiers, France, for treatment of influenza.
On February 8, Ronald was invalided to England, where he was admitted to No. 16 Canadian General Hospital, Orpington, Kent. He spent three months at the facility, notes in his service file initially indicating that he “had a slight cough… [and] developed hoarseness.” Diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, Ronald gradually recovered and was discharged to duty on May 9.
Ronald was assigned to the 20th Reserve Battalion, where he eagerly awaited orders to return to Canada. Once again, however, health issues intervened. On June 16, Ronald was admitted to Military Hospital, Ripon, with “tubercle of left lung.” Within days, medical records described his condition as “dangerously ill.” A July 1 note indicated that he was suffering from “a case of tubercular pneumonia with military tuberculosis supervening.”
As the month passed, Ronald’s condition gradually worsened. On August 1, he “suddenly collapsed and could not get breath.” By mid-month, medical records stated: “He is wasting rapidly, but can be roused. He lies quietly in bed, no complaint.”
During the early hours of August 30, 1919, Ronald “gradually became weaker and died [at] 3.30 a.m.” A post-mortem examination “confirmed [the] diagnosis of tubercle of lungs with secondary military tubercle of bowel, peritoneum, liver, etc. Death due to infection on ordinary military service.” Private Ronald William McDonald was laid to rest in Ripon Cemetery, Ripon, Yorkshire, UK, less than one month shy of his 25th birthday.
Ronald was survived by his father, grandmother, brother Dougald and three sisters. Many will remember “Dougald Willie” as proprietor of the Cove Store, local postmaster and mail driver.