Harry Blaikie – World War 1 Veteran

Harry Blaikie survived First World War unharmed
By Archie MacNeil
The Weekly Record, Truro, Nova Scotia
October 31, 1984

Truro, Nova Scotia – On March 26, 1916, a teen-age boy from Burnside, Colchester County, but then employed in Truro, joined thousands of young  Canadian men flocking to recruiting stations to answer the call for men to fight for Mother England on foreign shores. ObituaryNow, nearly seven decades later, Harry Blaikie, who on Nov. 17 will mark his 87th birthday, can recall with a smile (and thankfulness to his Creator) that he was fortunate enough to survive without any physical or mental damage the trench warfare in which millions of soldiers engaged and hundreds of thousands died. (On Oct. 18 Mr. Blaikie was one of 16 members of Branch 26, Royal Canadian Legion, to receive 40 year membership pins in that veterans organization.)

Last week I had the opportunity to interview him at his home, 5 Phillip St., after earlier reading a brief summary of an interview with him contained in a relatively new book, “The twenty-fifth Battalion,” a Nova Scotia unit in the First World War which became widely known as the “Fighting Twenty-Fifth. ”

(The book issued in 1983 was written by Sydney physician Dr. F.B. MacDonald and J.J. Gardiner of Glace Bay. It contains, among other items, a day-by-day diary of the unit’s activities overseas.)

Heavy casualtiesThe 25th saw action in some of the bloodiest battles fought in Europe – Ypres, Somme, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, Passchendaele, Amiens, Arras, Canal du Nord and Cambrai. The death and injury was perhaps unrivalled by any other regiment in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Its battle strength was 1,200 and altogether, between arrival overseas and the armistice, 5,092 men, or more than four times the normal complement, had served in its ranks. Of these 783 of all ranks were killed and 2,713 wounded.As mentioned earlier in March, 1916, Harry Blaikie, employed by his uncle, Foster Blaikie, who operated Truro’s first automobile garage (Dominion and Arthur) went to the recruiting depot and joined the 193rd Battalion which, after some months of training at Camp Aldershot went overseas in October. Aboard the Olympic, besides the 193rd, were the 85th, 185th and 219th.

“Harry” recalled that after reaching England the 193rd was broken up to provide drafts for units already in France. “I was in the first draft to France,” and landed at LaHavre where a base camp was located. He and his comrades were unattached but in early spring he was in a draft of 20 men sent to the 25th, a short time before the April 8 and 9 attack at Vimy Ridge where “I really expected to be killed. We had 165 men in our company and when we were taken out of the line there were only 47left. The others had been killed or wounded.”

J. F. Hallisey

It was at Vimy Ridge that Lieut. J.F. Hallisey of Truro was killed. He, along with three “other ranks”, was killed and 15 wounded by enemy shelling on April 8, the day before the actual attack. On April 9 the unit along with other Canadian Corps battalions, attacked and two hours and 10 minutes after zero hour the 25th captured its objective. The cost: four officers and 43 other ranks killed five officers and 105 men wounded and 90 men listed as missing. Harry recalled that “We took the heaviest casualties the first day. We were in there (Vimy) for seven or eight days.”

Fighting in the front lines was by far the worst, he said, pointing out that the men got little sleep as most raids by both sides were carried out at night and the men had to stay alert. However, “Life in the support lines wasn’t too bad,” he said. Most times a man spent only three to six days in the front trenches and then moved back to the support lines and occasionally went on leave to a nearby French village.

We asked Harry, who during his stint was promoted to lance corporal, about the gas which killed many Canadian soldiers. In the early years the chlorine gas “was bad” and many men died or became very sick. However, the Germans began to use “cloud gas” less often because the weather could often cause the gas to reverse direction and hit the German lines.

Later the Germans used shells containing mustard gas and the men had to carry gas masks as “they were liable to get a gas shell anywheres,” – in the front lines, support lines or while on work parties. (The battalion’s day-by-day diary makes frequent mention of “P.T., gas drill and company drill” when the men were in rest areas.)

Hill 70

About a month after Vimy Ridge, the Truro veteran said, “We were fighting at Hill 70. This was an old German stronghold and the enemy had strong defences there. A couple of our companies in the front line ran out of ammunition. We were in reserve, and they took one of our platoons as a working party to bring ammunition to the front line trench.

“There were all kinds of trenches in that area because it had been fought over so much, and the idea was for the platoon to work its way up to the front, keeping under cover of the trenches. About halfway up they were caught by shellfire and badly shot up. “So they took my platoon. They loaded us up with 1,000 rounds of ammunition in bandoliers and pouches and sent us up in daylight. It was hard going trying to get from trench to trench under fire, carrying all that load. But we made it and after dark we got back to our lines.”

We questioned Mr. Blaikie about the mud which plagued the troops both in the trenches and in attacks. He noted that in the summer months “it could be pretty nice” but one of the worst times he encountered was in the fall of 1917 in the battle of Passchendaele. “It was one of the worst places we ever got into,” he remembered.”The first night my platoon spent the whole night carrying out wounded. Some of the stretchers were carried six to seven miles.” The area was filled with shell holes and soft mud. “Trenches were half full of water and rain every day. When a shell landed it drove mud and corruption in every direction. The mud was sticky-you had to scrape it off your boots and legs or they would get too heavy to walk.”

Absorbing the impact

(The mud was not a complete curse, according to the battalion’s diary which said, “All ranks dug in funk holes…during night enemy shelled area consistently with 77mm, 5.9s and 4.1s and gas shells every hour, but few gas shells landed right in the area and thanks to extremely muddy ground shells had only local effect.”

The Truro soldier said that the 26th Battalion “went over the top” (Passchendaele) and “we relieved them.

“Wounded were lying around everywhere and we carried them back to communication trenches.” In early 1918 the Huns began a big offensive and pushed the Allied troops back. “It was a hard time to get sleep or good meals because everybody was on the move and the lines changing all the time.

“There were some big battles after that. Amiens, Arras and Cambrai. I remember at Amiens we advanced three miles in three days with barrages and heavy fighting all the time and a lot of casualties. It was around here that somebody got the idea that we might move forward in small parties in open order in daylight.

“My group took shelter in an old trench. We were terribly tired but someone said we better dig funk holes because there was a lot of shelling going on. So we made funk holes and trawled in to rest. A shell came down right on what had been the parapet of the trench. If we had been standing in the trench instead of in funk holes we would all have been killed. We were buried, of course, but we got out without much trouble.”

Narrow escape

(Harry recalled another narrow escape when he met for the first time Wilf Nichols – who later was to become his business partner – and they were on duty at an outpost. After being relieved they were about to enter a dugout “when a shell landed between us.” Fortunately it was a dud and they survived.)

Although Harry escaped any injury during his time in the trenches – “two little pieces of shrapnel hit my right leg but didn’t break the skin” – Mr. Nichols suffered a foot injury which left him with a permanent limp.)

About September, 1918, L. Cpl. Blaikie became a Brigade runner, a job he held until war’s end after which he returned to the 25th which was on Occupation duty. On May 10, 1919, the unit left England for Halifax and, as the diary reports, “When they mustered out on the Halifax Commons only 48 of the ‘originals’ answered their names.”

Shortly after his return home Harry resumed working as a mechanic with his uncle, Foster Blaikie, who had by this time moved to Waddell Street, the firm’s present location. Their first car agency was the Overland Whippet and the Willys Knight.

Active until 1980

In 1925, he and Wilf Nichols, who had returned to Canada earlier and was working in the garage’s office, bought out the business and in 1957 “I bought Wilf out. I remained active in the business until about five years ago.” Members of the family are still operating Blaikie’s which since the early 1930s had carried the Chrysler line of vehicles.

About a year after his discharge he married (in 1920) the former Nellie Flemming, who died in 1979 as they were approaching their 60th anniversary. There are seven children – five sons and two daughters – and a number of grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Footnote: Archie MacNeil was the editor of the Truro Daily News in the 1960s when the paper was owned by Truro businessman John Murphy. Paul Blaikie, son of Harry Blaikie, and David Blaikie, son of Morris Blaikie, were young reporters at the newspaper during the mid-1960s. A Cape Bretoner who spent most of his life in Truro, MacNeil was a dedicated newspaperman and highly respected member of the community. In later years, he co-founded the Weekly Record and was elected to the Truro Town Council.