Corporal James Albert Swan
Albert Swan enlisted in the 106th Battalion, CEF "Nova Scotia Rifles" at Truro, Nova Scotia on January 4,1916 -- one month after his eighteenth birthday. Born in West New Annan,Colchester County, Nova Scotia he was the youngest son of Walter Foster and Jennet (Anderson) Swan.
The 106th Battalion was authorised on November 8, 1915 and was to form part of the fifth Canadian Division. The four companies were drawn mainly from the northern Nova Scotia counties of Cumberland, Colchester, Pictou, Antigonish and the island of Cape Breton. The Battalion motto was "None So Reliable". "A" Company consisted mostly of Colchester men and was located in Truro as was Headquarters and staff. "B" Company was located in the town of Pictou and was comprised mostly of Pictou and Antigonish county residents. "C" Company was raised in Cumberland county and was based in Springhill. "D" Company was from Cape Breton and was also stationed in Truro.
Albert was initially in "A" Company. They had neither barracks, parade ground nor firing range. They lived in hotels, the YMCA or at home. Keeping track of the men was quite a task for the duty officer. Albert recalled accompanying the duty officer in the mornings collecting the men from their "girlfriends". Training for the first six months consisted mostly of shovelling snow and marching. Nevertheless, when they were inspected by Sir Sam Hughes, Minister of Defence on June 13,1916 they were proclaimed to be Nova Scotia's "crack Battalion". In late June, when "B" and "C" companies moved to Truro, Albert transferred to "B" company in which his brother Private Calvin Swan and three friends from West New Annan had enlisted.
On July 15,1916 they left Halifax for overseas aboard the "Empress of Britain" with their shoddy boots, leather belts which soon became moldy and their trusty "Ross" rifles. Albert was seasick all the way over,the food was terrible and he lost his false teeth while "feeding the fish".
They arrived at Liverpool on July 25 and travelled by train to Shornecliff camp. They were inspected again by Sam Hughes on August 4th . Albert was part of the honour guard. The 106th was broken up in England and used to reinforce other units. Albert went into the Machine Gun Corps, while his brother Calvin and three friends became members of the 87th Battalion,the Canadian Grenadier Guards (Montreal) and left for France on November 15.
Albert trained on the Vickers machine gun in England until June 20, 1917 when he arrived in France as a member of the 15th Machine Gun Company. His brother Calvin had by then been killed at Vimy Ridge on April 9th and one of his friends had been invalided back to England with typhoid fever and trench foot.
The first major action for Albert was at Lens on August 15,the battle of Hill 70. Here he heard that one of his New Annan friends, Arthur McLennan was seriously wounded somewhere out in "no-mans-land". Albert gathered a search party and went out after dark, found Arthur and spent the night carrying him back to the dressing station, where he died before a doctor could see him. His arm had been shot away. Albert was bitter about that. "They couldnt handle the casualties. They werent prepared" he said.
Albert's next major battle was Passchaendaele in October,1917. He had a close call during this action. He was knocked unconscious by a blow to the head. When he came to he realized that he was still alive. "There can't be mud like this in heaven or hell" he said to himself. It was said by some that no man who survived Passchaendaele was ever the same.
In March 1918 the Machine Gun Companies were reorganized into four Battalions and the strength was brought up to 6328 by adding an extra company (32 guns) to each Batttalion and increasing the number of ammunition carriers for each gun. Albert was now in the 3rd Battalion, #2 Company, E Battery. They were known as the "Emma Gees" or "The Suicide Club". Albert participated in the final 100 day drive to Belgium and in fact his battery saw action in support of the 2nd and 3rd divisions on November 10 and 11 right into Mons.
Albert's best friend from New Annan, Roland Byers,was killed on Sept 29 when a shell struck the headquarters tent of the 87th Battalion. Albert's only injury occured when his tin helmet fell from its peg in a dugout and nearly cut his ear off. His greatest complaint was the food -- Bully Beef, stringy mutton and the haughty British officers riding around with shiny boots while everyone else was caked in mud. He enjoyed his leaves to London, Glasgow and Paris where he took in the sights and the musical entertainments.
He couldnt recall any of the names of his gun crew. "They were killed so fast I never got to know them" he said. He was the only one of his original crew to survive the war. Albert returned to Canada in May 1919 and was discharged on May 29.
In 1920 he married Letty McGill, the local school teacher and moved to Debert, Nova Scotia where they raised a family of five during the depression. Two of his sons served in WW2. He suffered for years from sciatic rheumatism which he attributed to seventeen months in the mud and water of the trenches of "The Great War".
Albert Swan passed away in 1979 after suffering a stroke. This account was submitted by his son, Ian Swan.