Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Harry's Journey: England and France

Harry Murray wrote his last diary entry on October 16, 1916, the same day on which torpedo boat destroyers met the majestic Olympic and provided an escort for the remainder of its voyage. The vessel entered Liverpool harbour in the late evening hours of October 18, its passengers disembarking the following morning and travelling by train to Witley Camp, Surrey, England.

While the Highland Brigade’s soldiers resumed training in anticipation of crossing the English Channel to France, the 85th’s band once again found itself in demand, playing concerts for the thousands of soldiers gathered at Witley. The quality of its performances drew the attention of the British Army’s Director of Musical Services, who described the group as “the best band that has come overseas from Canada,” praising “its precision in attack, its unanimity, its dynamic qualities and nuancing, and its brilliancy.”

Sadly, before year’s end, the Highland Brigade was dissolved, two of its units—the 193rd and 219th Battalions—immediately disbanded and reassigned to existing units in England and France. While the 185th (Cape Breton Highlanders) remained in England—it was eventually disbanded in early 1918—the 85th became only the second Nova Scotian unit to cross the Channel, departing Folkestone in the early morning hours of February 10, 1917 and arriving at Boulogne, France shortly after midday.
First World War 85th Battalion post card.
At the time of the crossing, the band itself was “not [officially] on [the battalion’s] establishment,” its members making the passage as “fighting men,” assigned to stretcher-bearer duty with each of its Companies. Their instruments, however, “mysteriously” arrived amongst the Quartermaster’s stores, smuggled on board prior to departure. Once on French soil, they were quickly unpacked and the band led the way as the 85th marched to nearby St. Martin’s Camp.

While band members’ presence in France did not itself pose a problem, as all were enlisted men, their role within the battalion quickly became a matter of official discussion. Were they to resume their previous role, playing on ceremonial occasions and providing entertainment when appropriate? Or were they to be assigned to military tasks, in keeping with their status as soldiers? Lt. Col. Hayes, the 85th’s chronicler, summarized their circumstances in these words: “Until authorization could be obtained[,] the bandsmen were treated as ordinary fighting soldiers and played their part as such.”

85th's Officers in France, February 1917
While the battalion made its way from Boulogne to Gouy Servins, France for training at mid-month, military authorities took the matter of the band’s status under advisement, for the time being. As a result, its fate remained unclear for several weeks. On March 10, the 85th’s Adjutant recorded the following information in the unit’s daily war diary:

“Divisional authorities do not feel justified in allowing [the] Band to remain as such without some authorization. Advised that [they] would allow us 10 days in which might be received some authorization, otherwise Band should be absorbed in the ranks for regular duty.”

As a result, in Hayes’ words: “Even the band had to do its duty in the line.” Three days later, “Lieutenant Mooney and 41 OR [“other ranks”] (Band) left as [a] working party for 3rd Canadian Divisional Artillery.” According to Hayes’ recollection, its personnel were “under heavy shell fire day and night for ten consecutive days”:

“They showed themselves to be of the real Pictou Scotch brand, and completed their arduous tasks with credit to themselves and honour to the Battalion. This is doubly to their credit, as they had all been enlisted and brought overseas as bandsmen and only about a quarter of them were physically fit for front line work.”

On March 24, a “Staff Officer from GHQ [General Headquarters] called and discussed the matter of the Band with the C. O. [Lt.-Col. Allison Hart Borden].” While the 85th’s war diary recorded no details, apparently the matter was resolved to the satisfaction of both parties. Two days later, the “Band —1 Officer—41 OR returned to Battalion HQ from working party under 3rd Canadian Divisional Artillery.”

On March 26, Lt. Mooney and his charges travelled to Coupingy “to go before ADMS [Assistant Director of Medical Services] re: board,” presumably completing medical examinations to determine their fitness for service in the forward area. According to Hayes: “About this time[,] the matter was adjusted and from then on the band became a great source of pleasure and pride to the Battalion and had more time to devote to music and entertainment.”

All appeared in order on April 4, when the war diary entry reported: “Band played outside all day and gave a concert in the Y. M. C. A. [tent] in the evening.” The band and its members were to remain in France, in their accustomed role.

On the night of April 7/8, the 85th’s soldiers marched out under cover of darkness, preparing for their support role in the Canadian Corps’ historic attack on German positions at Vimy Ridge, France. While their colleagues made their military debut on the now-famous battleground, the band’s personnel remained in camp. When the tired but victorious soldiers returned to billets at Bouvigny Huts in the early morning hours of April 14, much to their delight, they discovered that band personnel had made their bunks, lit fires and prepared hot rations, in anticipation of their return.


  1. I am so proud of the work and support the 85th battalion played during the first world. I am disappointed however that grampa ( harry murray)never spoke of his role . Glad that this group of strong and brave men are finally recognized.

  2. Jeanne, I doubt that there is a more modest group than our veterans, whatever their role at the front. I have enjoyed researching and writing the band's story, as it certainly was an aspect of military service that received little attention. If one asked the enlisted men, however, I expect they'd quickly tell you how important they were for morale and support in a very stressful situation.