The following brief history of the 85th Battalion was researched and written by Bruce MacDonald of Antigonish.
During the twelve months following the outbreak of the First World War, Nova Scotians enlisted with several military units, most notably the 17th, 25th, 40th and 64th Infantry Battalions. While each contained substantial numbers of "Bluenosers, several included recruits from other parts of Canada. The 17th Battalion, for example, contained members of the Seaforth Highlanders, a British Columbia regiment. Others, such as the 40th (Halifax Rifles), were built upon pre-war militia units and did not recruit across the entire province. The 64th was a Maritime unit initially established at Sussex, NB. While the Royal Canadian Regiment solicited recruits in the province, it existed prior to the war’s outbreak as part of Canada’s standing army, and was based by coincidence at Halifax.
Nova Scotia raised only two truly volunteer units through province-wide recruitment. The first was the 25th Battalion, authorized on November 7, 1914. While headquartered at the Halifax Armouries, the unit established recruitment offices in all of the province’s major towns and cities, Sydney, Amherst, New Glasgow, Truro and Yarmouth. The battalion departed for England on May 20, 1915 and was assigned to the 2nd Canadian Division’s 5th Brigade shortly after its overseas arrival.
The 25th’s soldiers crossed the English Channel to France on September 15, 1915 and entered the trenches of Belgium’s Ypres Salient one week later. The battalion subsequently saw action at all major Canadian Corps battles, Hill 62 (June 1916), the Somme (September - November 1916), Vimy Ridge (April 9, 1917), Passchendaele (October - November 1917) and Canada’s “100 Days” (August - November 11), its soldiers serving with distinction throughout the war.
The 85th Canadian Infantry Battalion, officially authorized on September 14, 1915, was the second “volunteer” unit raised through province-wide recruitment. Commonly known as "The Nova Scotia Highlanders,” its Scottish connections were readily apparent. The battalion included a pipe band, its official air was the Scottish tune "The Cock o' the North, and its motto was the Gaelic phrase "Siol Na Fear Fearail" ("Breed of Manly Men"). Under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Allison Hart Borden, the 85th established its headquarters at Camp Aldershot.
The battalion immediately launched a province-wide drive, during which each of its four companies targeting specific regions. "A" Company drew its personnel from Pictou, Colchester and Cumberland Counties. "B" Company covered the largest area, canvassing Lunenburg, Queens, Shelburne, Yarmouth, Digby, Annapolis, Antigonish, Guysborough and Inverness Counties. "C" Company’s ranks came from Halifax, Hants and Kings Counties, while “D” Company concentrated on Richmond, Victoria and Cape Breton Counties.
Within one month of its inception, military officials relocated the unit’s headquarters to Halifax, where the battalion mobilized 200 men "over strength" on October, 14, 1915. “A” Company entered quarters in the Armouries, while the remaining three companies were accommodated in huts erected on the adjacent Common. Throughout the fall and winter of 1915-16, its recruits enthusiastically trained, in anticipation of orders to proceed overseas.
In early 1916, recruitment efforts expanded to include an additional three units, the 193rd, 185th and 219th Battalions, as part of the "Nova Scotia Highland Brigade". The 85th formed the Brigade's senior unit. As subsequent events unfolded, it was the only battalion to enter service as a unit, its three counterparts eventually dissolved to provide reinforcements for other battalions in the field.
The call to overseas duty finally came more than a year after the 85th’s formation. On October 13, 1916, the 85th and its Brigade mates boarded HM Transport Olympic, “sister" ship to the famous Titanic, at Halifax. The four battalions safely crossed the North Atlantic and disembarked at Liverpool on October 19. At the time of its arrival in England, the 85th consisted of 34 Officers and 1001 "other ranks” (OR).
The battalion spent the autumn and early winter in training at Witley Camp, Surrey, eagerly awaiting orders to depart for France. Shortly after the dissolution of the Highland Brigade in December 1916, the 85th was on the move, crossing the English Channel on February 10, 1917 and completing its final training for service in the line at Gouy Servins, Bouvigny and Bouvigny Wood, France.
In March 1917, the 85th was officially designated a “working unit” and temporarily attached to the 4th Canadian Division’s 11th Brigade. As its soldiers had no combat experience, the unit was assigned to "reserve" positions, in support of the Canadian Corps' assault on Vimy Ridge. Its soldiers were to follow the advancing units, carry ammunition, construct dugouts, establish and maintain communication trenches, clear entangled wire and guard prisoners of war as the battle progressed.
Despite the 85th’s anticipated role, Lt.-Col. Borden insisted that his soldiers prepare for combat, its personnel training “over the tapes” on a model of the sector assigned to the 4th Canadian Division. Its Officers also received complete briefings on the plan of attack. As subsequent events unfolded, Borden’s directives proved invaluable on the day of battle.
As the April 9 attack unfolded, the battalion's role changed significantly. While advancing infantry units successfully captured most of their initial objectives along the well-fortified ridge, German positions in front of Hill 145, the ridge's highest and most strategically important feature, withstood the initial artillery bombardment. Emerging from their dugouts as the 4th Division’s 11th Brigade advanced up the ridge, the German soldiers held out against the 87th and 102nd Battalions and enfiladed the Canadian left flank with devastating machine gun fire.
As the overall success of the day’s assault hung in the balance, Canadian commanders hastily discussed their options. Late in the afternoon, they selected the 85th Battalion’s "C" and "D" to execute a direct assault on the strategic German position. At 6:45 p.m., the two companies advanced up the ridge without artillery cover, in the face of relentless machine gun fire. Dwindling German supplies and lack of reinforcements, combined with the determination of the assaulting troops, resulted in the position's capture and solidified the Canadian Corps’ hold on the ridge. Two decades later, the Canadian government erected the Canadian War Memorial atop the exact location where the 85th’s soldiers made their battlefield debut.
The entire 85th Battalion remained "in the line" on the newly captured ridge until relieved on April 14. Their first combat experience under their belts, the unit was permanently assigned to the 4th Canadian Division’s 12th Brigade, where it served alongside the 38th (Ottawa), 72nd (Seaforth Highlanders of Canada) and 78th (Winnipeg Grenadiers) Battalions for the remainder of the war.
The 85th’s soldiers served a regular rotation in the trenches near Lens throughout the spring and summer of 1917. In October 1917, the battalion joined other Canadian personnel in Belgium’s treacherous Ypres Salient as the Canadian Corps prepared for its second major assault of the year, an attack on German positions along Passchendaele ridge.
The 85th’s soldiers participated in the third phase of the attack, carried out from October 28 to November 2, 1917. Prior to the advance, “D” Company, consisting of Cape Breton recruits, responded to an enemy counter-attack. On the night of October 28, German infantry launched an assault during relief operations and seized a strategic portion of the front line. The 85th’s ‘D” Company, the relieving unit, succeeded in recapturing the trench at a decisive point in the fighting, thus preserving the existing line.
Two days later, the 85th’s “A”, “B” and “C” Companies participated in the advance on Passchendaele village. “D” Company remained in support, entering the fight at a crucial moment and turning the tide in favour of the attacking forces. While the 85th succeeded in securing its objectives, the costs were considerable. Of the 26 Officers who entered the line at Passchendaele, 12 were killed and eight wounded, while 371 of the 662 OR who entered the trenches on October 28 were casualties by the time the battalion retired from the line on the night of October 31/November 1.
Its Passchendaele statistics represent the 85th’s greatest “single tour” losses of the entire war. Several months after the November 1918 Armistice, a group of its soldiers returned to the battlefield where so many of their comrades were killed or wounded and erected a monument in their memory. The structure remains there to this day, its plaque engraved with the names of the soldiers killed in action during the Passchendaele tour.
The battalion's 1917 successes at Vimy and Passchendaele prompted other Canadian units to refer to the 85th as "The Never Fails". Throughout the following year, the unit served with distinction, participating in major battles at Amiens (August 8-11, 1918), Arras (September 2-5, 1918) and Cambrai (September 25 - October 2, 1918) during Canada’s “100 Days.” Its performance solidified its reputation as a formidable infantry unit and reliable component of the Canadian Corps.
Following the conclusion of hostilities, the battalion remained in Belgium until May 1, 1919, at which time its personnel returned to England. On May 3, the 85th’s distinguished brass band and a detachment of its soldiers joined thousands of British and Imperial troops in the Great March of Triumph through the streets of London. At month’s end, the battalion departed England for Canada, arriving in Halifax on June 8. An estimated 60,000 Nova Scotians crowded the city's streets to witness its homecoming parade.
While the unit was officially demobilized on the day of arrival, it took several days before all personnel were discharged. On June 15, 1919, the battalion's remaining members marched its regimental colours to Government House, where they were surrendered for posterity to the province's Lieutenant-Governor. On September 15, 1920, the 85th Battalion was officially disbanded by General Order, bringing to an end the story of its remarkable contribution to Canada's “Great War” service.
In the aftermath of the First World War, the Canadian government once again reorganized the country’s militia units. On April 1, 1920, military officials issued orders, establishing the “Cape Breton Highlanders.” The new militia unit formally perpetuated the 94th Victoria Regiment Argyll Highlanders, 85th (Nova Scotia Highlanders) and 185th (Cape Breton Highlanders) Battalions.
”85th Battalion.” Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group. Available online
”85th History: 85th Overseas Battalion C. E. F.” Kintail to Cape Breton. Available online
Hunt, M. S. Nova Scotia's Part in the Great War - 1920. Manotick, Ontario: Archives CD Books Canada Inc., 2007.
For an extensive history of the 85th Battalion, refer to:
Hayes, Lt. Col. Joseph. The Eighty-Fifth in France and Flanders. Halifax: Royal Print & Litho Limited, 1920.
Lt. Col. Hayes was the battalion's Medical Officer and was named a member of the Distinguished Service Order (D. S. O.) in recognition of his valuable service to King and country. The book's index lists the names and provides brief details on the service of every member of the battalion.