Tuesday 12 May 2020

More War Diaries: Alexander Cooper Jackson Story (1898-1918)

Alexander Cooper Jackson died on 8 August 1918. The significance of that date is that it was the first day of the Battle of Amiens, the opening phase of the Allied offensive on the Western Front which was to eventually push the Germans out of France and end the war. This part of the war was to be known as the Hundred Days Offensive.

I mentioned Alexander in a previous post on 11 November 2018, titled Cooper Family Soldiers. The post briefly related the stories of four of my wife’s family who served in the military, two of them dying in France in World War I. Alexander Cooper Jackson was my wife’s second cousin, once removed.

In a subsequent post, War Diaries and Trench Maps from WWI, I highlighted the area of the battle near Auchy, France, in which Alexander Cooper Jr. died on 3 April 1916, as well as the use of war diaries available on Ancestry and trench maps from the National Library of Scotland (NLS) website.

This story also involves a review of war diaries, this time for the 78th Battalion Canadian Infantry, which was part of ten Allied divisions from Australia, Canada, Britain and France involved in the Amiens attack. The NLS trench maps are again useful in showing where the 78th Battalion fought.

Alexander Cooper Jackson immigrated to Canada in 1912 from Govan, Scotland, to join his aunt, Margaret (Jackson) MacDonald, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He joined the Winnipeg Grenadiers, on 1 July 1915, just after his 17th birthday. The Grenadiers would become part of the 78th Battalion on 10 July 1915, itself part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The battalion embarked for Europe on 20 May 1916 aboard the Empress of Britain. There is a complete record of the battalion’s activities in war diaries held by Library and Archives Canada in its Collections and Fonds – 1883275. LAC also has on file battle and other maps associated with WWI.

Left: 78th Canadian Infantry Battalion cap badge, Winnipeg Grenadiers; Right: A company of the 100th Winnipeg Grenadiers 1915; source Jeff Jonas, retrieved 10 May 2020 from World War One: A distant memory website; it is not known whether Alexander is in this photo

The 78th Battalion fought in areas all along the Western Front, beginning in Belgium, in August 1916, just after the Battle of the Somme. In September 1916, they moved into France, advancing to the front lines near Bouzincourt. They were part of the
Battle of Ancre in November 1916, the final large British Attack of the Somme Operations, and were involved in fighting in many front line postings around Arras and Souchez.

On 9 April 1917, as part of the 12th Brigade, 4th Canadian Division, the 78th Battalion participated in the Battle of Vimy Ridge (north end of attack), taking the area with other Canadian brigades over the next five days. They continued fighting in the area through September 1917, gradually moving the Allied position further east. Alexander took part in all of these engagements.

Part of map: Vimy Ridge, April 9–12, 1917 Source: Gerald W.L. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919: The Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War (1962); retrieved 10 May 2020 from Library and Archives Canada

In October 1917, the 78th Battalion was briefly posted to Belgium again, as part of the Battle of Passchendaele.

In November 1917 they were returned to the Souchez area where they stayed to man the trenches into 1918. It was that region, in the Battle of Amiens, that Alexander was killed.

Part of map from War Museum of Canada showing the advances of the Australian, Canadian and French forces during the Battle of Amiens in August 1918; red ‘X’ marks probable location of the death of Alexander Cooper Jackson; red ‘C’ marks Caix British Cemetery where Alexander was buried

The circumstances stated on Alexander’s service record indicate “He was with his battalion following up the general advance on the morning of August 8th, 1918. On reaching the village of Hangard the enemy dropped a barrage of heavy shells instantly killing Private Jackson and six others.” He was buried in the Caix British Cemetery, France, seven miles to the east, together with seven of his battalion brothers. The cemetery is located around the spot the Allied army had reached by the end of the day of the 8th.

The particular operations in the Battle of Amiens in which Alexander participated was code-named, Llandovery Castle, in honour of the Canadian hospital ship of that name which had been torpedoed and sunk on 27 June 1918. A total of 23 men were killed on the first day, August 8th, including one officer. Another 101 were wounded and two were reported missing. By the end of the operation on 11 August, a total of 51 men of the 78th Battalion had been killed, 209 wounded and 55 were missing in action.

A full report of the days operations was written by Lieutenant Colonel James Kirkaldy, part of the battalion’s war diaries. It began: “Sharp at 5.30 A.H. on the morning of the 8th the Battalion moved from its jumping off position E. of the B. de GENTELLES towards HANGARD Village where it was to make a crossing of the RIVER LUCE. This was accomplished by all Companies by 7.35 A.H. and with very slight casualties. The Battalion Headquarters crossed the river about half an hour later suffering a number of casualties N. of HANGARD WOOD during its advance.” And that is where Alexander fell.

When reading the war diaries, it is difficult to imagine the conditions under which these young men lived: cold and wet weather for days on end; limited rations; digging, cleaning and slogging through narrow trenches along the front lines; long days of boredom; brief respites when a bath and clean underwear even weekly were highlights; enduring bombardments; and participating in the horrors of battle.

We remember these men through family correspondence, stories told by military historians, in brief dispatches and diaries kept by their comrades and in short reports of their lives published in their home newspapers. And we honour them as brave ancestors dedicated to fighting for freedom and democracy.

Source: Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 3 September 1918