POLITICS

Ceremony in Halifax marks departure of soldiers who fought in the Great War

05/20/2015 01:08 EDT | Updated 05/20/2016 05:59 EDT
HALIFAX - His grandfather never spoke about the fighting he did during the First World War, but Bill Martin says he could tell as a boy that the old man's dark memories were never far from his mind.

"I can remember him in his easy chair, falling asleep, having nightmares and crying," Martin said Wednesday, 100 years to the day after Herbert Martin boarded a troop ship in Halifax and headed for the muddy killing fields in Belgium and France.

Bill Martin's grim recollections were stirred at the conclusion of a special military ceremony on the Halifax waterfront, where plans were unveiled for an artistic installation that will pay tribute to the departure from Pier 2 of the first full battalion of Nova Scotia soldiers to fight in the Great War.

On May 20, 1915, more than 1,000 soldiers with the 25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) boarded HMTS Saxonia, a converted Cunard ocean liner, bound for the front lines. They were joined by another 1,000 soldiers from what would become Quebec's Royal 22e Regiment, better known as the Van Doos.

Together, the two units would fight side by side for the duration of the war, forging deep bonds during battles in Belgium at Ypres and later in France at the Battle of the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 and Passchendaele.

Martin says his grandfather, who was originally from Sydney, N.S., was an 18-year-old private when he and his friend William Smith sailed for Europe.

"Mr. Smith did not make it back," Martin said, adding that his late grandfather never lost touch with his buddies in the 25th Battalion.

"The pride he took in being a veteran is something I remember. Remembrance Day was absolutely the biggest day of his year."

The ceremony Wednesday, held at Canada's Immigration Museum at Pier 21, featured two bagpipers, a drummer and three soldiers dressed in First World War uniforms marching into a hall, where an artist's conception of the installation was unveiled.

The memorial, to be installed at the edge of the Halifax waterfront, will feature the prints of soldiers' boots on a wooden gangway beneath an arch with the words "The Last Steps" etched on the top. Beneath the arch will hang a replica lifebuoy from Saxonia.

During the war, Halifax harbour served as the North American base for the deployment of more than 350,000 allied forces.

"For thousands of those soldiers and their families, the Halifax waterfront is the location of their final steps on Canadian soil and represents sacred ground," the Great War Centenary Society of Nova Scotia said in a statement.

Lt.-Col. Mario Ferland, a commanding officer with the Van Doos, said the French Canadian battalion worked tirelessly alongside their English-speaking comrades and returned to Canada in May 1919 to the same port in Halifax.

"It's a great honour to come back to Halifax for this ceremony," Ferland said. "Camaraderie and brotherhood developed between them in the trenches ... the Van Doo, the 25th, side by side."

Ferland said that of the more than 5,900 men who served with the Van Doos during the First World War, almost 4,000 lost their lives or were wounded.

For Nova Scotia's 25th Battalion, the toll was even higher. Among the 3,700 who served, all but 200 were either killed, injured, captured or reported missing, said retired colonel John Boileau of the Nova Scotia Highlanders.