John McNeill was born in New Brunswick and joined a militia unit in June 1914.
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, John joined the 2nd Battalion, 1st Brigade of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The battalion sailed for England in October 1914. In April 1915 he was sent to France and joined the 1st Division which was fighting in the 2nd Battle of Ypres. This was the first time the Germans used gas during the war. He went on to fight at Festubert and Givenchy where thousands of Canadians became casualties.
Life in the trenches during the next year was a difficult experience. He was wounded five times and suffered badly from shell shock. After getting shot in the knee he spent a year recovering in hospital before returning to Canada in 1917.
John McNeill's story
John Wilson McNeill was born on 14 October 1888 in Dalhousie, New Brunswick, into a family of eleven children. In addition to John, three brothers would also serve in their country's army, William, Albert and Austin.
John's twin brother Malcolm, who had a crippled leg, also attempted to join the army, but was unable to pass the medical requirements. (Malcolm was so determined to remain with his twin brother, that he boarded the train that took John to Valcartier, Quebec, only to be physically removed in Winnipeg and sent home!) Such was the determination of Canada's young men in 1914.
McNeill had moved to Edmonton to work on the railroad and joined a militia unit in June 1914, the 9th Battalion, 19th Alberta Dragoons. (This unit would become part of the 101st Regiment, Edmonton Fusiliers, that would in turn serve Canada during the Second World War as the Loyal Edmonton Regiment). After war was declared, Private McNeill, service number 18373, was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 1st Brigade, 1st Division of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).
He arrived in Valcartier, Quebec for indoctrination, medical evaluation and military training on 4 September 1914. On the 3 October 1914, his unit sailed for England and combat training began on the Salisbury Plain in mid-October 1914.
On the 26 April 1915, Private McNeill and his unit arrived in France to join the 1st Canadian Division, part of the 5th British Corps, to take part in what became known as the Second Battle of Ypres. The next day, Pte. McNeill wrote and signed his will, a standard requirement for soldiers entering the line.
What he and his comrades found must have turned his stomach. As Major Ormond of the Calgary Highlanders Battalion noted; "The trenches left by the French were extraordinarily filthy, paved with dead Germans. When you'd move in the mud, bubbles would come up from the dead men and it was very smelly. There was one place in the trench where there was a hand dangling through the parapet, the wire in front was useless and would not stop anyone from wandering into German lines."
McNeill would have found his trench filled with bloody mud and bloated bodies, with rats feeding off the dead, but he and his comrades would be lucky in one respect. The German gas attack had begun at 5:00 p.m. on 22 April 1915, several days before he arrived in the line.
McNeill would have experienced the confusion and mayhem that occurred at the Ypres, St. Julien and Gravenstafel Ridge battle sites. He might have experienced the repeated jamming and frequent requirement of reloading his almost useless Ross rifle, the bolt often too hot to grasp when fired rapidly and whose bayonet had a tendency to simply fall off. He, like other Canadian soldiers, might have simply thrown away the wretched rifle and picked up Lee-Enfields from dead Brits. There were a lot of these! The second Battle of Ypres would be the Canadians baptism of fire.
A month later, the Canadians were moved into muddy no-man's-land at Festubert in May 1914, where they would suffer over 2,400 casualties to gain less than a thousand metres of mud.
As they pulled out to move to the Givenchy sector, at least a thousand dead Canadians were left to rot in the battlefield of Festubert, a fact that would probably haunt McNeill and his comrades for their entire lives. They were left because there was no way to retrieve the bodies without costing more lives, but it would no doubt hurt nonetheless.
Two blessings were provided to McNeill and his comrades at Givenchy. The disastrous, Canadian designed Ross rifle was withdrawn and replaced with the standard and dependable British Lee-Enfield. Just as important, the trenches in this sector were dry, enabling the trenches to be dug deeper to provide better protection.
In mid-June, an attack against the Germans by McNeill and his 1st Brigade comrades at Givenchy was completely disrupted when a British mine blew up prematurely. The mine, large and powerful, was being positioned in a tunnel built under the German emplacements. The premature detonation caused 366 Canadian casualties. At this point during the war, a battle of attrition began. One side would attack, and then the other side would counter attack. Trench life for McNeill would simply become a struggle for survival.
Private McNeill would suffer his first wound on 21 June 1915, when an exploding shell fragment tore open his neck and shoulder. On the 28 August 1915, he was accidentally wounded by a bayonet thrust in the arm, probably by a nervous sentry. After recovering at the 5th General Hospital at Rouen, he was appointed to the rank of Lance Corporal.
While on Christmas leave in Glasgow in Dec 1915, John McNeill had a photo taken which he sent home as a postcard. John wrote the following note on the back of the postcard:
Belgium Feb 14, 1916
Everything is OK here. I saw Albert yesterday and he's looking well.
Were both out of the firing line just now but have a lot of work to do, so go up every day or night on working parties while back for our rest.
I took this card while in Glasgow on leave. I'll write later.
Best wishes to all as ever.
Note in margin:
I kept my over coat on to hide my tunic.
Winter in the Trenches
The winter of 1915-1916 experienced by L/Cpl. McNeill and his comrades would be wet, cold and miserable. There was no escape from the rain as men suffered from trench foot, dysentery and pneumonia.
Meanwhile, L/Cpl. McNeill suffered his third wound on 4 April 1916, when he was struck in the face by pieces of a periscope shattered by an enemy bullet. Periscopes were used by both sides to locate the enemy over the edges of the trench. The periscope glass reflected by the sun made good targets by snipers on both sides.
McNeill was again wounded in June 1916 when he was buried in his trench when it collapsed around him during a rain storm.
In July of 1916, L/Cpl. McNeill suffered his fifth wound when he was shot in the left knee. In August 1916, he was removed from the line and sent to a military hospital in England suffering from "shell shock."
L/Cpl. McNeill spent almost a year recovering in an English Military Hospital. On 24 July 1917, he was sent to a special duty company and returned to Canada.
Back in Canada
Upon his arrival in Canada, L/Cpl. McNeill spent his rehabilitation as an outpatient in St. John, New Brunswick from November 1917 until his date of discharge on 22 November 1918 in Fredericton, New Brunswick. His last pay certificate indicated that he was paid $210.80 upon release. He returned to Edmonton, married and raised a family. Two of his sons, in turn, Malcolm and Wilson, would serve in the Canadian military during the Second World War.
After spending 15 months in the trenches, L/Cpl. McNeill's war was over. It was during his recovery from shell shock that medics discovered that he suffered from severe pain in the joints of all his fingers, his right shoulder and his back. His medical record states; "Medical examination reveals scars visible on the right shoulder, left arm, knee, with a bullet scar about the left knee. His disability is permanent. Treatment to be in hospital with convalescence home to Canada."
John Wilson McNeill, raised his family quietly in Edmonton. His son Duncan speaks of his father as a quiet man, withdrawn at times. It is noteworthy that McNeill washed the family dishes after dinner in extremely hot water, suggesting that this activity relieved the constant pain in his hands.
John McNeill died at age 94, on 26 December 1982, in the Mewburn Veteran's Home in Edmonton, Alberta. McNeill and thousands of soldiers like him deserve our respect, admiration and gratitude. He and his comrades suffered great hardship to ensure the continuation of Canada's freedom and democracy. We owe his generation everything.