John A. Chisholm

A soldier's words

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Great Village man sends messages home from the frontlines

GREAT VILLAGE –The words from the gospel, “Be not afraid, only believe” stood out on a yellowed, tattered page, underscored by a thick, black line.

Cover missing, the page was inside a worn, pocket-sized Bible with curling corners that survived the horrors of the First World War tucked safely in the pocket of John A. Chisholm’s service uniform.

“He was quite religious, he was constantly quoting the bible,” said Dick Akerman, a volunteer with the Colchester historical archives.

While Akerman never met the former Great Village man, he connected with Chisholm through a collection of letters found recently, neatly folded in a shoebox stored in the attic of the former family home. The young man wrote home to his mother and father about every two weeks detailing his thoughts and feelings from the time he enlisted until the end of the war, and his impatience waiting for a ship to take him home.

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Click image to enlarge

Click image to enlarge

Chisholm was born April 14, 1895 in Great Village to parents Robert and Mary Chisholm, the first of the couple’s nine children. Standing six-feet tall, at age 21 and five months, the sturdy farm-raised young man was found fit for duty on Sept. 30, 1916, when he enlisted with the Canadian Over-seas Expeditionary Force, a secret he kept from his parents.

“I joined in Lethbridge on September 30. I did not tell you so I could surprise you,” Chisholm wrote to his parents on Nov. 3, 1916, after arriving in Windsor, assigned with Company ‘A’ 239th Overseas Railway Construction Corps.

“I worked in the bank until Oct. 15. The manager didn’t want me to go...

“Who told you I had enlisted? Well, I hope you will not feel too bad, as I will likely come back and have a better chance than Harold Spencer, as we are a way behind the firing line a few miles.”

The local historian said Chisholm was fairly well educated. He went to Normal College and he received a teaching certificate.

“He was working at a bank in Lethbridge when he enlisted, making $46 a month,” said Akerman.

A month after his letter announcing he had joined the forces, Chisholm was continuing his training at Camp Aldershot with ‘D’ Company, writing home about the drills and poor food they were being served.

“The grub is not cooked well. About the only thing fit to eat is the bread and butter. The rice pudding was half-cooked, like some of the cooks themselves,” he wrote.

He set sail on the Olympic in mid-December arriving in Bramshott Camp, England with the No. 837 pipers band.

“We had a good trip across but did not beat the record. I did not get seasick at all, although I didn’t feel very well a day or two …” he wrote on Dec. 29, 1916

“I could write more news, if it wasn’t censored so it isn’t much use to do so to have to cut (it) out.”

Ackerman has read through the collection and is impressed with the detailed descriptions they contain, such as European agriculture practices, architecture, soldier’s free-time activities, military dentistry and the soldier’s feelings about the war.

The historian noted a common thread found in the more than 80 letters and postcards.

“He’s always trying to reassure his mother that everything is fine,” said Ackerman.

Chisholm arrived in Europe as a piper and eventually took on the position of sapper, digging trenches and carrying water along with other supplies to the frontlines.

“We are quite safe, compared to the Infantry,” he wrote from France, Jan. 13, 1918. “I suppose we do not have 10 per cent of the chance of getting wounded that they do. Still there is a lot of hard work and no glory.

“I wish now I had joined the artillery. If I ever get a chance to transfer I will do so.”

However, Chisholm would remain a sapper until the end of the war.

In March of 1918 he was on leave in Edinburgh, Scotland, when Canadian troops advanced.

He wrote home that Canadians were receiving “high praise” for their efforts preventing guns and supplies from getting into the hands of the enemy.

“I suppose you will be glad that I was out of the worst of the offensive, as I left on leave shortly before it started,” he wrote on March 31, 1918. “I will go back much refreshed for the change and ready for my duty. God has been very merciful to me in the past year. I will trust him for the future and firmly believe that he has saved my soul.

“He has kept me from the snares of the wicked while here and I know he will give me health and strength to combat this German scourge, upon this earth.”

In a letter written while in a camp in France, sleeping in a make-shift tent with eight other soldiers beneath a wagon tarp he mused about his plans at the war’s end.

“I think I will go to British Columbia and get a homestead away back in the woods, where I can hunt and trap, and live the simple life far from the sinful world.”

When the war ended, like hundreds of Canadian soldiers, Chisholm remained in England until transport home was arranged. Chisholm used that time to travel and see more sites before returning home.

He wrote from Glasgow, Scotland on Jan. 30, 1919, while on an eight-day leave telling his parents about the good times he was having.

“I went to a few parties and teas and had a fine time. Most of the people are very kind indeed, and do much for the overseas soldiers,” he wrote.

“I took a young lady to the theater last evening. I guess if I stayed here long enough, I would be getting tangled up in matrimony, that is, if I could afford to, which I can’t.”

He was anxious to return to Canada and by the end of March 1919, he arrived home in Great Village.

Chisholm did eventually get “tangled up in matrimony” with a local woman, Marion Adams, and the couple lived in West Folly Mountain with their five children. He taught for many years at the one-room Folly Mountain schoolhouse.

The First World War veteran passed away at age 57 after waging a personal battle with mental illness. He was laid to rest near his home with a contingent of his previous comrades-in-arms of the Great War paying their last respects at his graveside.

This bible was given to John A. Chisholm by his mother and was carried in his uniform pocket while he served overseas during the First World War. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Soldier’s letters now part of Colchester Historical Society Archives collection

A surprise gift from a stranger has reconnected members of a family here with stories from the past.

By Sherry Martell

GREAT VILLAGE – When a heritage home in Great Village changed hands, a shoebox stuffed with letters was discovered in a third-floor attic along with a few other items.

Local historian Dick Ackerman is credited with preserving a collection of letters written by a soldier serving in the First World War, John A. Chisholm, that are now part of the permanent archive collection owned by the Colchester Historical Society. Sherry Martell –Truro Daily News

Well-known Truro historian Dick Akerman has ties to the area, and the new owner, his niece Ellen Putman, passed the items along to him.

“She had an interest in history and she brought the box of stuff to me,” said Akerman.

Once he began to review the material, he knew he had stumbled upon something very special.

Inside the aging box was a collection of letters and postcards written by former Great Village resident John A. Chisholm, who served during the First World War. The letters span several years, before John had enlisted and was working as a bank messenger in Lethbridge, Alta., to the week before he arrived home following the war.

Also in the box was a small bible and other small family mementos.

Akerman donated the letters to the Colchester Historical Society archives where he volunteers regularly, but paid a visit to John’s nephew Bruce, who lives part time in Great Village, and gave him the bible and some other items.

Bruce Chisholm

“It’s one of these things that is funny at first,” said Bruce. “Dick came to the door and I didn’t know him from Adam ... and he said he had this stuff.”

The Bible and a little notebook, inscribed with John’s name and regimental number, accompanied it. Bruce described it as “a mini-album of sorts,” with a one-inch square photo of John’s brother Owen and some photos of the soldier’s sisters.

The bible belonged to John’s brother Owen who died about age 17 on the family farm and was given to him by his mother.

John carried it at all times in his uniform pocket while serving overseas.

“It’s meant a lot because it really was a way of finding out about him and there was other things in it too,” said Bruce. “Stuff from my grandmother. Some of it we had copies of already and some of it we didn’t. It has really helped us learn about our own family because the generations were very wide spread. My father was the ninth of nine and he came along eight years after everybody else.”

He said because of the gap in generations things can “easily get lost in the past.”

“It’s a very interesting story and we’re quite pleased that all these letters, and there was stuff from my father (Donald) as well that was in the Second World War, ended up at the archives,” said Bruce. “It think it’s the proper place for it.”

Hazel Hill

Hazel Hill, 93, a Great Village resident and former friend of John Chisholm, is also pleased his legacy has been preserved in this way.

She said John would often visit her husband Earl at their home in Folly Mountain.

“He taught in the little school out there and my husband and he knew each other,” said Hill. “They were friends because war buddies stick together like brothers all the time.”

She said her husband was also a First World War veteran and the two shared a common bond that they never discussed.

“I found him as rather a shy man, and very polite and mannerly,” said Hill. “He wouldn't say anything wrong to anybody for the world and very sincere.

“He loved music. He could play the organ and sing.”

She said her uncle was killed in Vimy Ridge and it has been difficult to trace his history so she understands the value of having John’s history preserved in this way for future generations.

Historical society to commemorate
The Great War

TRURO – To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the Colchester Historical Society will be hosting a special event For King And Country: Colchester's Great War – 1914-1918.

Many photographs, letters and other documents from the period 1914 to 1918 are held in the Colchester County Historical Archives. These, along with ongoing research, will be the basis for an exhibit opening at the Colchester Historeum on Oct. 18 at 2 p.m.

In conjunction with the exhibit, a series of speakers will present talks associated with the conflict. Dr. Michael Collins will open the series with The Great War and Great Changes: Looking at poster art in a historical context.

His presentation will feature a selection of recruiting and propaganda posters produced during the four years of war and will

provide a glimpse of the changing nature of this infant society of immigrants. It will also illuminate the attitude of government toward the sacrifice of soldiers and the evolving role of female workers.

Other dates have yet to be set, but will be announced during September and include:

Dr. Malcolm MacLeod – The War at Home: The Conscription Dilemma: A talk examining the issue of Conscription and how it was handled in both the First and Second World Wars.

John Boileau – Nova Scotia's Boy Soldiers in the Great War: This well-known author will give a presentation on the 15,000 to 20,000 Canadian boys who were legally too young to join the army but served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War, with about 1,000 of them from Nova Scotia.

Learn the fascinating stories of several of them in a talk by the co-author of "Old Enough to Fight: Canada's Boy Soldiers in the Great War."

Sara Beanlands – The Jewish Legion at Fort Edward during WWI: This well-known archaeologist will do a presentation on a little-known chapter of Nova Scotia history when a group of Jews spent time training at Windsor, N.S. The group included David Ben Guiron, who went on to be a leader in the Zionist movement and the first president of the new state of Israel.

Art Chisholm – Three Chisholm Brothers from Great Village who Served in The Great War: Chisholm will tell the story of his father and two uncles who served overseas with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) during the First World War.


Legion history room offers glimpse into local First World War contributions

An archaic gas mask, weathered utensils, well-worn uniforms and photos capturing the true cost of war give visitors to the local legion’s history room pause for thought.

By Sherry Martell

TRURO – One of the keepers of this time capsule, Bud MacDonald, historian with Branch 26 Royal Canadian Legion in Truro, is all too happy to share his knowledge with visitors willing to learn about our military past.

Bud MacDonald, member of Branch 26 Royal Canadian Legion in Truro, has been caretaker of the organization’s heritage room for more than 20 years. SHERRY MARTELL – TRURO DALY NEWS

“When they first built this legion, this was a cloakroom,” he said. “I would say they modified it in the 70s to be a heritage room.”

Since then, an unbelievable number of artifacts have been preserved within the small, well-organized space, that now spills out into the hallway and an adjoining room that tells the story of local contributions to war and conflicts spanning more than 100 years.

The room is a tribute to those who served in The Boer War, First and Second World Wars, the Korean War, peacekeeping missions and the Afghanistan conflict.

It is manned by MacDonald, or another volunteer, Philip Richardson, every Monday morning, a duty he has been devoted to for more than 20 years.

MacDonald, a veteran of the air force who served as a flight engineer for 19 years, had three uncles serve in the First World War, two in the Canadian Army and one in the American Army.

“They all came home,” he said. “I used to go to my grandfather’s place and they had beautiful, framed pictures of each guy in the service. I always marvelled at that.”

He joined the legion while he was in the service and was asked to take on the responsibility of caretaker of the many items being preserved there.

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“They were short of people in the heritage room and I had quite an interest in old military memorabilia,” said MacDonald.

All items in the heritage room have been donated to the legion. During the past five years he said the stream of donations has slowed to a trickle.

The items are treasured there and given a place deserving of honour.

“It’s very important we have this here,” said MacDonald. “Most of the world war one stuff has been sold or given up or given away by family members.”

He said the legion will accept historic memorabilia for the collection, but they do not have funds to purchase items.

The legion historian invites anyone who would like to learn about local military history to stop by the branch on Brunswick Street or call the legion to make an appointment.

This First World War project was made possible with the generous support of the Colchester Historical Society and Archives and Branch 26, Royal Canadian Legion, Truro.