by Chris Belfontaine
John (Jack) Belfontaine enlisted in the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force in Halifax, Nova Scotia on his 17th birthday, June 21st 1915. According to family folklore the recruitment officer, in lieu of a birth certificate, had my Grandfather swear on a bible that he was 19 years of age and suitable for active service. So thanks to the bending of the regulations Jack was taken on strength as a Trooper with the 6th Canadian Mounted Rifle Regiment on July 12, 1915. His service with the CEF began with a brief period of basic training in Amherst, Nova Scotia as the unit was being assembled before they were sent to Valcartier, Quebec to learn the basics of military life before being sent to England. While at Valcartier the 6th were told that they would likely serve as a dismounted unit when overseas.This photo of Jack was taken in the mid 1950s.
I guess that those of us who spend vast amounts of our free time trying to unearth the valuable fragments of our family histories bemoan the lack of personal information that is available to us. My Grandfather Jack Belfontaine’s service records give me the basics of his experiences overseas but if he hadn’t been sent to hospital I wouldn’t know what he did during the War. Thanks to the book ‘The 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles’ I was able to cobble together a general time line for him but my efforts feel somehow incomplete and inadequate. Now I wish that I had taken the time to listen to both of my Grandfathers’ stories when they spoke about the War. They seldom did and I guess that I wasn’t old enough at the time to fully understand what they were talking about. If only…
6th CMR Regiment and 4th CMR Battalion
The Bellefontaine family ancestor Pierre Godin dit Chatillon arrived at the small colony of Ville Marie (Montreal) as a master carpenter in 1653. He came from the ancient Roman outpost town of Chatillon Sur Seine in the Burgundy Region of France. The Godin family has its origins in the Low Countries of France and Belgium etc and are frequently mentioned in royal charters from Cambrai, Valenciennes and the surrounding countryside starting at 626 AD. The Godin’s had always been risk-takers and many served as Chevalier (Knights) under the Kings of Burgundy, France and Spain. Some of them have even fought in the 1st Crusade alongside Baldwin during his conquest of Jerusalem.
The descendents of Pierre Godin and his Filles du Roi bride Jeanne Rousseliere have settled in the Ville de Quebec, its Eastern Townships and Acadia. In 1691 Captain Gabriel Godin dit Chatillon, serving at Fort Nashwaak on the St John River, was given the opportunity to establish the new settlement of Ste Anne des Pays Bas across the river at what is now Fredericton.
Gabriel Godin added the dit Bellefontaine when he was given the Seigneury by the Governor of Acadia. As members of the Godin dit Chatillon dit Bellefontaine family, his children had many options to select for their last name and many chose to become known as Bellefontaines. We all know what happened when Britain took New France and that is how some members of our branch of the family wound up in Louisiana and or at Halifax. As long as they were willing to take the oath of allegiance and work hard they could stay and help build the new colony until they were released in 1763.
Many of our family’s relatives resettled throughout old Acadia and in Nova Scotia there is a large French Canadian community northeast of Halifax/Dartmouth called Chezzetcook. My Grandfather Joseph Jean (Jack) and his sister Marie (Mary) were born in the rural community of West Chezzetcook, Nova Scotia.
Their father had died in 1900 when they were both very young leaving their mother and the grandparents on either side of the family with the task of providing for their upbringing. Jack’s formative years were spent working on farms in Chezzetcook or as with the fisherman on Devil’s Island in the Eastern Passage with his Mom’s family.
The misspelling of the Belfontaine name comes from his living in an English-speaking and phonetically spelled society. The census records from Halifax give at least a dozen different spellings for Bellefontaine. I don’t know why he left it like this perhaps he just gave up trying to correct them. It is interesting that my Grandmother always used the original and Jack would eventually return to it in his later years, something that makes our Ontario branch of the mis-spelt Belfontaine’s look like orphans. Jack would always be very close to his little sister Marie for his entire life and she took care of his bank account back home was the beneficiary on his Will.
According to his Attestation Papers, Jack was a chauffer by trade. Now driving what and for whom in the Halifax/Dartmouth region is not known. However, that and his familiarity with horses may have been his reason for joining a mounted regiment instead of the regular infantry in Nova Scotia that were practically all Highland Regiments. From what I have read about the Mounted Rifles during the Boer War, they were definitely ‘the’ unit to get in to.
John (Jack) Belfontaine enlisted in the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force in Halifax, Nova Scotia on his 17th birthday, June 21st 1915. According to family folklore the recruitment officer, in lieu of a birth certificate, had my Grandfather swear on a bible that he was 19 years of age and suitable for active service. So thanks to the bending of the regulations Jack was taken on strength as a Trooper with the 6th Canadian Mounted Rifle Regiment on July 12, 1915. His service with the CEF began with a brief period of basic training in Amherst, Nova Scotia as the unit was being assembled before they were sent to Valcartier, Quebec to learn the basics of military life before being sent to England. While at Valcartier the 6th were told that they would likely serve as a dismounted unit when overseas.
Jack embarked for England with the 6th CMRR on July 17-18, 1915 at Quebec City on the slow South American cold-storage boat SS Hershel and arrived at Plymouth Roadstead in England on July 28, 1915. As you can imagine the accommodations were not the best because there were 32 Officers, 598 other ranks and 400 hundred horses on a boat practically without any passenger accommodation. Their 11-day voyage ended at Devonport and when they disembarked they received a great reception from the locals. The unit entrained for the army barracks at Shorncliffe where their real training as soldiers was about to begin.
The War Diary of the 6th CMR Regiment begins when they land in France. It notes that during their initial 3-months in France from October 24th 1915 up until the New Year, it rained nearly every day and night as the men settled into the routine of route marches, inspections and parades. I guess that by now the men making up the ‘Other Ranks’ of the 6th CMRR were beginning to understand the implications of serving as a dismounted unit overseas. Welcome to the infantry boys. Each day Troops of men were detailed out of the 3 Squadrons to either take turns with the instructors at the camp, occupy portions in the forward lines with one of the machine gun sections, or to be detailed to go with the engineers as work parties for the digging of new trenches. When the Companies of the 6th CMR Regiment were absorbed into the new 4th and 5th CMR Battalions Jack was taken on strength as a private in the 4th CMR Battalion, while in the field (France) on January 3, 1916.
Jack is wounded twice in 3 months
‘It was a calm, beautiful and quiet morning. Suddenly, without a warning, from a heavenly, peaceful sky broke a deafening detonation and cloud of steel which no had precedent for weight or violence’.
Jack was wounded in action on June 2, 1916 at Mont Sorrel/Sanctuary Wood. It is sad to note that although the original complement of men from 6th CMR Regiment had been divided between two different CMR Battalions, the 4th and the 5th, they were all in action on the same day, on the same section of front and had by coincidence died together. After their first major action of the war the original draft of six hundred had been reduced to a handful of healthy men.
The day following the horrific German bombardment on the front line trenches Jack reported to the 10th Casualty Clearing Station with the symptoms of shell shock and later transferred to the Convalescent Hospital at Wimereux, France. He returned to the field on July 1, 1916. He was wounded for a second time following the heavy fighting of the British attack on Courcelette September 15 1916, Jack reported to the 4th Canadian Field Ambulance Corps on September 16, again with the symptoms of shell shock. He was released from hospital and on October the 28th and returned to duty in the field.
He fought on for two more years without further mishap and saw action at Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, The Last Hundred Days Campaign, The Battle of Amiens, The Second Battle of Arras, The Battle of Cambrai-St Quentin and The Final Advance to Mons. I like to consider the possibility that he may have been inadvertently spending a great deal of time on ancestral Godin family property. Our very distant relatives still live throughout the Low Countries of France, Belgium, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands.
Note on another Godin
I have discovered that in 1918, while in command of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment, Freiherr von Godin who had been newly transferred and was a stranger to the regiment, may have been instrumental in the process of awarding message runner Lance-Corporal Adolf Hitler the honour of receiving the Iron Cross 1st Class. The story surrounding the award is shrouded in myth so who really knows what the facts are. I really hope that the Freiherr is not another long lost European relation.
Jack gets married
On December 22, 1917 during the Battalion’s rest and refitting in France he went on a 14-day leave to the England to marry my Grandmother, Hannah Elisabeth Ames on December 27, 1917. She and her family lived in the Greater London Area town of Croydon in Surrey. Jack and Hannah would have six children, all boys, and would enjoy the company of their numerous grand- and great- grand children.
The War comes home to England
My Great Grandmother Lydia and her family had one particularly vivid recollection of her experiences with the Germans. She recalled that ‘One morning after an air raid the local residents were horrified to see a German aviator draped across one of the neighbourhood chimney pots. He was a member of the crew of a Zeppelin that had been shot down the night before’. If this story true or whether it may have happened to another family member I really have no idea but it has become a part of the family history.
I have tried to research this event and have found 2 items on Wikipedia under Zeppelin that may be the connection to this event. L11 destroyed by Lieutenant Leefe Robinson on September 2/3 1916 and LZ72 destroyed by 2nd Lieutenant Wulstan Tempest on October 1,1916 were the only Zeppelin casualties that occurred in the London and Greater London Area during the entire campaign. The other Zeppelin losses occurred when they were shot down off of the coast and then fell into the water or were damaged so heavily by the local defences that they crashed in the open countryside.
This whimsical picture of my future Grandmother, Hannah Ames is all that remains of a full postcard sent to her sweetheart fighting in the trenches. I guess that Granddad trimmed it to make it fit in his wallet and most of the sentiment on the back is lost. Note the large bow in her hair.
After the Armistice
During the 4th’s long departure from Belgium and France, Jack was granted fourteen days leave on January 26, 1919. During his leave to England he was struck off strength with the 4th CMR Battalion and transferred to the 1st Central Ontario Regimental Depot.
He left England with his wife Hannah on board the Canadian Pacific Liner Minnedosa at Liverpool on April 9, 1919. The ship’s log says that he was with a contingent of the 5th CMR. This is a minor point that probably has a simple administrative explanation behind it but he at least got on the ship with his wife. He was discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force in St John NB on April 19, 1919 and returned to Halifax to start a new life.
Jack returned to find that Halifax had changed quite a bit from the way he remembered it. His lodgings in Dartmouth and the entire north western part of Halifax had been destroyed in the Great Explosion of December 6, 1917. Jack bought his first home at 27 Livingstone Place in the newly rebuilt Richmond Area called the Hydrostone District. The name hydrostone comes from the local concrete-like building material that incorporated cement with sand dredged up from the ocean floor that could be poured or formed into blocks. It is interesting to actually spot small sea shells in the foundation walls of the houses. Hydrostone was widely used in the construction of roads and in most of the foundations in the new buildings but after almost 100 years it is starting to show its age.
Jack decided to move his family to Toronto in the mid 1920s to seek out better employment opportunities and started work as an auto mechanic for the Gorrie GMC dealership. Years later, when he was in his 50s he went to work with the engineering firm that built the Mangala Dam in Pakistan. I recall my father receiving a large package containing a Hookah and many brass trinkets sent all the way from Pakistan. I recall that my friends and I put the Hookah to good use in the 1970s but that is another story entirely. My Grandfather always enjoyed the excitement and adventure of travelling and seeing the world first hand.
John Joseph Belfontaine #111030 died of brain cancer on February 28, 1975 and is buried at the Greenwood in Fort Erie, Ontario.
I have always claimed that my humble efforts are ‘works in progress’ and I will never hesitate to alter my ‘facts’ whenever I have got them wrong. I am currently working on the family history of my Mother’s side and her Father #227027’s experience with the CEF.
Jack’s War Service Records held and photocopied by the nice people at Library and Archives Canada
The Nominal Role of the 6th CMR
The book ‘The 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles 1914-1919’ published in Toronto 1926
The book ‘Nova Scotia’s Part in the Great War’ written in 1920.
The Genealogies of the Families of Chezzetcook, Nova Scotia by FJ Melanson ca. 1980
Plus too many years spent combing through the many resources available to us on the internet