He had left Scotland behind many years before. Now in his thirties and a married man, Thomas Bryce had one child and another was on the way when the Great War broke out. Steadily employed as a skilled tradesman in Montreal, Tom was no youngster looking for adventure.
He waited for the hostilities to end and life to return to normal in his neighbourhood. But by late 1915, the news from overseas was discouraging. Was it the call of duty that finally compelled Tom Bryce to leave his comfortable life behind? Or the prospect of reuniting with his beloved family?
Thomas Burt Bryce was born December 22, 1883 in Shettleston, a suburb of Glasgow. He was the eighth son of William and Christina Bryce in a family of thirteen children. His older brother, George Smith Bryce, was the grandfather of our Dad and Grandpa, William Lewis. George and Thomas’s father William Bryce died in 1896. Their mother continued to live in a tenement building, Cyprus Place, at 545 Old Shettleston Road until her eventual death in 1919.
Thomas attended school in Shettleston, as did his brothers and sisters, and then apprenticed as a ‘measurer,’ an estimator, in Glasgow. He served with the 4th Cameron Highlanders in the Territorial Army as a “Saturday Night Soldier” for four years between 1904 and 1909. On September 29, 1909, he married Annie Dunlop Rae of Parkhead, Glasgow. Only a few days later, on October 2, the groom left his bride behind, departing Glasgow on the ship Hesperian. He arrived in Montreal on October 10. Already living in Canada was his younger brother, David Stewart Bryce. Another brother, Hugh Robertson Bryce, and a sister, Christina and her husband Thomas Mitchell, were living in New York state. Tom intended to establish himself in the new country before sending for his wife.
On July 3, 1910, Tom’s bride, Annie Bryce, sailed from Glasgow to Montreal to join her husband, and they set up their new home in a working class neighbourhood in Montreal where many skilled English and Scottish immigrants lived.
On the voyage to Canada Tom had listed his occupation as a carpenter and cabinet maker, and upon his arrival he found work in Griffintown, Montreal with the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR), an early and major predecessor of Canadian National (CN). Tom became an upholsterer in the GTR shops, creating sumptuous carriage seats for the rail cars.
The company was managed by a visionary president, Charles Hays, who had a grand plan to expand national rail service to Prince Rupert, thereby opening up another major port on the BC coast. Mr. Hays was on his way home from England to open his newest hotel, the Chateau Laurier, when he perished on the Titanic, and Prince Rupert’s hopes sank with him. Thomas Bryce, along with every employee of GTR in Canada and the United States, paused in their work for five minutes on April 25, 1912 in tribute to their deceased president.
The Bryces’ first child, Elizabeth Houston Bryce, was born June 15, 1912. By August a year later, Tom, Annie and Elizabeth had moved to a new house in Montreal in the Point Saint Charles neighbourhood. Annie’s younger brother, John Rae, had also arrived in Montreal but would soon move on to Winnipeg. In 1913, Tom and Annie and their infant daughter paid a visit to their American relatives, the Mitchells, in Auburn, New York.
By the spring of 1914, Annie was pregnant again. Perhaps a little homesick and wanting to show off her daughter, Elizabeth (Bessie), to her parents and to Tom’s mother, Annie made the fateful decision to take her daughter to Scotland in May, 1914, leaving Tom behind to work. Annie must have planned to have her second child in Scotland where her parents could help care for the baby and two year old Bessie after the birth. On August 15, 1914, William Bryce, son of Annie and Thomas Bryce, was born. It is likely Tom heard the happy news by telegram.
In the early days of August, 1914, Britain declared war when Germany refused to withdraw from an invasion of Belgium. Many British passenger vessels were pressed into service as troop carriers in the tumultuous days that followed. Perhaps it seemed safer to wait until hostilities ended before crossing the Atlantic once more, and so Annie chose to wait out the war in Scotland in the home of her parents, John and Elizabeth Rae, at 80 Dalmarnock Street in Parkhead, Glasgow. Ultimately, she and her children, Elizabeth and William, did not come home to Canada until 1918.
Tom continued to work for the Grand Trunk Railway, hoping for the war to end soon so that his wife and young children could return home.
In May, 1915, Annie Bryce’s younger brother, John Rae, enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Winnipeg and was soon fighting overseas.
In October, 1915, the war news was particularly discouraging. British nurse Edith Cavell was executed in Brussels by the Germans for assisting British, French and Belgian nationals escape to neutral Holland. The news had a huge impact on Canadians and sparked a horrified outcry among Allied countries. The Battle of Loos was underway and eventually resulted in 50,000 casualties, some caused by a blow back of chlorine gas released by the British. More terrifying news followed: on the night of October 13 five German Zeppelins dropped 189 bombs on Britain, killing 71 civilians.
By the fall of 1915 it had become evident the war was not going to end soon and the atrocities were mounting. By this time, Tom’s wife and children had been absent for a year and a half. He had never seen his son. As a former soldier, Tom knew well the risks of battle, yet he must have felt duty-bound to enlist. It was time to go and fight for his family and his country, and to see his family again.
And so, at the age of 31 years and 10 months on October 16, 1915, Tom declared his Attestation and made an oath to the King. His enlistment record shows he was a tall man for the time, standing 5’ 10” and a chest of 40 inches, fair-haired and grey-eyed. Because of his previous experience as a soldier in Scotland, his familiarity with weapons, and his aptitude for geometry he became a Gunner and was assigned his permanent Service No. 303028. (A Gunner in the artillery was an equivalent rank to Private in the infantry). He was assigned to the 3rd Overseas Battery, Siege Artillery, a unit raised in Montreal.
On December 18, 1915, Tom was aboard the SS Missanabie along with the six officers and 216 recruits in his unit. The ship embarked from Saint John, New Brunswick. He spent Christmas Day on the vessel and arrived at Plymouth on December 28, 1915. It was customary for soldiers to receive six days of leave upon their arrival in England. Perhaps Tom travelled to Scotland by train to see his wife and daughter and to meet his new son for the first time.
A few weeks later, Tom was limping and in considerable pain. His knee was examined February 14, 1916 in Dover. By February 25, 1916, Tom was in the Military Hospital at Shorncliffe, suffering from synovitis in his knee, a painful inflammation in the tissues around the joint. He was transferred to Hill House Convalescent Hospital at Ramsgate. After a two month stay, Tom was discharged from hospital. Following a week of leave he was transferred to the Canadian Siege Artillery Depot at Horsham, in West Sussex, where his training continued until October, 1916.
Around this time, the news arrived in Scotland, where Annie and her children were living with her parents, that her brother John Rae had been killed by shrapnel in the trenches in France. Several months later, John’s widow gave birth to a son.
In preparation for his transfer to active duty in France, Thomas was found to be fit in a medical examination in October, 1916. By November 7, 1916 he was sent to France as a reinforcement for the 167th Siege Battery, a unit that had been raised in New Brunswick, (renamed the 6th Siege Battery shortly afterwards) and was finally in the field November 13, 1916.
The Siege Batteries were the “heavies” of the artillery. Tom and his colleagues manned large calibre guns of 6 inch, 8 inch and 9.2 inches diameter. These guns shot large explosive shells in a high trajectory that rained fire and shrapnel. They were aimed at opposing heavy gun placements, roads, railroads, bridges, ammunition dumps and enemy strongholds.
In the winter of 1916-1917, the British and French planned an offensive to break the stalemate on the Western Front. The British applied lessons learned in previous battles, and the offensive was planned, provisioned and rehearsed meticulously. Heavy artillery, such as the big guns that Thomas Bryce’s 6th Siege Battery operated, figured significantly in the plans. The role of all four Canadian Corps, united under British Lieutenant General Sir Julian Byng, was to surmount the Vimy Ridge, a strategic and strongly held German fortification on an escarpment north of Arras that overlooked the Douai Plains where the larger Battle of Arras would take place at the same time.
Three weeks before the battle at Vimy Ridge began on April 9, 1917, an artillery barrage by heavy guns pounded German barbed wire, trenches, concrete fortifications, and transportation and communication lines. Tom’s battery and other artillery units worked tirelessly to keep up the intensity of the barrage. Positioned west of Thélus, one of their targets was the village mill, that had been reinforced by the Germans and used for a gun emplacement.
The British guns were too far away from the targets to allow for visual sighting. Instead the gunners relied on spotters, aircraft, balloon observers and the calculations of engineers to set their coordinates. If the intelligence was accurate, the fuses that they used with their high explosive guns were particularly effective cutting through the thick tangles of barbed wire. The gunners were careful to avoid the enemy’s fixed artillery emplacements until just before the battle began, to prevent these from being resurrected in another location. The advantage of surprise disappeared with this intense pre-battle barrage, for the enemy understood a major attack was imminent. However, Byng ordered the Canadians to keep the barrage going and to vary its timing and intensity. In this way, many obstacles were destroyed before the infantry began its attack; the opportunities for the Germans to relieve tired troops and to reinforce and repair their trenches and armaments were reduced; and the enemy soldiers were rattled by the perpetual noise, danger and imminent threat of an attack that did not immediately materialize.
On the cold and miserable day the assault was finally launched, “Zero Day” or “Z-Day”, April 9, 1917, Tom was manning his fixed gun position west of Thélus. The artillery opened the battle at 5:30 AM with all its guns blazing. The bombardment was deafening. Thomas and the 6th Siege Battery were concentrating on the enemy’s gun emplacements. The fixed gun barrage heralded the launch of a precisely timed creeping barrage by the field guns three minutes later. The fire, smoke and shrapnel that ensued created an obscuring curtain for the Canadian infantry, and the infantry soldiers were quickly up and out of their trenches and tunnels. They crossed no man’s land in the midst of a sleet and snow squall that fortuitously was blowing into the German lines. Following closely behind the creeping barrage at the rate of ninety metres every three minutes, just as they had been trained, the soldiers edged forward with their bayonets and machine guns, passing through sections of barbed wire pulverized in recent weeks. The Canadians were upon the remains of the German trenches, just as the terrible barrage passed over and moved deeper into enemy defences. Despite the careful planning and preparation, the Canadian infantry nevertheless faced German resistance that was determined and fearsome.
The eventual capture of Vimy Ridge within two days was a hard-fought and costly achievement marked by a considerable number of acts of sacrifice, valour and courage. The infantry’s success could not have happened without the crucial support of the artillery men behind them, who destroyed the thick barbed wire defences, trenches, and gun emplacements of the enemy in their preliminary bombardment.
Today the Battle of Vimy Ridge is one of the most significant milestones in Canadian history because of the success of all four Canadian Corps working together with great effect. However, the capture and securing of Vimy Ridge was one of the few sustained victories of the larger Battle of Arras and the simultaneous French offensive further south.
Following the success at Vimy Ridge, the Allies pursued the Germans who had retreated behind the Hindenburg Line. Thomas’s battery was moved east to the Arras/Lens road.
By mid-April, the Canadians and British were preparing to further the momentum of the Vimy victory eastward in a forthcoming assault on the village of Arleux. This would also prevent the Germans from reinforcing their army in the south, where it was engaged in battle with the French. The 6th Siege Battery targeted a fortification in the church at Arleux and destroyed thick barbed wire barriers in front of the village, not with complete success, prior to the opening of the Battle of Arleux on April 28, 1917. Nevertheless, the Canadians gained Arleux in a hard-fought battle. Subsequently, Tom’s battery kept pressure on the enemy in bombardments of the villages of Fresnoy and Oppy. Fresnoy was seized by the Canadians, but intense German counter barrage forced a disappointing retreat from Fresnoy on May 8 after three days.
On May 20,1917, Tom and his colleagues were working on a new gun position near Thélus. It was late at night, and they were fixing the coordinates of one of the four heavy guns in their battery. Minutes after midnight, May 21st, the gun was struck directly by an incoming shell. Tom was hit in many places, and died before reaching the advance dressing station. Six others in his battery were killed or wounded as well.
Tom’s body was taken to the Military Cemetery at Aux Reitz, (now called La Targette) where he was buried. The cemetery is south west of Neuville-St. Vaast, about 3.75 miles north of Arras. Thomas was buried in Grave 23, Plot 1, Row B.
After the war, Annie received these tributes from Tom’s fellow soldiers: his Commanding Officer wrote: “I thought an awful lot of him, for he was a good reliable soldier, and one of the best I had, and conscientious.” Another soldier wrote, “It was a real pleasure to work beside such a fearless fellow, and do guard with him, for with his kind, pleasing and manly disposition he made many friends in our battery, and his death was a great loss to us.”
Annie and her children returned to Canada in October 1918, perhaps out of fear of contracting the “Spanish Flu” which had appeared in Glasgow in May, 1918, and would soon kill millions worldwide. She and her children lived first at 452 Mullarkey Avenue, and later at 417 Mullarkey Avenue, Verdun, Quebec. Annie received a photograph of her husband’s grave, the Memorial Plaque, Scroll and the Memorial Cross. Annie also would have received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. She never remarried. In later life, her daughter Elizabeth (Bessie) was living with her when her grand nephew Bill Lewis, the son of Tom’s niece, Jeanie, visited them in Burlington, Ontario while travelling there on business. Her son William died in Burlington in 1994.
The survivors of the 6th Canadian Siege Battery reunited every decade for a reunion in New Brunswick until the 1960’s.