Grand Manan and the Great War (Part 14)


Part 14- Gallipoli and the Grand Manan Connection

With so much attention in the newspapers during the first year of war about the battles waging on the Western Front in Belgium and France, few Canadians paid much attention to a campaign building in the Ottoman Empire at the Strait of Dardanelles. Located in present day Turkey, the strait was a strategic access point for Russia with the other Allied Powers. In April, 1915, Britain and France launched an attack to take the peninsula and ultimately the port of Constantinople. Among the first contingent to be thrown into the fray were troops from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps or ANZAC who were training up in Cairo ahead of the expected assignment to the front in France. Instead, they would spearhead an eventual landing force of nearly 78,000 on the peninsula to the north of the Dardanelles. After eight months of heavy naval bombardment by the allies and savage land engagements, the campaign was an embarrassing failure with over 120,000 dead and wounded for the United Kingdom, and, an additional 35,500 casualties inflicted on the ANZACs.

One of the soldiers who got caught up in that savagery was born on Grand Manan- John Roy O’Donnell from North Head. Son of Michael and Minnie Ada O’Donnell, Roy was born in North Head 15 June 1892. Roy’s father, who was originally from Provincetown, Massachusetts, was employed as a wholesale fish buyer and very likely came into contact with many island fisherman who sold their catches into the fish markets of Boston. Regular patterns of fishing in the Grand Manan Channel and Gulf of Maine saw many vessels calling on ports from Machias to Portland in the 1880s and 1890s. By the turn of the century with the rise of herring canning factories springing up in Lubec and Eastport, buyers like Michael O’Donnell would have been regular travellers to Passamaquoddy Bay and the islands.

On one of his trips to Grand Manan he met and eventually married Ada Scovil, daughter of James and Margaret (Stanley) Scovil on 21 November 1886. Her father was a successful fisherman and along with his son, Calvin, operated the schooner “Amelia”. While they were married in Provincetown, the O’Connells returned to North Head over the next decade; finally settling in Boston after 1900. However, Ada and her children seem to have spent a lot of time on the island between 1901 and 1914 at her parents. It was their address in North Head that was referenced when Roy O’Donnell went to sign up in September, 1914.

What was unusual about his enlistment was that he did not file attestation papers with the Canadian Expeditionary Force but instead with the Australian Imperial Force. How he arrived at that point is revealed in his service record and local news reports. Up until about 1911 when he was still on Grand Manan with his mother and at least one brother, Herbert , Roy got the urge like many others to go West. Thus he travelled to Calgary where he stopped for a time and then on to Vancouver. Thereupon he secured a position with Canadian Pacific Steamship Lines plying the Pacific Ocean and before the war he accepted a position with the British customs service in China.

Unfortunately, it was when he was stationed in the Far East that he contracted a serious fever and was advised by his physician to seek out the dryer climate of Australia. It was while in Sydney, New South Wales that war was declared and Roy found himself enlisting at Roseberry Park on Sept. 14, 1914. Just three days before Christmas he boarded the troop transport “Ulysses” at Melbourne as a member of the 13th Battalion. By January 9, 1915, the Australian force was steaming into the port of Ismailia on the west bank of the Suez Canal where they disembarked for the ANZAC training camp at Zeitoun, Egypt.

By April, a major offensive began against the Dardanelles by British and French forces with the Australians and New Zealanders spearheading the attack under blithering artillery fire from the defending Turks. Roy was wounded but not apparently enough to necessitate full hospitalization. However, on May 2, he suffered from a thigh wound and broken wrist, and, required evacuation to a convalescent unit in Cairo. For the rest of the summer Roy remained at base camp in Egypt suffering from bouts of gastritis and general debility probably caused by the climate and spread of infection. Not until January, 1916, did he return to the 13th Battalion.

When the evacuation of British forces from Gallipoli began in Dec. 1915, the 13th was reorganized and absorbed into the 45th Battalion being reassigned to the Western Front in France by June, 1916. Roy was one of those taken on strength by the 45th on Mar. 3, 1916 and promoted to the rank of sergeant. Within two months of arriving at the port of Marseille, France, he saw action in the trenches where he was wounded once again. His mother, Ada, then living in North Head, was informed by letter that Roy earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal in October, 1916;

“For conspicuous gallantry. When the sap was blocked he led up his platoon to the firing line across the open ground under heavy shell fire, and showed great coolness and courage in helping to consolidate and hold the line under trying circumstances.”

These events did not seem to deter him in returning to the front where he yet again got a severe gunshot wound to the shoulder in Feb. 1917 that finally necessitated treatment at the Reading War Hospital in England. Subsequently, he was placed on the Supernumerary List for soldiers with prolonged recovery. Six months later Sergeant O’Donnell attended the School of Musketry at Tidworth where he achieved first class in the rifle course. Thereupon he was attached to the school as an instructor for new recruits. He continued in this capacity until Jan. 1918 but suffered chronic shoulder pain. Within a month he was on his way back to Australia on the HMVT “Llanstephen Castle” and formally “discharged medically unfit on account of wounds” on June 22nd.

Within a month Roy was on board the “Moana” on his way to San Francisco via New Zealand and Tahiti, arriving on August 3rd. He then made his way to Boston where his mother was living. Apparently his urge to get back into action was so overwhelming; he actually registered with the U.S. Army by Aug. 26 where it noted that he still had clear evidence of a gunshot wound to the chest. Apparently he was never called up.

News of his exploits in Gallipoli, France, and England reached Grand Manan through his sister, Augusta Johnson, wife of Roy Johnson, a salesman for Union Blend Tea, living in North Head. Their friends and relatives learned that for his service overseas Roy earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the British War Medal, 1914-15 Star, and Victory Medal.

Roy stayed in the Boston area and seems to have taken up his father’s calling as a wholesale fish buyer by 1921. In 1926 he married Mary Louise Smith in Cambridge, Mass. and settled in the nearby fishing community of Rockport near Gloucester where they eventually had three children. Roy continued as a commercial fish buyer until his death on June 14, 1966.


Library and Archives Canada

St. Croix Courier, St. Stephen