We recently added a very special object to our collection; the helmet pictured above might initially look quite plain and unremarkable, but it has a very touching story.Image: [Mk I steel helmet with divisional patch], Pte D.J. Fortune. Gift of B. Deuville in the name of his son, J. Deuville. Collections CCGW, 2018.04
This particular helmet belonged to Private Daniel Joseph Fortune, a miner from Sydney Mines, Cape Breton. Fortune was 25 when he enlisted in 1915 with the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders). The divisional patch of the 85th Battalion is visible on the front, though the paint has now darkened what was originally a small blue square on a larger green square into almost the same colour.
The 85th Battalion was a later battalion; permission to raise it was given in 1915 only, and the men who enlisted did not arrive in France until the winter of 1917, well after the Canadian Corps had fought their formative battles on the Somme. They didn’t even have kilts at that time, but were known as “trousered Highlanders” which must have rankled. For the upcoming Vimy battle, the 85th Battalion was placed in support; they would be digging trenches, carrying ammunition, and perhaps performing some mopping up behind the advance troops.
No one expected to have to send the 85th into battle, but that is exactly what happened. Attached to the 4th Division, which had Hill 145 as part of its objectives, the 85th was called into their first battle at the very end of the day on 9 April. The 4th Division had struggled all day to take the hill, and Major General David Watson made the desperate decision to send the 85th, his only un-marked battalion into the lines at sunset.
At the last minute, the decision was made not to precede the attack with a barrage, since the lines between the Canadians and the Germans holding Hill 145 were too close and it was thought that a barrage was likely to cause significant ‘friendly fire’ casualties. This information was not passed on to the battalion, who were waiting in the trenches, and so they jumped out into the setting sun at zero hour and ran headlong into the German lines. Surviving members of the 85th credit the setting sun as saving their lives, it was directly in the eyes of their enemies and temporarily blinded them, allowing the Highlanders to get close enough to be out of artillery range.
Sometime during this charge, Private Fortune was killed. His comrades salvaged his helmet and sent it home to his family in Cape Breton, but his final grave was lost. Private Fortune’s name appears on the Vimy Memorial. The 85th Battalion succeeded in taking Hill 145, but at the cost of 25% of the battalion. Vimy Ridge was the single most deadly day to be a soldier in Canadian history.
Mud-filled warrens littered with dung, detritus, and the dead may sound like a less than hospitable environment, but to the myriad millions that scurried along