Private William Haggart, 108558, declared he was born in Abernethy on 22 January 1872 . On 18 September 1916, he joined the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force, the 242nd Battalion C.E.F.
At the time of his enlistment, he declared he was 44 years and 7 months, 5′ 10½” with hazel eyes and grey hair, weighed 137 lb, had a 33½” chest, with good physical development. His occupation was listed as a mason, religion Presbyterian, and his last address 410 Guy Street, Montreal, Canada. His parents were John and Bessie Scott Haggart of 12 Unity Place, Victoria Street, Perth and he was married to Mary Graham Haggart, 7 Valleyfield Street, Springburn, Glasgow.
The 242nd Battalion C.E.F. was also known as the 242nd Forestry Company or the Canadian Forestry Corps. Their nickname was the ‘Sawdust Fusiliers’. Early on during the First World War, it was realised that massive quantities of wood were needed for use on the Western Front, hundreds of miles of trenches required vast quantities of shoring timbers, duckboards, crates, railways and everything else that required construction in wood.
It is a possibility that William Haggart was too old at 44 years to be called up for frontline service but he felt patriotically and morally obliged to join the fight. Possibly because he was too old to join the British Army, he willingly chose to volunteer for war work by joining up as a forester with the Canadians. It is also possible that he was older than he stated and falsified his date of birth at the time of attestation into the forestry corps. His death on 6 March 1921 records him as being 61 years old, so that he was born around 1860. William Haggart also changed his name, enlisting as William Scott, also perhaps to avoid scrutiny of his true age. How he managed to travel to Canada to enlist is not known.
In August 1914, Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War made the famous ‘Your Country needs You’ poster appeal for willing volunteers to join the army. In 1914 to 1915, men between the ages of 18 and 41 years could become soldiers. This was later increased to 51 years in April 1918. In 1916, compulsory conscription was introduced to increase the army size and replace losses. By the end of 1914, 1, 168, 337 men had enlisted and by end of the war almost one quarter of all the men in Britain had served in the armed forces.
The Canadian Forestry Corps came into being on 14 November 1916, the intention was to harvest millions of trees from Canada’s abundant forests and ship the wood over to Europe. The problem that prevented this plan was the lack of space aboard merchant ships sailing to France; they were needed for more important cargoes like troops and munitions. It was decided instead to use the Canadians in Europe to cut down the forests in Scotland, England and France.
William Haggart was on 23 November 1916 embarked with his unit at Halifax, Canada. He sailed on the world’s largest ship at the time of its launch in 1906, the RMS Mauretania, bound for Liverpool. The sister ship to the RMS Mauretania, the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed on 7 May 1915 by an Imperial German Navy, U-Boat, U-20, about 11 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, to the south of Ireland. William Haggart arrived in Liverpool on 30 November 1916.
On 1 January 1917, he proceeded for service overseas and arrived in Le Havre, France, the following day. He was attached to the 19th Company C.E.F. on 31 January 1917 but ceased to be attached to them on 4 March 1917. On 11 May 1917, he was evacuated sick to No 12 General Hospital in Rouen, France. His condition is marked as debility, specifically myalgia. A viral infection, overuse, injury, strain or muscle pain may have caused this – especially for people involved in heavy work activities. A further diagnosis at the hospital found severe lumbago. On 19 May 1917, he was again recorded as having a debility, a general weakness and was embarked back to England on the hospital ship SS St. David.
From 20 May 1917, he was at the Military Hospital in Church Lane, Tooting, London, and from 27 May 1917, the Canadian Convalescent Hospital in Bromley, Kent. The doctor’s opinion on his records is not fully legible – he had lost 15 ib in weight, his heart was rapid and slightly enlarged, tremor of the hands, he is very feeble and unable to carry on. He was declared permanently unfit.
On 4 October 1916, he signed a will bequeathing his estate to his brother-in-law, Duncan McIntyre, 16 Mill Street, Perth (from 7 March 1921, 56 George Street, Perth).
William Haggart was discharged from the hospital in Bromley on 21 July 1917 and was put on board the hospital ship, HMHS Letitia (formerly SS Letitia) and invalided to Canada for further medical treatment. Setting sail from Liverpool on its ninth run as a hospital ship, the HMHS Letitia had a full crew of 137 men, 74 hospital staff (including 12 nurses) and 546 wounded Canadian soldiers.
HMHS Letitia made the Atlantic crossing without incident, arriving off Halifax on the morning of 1 August 1917. Fog had reduced visibility to near zero, but the captain, Lieutenant Colonel David Donald continued his course, crew members listening for whistles, buoy bells and foghorn blasts.
Flanking the entrance Halifax harbour are dangerous shoals which were a well-known hazard. The captain had used dead reckoning in the fog to work out the ships position. A whistle from a pilot boat was heard, the pilot boarded and continued the captain’s course, not realising that the captain had incorrectly estimated the ships position.
Ten minutes later, the captain saw a dark area in the fog approaching the ship and ordered full astern. The order came too late, and the HMHS Letitia ran aground on Portuguese Cove, near Chebucto Head Lighthouse, just south of the entrance to Halifax Harbour. The captain tried reversing the engines to free the ship, but the holds of the ship had been perforated on the shoals. The ship was in danger that if it did come off the shoals, it would sink, potentially with all on board drowning.
The captain called for assistance, and everyone disembarked without incident onto nearby ships. The captain and crew stayed onboard until the next morning when HMHS Letitia became to list, and the order to abandon ship was given. There was only one casualty, a stoker who was accidently left on board and drowned trying to swim ashore. The pilot was found guilty of gross error of judgement and demoted.
William Haggart (Scott) was discharged from the 242nd Battalion C.E.F. on 31 August 1917, no more is known his medical condition or treatment. He died on 6 March 1921, aged 61, and is buried in a Commonwealth War Grave at Hamilton Cemetery, 777 York Boulevard, Hamilton, Ontario (south of Toronto, near Niagara Falls).
Research: Ken Bruce
Additional Source: Canadian information – Government of Canada, Library and Archives Canada Soldiers of the First World War: 1914-1918 Database
Some members of the crew of the HMHS Letitia were repatriated home on the SS Athenia which was torpedoed on the way back by the German submarine U-53 off Inishtrahull, the most northerly island of Ireland on 16 August 1917. The SS Athenia was abandoned and sunk with the loss of 15 crew and 440 horses. The SS Athenia and the HMHS Letitia were ships of the Donaldson Line, Glasgow. HMHS Letitia was built at the Scott’s Shipbuilding & Engineering Company shipyard in Greenock and was launched on 21 February 1912.