John MacDonald was born in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, on August 4, 1889. He was one of six brothers, sons of John MacDonald, a master tailor, and Margaret (nee Mackenzie); his only sister, Mary, died at the age of 17 in 1905.
Like many young people from the Isle of Lewis – where economic prospects often seemed bleak – he emigrated to Canada in 1910. Settling in Toronto, he found employment as a lineman with the Bell Telephone company. (He had, according to family lore, apprenticed as a blacksmith in Stornoway, which may have meant he had readily transferable skills.)
In August 1915, he enlisted in the 92nd Battalion (48th Highlanders). The Battalion arrived in England on May 29, 1916. Given his trade, it is not surprising that he was soon transferred to the Canadian Engineer Training Depot at Shorncliffe, Kent. In November 1916, he was assigned to the Signal Pool in France.
He was taken on strength of the 4th Canadian Divisional Signal Company on April 16, 1917 – shortly after the battle of Vimy Ridge. According to the Company history, With the 4th Canadian Divisional Signal Company C.E. On Active Service, he served in the "Headquarters, Artillery" section. He left no details of his service and family don't recall him ever talking about his experiences, except to say that he and his comrades spent a lot of their free time playing Euchre (and he was a bit of a Euchre shark his whole life.) Yet it was obviously an experience that was important to him, as he was often spent time at the local Legion hall (playing Euchre, of course) and participated in reunions and commemorations.
The only item of note in his service file was that, in December 1917, he overstayed a 14-day leave. As punishment, he forfeited 31 days of pay ($34.10). While there is no information about the circumstances, a guess is that he had gone to visit his mother in Stornoway (he had assigned $20 of his $34.10 monthly pay to her) and – given the difficulties of travel on the overburdened British railway system – could not get back to France in time.
The 4th Canadian Divisional Signal Company's last action in the war was to support the assault on Valenciennes that began on November 1, 1918. The Company war diary for November 2 states, "Lines and wireless good to all Brigades. Making preparations for a forward move - getting wire and personnel as far forward as possible." By November 7, the Company had been relieved and was in rest in Valenciennes. The war diary entry for November 11 is very terse: "Hostilities cease at 1100. Nothing to report."
Following the Armistice, the 4th Canadian Divisional Signal Company moved to Mons and later was stationed in La Hulpe, Belgium (not far from Brussels). John embarked for home on the RMS Mauretania on May 31, 1919. He received his discharge certificate in Toronto on June 8, 1919. He received two campaign medals: the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
Returning to his employment with Bell Canada – which would continue until he retired in 1954 – he led what appears to be an unremarkable life. He married Evelyn Easton in 1923. It is perhaps interesting that, while their marriage certificate shows her as six years younger than him, she was in fact about eight years older – and appears to have consistently deducted fifteen years or so from her real age throughout her life. Their only child, a daughter, Margaret, was born in 1925.
His wife Evelyn died in 1958. A few months later, he travelled to Stornoway, returning to Scotland for the first time in at least forty years.
He enjoyed a long retirement, following hockey and soccer (especially the Scottish league) and enjoying his friendships and family. He always retained a fascination for ocean liners and travel by sea.
His health remained excellent – he loved taking long walks – and he passed away at Toronto in his sleep, on June 5, 1972, at the age of 82.
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References and Notes
- Page created with the information from Ian Henderson, Grandson of John MacDonald.