John Hector McKinnon was born on the family farm on Crooked Lake Road in the small community of Framboise, Richmond County, Cape Breton, on November 30, 1894. He was the second son of Hector and Mary Ann (nee MacIntosh) McKinnon. John grew up in Framboise and as a young man taught school in Framboise.
On April 14, 1916, shortly after the outbreak of World War 1, John joined the 185th Battalion (Cape Breton Highlanders), a highland battalion that was just being raised for overseas duty. The battalion was headquartered in the abandoned mining town of Broughton, near Sydney, NS. John was issued the service number 878280. He had already had some military training, having spent six months service with the 94th Victoria Regiment “Argyll Highlanders”, a local Cape Breton militia unit.
John trained with the 185th Battalion in Broughton and later in Aldershot, NS, where they met up with their three sister battalions of the newly formed Nova Scotia Highland Brigade. In October, 1916, the brigade sailed from the port of Halifax on the troop ship S.S. Olympic and landed in Liverpool England a week later. The brigade moved to Whitley Camp in Surrey where training continued. It was probably at Whitley Camp that John received the sad news that his older brother Dan, who was serving with the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish), was missing and presumed dead on October 9, 1916, during the battle of the Somme in France.
In early 1917, John spent almost three months in the hospital in England after coming down with the “mumps”.
While the new Canadian troops in England trained, the Canadian units already at the front on the Continent were taking tremendous casualties and urgently required reinforcements. As a result, some of the newer units in England were disbanded to create the required reinforcements. Two battalions of the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade, the 193rd and the 219th were broken up shortly after their arrival in England. John’s unit, the 185th Battalion (Cape Breton Highlanders) would be disbanded in early 1918. Only the 85th Battalion was sent to France as a unit in 1917.
Meanwhile, at the end of May, 1917, John was transferred to the 25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles), who were already serving at the front. It is not clear whether he volunteered for the transfer or was selected as part of a reinforcement draft from the 185th Battalion. He joined the 25th Battalion in France on August 20, 1917. The 25th Battalion was mobilized in October, 1914, and had recruited throughout Nova Scotia. They went overseas in May, 1915, and were sent to the front in September, 1915. John was to spend the rest of the war with the 25th Battalion and was a piper in their pipe band. He returned home with them in May, 1919 and was demobilized shortly after with the rank of private.
After the war, John returned to the family farm in Framboise. He never married and remained in Framboise for the rest of his life except for occasional visits to see his sister in Massachusetts. He was a kind man and well liked in his community. He continued to play the pipes. Neighbors would occasionally hear the sound of his pipe across MacKinnons Lake near where he lived.
John Hector McKinnon passed away in 1975. He was laid to rest in the cemetery at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Framboise.
Thanks to Janet Towse of Bristol, New Hampshire, for providing an electronic copy of the 25th Battalion Pipe Band in Section 2 below, and for providing family information on her great uncle, John McKinnon.