William Angus Livingstone was one of five brothers born on the family farm at Big Bras d’Or, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia between 1884 and 1897. All five served in the Great War. William and all but his youngest brother left Cape Breton as youths to seek their fortune in the USA. Two brothers, Alexander and Stanley, served with the US forces, Alexander as a lieutenant-commander in the US Navy, Stanley in the US Army. Two other brothers, William and Daniel, returned from the US to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. William came back to Cape Breton from the mountains of Montana where he had worked as foreman of a telephone construction crew. Daniel returned from New York where he had been employed as a seafarer. These two – William and Daniel – fought together with their youngest brother Harrison in the 25th Battalion.

None of the five brothers sullied the clan reputation as warriors. Four were awarded gallantry decorations. Alexander received a Belgian award for his actions in rescuing the crew of a ship sunk by a German U-Boat. Stanley was awarded a US Citation Star and French Croix de Guerre. Daniel won a Military Medal for his actions at Courcelette in 1916 and was subsequently killed in action near Arras in the spring of 1918. But it was William Angus who made the biggest splash during the war, earning a Military Cross for his actions in the 25th Battalion’s well-known Christmas Raid of 1916 and a Bar for his conduct during the fighting for Hill 70 in August of 1917.

More than ninety years have passed since William established his reputation but even today he is known to students of the 25th as ‘Wild Bill’ Livingstone – and for good reason. “Bill was a reckless, impetuous person,” his brother Harrison once said of him. “You never knew what he was going to do next. I remember once watching him. They had outposts from the front line that were only occupied at night – a shallow trench running out closer to the German line. He went out one day where the men were standing to, just before dusk. Saw a quail in No Man’s Land – that’s a little bird like a partridge – shot it with his pistol, and crossed diagonally into the trench where I was, with the Germans shooting at him with everything they had. I don’t know how he escaped. Machine gun and rifle fire. He had the quail next day for breakfast.”

William’s MC citation for the 1916 Christmas Raid states: He led his section of the raiding party with marked gallantry, inflicting many casualties and capturing several prisoners. Harrison said this of his older brother: “[Bill] was an expert shot with a pistol. He had the highest score at the Corps training camp in France ... He always carried two guns into action, one in his hand and another in a holster. And he probably killed more men in hand-to-hand combat than anyone else in the Canadian Corps.”

In the days after the Canadian capture of Hill 70 on August 15, 1917 William gave another, solo demonstration of the character that earned him the moniker ‘Wild Bill’. In an account taken from his diaries, he subsequently described an incident in which he worked his way, alone, down a communication trench toward the enemy line for the purpose of locating the nearest German post. Here is part of his account of what followed.

Lying flat in the bottom of the trench and dragging myself along with the greatest care, my automatic pistol loosened under my belt, my revolver in my right hand and a Mills bomb in my left I worked my way forward and expected momentarily to see the enemy’s block some distance in front beyond a partly destroyed trench. I lay perfectly still in the trench to listen. Immediately in front of me was a corner. For a moment I could hear nothing but suddenly around the corner not more than 5 or 6 feet away I heard a voice, in German. From the subject of their conversation I knew they did not suspect my presence. The trench was narrow. I had not room to turn around and did not dare risk working my way backwards. I was at least a hundred yards away from the nearest sentry. I removed the safety pin from the Mills bomb, sprang up and faced them. I shall never forget the look of surprise on their faces. The two sentries were sitting behind a low sandbag block and behind them in the post were about 15 or 20 men with a machine gun mounted on the parapet. I was alone. One of the sentries began to stand up and the other sat open-mouthed as I appeared 3 or 4 feet from them. The machine-gunner on duty was the first to recover from surprise and I saw him reach for the trigger of his gun and begin swinging it in my direction. I flung my Mills bomb in the farther end of the bay and I think at the same instant opened fire with the revolver in my right hand and snatched for the automatic in my belt. I emptied both guns and as I could see that the trench was crowded with men when the last shot in my revolver was fired I ran toward our line.

William managed to get back to his own line unscathed on this occasion but he wasn’t always so lucky. He was seriously wounded six times over the course of the war. The list of battles in which he was wounded – a bullet in the lung, another through a knee, a third though his face from cheek to cheek, inter alia – reads like a travelogue of key Canadian battles: Lens, Vimy, Hill 65, Hill 70, Arras, Amiens.

William earned the MC Bar just a few days after the solo raid for his actions on the night of August 20-21, soon after the Canadian captured Hill 70. Unbeknownst to each other, both sides planned a night raid at roughly the same time. A great number of raiding Germans were in the 25th trenches before most of the defenders knew it. In an account of the ensuing events published in 1920 in Nova Scotia’s Part in The Great War, Lt. G. C. McElhiney, MC, writes: “[Livingstone] managed to force his way out by another entrance and with a Lewis gun spitting .303 bullets from his shoulder, he managed to clear the trench of those who escaped his fusillade. But the trench was literally filled with corpses ... Captain Livingstone, whose work on this day merited the Victoria Cross, was severely wounded in the chest and collapsed immediately after he had cleared the Huns from his trenches”.

An important player – but not the all-important one – agreed that William deserved a VC for his work on August 21, 1917. The 22nd Battalion had fought with the 25th from the capture of Hill 70 through the events of August 20-21. The OC of the ‘Van-Doos’, Lt.-Col. T. L. Tremblay, DSO, formally recommended that William be awarded the VC. But the recommendation was derailed by none other than Livingstone’s own OC, Lt.-Col. A. O. Blois, DSO. Why? Nothing I have found among the official documents sheds any light on the matter, but it was Harrison’s view that the issue was decided by an offence William had given his commanding officer.

It seems that some time before the Hill 70 battle Bill had embarked on a leave to Paris. As he was set to go, his CO in friendly fashion said something to the effect, “Perhaps these will be useful in Paris”, and handed him several condoms. Well as it happens, Bill was the son of a righteous and fearsomely puritanical Presbyterian mother, Sarah MacLean Livingstone, and he was clearly a snippet from his mother’s bolt of cloth. A sensible person would have thanked his CO for the gesture and went on his way. But that was not for Wild Bill. Outraged at being taken for someone who might consort with common Parisian whores, William angrily threw the condoms in his CO’s face. As events unfolded the Victoria Cross denied Bill Livingstone would have been the only one awarded to a member of the 25th Battalion during the war, but Blois would have none of it. Even as the Van-Doos’ Tremblay was looking to have a VC bestowed on Livingstone, it may be that his own CO was more inclined to have him court-martialled and shot at dawn.

We will never know whether it was the toss of a handful of condoms into his commander’s face that cost William a VC. Perhaps his recklessness on that occasion was a last straw. On the other hand, without that recklessness Bill Livingstone might never have accomplished any of the feats that won his enduring reputation and his honours.

What became of William Angus after the war? He never returned to the Montana mountains he loved so well. Instead he went home to Nova Scotia, married a CEF Nursing Sister he met while convalescing from his final war wound, earned a law degree from Dalhousie University and in short time became the youngest judge in the Nova Scotia court system. But William hadn’t left all his recklessness on the battlefields of the Western Front. In a fall from grace that is a tale unto itself, William lost his career in law, moved from Nova Scotia to British Columbia and was operating a gold mine – the El Alamein – when he met his demise. What the finest German regiments failed to accomplish during the Great War was achieved by an insect. William died in 1950, at just 58, from encephalitis resulting from a mosquito bite.