Life On Salisbury Plain
by Marjorie Kohli
(This story is told using the diary of the Royal Canadian Dragoons (and a few others), newspaper articles from the Toronto Globe, Calgary Albertan, The Times of London and from a diary kept by John Carroll. It is dedicated to my Grandfather, John Carroll, #33708 who served for four years and 224 days.)
A flotilla of vessels was waiting for the troops as they left camp at Valcartier, Quebec and made their way to the port. Men, horses and equipment jammed the roads and overflowed the docks. Aboard the HMTS [His Majesty's Troop Ship] Laurentic were the Royal Canadian Dragoons (RCD), who sailed from Quebec on September 25, to the rendevous point.
The fleet was comprised of escorts and transports. The escort vessels were:
H.M.S. Charybdis - Flag Ship
The transport vessels were: Alaunia, Andania, Arcadian, Athenia, Bermudian, Canada, Caribbean, Cassandra, Corinthian, Florizal [which joined the fleet off Newfoundland], Franconia, Grampian, Ivernia, Lakonia, Lapland Laurentic, Manitou, Megantic, Monmouth, Montezuma, Montreal, Royal Edward, Royal George Ruthenia, Saxonia, Scandinavian, Scotian, Sicilian, Tunisian, Tyrolia, Virginian, Zeeland.
On October 1, the Calgary Morning Albertan picked up an item from the Montreal Star with headlines that read: "Troops Embarked At Quebec To Strains Of ' Tipperary'".
Quietly the transports slip into the docks. Quietly the hawsers are unloosed and the great grey ships get up steam, awaiting the word to weigh anchor and sail toward the sea.
From Valcartier the long troop trains still come hurrying into the city and down to the basin. Up on the terrace, women stand and watch, wondering which ship bears the loved one to whom they have said goodbye. Today the headquarter's staff moves on board and the correspondents who are to accompany the Canadian expeditionary force across the water also must find their places in the big transports.
A Week to Embark
When this is read, the transports will be far out to sea, and with them will be a fleet of long, grim cruisers, protecting them from any vagrant German warship that may be pan-handling along the lanes of the North Atlantic. It took nearly a week to complete the embarkation. The month of rumors had come to an end, and the camp knew a week ago that any day would see the commencement of the movement. All that delayed it was the arrival of the transports, and they wee closing in from east and west. The entire routine of the camp and undergone a great change. The manoeuveres had been cancelled. At the ranges all was still. The crackling of thousands of rifles no longer was heard echoing against the wooded hills. Instead, the thousands of men were taught how to pack and carry their kit, rifles were collected and packed away and inspections of equipment were held.
Remounts First, Then Artillery
The artillery moved first, that is, after the remounts, several thousand of which were driven to the city previously. This was no simple operation and an epic might be written of the experiences of the men who brought those animals down the long winding valley road. It had been raining in a desultory manner for two days. Though the camp had felt little discomfort, the roads had become softened, and never the best for heavy guns, were little better than ploughed fields.
"A Long Way to Tipperary."
Headed by a band playing the air that every man in camp knew, the air that is rarely heard except when troops are on the march, the guns on one long line rolled along the road. Thousands took up the words "It's a Long Road to Tipperary."
Three hours later the second brigade moved out. Major Mills and Major Dodds rode along beside.
Rain and Darkness
What a road! Darkness came early that night and with the darkness came the rain. The roads became muskegs, canals. The darkness that covered the Egyptians wrapped itself over the land. The landmarks were blotted out. Men and horses, soaked by the downpour, strained their eyes to see what might be just ahead. But it was useless. The leaders felt about for the road. When they were ankle-deep in mud they thought they were on it. When they were up to their knees they were certain. There was nothing to do but go on. There was no shelter; there was no hope of light for hours. And the rain continued.
Horses fell; they were helped up and urged forward. The heavy guns skidded into the ditches and washouts that seemed muffled by the steady rain; the drivers urged them out. Men climbed down in that horrible mess of water and sand and weeds and put their shoulders to it. An animal stepped sideways and began to fall, on the officer riding him. Quietly, almost slowly the horse's right feet sank in the bog. The officer slid too. When they found him his face was burled. Handsful of mud were lifted out of his collar.
Horse Stepped on Man's Head
Up ahead a horse reared. The column was sliding down a hill. The man on the animal was thrown. The horse behind planted a heavy foot on the man's head.
In some way the column was stopped and the bleeding unconscious figure was extricated. His scalp was torn almost off. One could not ring for an ambulance. The injured man was placed on a timber and the leaders again got under way. It all took about a minute. And then for hours, until Quebec was reached, the rain fell on the bandaged head and inert form. He is on board ship now. That little accident did not stop him. There will be no forced march in the campaign that is ahead, with greater hardships than that night's journey to Quebec. It was a stupendous achievement considering the little training the horses and the men have had. And yet, that was not all.
Guns Rumble Over Bridge
Dawn had come and the guns rumbled over the bridge that crosses the St. Charles. Then, up a bit of hill and on St. Paul street and the rest was easy going. The people of Lower town saw them pass. The people came to their doors and windows and shouted words of cheer and hope and with widening eyes remarked on the number of guns. And then the dock was reached. The men were tired, wet and hungry. Mud encased them like a garment, and under the mud were their great heavy clothes, dripping puddles where they stood. At the dock was the ship on which they would sail. All they had to do before going to bed was to load all the horses, the guns, the timbers, the equipment, and themselves.
Last Piece Stowed Away
They did it. All morning and well into the afternoon they worked. Finally, the last piece was stowed away in the hold. Every man went to his bunk. In five minutes practically everyone was asleep. With the novelty of having nothing to do some of them forgot that they were wet. They slept in their clothes.
This was the big picturesque movement. The infantry came in by train. It had been planned that they should march down, but the roads made this impossible. Battalion after battalion slipped into the trains, and in an hour were at the dock, where the transports awaited them.
Every entrance to the basing is guarded, and a pass is necessary to get through.
No Farewells Permitted
Getting a pass is as easy as getting gold for a five-dollar note at the bank. All the telegraph and telephone lines have been cut. Mails are collected from the boats, but they are being held until it is thought wise to release them. Here is a real necessity for silence.
Many have been the pathetic scenes. At first relatives and friends believed that they would be able to visit the transport to say a last farewell. When they learned that there could be no pass issued; when they learned that the ship would sail, and that they, far up on the terrace would have to wave their hopeful farewell the tears came. But tears availed them nothing. They faced a stern and imperative rule.
As I write a ship slips from the dock. Around the bend of the river another is coming to take its place. At any moment the summons may come and then the transport on which the correspondents will sail will be the last to leave the port. The fleet will move out, will go on down the river, sailing into the east to a destiny unknown.
Apparently, it was utter chaos at the port of Quebec as men and equipment were loaded. Men were separated from their baggage and some from their units. Horses were loaded hours, some times days, before the sailing. As a ship was loaded it moved out and down river to the rendevous point. The logistics of such a task had not been worked out properly, some ships carrying troops from one unit and baggage from another. On Saturday, October 3, 1914 the First Contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), over 30,000 troops, sailed from Gaspé Bay Basin on their way to France via England . The fleet sailed for Southampton but the destination was changed at the last minute due to U-boat concerns and the troops were redirected to an unsuspected Plymouth.
Several days after the announced sailing, on October 10, the Globe ran an article under the headline "Are Canadian Troops Still On The Water?" But it was war time and no one, it seemed, was talking.
Although there is no mention of the voyage in the war diary of the RCD, the diary of the 4th Canadian Infantry Battalion gives a daily schedule for the time at sea. It was early to rise and early to bed as the men were kept busy. They were up at 6 a.m., breakfast at 7 a.m., and while the men ate the officers exercised. At 9:10 a.m. was parade followed by Officer's Signalling Class. Lunch was served at 11:45 a.m. followed by afternoon parade, more signalling classes then supper. The 1st Post was at 8:30 p.m., Last Post at 9:00 p.m. and at 9:15 p.m. it was lights out.
The first of the fleet arrived at Plymouth harbour on Octobert 14. The Laurentic, with the RCD, arrived the following day and the Times of London reported on the arrival of the Canadians.
Arrival Of Canadian Force.
Procession Of Troopships At
Plymouth had the distinction yesterday of being the first to welcome the Canadian troops which have crossed the sea for active service on the Continent. During the day some of the biggest English-Canadian liners steamed into Plymouth Sound and anchored in the inner waters. The arrival of the Force was quite unexpected by the public. When the news became known cheering crowds welcomed the Canadians with the utmost enthusiasm.
Early in the morning two liners arrived in the Sound and were towed by Government tugs into the Hamoaze. The rumour then spread that these were the first of the transports conveying the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and later in the day a long line of big ships was seen making for the port. They stretched away from the entrance to the Sound as far as the Eddystone, and presented a magnificent spectacle.
As each ship approached the harbour it was taken in charge by a Government tug, which towed it through the narrow waters of the entrance to the harbour and conducted it to the anchorage off the dockyard. Crowds of the people lined the Hoe [a public space adjacent to the sea front] and piers, while others went out in boats and heartily cheered the ships as they passed. All the decks were crowded with soldiers, who were evidently pleased to find themselves at the end of another stage of their journey to the front. Each time the people cheered the troops enthusiastically responded.
The arrival of the ships continued until late in the afternoon When they reached the port they were formally welcomed by Admiral Sir G. le C. Egerton, the Commander-in-Chief, and Major-General A.P. Penton, who is in command of the fortress.
An Inspiring Scene
As the ships passed into the Hamoaze their decks were seen to be swarming with troops, and there was great cheering by the people on shore. This was taken up by the Canadians, and the inspiring scene was continued throughout practically the day. Bands on board the vessels were playing lively airs. One transport which was moored close to Devonport Dockyard had a huge canvas bearing the word "Strathcona," indicating that those on board-a fine body of men-belonged to the regiment bearing the name of that famous Canadian. The first liner was moored at 9 o'clock in the morning and the last nearly 12 hours later. Some few of the troops were allowed ashore for a time at Devonport. As the ships lay in the stream at night they were ablaze with lights, and sounds of music and merriment came across the waters to the crowds, who responded heartily to the enthusiasm of the Canadians.
The Canadians are splendidly equipped. All are in khaki and on their shoulder straps is the one word " Canada ." They have had a splendid though a somewhat long passage, 16 days having passed since they embarked.
That same day the Globe carried the story "Canadian Troops Land At Plymouth." Few details were available, said the article but the troops were greeted warmly. "On the transports entering the harbor the Royal Garrison Artillery Band played 'The Red, White and Blue' and 'The Maple Leaf,' while the sound of bagpipes was much in evidence."
It took several days to unload all of the vessels as Plymouth was taken unawares by the arrival of the Canadians. The war diary for the Royal Canadian Dragoons of Oct 17, explains the unloading process.
Few units began their War Diaries with the sailing but a few did:
The Field Ambulances arrived on different ships. The First Canadian Field Ambulance arrived on the Megantic and headed for Bustard. However, before they left Plymouth their services were required as "over 30 men suffering severely from Ptomaine Poisoning, the effects of last meal on "SS" Megantic" was reported to them. No such events were reported by the Third Field Ambulance which arrived on the Tunisian.
The chaos in loading the ships at Quebec continued to plague the troops. In the notes of the RCD diary it states: "Considerable inconveniences caused by not detailing troops or squadrons to trains thus keeping recognized formations together. Also loading baggage belonging to one unit on trains detailed for another resulted in loss of equipment, stores etc." The next diary entry is for 1:30 am. on the 18th:
The diary notes for that date record an additional hardship. "No end loading accommodation available. Wagons had to be lifted bodily off tracks." The diary goes on to document the pitching of camp noting that "arrangements excellent" for the men but poor for the horses. The horses seemed to have been badly affected by the 25 day stay on board the ship Lakonia, as they were loaded many days before the men.
"Canadian Soldiers Have Happy Time," reported the Globe of October 17. It commented on how pleased the troops were with the accommodation and the "...feeling of immense relief at being off the transport." Two days later the Globe carried another item stating that the troops were in general good health and that the 5th Royal Scots of Montreal were the first Canadian troops on the Plain. The last of the men arrived early on Sunday morning and the weather, although chilly, showed no signs of rain. "When the troops landed one of the things which struck the onlooker was the freedom and good-fellowship among them." Order of arrival, reported the Globe, was Montreal Highlanders, Alberta cavalry (with a husky dog mascot), the divisional train, ammunition train, Seaforth Highlanders, and the Queen's Own of Toronto. Neighbours to the Canadians were New Zealanders.
A report in the Times of October 19, describes the scene on Salisbury Plain.
The Canadians At Salisbury.
Organization And Equipment.
Nothing like the Canadian Contingent has been landed in this country since the time of William the Conqueror. Friendly forces and hostile forces have reached our shores from time to time; the hostile ones always so badly found that they were quickly extinguished, the friendly ones coming unequipped by reason of their friendliness. But the Canadians come armed cap-a-pie, horse, foot, and artillery. The force has its own engineers, signallers, transport corps, ammunition parks, and field hospitals, and there are 34 chaplains and 105 nursing sisters. It would be a military offence to state the number of million rounds of ammunition brought by the Contingent, so great is it.
The Contingent has come through without any trouble worth mentioning. The weather was perfect throughout; the feeding and accommodation were first class, and the health of the men excellent. It is believed that only 11 horses were lost altogether, five of them in a ship that was loaded up for three weeks. Disembarkation has been spread over three days, troops and material as disembarked being entrained for Salisbury Plain, where camps at West Down South, West Down North, Bustard, and Pond Farm have been prepared for them.
A visit to Salisbury Plain on Saturday morning, therefore, was premature so far as seeing the Canadians as a whole was concerned, for only the few who had straggled in the night before were to be seen. But the roads in the neighbourhood were full of them, just off the railway and marching to their destinations. One saw men and horses in the rough, before they had polished their boots or brushed their hair, or the horses had been groomed. Neither looked the worse for being a trifle unkempt. Physically, of course, the men are a fine lot, and in intelligence they are up to colonial form, which is usually a trifle ahead of that of the old country.
Half of them come from the West of Canada, and are hard fellows used to a rough life. Only about half are Canadian born, and one good Scot assured me half of the lot were Scotch, the remainder being English, Irish, Welsh, and French. French Canadians are sprinkled all over the eastern contingents. Two brigades wear the kilt. A few Regular British officers and quite a number of Canadian officers who served in South Africa are a great source of strength, as are a number of Regular non-commissioned instructors.
Where the Canadians are strong is in the type of which they are composed. Most of them, officers and men, have roughed it at one time or another. Many are thoroughly accustomed to horses. Many have succeeded in life on their own merits alone. They are practical as colonials must be practical. And they have courage and character, or they would not be where they are. But the probability is that they will be ready before many others who cherish the same ambition-to strike a blow for their country.
The Troops At Plymouth.
The disembarking and entraining of the Canadian troops goes on steadily at Plymouth. The Canadians have made themselves popular at Plymouth, and the departure of every train in the early part of the night attracts large crowds, which distribute cigarettes, fruit, and newspapers among the men, and in return receive badges, buttons, and other souvenirs. An extraordinary assortment of mascots and pets accompanies the contingent; dogs and goats and other animals are numerous. One regiment actually adopted a small boy, a newspaper seller who was anxious to go with them. He seems to have been smuggled on board one of the transports, and has since become a bugler.
Indeed, the Canadians did have a good many unusual mascots, one of them becoming very famous. When the troops departed for France many of the Canadian mascots were left at the London Zoo stated the Times of April 28, 1915 but the Zoo was most proud of the bears. "The Canadians have left behind four bears-two females belonging respectively to the 2nd Infantry Brigade and to the Divisional Ammunition Park, and two males belonging to the 8th and 10th Batteries of the 2nd Brigade." Dr. Harry Colebourn, with the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps, purchased an orphaned bear cub for $20 on the trip from Winnipeg to Valcartier. Colebourn sailed from Canada with the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade Headquaters and "Winnie," named after his home town, sailed with him. Just before Colebourn was sent to France the bear was placed in the London Zoo where she became a great favourite with visitors. It was here that A.A. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin, first saw the bear which inspired the adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh.
The October 19, RCD diary entry reports on the progress of setting up camp on the Plains and on the continual rain. It states that "rain has necessitated horses lines moved every other day." Training was started in earnest notes the November entries in the war diary and horse lines changed continuously due to the weather. But the stay at Pond Farm Camp was turning into a very, very wet one.
Salisbury Plain and the tents were becoming home to the troops but, the Globe reported on November 3, "For the present the troops will be under canvas, but as they are likely to be here for six or eight weeks wooden huts are being erected for their accommodation as rapidly as possible, and the whole lot should be in comfortable quarters shortly." Not all of the troops were in camp as some ships had been diverted from Plymouth to Avonmouth and these men were slower to arrive. Two men, reported the Globe, had died on the voyage.
Among the first arrivals at the camp was the Highland brigade, of which the 12th Highlanders of Toronto is one of the principal regiments. With the cavalry regiments and the Army Service Corps, the Highlanders disembarked the day after reaching Plymouth. The splendid physique of the "kilties" has provoked admiration everywhere. The London Daily Mail describes them as "a corps of magnificent fighting men." The Mail thinks they are "braw and burly, but the resemblance to our own Highland regiments breaks down when one hears many of the kilties talking French." There are several French-Canadians in the 5th Royal Highlanders of Montreal and the people here seem rather amused at the idea of Frenchmen in kilts. They do not know that the 48th Highlanders of Toronto [15th Battalion] have two Russians among their number. [27991 Pte Michel Alek and 28090 Pte Jack Strombeh]
The March Through Plymouth
The Canadians will never forget the reception they had at Plymouth. Great as was the welcome accorded to the troops the day the transports steamed into Plymouth Sound, it was as nothing compared to the enthusiasm manifested by the good people of Plymouth as the soldiers from Canada marched through the city to the various railway stations, there to entrain for the camp at Salisbury Plain. Disembarkation, of course, was carried out behind the high walls of the dockyard, entrance to which was denied to the citizens. Consequently the residents had to content themselves with a foothold of the street pavement and the knowledge that, sooner or later, the Canadians must emerge through the dockyard gates en route to the trains. Large crowds assembled in witness the departure of the troops, who seemed to be in high spirits and glad to stretch their legs after being confined to the transports for nearly twenty days. The throng gave some ringing cheers as the soldiers swung along the streets singing the latest choruses, the favorite, as usual being "It's a long, long way to Tipperary." All the way to the station the streets were lined with cheering seamen and civilians, and Canada's soldiers will not soon forget the splendid treatment accorded them by the warmhearted people of Plymouth. The residents handed cigarettes, matches and other timely gifts to the Canadian volunteers as they marched through the streets, while the troops reciprocated by giving regimental buttons and such as souvenirs. Thousands of citizens remained at the station until the last troop-train departed in the early hours of the morning. The trains left at regular intervals, and the ringing cheers given by the spectators were returned with equal vigor by the troops as each train pulled out of the depot.
A Gift From Mrs. Astor.
The onlookers manifested especially keen interest in the Toronto Highlanders, whose ranks extended from one end of the platform to the other, the regiment being over a thousand strong. The men sang and whistled popular Scottish airs while they waited for the train, "Annie Laurie" finding most favor, while "Just a wee Deoch an' Doris" was very popular and went with a good swing. Every man was in his place two minutes after the order to entrain was given, and as the train steamed out thousands of handkerchiefs fluttered good-byes. Similar scenes were witnessed in Plymouth day after day until the disembarkation and entraining of over thirty thousand troops had been completed. The headquarters staff and the nursing sisters were among those who left Plymouth on Friday afternoon, the nurses in their navy blue greatcoats and hats, attracting as much interest as the Highlanders on the previous day. At the station a pleasant surprise awaited them in the shape of several pans of Devonshire cream, these being the gift of Mrs. Waldorf Astor, wife of the member of Parliament for Plymouth. On the Union Jack covering the pans was the inscription, "To the Canadian Nurses, From Plymouth." Transportation arrangements were made by major G.H. Gason, while Major-General A.P. Penton, Commander of the fortress, and other officers were present at the station to witness the departure of the troops for the training camp....
Divine Service At the Hoe
Under the shadow of the Armada Monument at Plymouth Hoe, the scene of many memorable meetings, the Edmonton section of the Canadian contingent yesterday met for divine worship, and the gathering was a picturesque one. Twelve hundred officers and men paraded on the ship which brought them across the Atlantic, and, headed by their band, marched through the streets of Devonport to the Hoe, where the chaplain, Captain the Rev. Mr. Bruce, conducted the regular military service. Seated on the grass, the troops were surrounded by a great throng of Plymouth people, who joined heartily in the singing of the hymns....
The War Office announces that for postal purposes the address of the Canadian contingent for the present will be "Canadian Contingent, Salisbury Plain." Private letters to members of the contingent should include as part of the address the name, rank, number, and, where known, the regiment or corps of the addressee....
On November 5, the Times reported on the visit of the King to the Canadian camp the previous day.
The King and Queen visited Salisbury Plain yesterday, and inspected the Canadian contingent. Their Majesties were accompanied by Lord Kitchener and Lord Roberts. After the inspection, Lieutenant-General W. Pitcairn Campbell, Commanding-in-Chief Southern Command, issued a special order containing the following message from the King:-
It gives me great pleasure to have this opportunity of welcoming to the Mother Country so fine a contingent of troops from the Dominion of Canada. Their prompt rally to the Empire's call is of inestimable value, both to the fighting strength of my Army and in the evidence which it gives of the solidarity of the Empire. The general appearance and physical standard of the different units are highly creditable. I am glad to hear of the serious and earnest spirit which pervades all ranks for it is only by careful training and leading on the part of officers and by efficiently strict discipline and cooperation on the part of all that the demands of modern war can be met. I shall follow with interest the progress and work of my Canadians.
Their Majesties found the contingent well established in their several camps on the Plain. They saw what may be described roughly as an Army Corps in the making. It is all-Canadian, from the greenish khaki uniforms of the men to the motor-transport wagons which lumber across the Plain. Strangely enough, Salisbury Plain seems to the Canadians more remote from the great world than the Valcartier camp near Quebec at which they put in their first period of training. Valcartier was lighted by electricity, and an avenue of booths and stores, with a picture-palace for one night only, gave it a homely touch. Now the men in hard training for active service have no amenities but those strictly pertaining to life under canvas. The canteen at Valcartier was a "dry" one. The experiment was continued on Salisbury Plain. In the last few days, however, the canteens have reverted to type, much to the satisfaction of the men, who prefer to be put on their honour in a matter of this sort.
Pleasant home thoughts come to the men on the Plain. The rolling Wiltshire downs strongly remind the sons of Alberta of the western prairie. The men have little besides the maple-leaf in their caps to distinguish their appearance from that of British recruits. The shoulder-straps, with the word "Canada" stamped on them, are of different colours, blue for infantry, green for riflemen, red for artillery, white for Army Service Corps, and so on. For the rest, they look just like plain British fighting men.
A smart Newfoundland contingent which has recently come in has the name of the colony similarly on its shoulder-straps. The newcomers are usually distinguished from the Canadians by their blue puttees. The type of man is the same-sturdy, strong, and unassuming. They are a splendid body of men, and had a great welcome from their brothers-in-arms.
There is nothing spectacular about these oversea contingents. Princess Patricia's Own, a fine regiment chiefly of men who have served in the Regular Army, have the same uniform as the Winnipeg Grenadiers, who, with other infantry units, have been merged into new battalions. The Scottish regiments, of course, retain their Highland garb. It has just been announced that a squad of Red Indians is coming with the next contingent. Even that will be no novelty. A number of educated Indians are already training in the camps.
One could not wish to meet a happier or healthier set of men. They are only human in wishing that their camps were a little nearer a town or at any rate a railway station for "leave" days, and in praying for the call which will take them to the front. But there are remarkably few grumblers considering the wide sweep of society taken by the recruiting net in an emergency like the present. On the whole the men have knuckled down to their unaccustomed task with a spirit of which Canada and the Empire can be proud. They are training on rapidly in as hard a military school as they could hope to find in this country.
Another article followed in the Globe on November 9, saying that much to the delight of the troops they were being given three days leave. Twenty percent of the men would go at a time till all had had a short furlough. The Canadian Nurses were sent on to London, including Nurse Richardson of Woodstock, Ontario, and they were being treated royally. Also mentioned was the fact that families of the men in the United Kingdom were having "great difficulty in cashing these cheques" from the Canadian Government. The cheques were issued in Canadian funds but the Government promised to correct this and reissue the cheques in British currency. The troops, too, had to have their money converted to British currency.
Although there was a 'dry' canteen available to the troops, Major-General Alderson changed that. The Globe of November 10, recorded his remarks to the men.
"You are men and deserve to be treated as men, not as schoolboys," he declared. And indeed it would be a difficult matter to keep the Canadians on the strict "tee-tee" while their British brothers-in-arms are enjoying their daily beer, and what is yet more to the point, while village inns lie withing half an hour's walk, even though they be "out of bounds." As their possession of the canteens depends upon their good behavior, it is likely that the men will do all they can to deserve the confidence reposed in them by their commander.
Some 540 Newfoundlander volunteers joined the Canadians on the Plain in November. There was also a wedding to report as Private Richardson, of the Canadian Royal Highlanders Montreal, married Sarah Ann Martin of Bolton. The Globe reported that to the dismay of the 14th Battalion 3rd Brigade they had lost their regimental dog Buller. Also, the Princess Patricia's were moved from the Plain to Winchester to form part of a British division.
The arduous drill for the troops, reported the Globe of November 18, began at 6:15 a.m.
...they fall in and go for a little run before folding the blankets, cleaning up the tents and performing other duties which must be done before breakfast time. The morning meal is over by 8 o'clock, and the men fall in again and either go for a route march in full pack or drill until dinner time. There is more drilling to be done in the afternoon. Tea is served and disposed of about 5 o'clock by candlelight. The days are very short. In the evenings the men are free to enjoy themselves, and such places as the Y.M.C.A. are very popular until "lights out" sounds. There is not a great deal of opportunity, at present, for recreation, especially in the evenings, and unless some provision is made for this sort of thing the men will spend some dreary evenings before they get into their huts. The wet weather of the last few days has made life in the tents anything but pleasant. However, huts are being erected, as rapidly as possible, and announcement was made last Saturday that all the men in the ranks who can use a hammer and saw will be set to work this morning to assist in the erection of the shanties. Some of Kitchener's men, who are living in huts at Bulford, near here, say they are very comfortable. The huts are constructed of wood and are sheeted with tin, so that they are fairly weatherproof. At all events, they are a thousand times better than tents. Each hut has a couple of fireplaces, a shower bath and other conveniences, which are much appreciated by the men. Efforts are being made to have the Canadians comfortably housed by the middle of November.
With the cold wet weather there had been some illness on the Plain and a few casualties. The Globe of November 18, gave their names, the first six died due to illness.
Samuel Herbert Smith, 5th Royal Highlanders,
Private S.H. Smith, Montreal Highlanders, was killed last Thursday when he fell from a motor car in which he was travelling
(Editors note: Private Hartley actually died of exposure, not disease, and the Private S. H. Smith that is referenced in the last paragraph is the same as the one mentioned in the first line. His cause of death is listed as "Accident")
Not all of the Canadians were in the same locale on the Plain. There were four camps: Bustard under the command of Colonel M.S. Mercer, Pond Farm under the command of Colonel J.E. Cohoe, West Down North under the command of Colonel Burstalt and West Down South under the command of Colonel R.E.W. Turner, V.C. On November 4, the King and Queen came to inspect the troops and, as if by royal decree, the sun broke through, an unusual happening on the Plain that fall.
Keeping secrets is always a problem when you have 30,000 men in close quarters. The Globe of November 21, reported that a cable had been received stating that the Royal Canadian Dragoons, Strathcona's Horse and the Montreal Corps of Guides had left for the front. The war diaries, however, do not bear this out.
There were many reports in the Globe of November 24. A 'kinema' at Bustard Camp opened, much to the delight of the troops. The Ross rifle, claimed the Globe reporter, "has proved itself a very effective weapon, and frequent scores of 9 out of 10 bulls at the 500-yards range speak sufficiently for the general marksmanship of the contingent." The death of Private Ash of Chilliwack, BC from spinal meningitis was also reported along with an item on enterprising Signaller, Charles Crean, who had "published a highly attractive bulletin in commemoration of the voyage across the Atlantic." It contained, among other things, a little poem:
Royal Canadians, marching to the range;
An interesting turn on furloughs was also mentioned in the Globe.
Since leave has been granted pretty freely during the last few weeks, the number of telegrams arriving in camp informing members that their relatives are sick in various parts of England have been perfectly amazing. Last week a well-known Toronto trooper got a wire: "Get three days leave, but nobody is ill."
The Times started a two part series on the Canadian camps, the first appearing on November 28 and the latter on December 2.
Life On Salisbury Plain.
It will be some summers before the grass grows green again on parts of Salisbury Plain, where the overseas troops are in camp. There are a trifle over 30,000 men in the Canadian Division (which is a good deal more than a division) quartered in four camps-Bustard, North and South Westdown, and Pond Farm-and it is not easy to say which of the four at the moment is the muddiest. The men who are in bustard think that they have a little the worst of it; and men in the others invite them to "come and see."
In spite of the mud, however, they are all extraordinarily fit. The chief trouble among them is that more than the orthodox number of men have coughs as a result of the mud and the raw, damp weather; but they do their coughing very cheerfully. They call it the "Bustard whisper" in one camp and the "Pond Farm particular" in another. In the recent cold spell they were particularly fit; it bore some resemblance to Canadian kind. Now that the frost has gone and the ground has again become plashed into belts of slime and ooze, they object to it, lightheartedly, but in language which is as vigorous as it is generally picturesque. Of serious illness there is very little; the men have too much hard work and fresh air for that.
Every day when the weather is not impossible they are worked really hard; and after five hours of stiff marching or manoeuvring (say from 9 a.m. till 2) they come swinging in as fresh as the proverbial paint and put in an hour or so of football before it gets dusk. Besides the hard work and the football and fresh air, they are behaving in a way that keeps them fit.
Cases of drunkenness are few, for the men are fairly removed from the temptations of a large town. The nearest camp is 13 miles from Salisbury by a road which is largely a river of mud. The traffic which it is subjected to would test the best of high roads, and if you go to the camp by motor-car you had better allow an extra half-hour for delays on the road in case a heavy motor lorry has slipped into a ditch.
If the men are over-prone to any particular offence, it is overstaying their leave, for which the character of the roads gives some shadow of excuse. Lawyers, farmers, bankers, university undergraduates, and business men, as they mostly are at home, they are accustomed to more or less independence in the spending of their time, and-so commanding officers complain-they have difficulty in understanding that leave to a certain hour is leave to that hour only. Besides the football ground, the chief centre of recreation is in the Y.M.C.A. tents, where there are great sing-songs of an evening. A "Canadian Officers' Quartet" is giving performances, in aid of war funds, at other places than the camps. It gave one at Bournemouth on Saturday last, when, in spite of the fact that Mme. Clara Butt had given a concert that afternoon, there was an audience of 3,000, and the Quartet has had to promise to go to Bournemouth again.
Improvement Under Training.
Of course they regret the waiting, but few, at least among the officers, doubt the wisdom of it. The training which they had at Valcartier, good as it was, was short, and they are too keen on doing credit to Canada when the time comes to be over restive at anything which makes them better able to do it. And they know that they are better able now than when they landed in England. That, indeed, is the one supreme consideration which, as a visitor talks to them, seems to influence them all; the hope that they, when the time comes, will bear themselves so that Canada and the Empire will be proud of them.
That they will, there can hardly be a doubt; for they are a magnificent body of men. Among them are a large proportion (as many as 250 out of 1,200 in one battalion) who have already seen active service, either in South Africa or, being recent settlers, in Canada, as Regulars in the British Army-the "Imperial Army" they generally call it-before they went out. Among these old soldiers are some of the very best and some of the very worst-or, let us say, most troublesome-men in each battalion. From among them are drawn a large proportion of the non-commissioned officers, and they can hardly fail to have a steadying influence in the hour of trial. For there is no foolish bragging about the way in which the Division is going to acquit itself, any more than there is any real apprehension. The men know that they ought to be able to do whatever the best troops can do. But they know also that even the best troops sometimes have stage fright. "If we can stick it the first time!" That seems to be the universal prayer. After that they have no doubt. And this sober facing of the seriousness of the job ahead, so vastly finer than any empty vapourings, is in itself a fairly good guarantee that they will "stick it" grimly and determinedly.
A Contented Lot.
As for the conditions under which the men live on Salisbury Plain, there is creditably little complaint. Now that the tents are boarded, which many of them were not at first, even though the tents themselves, the men aver, [sic] are made of poorer and less waterproof material than those they have in Canada , the mud is tolerable. Soon they will move into huts, as one brigade has already done; but when, no man knows, for the work on the huts at the moment seems to be going slowly, from difficulty, it is said, in getting material. Meanwhile the Government rations for the men are acknowledged to be good, if different from Canadian rations, and abundant. But the messing of the officers, by private contract, is much less satisfactory. Complaints of that are numerous and bitter. That, however, is a matter which, if it does not remedy itself, the officers will soon find a way to remedy.
As a whole the Division is distinctly contented and is doing its best to be as fit as possible against the Day. Cheerful, filled with abounding health, working honestly and hard, the Canadians are likely to give a good account of themselves when the call comes.
Meanwhile, back home, the Globe of the same date noted that the public schools of Toronto were sending 50 "books weekly to keep the men at the front in touch with the doings of their friends at home." These 'books' were made by the children and "the training that the children thus receive in making the selection of the paragraphs, as well as in the neatness displayed in arranging the pages, is alone worth the effort." It was hoped that other schools would also participate.
An unusual turn of events was reported in the Globe on November 30. Beefskin moccasins, it said, were being considered for use of the troops at the front. Moccasins of this type were worn by Canadian lumbermen and they were waterproof. However, it was felt that heavy soles and heels would have to be attached for use at the front.
In the meantime, the troops continued with their daily routine. The December 1, diary entry for the RCD showed no change in conditions. "Weather: continuous rain with some frost and sleet" but training and parading continued. The next day the second part of The Times story appeared, outlining the waiting strategy.
Life On Salisbury Plain.
II.-The Canadians Again.
The Canadian Field Force now on Salisbury Plain numbers something over 30,000 men.
Naturally the whole force is not camped together, but is scattered over four main camps and several smaller ones-Bastard, Westdown North and Westdown South, Bulford, Pond Farm, Larkhill, Sling Plantation-the most widely separated of which are not less than seven or eight miles apart; and the miles are over roads of almost inconceivable muddiness, for which the men console themselves with the reflection that it is, at least, good preparation for life in wet trenches. And it is astonishing in how much mud it is possible to play football and even lacrosse, when you really have a mind to it. Here and there, too, one can find green oases in the wilderness of mud where there is still sound turf enough to give foothold for a sparring ring. So one way and another the Canadians keep incorrigibly cheerful.
Boots And Politics.
The persistent wet and slush are hard, however, on boots, and it is an unfortunate fact that boots do not seem to have been the strong point in the equipment of the Canadian troops. One hears hard things said of the Canadian contractors who furnished the boots to the Field Force, and it is perhaps as well that the troops did not have to go at once to the front with the footwear in which they came over. Nor is it the only detail, as the innocent visitor gathers, in which "politics"-the universal scapegoat-prevented the gathering and dispatch of the Force from being altogether ideal. But whatever shortcomings of equipment or of organization there may have been are all being rapidly remedied, and the fact that it gives time to remedy them makes the officers, at least, acquiesce the more willingly in the period of enforced waiting.
It has to be remembered that very few of the officers of the Force are professional soldiers, and most of them cheerfully admit that they are at least as much in need of the training which they are now getting as are the men. No inconsiderable proportion of the infantry also belonged to light horse regiments at home and their knowledge of infantry drill was scanty. On the other hand, the whole force is of an extremely high level of individual intelligence, so that the men learn quickly; and all ranks are conspicuously keen. One day last week the whole division was out for divisional manoeuvres, and the result was eminently creditable. Besides ordinary drill the men get work in trench-digging and bayonet fighting and some of the brigades have done some vigorous and enthusiastic night work, which is doing a lot of good in teaching officers and men alike to adapt themselves to strange conditions.
Previous knowledge of soldiering is not in every case an unmixed blessing. As was said in a former article, some of the very best men in the Force are men who have already seen service in the British Army. Many of them are splendid. Others, however, only make their experience and superior knowledge an excuse for putting on airs and doing as little work as possible. In the first two or three weeks, also, there was more than the normal amount of breaking of rules and drinking; and this, to the credit of Canada it should be said, was chiefly on the part, if not of old soldiers, at least of men born in the British Isles, who had only been in the Dominion for a few years. They found the temptation of being back "home," where British beer was cheap again, too much for them. Drafts of undesirables have been promptly returned to Canada, and the Force now is well-behaved, sober, and immensely earnest in its work. In this connexion too much can hardly be said in praise of the Y.M.C.A. tents or buildings, which are in every camp. What the men would have done without them in the dismal weather, when to walk out of doors is to wade ankle deep in mud, it is not easy to conjecture.
Housing An Army
A question which the weather and the mud have brought to the fore is that of the relative merits of canvas tents and of huts. One infantry brigade has already moved into huts at Bulford. The men are much more comfortable, and they can now get dry clothes with reasonable regularity. But the sick list is larger. When the Brigade was under canvas there were hardly any coughs or colds. Now there are more than enough. The huts, which accommodate about 40 men each, are raised off the ground on brick stilts, and as the floors are none too closely boarded, the wind gets underneath, and whistles fearsomely up through the cracks in a way which the medical authorities are inclined to think has not a little to do with the growth of the sick list. New huts are in places being built boarded to the ground and the present intention is to build huts for the whole Force.
Building huts for 30,000 men is a fairly serious undertaking. Even a brigade makes a town of 5,000 inhabitants; and it is not only the building of the huts that has to be done but all the piping for water supply, except in places where the ground has already been regularly used for camp purposes, must be put in. At Larkhill, not far from Bulford, where the largest operations are going on, it looks as if a whole Garden City, larger than ordinary, was being built at once.
It is not only the men who suffer from the mud. Standing all day and night picketed in mud almost to the fetlocks is not good for horses' hooves; and where the horses are-especially horses and guns-the mud is inevitably the worst. It is astonishing how much ground batteries can churn up; and, after an impartial acquaintance with most of the country, I am inclined to think that the worst of the mud is to be found about Westdown North, where the artillery is quartered. The best footgear for getting about the lines is rubber boots to the knees. And drilling, marching, and manoeuvring are not altogether joy under the existing conditions, and in route-marching it is not easy to make more than three miles an hour with the guns, a ten-mile march-or 3˝ hours-being as much as the horses want.
But the worse the weather conditions are the better the training for what may lie ahead. That is the fact with which every man consoles himself. Nobody knows whether the Canadians are going to be wanted "over there" before the spring; but everybody knows that wherever they go, the Real Thing is likely to be a good deal harder than anything on Salisbury Plain. And the one thing to do meanwhile is to get hard and fit enough to stand whatever comes for one's own sake, for Canada's, and the Empire's.
"Highlanders Flooded Out," reported the Globe on December 5. Mud or no mud, training continued but, on December 8, parade was cancelled due to the weather. There was also a shortage of fuel, notes the RCD diary, which was reported to HQ. At this time 'B' squadron of the RCD was moved to Pond Farm North due to conditions and 'A' and 'C' squadrons continued their training. The flooded out Highlanders were also relocated into the nearest towns. Life on Salisbury Plain was wet and dismal!
In the mud of Salisbury Plain the boots, with heels made of compressed paper, were rotting off the feet of the troops and the minister who supplied them to the army was given the nickname "Sham Shoes" by the troops. The boots were soon replaced by British Army issue. But, boots were not the only faulty equipment supplied to the troops. The Ross rifle turned out to be a major mistake. Too long for practical use and problematic in other ways, the Ross was replaced by the Lee-Enfield only a few months after the Canadians landed in France on order of General French. Although the Ross was prone to jamming it was accurate so some were kept to be used for sniping.
The McAdam shield shovel was intended to be used as a entrenching tool and also as a shield when in the trenches. Unfortunately, it was too flimsy to use as a shovel, too thin to stop a bullet and too heavy to carry. This, too, was replaced, at the expense of the Canadian taxpayer.
There was also a problem with the "Oliver" equipment. This was a heavy pack carried by the men as they marched. It had a leather harness and brass buckles, which dug into their backs. The leather yoke on the pack was not adjustable and rode up and tended to choke the men until they learned convoluted ways of tilting their shoulders to prevent this from happening. One officer described the faults of this equipment. "...yoke not adjustable; canvas valise tears away from leather braces; pouches unsuitable; waist belt too narrow; entrenching tool heavy and difficult to carry, chafes thighs and bangs about, not bullet proof; colour of equipment too light." The "Oliver" was also replaced. [from The Medical Services, by Sir Andrew Macphail, Ottawa: 1925, pages 45-46.]
On December 10, inspection of the RCD was carried out by the Group Officer Commanding (G.O.C.) and permission was given to the Dragoons to move camp. The following day a gale came up with rain and hail but still, at 10 a.m., the regiment paraded and marched to rendevous at New Foundland Farm at 12 noon. December 12, continued stormy and after a parade in the morning, the men went to fatigues in the afternoon to wait out the storm. That same day the Times printed another article. (Note: part III of the series was on the New Zealand troops.)
Life On Salisbury Plain
Two or three miles on the other side of everywhere on Salisbury Plain, 15 or 16 miles from Salisbury as the crow flies, and a good deal further by these delectable roads, are Canadian cavalry. The ground is high, and on some days lately the wind has blown in a way which must have made even the men from the Manitoba prairies feel at home.
But the high ground has the advantage that it does not get muddy quite so soon as the places lower down. Here are slopes where the grass is still luxuriant and which are dotted with patches of furze. But nothing here, any more than anywhere else, can prevent the most travelled paths in camp and the immediate neighbourhood of the horse lines from becoming in a few days a mere sea of mud. Round the entrance to the headquarters tents in both regiments is a veritable lagoon of slime, across which no amount of road-making with planks and wattled hurdles and bundles of cut furze-bushes which are not hough-high. But they are fit and in fine condition. Their lines have, of course, to be moved constantly. In a very few days in the soft weather the ground gets into such a condition that it is impossible for men to work in it, and the horses, in hooves and general health alike, would be bound to suffer. So they must be continually shifted to places where the turf is still sound. This has the inconvenience, apart from the extra work involved, that they inevitably get further and further away from the centre of camp, from the kitchens and so forth. And while in all the overseas troops on the Plain the men are working hard, it is perhaps the cavalry who, as a force, are hardest worked of all. It is a testing life for both men and horses, and in no other branch are men or horses more fit.
They had the misfortune to lose a lot of equipment in disembarcation at Plymouth. Whose fault it was, no one seems to know, but it was evidently not the fault of the regimental officers, who mourn for reserve saddles and other precious properties gone astray. But some at least are more than ordinarily happily placed in the matter of extra equipment and luxuries of all kinds, for the extreme generosity of Lady Strathcona, recently displayed on a munificent scale to the regiment which bears her name, puts that body in a position to be envied.
Difficulties With The Wind
The men, as has been said, work so hard that they have little time for anything else: none the less, there are the long evenings, and here is a fine opening for the godfatherly benevolence of the Y.M.C.A. The regiments tried to inaugurate a joint recreation tent for their men, in the shape of a large marquee which was secured for the purpose. But the wind would have none of it. It has been said that the wind up here is hard on tents, and, no matter how the marquee was guyed and stayed, the gale made short work of it. A mile or so across the plain, on the site of the now deserted infantry camp from which the men were moved down to the huts at Sling Plantation, is a Y.M.C.A. building deserted and unused: and the cavalrymen cast longing eyes at it. It would not be much of a matter to move it up into their lines, where it would meet a real need and be welcomed with enthusiasm.
The way in which the horses have accommodated themselves to the novel conditions is one of the most gratifying features of the life on Salisbury Plain. Canadian horses are, of course, accustomed to stern weather and are notoriously hardy. Nor, in most parts of the Dominion, are they by any means strangers to mud and slush: though it comes rather with the spring thaw than in the "fall" or winter. But self-respecting Canadian cavalry chargers do not expect to be stood out in the open under a blanket for weeks on end in soft ground and through such raw nights as they have had to face here. With the hard work that they are going through amid the mud, they need a lot of care: but they get it, and you could not wish to see animals fitter or in better spirits than the horses at Pond Farm.
The Art Of Taking Cover
Salisbury Plain, again, is a gorgeous field for cavalry manoeuvres. It is amazing how this gently undulating land, with its shallow hollows and irregular gullies, lends itself to secrecy of movement. Stories are told in connexion with the recent divisional manoeuvres of the way in which the cavalry on that occasion kept itself out of sight, which are immensely to the credit of the manner in which it was handled. Altogether they are having lots of fun, men and horses together, in the outlying camp at Pond Farm, while work and wind make them hard and weather-beaten. If the men may at times regret the baths and electric lights of the camp at Valcartier, they are being well prepared for whatever is in store for them. But they need a recreation tent of nights.
But, enough was enough, and on December 13, the Dragoons were looking for shelter. "Visited farms in vicinity with view to encamping squadrons near shelters, none suitable" stated the diary. Life went on with some 20 men in the squadron granted leave on December 16, while others were to take a musketry course at Hayling Island.
The Globe of December 15, reported the death of another soldier. Private Charles Matthews fell into an unused well on Salisbury Plain. Matthews was with the 12th Field Ambulance Corps of Hamilton.
The RCD diary entry of December 20, states camp was to move to Pond Farm North-still it rained. By the following day the move was complete and snow came on December 23. Some 20% of the regiment was granted leave and for the others, Christmas dinner was served in the canteen. Still it rained with the diary noting that on December 26, the high winds blew the Orderly Room tent down and many papers were ruined or blown away. The weather was fine the next morning and there was a Church Parade. However, due to the miserable weather, there was no boat from Ireland and some of the men could not return from leave.
The next group of men were granted leave on December 30, and the order was given that the troops were to move into billets. The RCD diary reports that the squadrons were dispersed to several places, 'A' Squadron went into billets at Tilshead, 'B' to Shrewton and 'C' to Winterbourne Stoke. Weather continued to be a problem as the diary reports "country flooded" on January 6, and by the 15th the floods were decreasing.
The Times of January 6, 1915 reported:
Relief For Canadian Troops.
Several Thousands Billeted.
Several thousand members of the Canadian contingent, after enduring many weeks on Salisbury Plain of some of the roughest and wettest weather remembered at this time of the year, have now gone into billets in the towns and villages round the Plain.
As far as the Northern side is concerned, they are all artillery. Devizes is now the headquarters of the divisional artillery, and the town accommodates some 900 men and 750 horses, while other brigades, with ammunition columns and horse artillery-some 3,000 to 4,000 men, and their horses-are distributed over all the villages and hamlets on a line several miles long, from Edington on the west nearly to Upavon on the east. This has caused great pressure not only on house and cottage accommodation, but also on farm buildings, but there has been loyal cooperation between the military and civil elements, the Canadians having won many friends since their arrival. One of the buildings requisitioned is the Dauntsey Agricultural School at West Lavington, where 300 men and a dozen officers are billeted.
The brigade allotted to Devizes arrived yesterday afternoon, and both men and horses bore witness to the extraordinarily muddy conditions in the neighbourhood of the hut camps which have been referred to in special articles in The Times. There is no doubt that they have had a very trying time, but the Canadians have borne themselves all through with cheerfulness. It is understood that several cavalry regiments which have been encamped on the Devizes side of the plain have moved into billets in the Wylye Valley on the south. There are interesting statements as to the date of departure for France, but these, of course, may not be published.
On the same day, the Globe reported on the waters which flooded Salisbury Cathedral and drove the men out of their shanties. Hundreds of men were sent to billets in various towns and villages in the area. Division staff moved into Shrewton and headquarters for the artillery was now located at Devizes. Illness had also reared its ugly head and cases of spinal meningitis had appeared. The Globe, of January 25, reported on the death of Private J.K. Chandler, 14th Battalion, due to meningitis.
The men were wet, tired and afraid they were going to miss all of the action if they did not soon get to France. Little did they know that within days they would be on their way to the front.
The war diary for the 1st Division, under the command of General Edwin A.H. Alderson, records on February 6, "Mounted orderlies from Royal Canadian Dragoons to carry mail for various units from Monday 8th inst. Weather, showery" The following day troops started to leave the station at Amesbury on their way to the point of embarkation at Avonmouth. On February 9, 1915 the 1st Division headquarters departed on board the City of Benares. Entries in the diary record the progress.
A few days later, the Times reported:
Canadians Landed In France.
(From Our Correspondent.)
Ottawa, Feb. 16
Sir Robert Borden in the House to-day read a telegram from Mr. L. Harcourt, the Colonial Secretary, announcing that the Canadian Contingent had safely landed in France. The news was greeted with prolonged cheers.
Life on the Salibury Plain was over and a much different life in the trenches of France was about to begin.
1. War Diary Royal Canadian Dragoons,
Library and Archives of Canada (LAC),