There is a 90-year-old legend in the North Wales town of Bodelwyddan. On some nights you can hear the sound of soldiers marching through the town, but if you look, none can be seen. The soldiers are the spirits of Canadian troops that rest in St. Margaret’s Churchyard in the town. 208 Canadian soldiers are buried there, most of them victims of the influenza epidemic that was rampant in Europe and North America in early 1919. Four of the graves are different: they are the graves of soldiers that were killed when the Canadian soldiers in the Kinmel Park Army camp mutinied in 1919.
At the end of the war, the logistics problem of returning all the troops to Canada arose. Companies like Canadian Pacific had given all of their ships to the Canadian government during the war, but after the war they had to get back to the business of making money. The British government offered a number of ships, but the sheer volume of troops dictated the timeframe. From the period of 1914 to 1918 the Canadian railways had transported a tremendous volumes of troops to maritime ports. In 1919 they were concerned about the state of the tracks, and the volume of troops they could transport. With all of the logistical issues, the initial estimate was that it would take 18 months to get the Canadian troops home; in reality most were home by mid 1919. There were a lot of practical problems, such as getting troops back from active occupation service in Germany, and emotional issues; many soldiers still had relatives in England and wanted to see them before going home, so the decision was made to bring them back through the British Isles instead of directly from France as the American troops were.
Troop concentration camps were set up in Great Britain, Bramshott and Whitly (England) being the predominant ones for combat troops, Kinmel Park (Wales) for service battalions, mostly Forestry Troops and Railway Corpsmen, that had never seen combat, or indeed left Great Britain.
For the17,400 troops at Kinmel Park, conditions were far from ideal. The days were filled with exercises that they thought meaningless, medical examinations, route marches and military discipline and training. For them the war was over and they didn’t see the need. They were anxious to return to Canada, not just to their families, but they also realized that the first soldiers home would have the pick of the available jobs, and no one wanted to come home from the war and be unemployed. At Kinmel Park, there was the military bureaucracy to overcome. Troops awaiting transport had to fill in some 30 different forms with approximately 360 questions. The food they were fed was bad; it had been compared to “pigswill”. At night, the troops had access to “Tin Town” a nearby group of shops and pubs that had inflated their prices to take advantage of the, comparatively, well paid Canadian soldier. After a month of these rates, many soldiers were broke. Sir Edward Kemp, the Overseas Minister, commented on the camp: “You cannot blame the soldiers for kicking and complaining … You are living in paradise in Canada as compared to this place”. The men felt that they were stuck in the United Kingdom, with no ways to influence their release. At Kinmel, probably because it was supposed to be a short term camp, the men did not receive regular pay,
Although warmer than most Canadian winters, the winter of 1918-1919 was also one of the coldest that the locals could remember. With the camp situated right on the coast, the men were exposed to the constant, harsh wind that came in off the sea.
In late February it became common knowledge that a number of large ships had been reallocated to the American troops, who hadn’t been overseas for as long as the Canadians[i]. As a last straw, at the beginning of March, General Sir Arthur Currie made a decision to transport the 3rd Infantry as a whole back to Canada, instead of the troops waiting at Kinmel Park, who were originally scheduled for these ships. There was no question that these were combat troops who deserved to return quickly, but they hadn’t been overseas as long as many of the men stationed at Kinmel Park
The Camp itself was understaffed and inexperienced. Some of the camp commanders had 3 months of service. Major H.W. Cooper testified at a hearing after the riots:
I am 12 Sergts [Sergeants] below Establishment, 21 Cpls [Corporals] and 35 L/Cpls [Lance Corporals]. Seven of my Officers received their commissions in Nov. 1918.”
Kinmel Park Concentration Camp – 1919
On the evening of March 4, 1919 at around 9:00 PM, approximately 1,000 troops rebelled and started a riot. The idea likely came from a strike that the British troops staged a few months earlier, resulting in their early demobilization. Once the riot started it quickly got out of control. It started with one of the canteens, spread to a sergeant's mess quarters and then into "Tin Town" where the troops took their revenge against the local profiteers. The mutineers remembered their dept to the Salvation Army, and these quarters were spared. The YMCA and the Navy and Army Canteen Board (NACB) were viewed to have inflated prices; their buildings were looted and damaged. The overall damage was calculated to be in the thousands of dollars, with stolen or destroyed cloths, food, alcohol, cigarettes and tobacco and equipment.
On the morning of March 5th, the officers tried to take control of the situation. They organized some of the ‘loyal’ troops to try to bring the situation under control. They encountered some of the mobs that had formed and things quickly got out of control. Five Canadians were killed in the subsequent encounters, 28 wounded. In the aftermath, soldiers were arrested, and then quickly released fearing that arrests would lead to more outbreaks of violence. In the end 51 Canadians faced a court marshal, 27 were convicted and sentenced anywhere from 3 months to 10 years. The government essentially covered the mutiny up, sealing all records of it for 100 years.
Local newspapers covered the affair, and added their own sensationalism. The London Times reported on March 7, 1919:
“The rioters then proceeded to the quarters occupied by the girls, who were in bed, and carried away their clothes. The girls were not injured, but had to remain in bed the next day because they could not dress themselves. Next day, the rioters were masquerading about the camp in girls' clothing.”
The Regimental Diaries report that, after investigation, the allegations of rioters going into the women quarters were unfounded; the clothes had been taken from the NACB store. The Times later recanted (March 8):
“The girls' camp was not attacked. As a matter of fact the girls were treated with the utmost chivalry. No man entered the girls' bedrooms while they were occupied.”
The Times also initially reported, and later recanted, that the rioters had killed a Victoria Cross winner. They did, however, accurately sum up the incident:
“In view of the splendid discipline and record uniformly maintained by Canadian troops since the beginning of the war in England and France, the ‘incident’ at Kinmel Park is regretted. It is considered that by comparison with others discipline amongst the Canadian troops is of a high order. It is also regretted that reports of the incident have been exaggerated.”
Although the means did not justify the end, the result of the mutiny was that troops stationed at Kinmel were given priority for returning to Canada, and by March 25th approximately 15,000 soldiers had been redeployed to Canada.
This is one of the most misunderstood and undocumented parts of the Canadian effort in the First World War. The riot itself, was not unusual. There were many other mutiny's by French and British troops, many more serious than the riot at Kinmel Park. During and after the War, the British military hierarchy tended to downplay the role the "Colonials" had played, and while they kept tight censorship on the British mutiny's, they were more than happy to let the press know about the goings on at Kinmel Park.
After 5 years of war, it must have been sup rising to the residents of Bodelwyddan to hear about soldiers waiting to go home being killed. They provided a custom tombstone for Corporal Joseph Young, who was killed during the rioting. It reads:
“Someday, sometime we’ll understand”
 Depending on the source, the number varies from 800 to 2,000 soldiers.
[i] Coombs, Howard G., Dimensions of Military Leadership: The Kinmel Park Mutiny of 4/5 March 1919.