West Sandling Camp and the Trenches of Tolsford Hill

Michael and Paula Dugdale, residents of Saltwood, Kent, England has written a document that brought an important location for the 18th Battalion to life[i].


The 18th Battalion was formed in South Western Ontario, primarily from Windsor, Chatham, London, Woodstock, and Galt, Ontario during the autumn of 1914 and was part of the 2nd Contingent sent over to reinforce the 1st Contingent. From the rather dismal experiences of the 1st Contingent at its training base at Salisbury Plain it was decided to locate the 2nd Contingent in an area with better facilities and in a strategically more advantageous position geographically, Kent being closer to London and located near the port of Folkestone.

The 18th Battalion disembarked from Avonmouth at 6:00 AM on the morning of April 29, 1915 and arrived at West Sandling Camp at 3:00 PM that very day[ii]. A training syllabus shows the Battalion became actively training on May 17, but other than the brief war diary entries, no sense of the Battalions experience can be derived from the War Diary. It is succinct to the point of almost uselessness.

Google Maps route via train from Avonmouth to West Sandling. Note that in London there are changes to the subway system which may indicate that the Battalion had to change stations.

Google Maps route via train from Avonmouth to Folkestone. Note that in London there are changes to the subway system which may indicate that the Battalion had to change stations.

The first official 18th Battalion record of Tolsford Hill is made in the “Syllabus of Training – 18th Battalion, C.E.F. weekending June 19, 1915” were not b.) indicates “Entrenching is practised on TOLSFORD HILL.” From this moment the connection between West Sandling Camp and Tolsford Hill is made. The “originals”[iii] of the Battalion marched to Tolsford Hill, and with shovel, pick and manual labour, laboriously dug trenches as preparation for the tactical employment of these earthworks when they move to the Continent and joined the fighting in earnest.

One wonders if Tolsford Hill became the butt of jokes and derision from the non-commissioned soldiers of the Battalion. Between June 19 and July 1, 1915 elements of the Battalion were engaged in entrenching a total of 5 times. It was hard work. A weather report from the Daily Telegraph (London, England) indicated that June 1915 was very hot with temperatures in the shade of 84 degrees F. and in the sun 126 degrees F.

Weather News Article. Daily Telegraph. June 9, 1915. Page 9.

Weather News Article. Daily Telegraph. June 9, 1915. Page 9.

The Battalion was involved in entrenching 5 times in July; a training scheme in August; and in September was tasked, along with other battalions of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade, with the task of filling in the trenches from the 6th to 10th of that month. Work they were sure to enjoy before embarking to the Continent for combat.


Mr. Dugdale and his wife Paula have created a PDF file entitled “Canadian Expeditionary Forces Practice Trenches – Tolsford Hill East & West Sandling Camps Saltwood, Kent”. This document is a very valuable resource and is the first of its kind to examine the geographic location and history of the trenches of Tolsford Hill in conjunction of the West and East Sandling Camps. The authors have painstakingly documented in text, photographs and maps the area and have enhanced the document with current photographs of the geography with those of troops from 100 years ago to create a montage of what the topography looks like now and then, 101 years ago.

The images and text give the reader “feet on the ground” to imagine the experiences of the Canadian troops of the 2nd Contingent who trained in this area. Michael’s and Paula’s work is a valuable contribution to the Canadian war experience of the First World War and is strongly recommended reading to those who have interest in the Canadian battalions that served in the Sandling Camps area. It would be of further general interest to anyone interested in the training and preparation Imperial troops in England during this conflict.

One of the photographs in the document is particularly compelling. The photograph does not reference to which direction it is facing when it was taken but one can imagine the sky and the English Channel in the distance fused together in the blue of the day as the horizon melds the sea and sky together. 128 kilometers away was Ypres, the 2nd Division’s eventual combat assignment. On a quiet night could the Canadians of the 18th Battalion hear the artillery at the Front? To go from the picturesque beauty of Kent to the hell of Ypres is unimaginable.

Screen capture of photograph taken from Tolsford Hill. Copyright M. Dugdale.

Screen capture of photograph taken from Tolsford Hill. Copyright M. Dugdale.

The work of Michael and Paula helps us to imagine.

German soldier in a waterfilled trench in the vicinity of Ypres, Flanders (Belgium). This picture was made in November 1915. Source: http://lost-in-the-trenches.tumblr.com/page/3

German soldier in a water filled trench in the vicinity of Ypres, Flanders (Belgium). This picture was made in November 1915. Source: http://lost-in-the-trenches.tumblr.com/page/3


The efforts of the Dugdale’s helps one understand the context of the war diaries of any Canadian battalion that served in the area of the Sandling Camps and Tolsford Hill. Entrenching training that occurred in Canada before arrival in England was rudimentary and unrealistic. The work on Tolsford Hill would be valuable (and hard work) for the Canadian soldiers in the further preparation towards active service in a combat area.

[i] Please refer to http://www.saltwoodkent.co.uk/ for more information and historical information of this area.

[ii] There is not detail to the route the Battalion took by train or any other details of their arrival to England. The War Diary is brief and lacks any substantive detail. It would be fascinating to know the route the Battalion took and many of the soldiers were born in England and may have passed familiar sights and locations. Perhaps the Battalion had to change trains and stations in London and marched through the streets of the capitol of their Empire.

[iii] The “originals” is a term coined by the author to indicate the original draft of the Battalion who enlisted between October 1914 and as late as March 1915.



Site of Interest: Saltwood Compendium, Odds, Queries and Curiosities

The author of this site contacted me looking for assistance in research he is doing:

“I live close to West Sandling Camp and have been carrying out research on the practice trenches dug by C.E.F.

I have recently found the trenches and their location, although now filled in for one hundred years.

I consider them a significant part pf our county’s archaeology, and of importance given that their use in training played such a significant part of our history..

Now that I have located them, I am making moves to have them officially designated.

Should you have any images which are not already ‘out there’ regarding West Sandling Camp or ‘Entrenching’ I would of course be interested to hear from you.

Michael Dugdale

If you can assist Michael in his research please contact him.

His site is available at available here and covers a range of topics and is very well researched. Of particular value (and GREAT EFFORT) are the sites PDF files for the Commonwealth War Grave Commission graves that are maintained in church yard of St. Peter and St. Paul; Canadian Forces in West Sandling; and other areas of interest regarding, not only the First and Second World War, but also other aspects of the history and live in Saltwood.

West Sandling figures prominently in the history of the 18th Battalion and the battalion trained there from April 29, 1915 upon its arrival to England until its departure for the Continent and battle on September 14, 1915 when they marched to Folkestone to embark a channel paddle wheel steamer to France.

Thanks to Michael for contacting me and make us aware of this great site!

Why I Do This…

…for Private Henry Allen, reg. no. 158529.

He died at the age of 45 years old on August 17, 1917 and from the Canadian Great War Project soldier page we find out the date he died; his regimental number, the place he is commemorated as he has no know grave and that he enlisted. His Canadian Virtual Memorial page is bereft of any information about him and we do not know much about him.

But now we know:

  1. Born in Gloucestershire, England.
  2. He was killed in action (originally listed as unknown cause).
  3. That he was killed on August 17, 1917 during the attack and capture of Cotton Trench in the vicinity of the following coordinates: N.13.a. to N.13.b. and N.13.c. on map sheet 36c.S.W.
  4. That he was married to Mabel Allen and they lived at 47 1/2 King Street, St. Catherines, Ontario.
  5. He was a groom.
  6. Served 8 months 19th Regiment and 11 years with the Royal Horse Artillery.
  7. Enlisted September 28, 1915 in St. Catherines.
  8. Could read and write as he signed his attestation papers.
  9. Joined at the relatively old age of 43 years and 6 months.
  10. 5′ and 4.5″ with a chest of 36 inches (3″ expansion) and was vaccinated.
  11. Belonged to the Church of England.
  12. Served in Europe.
  13. Initially joined the 19th Regiment and was transferred to the 81st Battalion October 1, 1915.
  14. He had anti-typhoid and tetanus inoculations.
  15. Left his estate to his wife.
  16. Left Halifax N.S May 1, 1916 and arrived Liverpool May 6, 1916 via the S.S. Olympic.
  17. As of May 1915 he assigned $20.00 of his pay per month to his wife.
  18. May 15, 1915 appointed acting Lance-Corporal at West Sandling.
  19. Transferred to Shorncliffe  from 81st Reserve Battalion and taken on strength 18th Battalion June 6, 1916.
  20. Reverted to a permanent grade of private June 21, 1916.
  21. Joined 18th in the field on July 7, 1916.
  22. Attached to 4th Field Company, Canadian Engineers in a Carrying Party August 29, 1916.
  23. Returned to 18th Bn. October 4, 1916.
  24. Suffered myalgia from April 4, 1917 to May 13, 1917 and stayed at the 2nd Canadian Field Ambulance, No. 47 General Hospital and the Canadian Base Depot.
  25. Killed in Action August 17, 1917,
  26. His Memorial Cross, plaque and scroll were forwarded as of June 5, 1920 to his widow Mrs. E. Allen living now 40 William Street, St. Catherines. They may have mixed up the first initial with his mother.
  27. His mother was most likely Mrs. E. Allen, The Weyhouse, Nr. Stroud, England.
  28. A war service gratuity of $100.00 was paid to Mrs. Mabel Allen of 99 Henry Street, St. Catherines on June 27, 1920.
  29. His pay records show that he had no demerits or fines associated to him during his service to Canada.

And to the others that served.


He was loving and kind to all…

Private Herman Aitken in an undated photograph. C. 1915 - 17.

Private Herman Aitken in an undated photograph. C. 1915 – 17.

On the 7th of May, 1915 in London, Ontario a young 21 year old Herman Aitken, reg. no. 112168 enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force with the 7th Canadian Mounted Rifles.

In England he was attached to the Fort Garry Horse on January 2, 1916 and transferred to the Continent to join that unit. It appears that this move was not to his liking as witnessed by the following charges in his service record:

In the Field

3 days F.P. [field punishment] No 2. (1) Late on parade. (2) Answering back to Officer when checked up for same,

The Fort Garry Horse seems to have had enough of Private Aitken so three days later he is transferred to the “Line Machine Gun Squadron” where three months later he ran into two other disciplinary infractions:

In the Field

Sent to 3 days F.P. 2 for insolence today [towards an] N.C.O. [non-commissioned officer].

In the Field

Sent to 3 days F.P. 2 conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline. Swearing in parade.

In the Field

Sent to 3 days F.P. 2 for conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline in that he was expressing in very forcible language his opinion of this unit.

Five months later the Private Aitken was transferred from the Machine Gun Squadron to the 18th Battalion on October 21, 1916 and his service records show that he served without further disciplinary problems until he was killed in action on May 9, 1917.

From these events it appears that Private Aitken was not a model soldier with the units prior to joining the 18th Battalion and a news article in the London Free Press expands on his character, as it was known by his family and friends before his service in the army and gives an idea of the man:


Well-Know Young Londoner Gave His Life for His Country in France

Another of London’s boys has made the supreme sacrifice in the cause of humanity and liberty in the person of Corp. Herman Aitken [Note that the news story erroneously states his rank a Corporal.], of the 18th Battalion, who, according to the official word received on Sunday afternoon by his parents, Chief and Mrs. John Aitken, 170 Bruce street, was killed in action May 9 [1917]. Corp. Aitken enlisted as a Private in the 2nd Divisional Calvary unit raised under the command of Lieut-Col. Ibbotson Leonard and went to England and later France with that unit, but in France he was transferred to the 18th Battalion, which unit he was serving at the time of his death. He was made corporal in the trenches.

From the last letter received by Chief Aitken, written on April 18, it would appear that Corp. Aitken had returned to the trenches from the rest camp only a few days before he met a hero’s fate. In the letter Corp. Aitken says, “You would be glad to know that I have passed through safely so far.” And so far as his parents know he never suffered any sickness in his nearly two years of service.

Besides his parents, Corp. Aitken is survived by three brothers, Pte. Arthur Aitken, of the 241st Battalion (Kilties), not in England; John, of the Grand Trunk Railroad; and George, of the city fire department, and four sisters, Bessie, Irene, Evelyn and Hazel, all at home.

Corp. Aitken was born in London and educated in the public schools and, although he passed his entrance examination, he did not go the the Collegiate Institute. He was a well-known hockey player and was playing with the Western University team when the won the N.H.L. championship in 1914.

The death of their hero son was a terrible blow Chief and Mrs. Aitken. The latter for a time was prostrated, but the chief, who has many times faced death in his capacity as a fireman, concealed his grief. Herman Aitken was a young man of whom any mother might be proud. He was loving and kind to all, and was the soul of fair play in the sports he took part in.

When the members of the Irish Benevolent Society heard the sad news, their condolences and sincere sympathy poured into the bereaved couple. Chief Aitken has for many years been a prominent worker in the society, and his hear is chairman of the committee.

Mayor Stevenson and other prominent Londoners also expressed their deepest sorrow at the early death of this heroic young Canadian.

Source: Possibly London Free Press. Circa Mid-May 1917.

Private Aitken’s death by shellfire is commemorated on the Vimy Memorial as there was no known grave.

The Connection Between Captain Lang of the 18th and Leonardo DiCaprio

Lt. Col. Frederick H. Laing in an undated photograph. Could the young boy to the right of the photograph be his son, Alfred?

Lt. Col. Frederick H. Laing in an undated photograph. Could the young boy to the right of the photograph be his son, Alfred? Source: Windsor Public Library

On October 20, 1914 Alfred Benson Laing enlisted in the 18th Battalion. He was a 24-year-old druggist with three years of officer cadet experience coupled with 7 years’ experience with the 21st Volunteers[i]. His next of kin information is noteworthy as his father was Colonel Frederick Herbert Laing located at the Laing building at the corner of Ouellete Avenue and Pitt Street in his native Windsor, Ontario[ii]. Like his father[iii], he was a pharmacist and he came by his military heritage from his father who was an active member of Canada’s militia in the Windsor area.

The Laing Building. Source: Windsor Public Library

The Laing Building. Source: Windsor Public Library

Captain Laing’s service with the 18th Battalion was relatively short lived. He served with the Battalion from October 20, 1914 until March 25, 1916 when he was transferred to the 36th Battalion. His service record is peppered with hospital stays for kidney problems, venereal disease gonorrhea (severe), epididymitis, orchitis, pulmonary haemorrhage, and “tuberculosis pulmonary”. Eventually his health condition, related in Medical Board report dated June 20, 1918, resulted in his discharge from the Canadian Army as medically unfit due to “tubercle of lungs” on December 6, 1918.[iv]

During his service in England he met and married Nora Hammersly Heenan[v] which was announced in the Toronto World Newspaper on September 8, 1917. They are married on September 10, 1917 and his assigned and separation pay documentation shows that starting in October 1917 his pay was assigned to Nora Benson residing, as of October 10, 1918, at West View, Wood Road, Windhead, Surrey. Later, a notation to forward the pay to 75 Victoria Avenue, Windsor, Ontario starting in April 1918 is made indicating his wife has moved to this address in Canada.

At some point a notation in his service record indicates an updated address of 1410 Monroe Street, Phoenix, Arizona. This undated change of address indicates Captain Laing move to a climate better suited for his medical condition.

Then, so far as can be ascertained, Captain Lang’s life is obscure but for a mention in two online references.

Maureen Dragone with Sir Anthony Hopkins. Source: HFPA

Maureen Dragone with Sir Anthony Hopkins. Source: HFPA

He and Nora had a daughter, Maureen Dragone[vi], who, like her mother Nora, was an influential arts journalist as a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA). Her mother, Nora Laing, founded the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Maureen Dragone’s influence in this organization was further enhanced by her creation of the Young Artist Foundation and is credited in helping promote such young actors as Leonardo DiCaprio and Jodie Foster[vii]. A story relates that she was born in Phoenix, Arizona and her father and mother became bankrupt and in an attempt to get back to Canada via British Columbia ran out of money in Los Angeles, California where they stopped and created a new life.[viii] Nora founded the HFPA and Captain Laing became a builder, a writer in trade journals.

But he may have had another career…

Captain Alfred Benson Laing died July 27, 1976 and is buried beside his wife[ix] (who died November 29, 1982) at Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Hollywood Hills). At the Find A Grave web site Captain Laing’s short biography by A.J. Marik states:

“Actor. Appeared in silent screen films. He was featured in a comedy take-off of “Robin Hood,” produced by Universal.”[x]


Headstone for Captain A.B. Laing. Source: Find-A-Grave


Headstone for Nora Laing. Source: Find-A-Grave


Headstones for Captain A.B. Laing and Nora Laing. Source: Find-A-Grave

No other independent corroboration can confirm this fact but given the apparent desperate straights the Laing family found themselves after the war one can imagine that any solution was sought to relieve their financial problems.

Captain Laing had no idea what was in store for him when he joined the 18th Battalion as one of the original members of the Battalion. His military experience led and/or contributed to a suite of medical issues and problems but he was to meet and marry his South African bride in England and his tuberculous required a change of geography to the drier and warmer climate of Arizona. From apparent financial distress in Phoenix he and his wife put down roots in Los Angeles at a time when the film industry was booming. Their lives in Los Angeles lead to the further involvement of their daughter Maureen who impacted the entertainment industry with her involvement with the film industry through the HFPA and the Young Artist Award and its recognition of young artists.


Leonard DiCaprio. Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk

Who knew that Leonard DiCaprio can thank a Canadian Captain of the 18th Battalion and his war bride for some of his success?

[i] More correctly the 21st Regiment.

[ii] Norwich Block – Kamin (Laing) Building

[iii] Lt. Col. Frederick H. Laing biographical

[iv] Per Captain Laing Service Records

[v] Per C.E.F.S.G., WW1 War Brides and Soldiers’ Dependants thread.

[vi] Wikipedia article re. Maureen Dragone

[vii] Maureen Dragone, HFPA historian, dies at 93. Variety. Feb. 24, 2013

[viii] Sunday Woman. Daily News of Los Angeles. July 24, 1994

[ix] Nora Laing at Find A Grave

[x] Alfred Laing at Find A Grave

Picture of an 18th Battalion Soldier: Private Archibald Charles Ambrous, reg. no. 53994

Up until today Private Archibald Charles Ambrous, reg. no. 53994 existed visually as a series of official documents and several web pages outlining his attestation information and death from wound received in combat August 12, 1918.

A member of the 18th Battalion CEF group was good enough to join the group so he could share the picture of Private Ambrous with us. Now we can put a face to the name of this soldier who sacrificed so much.

Picture of Private Archibald Ambrous, reg. no. 53994 courtesy of "Rusty Nuts" from the 18th Battalion Facebook Group. From his personal collection.

Picture of Private Archibald Ambrous, reg. no. 53994 courtesy of “Rusty Nuts” from the 18th Battalion Facebook Group. From his personal collection.

153rd Battalion Internet Resource and More Pictures of Soldiers Found

The 153rd (Wellington) Battalion C.E.F. web site came in handy recently. During a search for a solder, Private Forbes Dilworth, reg. no. 50413, the web site for the Wellington County Museum and Archives web site came up with two pages of soldiers pictures from the “PART I (A-L): Elora and District Servicemen, 1914-1918.” Manually going over the images the following soldiers were found (see images below) and there also was an “PART II (M-W): Elora and District Servicemen, 1914-1918.” which also offered a host of images with soldiers of the 18th Battalion.

The 153rd (Wellington) Battalion C.E.F. web site was helpful to determine the regimental numbers and other pertinent details from which the soldiers’ pages can be constructed.

PART I (A-L): Elora and District Servicemen, 1914-1918 Soldiers

ph23787 ph23790 ph23801 ph23809 ph23810 ph23811 ph23823 ph23829 ph23833 ph23836 ph23838 ph23839 Private Archie R Laidlaw 18th Private George N Laidlaw 18th Pte Francis Healey 928646 Pte JEE Hayes Pte WP Healey

PART II (M-W): Elora and District Servicemen, 1914-1918.

928470 James Reid Weatherdon wcma ph23948

928470 James Reid Weatherdon wcma ph23948

MacDonald, John Knox 53821 ph23886 ph23953 ph23955 ph23956 Private Harold Riley