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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.