“Sports Days” were an integral part of British and Canadian Military life. In every area of operation, be it Flanders, Salonika, or Mesopotamia. For the Canadian troops, Sports Days were times of recreation and competition – a break from soldiering. Yet, the popularity of the Sports Days had a decidedly military purpose. They helped foster and maintain a competitive inter-unit rivalry which increased the feelings of identity and bond between the soldiers of the battalion in which they belonged. This was to extend to the Brigade, Divisional, and Corps level.
It would be interesting to note the differences of attitudes of the soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces from before and after the Vimy Battle and campaign during April 1917. The 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade had a chance to experience this shortly after the battle. The Sports Days were extremely popular. Contemporary images (see later in post) show the events lined with troops packed tightly together cheering on the participants. The scheduling of the events with very short intervals or delays between each event would serve to maintain the momentum of the event.
The 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade, comprising of the 4th Canadian Trench Mortar Company, 4th Canadian Machine Gun Company, 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st Battalions had acquitted itself well from its arrival in the Ypres Sector of Belgium through its baptism of fire in the battle of St. Eloi Craters. From this sector, the 4th C.I.B. moved to the meatgrinder of the Somme and was engaged in some horrific fighting, resulting in many casualties. As each patrol, bombardment, raid, and attack occurred more of the “original” men of the initial draft were replaced due to death, wounding, illness, and re-assignment. By the time of the Brigade’s (and Canadian Corps) involvement at Vimy in the Arras Sector, the battalions were a mix of men from the original drafts from Spring 1915 and subsequent replacement drafts from battalions formed in Canada and broken up for reinforcement. The battalions of the 4th C.I.B. soldiered and slogged on in the Vimy Sector through the winter of 1917 until the attack in April 9, 1917 on Vimy where they, and the Canadian Corps, acquitted themselves in such a manner as to become part of the Canadian experience and historical iconography that is still argued about today. Whether one believes in the “nation building” outcome from the Vimy battle, or not, the soldiers on the ground had no such point of reference. They were living history, not examining it a century later.
They were assigned, followed orders, feared death, wished for their rum ration and for a myriad of other comforts and hardships to happen and not happen to them. The constant noise of combat, personal and military interactions, and other aspects of military life that we, now, would think as privations, were taken in a matter of course, to be borne until the end of the war, or their lives, whichever may come first.
We would wonder how they felt when the news went down the line that the battalions of the 4th C.I.B. were being pulled off the line for a months training. A chance to get dirty and dusty and be able to be clean soon after, instead of waiting their four to six-day rotation in the front line to go back to brigade reserve to have a bath and get clean clothes. The month of June was upon them and the 4th C.I.B. War Diary relates on several days that the weather was “fine and warm”.
With the Battalions and other support units billeted back from the line, most probably well within earshot of the artillery shelling, the units were disposed in “rest” at the following locations:
- Brigade Headquarters and the 18th Battalion at Barlin,
- 19th Battalion at Vedrel,
- 20th, 21st Battalions, and the 4th Trench Mortar Company at Coupigny Huts,
- And, lastly, the 4th Canadian Machine Gun Company at Gouy Servins.
The units of the 4th C.I.B. had Pay, Church, and Clothing Parades and each unit had a highly-organized training syllabus created outlining, in detail, the training programme through the next three weeks. The orders also understood that the men would need some free time and allowed the soldiers to visit estaminets from 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. with the following admonition: “Any man found in Estaminets [bar/café] other than at above hours is to be severely dealt with.”
The battalions were also warned off damaging crops and in the procurement of private billets and to be on the look out for flagged cars, which indicated a General Officer was riding in it so that they would show proper honours to the occupants of that car. Further expectations were also outlined as to proper military dress, the wearing of helmets and the saluting of the Guard for flagged cars. The battalions may be in the rear resting and training, but there was no doubt that they must maintain military bearing and comportment while in the rear area.
Such nagging details of military life and discipline encroached on every aspect of a soldiers’ life and the maintenance of such order and obedience was a constant concern for the military authorities. On June 9th, 1917, the 19th Battalion orders had two items that illustrate this:
It has come to my notice that many men use the satchel of the Small Box Respirator for carrying brushes, combs, knives, forks, note-books, tins of polish, and similar articles.
The practice of caring in these satchels any articles other than those issued as part of the Small Box Respirator Outfit is strictly forbidden, as it exposed the troops to grave danger during gas attacks, through injury to the mask or by interfering with its rapid adjustment to the face.
Attention will be given to this point at all inspections of anti-gas appliances, and instances of failure to comply with this order will be severely dealt with.”
The Regimental Police report that the orders regarding dress are not being carried out, and that men are walking about the streets without belts and respirators, also some without putties. Unless the orders regarding Dress are strictly obeyed severe disciplinary action will be taken, which will affect present daily half holiday.
The training was intensive and full of activity. A soldier’s day started at 5:30 a.m. with reveille and ended at “Lights Out” at 9:54 p.m. Each day had an intensive morning session of training for four hours (with an additional hour of physical training) that ended with “dinner”. After an hour and half break, two more hours of training ended at 4:00 p.m. Supper was served at 4:30 p.m. which left almost four hours for other activities, such as visiting Estaminets and other establishments in search of recreation.
Outside of these activities the normal thread of human activity and enterprise occurred, reinforcing an odd normalcy to the month that was at odds with the usual routine of an active battalion engaged in combat rotations at the front. With successive days off the line and with time to spare after training the men would be writing letters, talking, and engaged in other recreational activities.
One area of focus for this effort would be the sports days being held in June. The first was a series of independent sports days for each Battalion which determined the individuals and teams to participate at the Brigade Sports Day. The second event involving the entire Brigade was held June 18, 1917 at the Y.M.C.A. Ground located at Ruitz, France. Once these contests where held the finalist would be able to participate in a Divisional Sports Day June 23, 1917 at the Chateau Grounds in Coupigny, France.
The “sports” events were varied, from organized baseball to horseback wrestling involving a total of twenty events. Each event took a full day from 10:00 a.m. in the morning until the presentation of prizes at 6:00 p.m.
It appears that each Battalion Sports Day was held for the Battalion and not against each other. The 18th Battalion relates that its Sports Day occurred on June 15, 1917: “Battalion sports held at RUITZ. Races, Tug of War, Football and Wrestling during the day and a concert in the evening by the Battalion Band.” The 19th Battalion War Diary states simply for June 13, 1917: “Battalion sports.” Finally, the 20th Battalion makes no mention of a Battalion Sports Day.
The Sports Day had a range of events, some were conventional sports like American baseball and running races to less conventional, but more entertaining boot races and horseback wrestling. These events gave the battalions and support units of the 4th C.I.B. an outlet of competition and fun fitting for the young men of the day and, most certainly, more enjoyable than the six hours of training they had been involved with. It was also a morale and team-building event helping to cement an esprit de corps within the battalion, brigade, and division. Given the nature of military life there was very likely a hyper-competitive sense of duty to represent the home unit by the men participating and it is interesting to note the number of privates listed as winners and place-takers in the events. Only one corporal (Corporal Osler, who won two separate events) and a Sergeant Cattanach represented soldiers above the rank of private in the sport where “other ranks” participated.
The Brigade Sports Day June 18, 1917, garnered winners of the competitions who would move on to the Divisional Sports Day. The weather was described as “beautiful” by the 21st Battalion diarist who proudly shares that: “In these sports the Battalion did exceptionally well, carrying off six first prizes, one second, & one third.” The 18th Battalion relates: “Battalion parade to Brigade sports. Battalion Football team making a draw with 20th Battalion for Brigade Championship. Prizes were presented at the close by Brig-General R. Rennie, C.M.G., V.O., D.S.O.” The 20th Battalion appears to have more success than the 18th with: “This unit won 130 lbs boxing, tug of war, and horse back wrestling, besides several seconds. The Assn. Football game was tied with the 18th Battalion, score 1 all. Very successful day.” The 19th Battalion is effectively mute only relating that on the date the event was held.
The 4th Brigade felt that disseminating the results of the Brigade important enough to issue a letter with the results on June 20, 1917:
|100 YARD DASH||Cpl. Osler[i]||21st|
|100 YD DASH OFFICERS||Lieut. Applegath||19th|
|220 YARD DASH||Cpl. Osler||21st|
|1 MILE RELAY||Team||21st|
|OFFICERS RELAY RACE||Team||21st|
|HIGH JUMP – FINALS||Pte. Laird||18th|
|Cpl. Herring||4th. M.G. Coy.|
|RUNNING BROAD JUMP||Sgt. Cattanach||21st|
|TUG OF WAR||Team||20th|
|OBSTACLE RACE||Pte. Hopkins||19th|
|BAND RACE||Pte. Porter||18th|
|BOOT RACE||Pte. Guyett||4th. M.G. Coy.|
|BLINDFOLD RACE||Pte. Freeman||20th|
|Pte. Guyett||4th. M.G. Coy.|
|MULE RACE||Pte. Flick||19th|
|INDOOR BASEBALL||Team (Officers)||19th|
|BOXING – 120 LBS||Pte. Dormer||20th|
|BOXING – 135 LBS||Pte. Mallett||19th|
|BOXING – 145 LBS||Pte. Forman||18th|
|BOXING – 160 LBS +||Pte. Fisher||19th|
Every unit of the Brigade, save the 4th Canadian Trench Mortar Company, was represented with no one unit dominating the events. The finalists of each sport would move on to the Divisional Sports Day and represent their Battalion and their Brigade.
On June 23, 1917, the Divisional Sports Day was held near the chateau at Coupigny and each Battalion had its finalist participate. The units’ war diaries reflect the results thusly:
19th Battalion: Drill and Training carried out as per schedule included in appendices.
20th Battalion: No training other than physical drill at 7:00 am. During balance of the day the Battalion attended the 2nd Divisional Sports. This Battalion won events as follows:-
Wresting on horseback – First.
Tug-of-War – Second.
Boxing – Second.
The sports were most successful. The 18th Battalion won the final Association Football. We have yet to play off our tie with them.
21st Battalion: The Battalion attend the Divisional Sports which were held on COUPIGNY SPORTS GROUND. A massed band concert was also given on the grounds during the afternoon.
The end of June brought an end to the training. Divisional orders released June 26, 1917 would start the process of the 2nd Canadian Division preparing to relieve the 3rd and 4th Canadian Infantry Divisions. The training was over. The memories of the glory of the Sports Days would have to be that – memories. It was time for the troops of the Division and those battalions comprising the 4th C.I.B. to take their preparations for war and put them into practice as the next stage of the campaign to defeat Germany on the Western Front would start.
Passenchendaele was four months away. Nothing would prepare them for Passenchendaele.
To an Athlete Dying Young
To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.
[i] Possibly James George Hutchins who served under an assumed name as James G. Olser, reg. no. 637006.
[ii] Possibly John Joseph Devereaux, reg. no. 58326, killed in action October 11, 1918.
[iii] This soldier is not yet identified. He was not part of the initial 1915 draft.
[iv] Lt. Caldwell was one of the 18th Battalion “originals” and rose from the ranks. See his digitized service record for more information.
For more informaton on Private Laird please read this blog post.