The Deliquency of an Entire Battalion

Baseball was a large part of battalion life.

Numerous articles attest to this at this blog. The Battalion played at Folkestone[i], at a Sports Day at Hythe, and during brigade and divisional sports days, amongst other mentions. Baseball was of keen interest to the men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the 18th Battalion. So much so, that the Commanding Officer of this unit was willing to risk cours-martial.

It was not only the experience of the 18th Battalion that determined the value of baseball to the men of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. As quoted by Lt.-Col. W.H. Harrison, commander of the 2nd Canadian Divisional Ammunition Column in a letter to the Canadian War Contingent Association:

“You also gave us a large set of baseball equipment, which was used during the summer of 1916, and will come again for duty as soon as the fine weather begins. Nothing is more appreciated than this baseball outfit.”[ii] (Italics, mine.)

Lester B. Pearson, Nobel laureate and former Prime Minister of Canada attributed his success at getting a job at, the then. External Affairs Department, to his reference to having played baseball during his service with the C.E.F[iii] during an job interview.

Further, the playing of baseball, amongst other sports was widespread with, “Some three hundred matches [of baseball] were played in May [1918] by men of the 2nd Canadian Division alone, while a further 250 were played at Shornecliffe the following month”[iv] being reported in official documents assessing the sporting activities of the C.E.F.

The 18th Battalion was no slouch in this regard and took its baseball seriously. So seriously that the Officer Commanding, Lieut.-Col. L.E. Jones risked courts-martial when the honour and reputation of the Battalion came at stake during active service at the front.

Lt Col L E Jones taken from Reception Programme

The C.E.F. and the Canadian Corps had organized inter-brigade matches that would determine the winners of those matches who would then play at the divisional level to represent their respective brigades. After the fighting at Hill 70 at Lens in August 1917 the Battalion was released from front-line service to rest and recuperate. The Battalion had experience a “strenuous tour” in the front-lines at Hill 70 up until the 18th of August and was relieved from duty and enjoyed a relatively long period of rest and recuperation in the rear. From August 19, 1917 to September 13, 1917 the Battalion trained, recreated, and played sports, most specifically, it participated in the 4th Candian Infantry Brigade Sports Day between the other units of the Brigade on September 12 and won the right to represent the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade at the Divisional Finals in baseball and football.

But the war needed to go on and the Battalion was tasked with relieving the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles in the Avion Sector of Vimy on September 14, 1917. The tour was relatively uneventful with no major or minor raids or casualties sustained. The Battalion was relieved from front-line service on September 20, 1917 by the 26th Canadian Infantry Battalion and returned to Villers Camp for rest and refitting.

While in reserve the Battalion engaged in bath and pay parades, training over taped courses for an upcoming offensive, bayonet training, and the inevitable inspections. The day, however, for the semi-finals of the competitions for the football and baseball teams were coming up on September 26, and there was a problem. As outlined in the text below the Battalion was based at Villers Camp, close to where the match was to be played but Lieut.-Col. Jones finds out the match will be played 7 kilometres away making it impossible for his men, the entire Battalion it appears, to attend the game. What transpires in related below and is an epic case of insubordination by a senior officer in command:

“Tubby Jones of Guelph—Colonel L.E. Jones C.M.C., DSO and Bars if you prefer it that way-loved his men even better than his baseball and that was saying something. The all important Semi-final game had been set for Villers-au-Bois. “Hot dog” said Tubby’s battalion, for it was refitting there after the Lens scrap and been following the fortunes of the ball team. But baseball, like war, has its ups and downs. One sunny afternoon, as the team was getting in some extra licks for practice for the coming clash, a dispatch driver putt-putted in to darken hopes with the distressing information that the Villers was a washout and that Hersin-Coupigny, a good seven kilometres (away in the) back country, had been selected instead for the great game. “What?” exclaimed Tubby’s 18th Battalion on hear the news, “That ain’t so good!”

Unmistakably, unquestionably,–undoubtedly if you like-it was up to Tubby.

“We’ll take the troops back to Hersin.” He said on brief reflection.

“How?” asked Apty Mitchell—Toronto knows him best as its supervising principal of collegiates.

“You go down and bribe that light railway officer. Pay him what he wants. Tell him we want to use his tooter for five or six hours. And don’t take “no” for an answer Apty.”

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Presently Mitchell popped back. “Fell for the idea toot sweet”, he grinned. “Old ball player himself. Tickled pink to help out if he could.”

“If he could!” grumbled Tubby.

“Sure if he could. We’re in Divisional Reserve here and we don’t dare move. That darned railway train can, but we can’t.”

“No such word as can’t.” snapped the Colonel, ruffling his hair in thought.

There was a sharp crack in the air. Mitchell switched his attention from his C.O. to the window of the hut in which they were debating the future prospects. “Gosh” he breathed admiringly. “Old Dutch Kress put that ball right in the horse line.” “Good for a homer in any other field.” said Tubby absentmindedly.

“Sure was.” Said Apty.

“We’ll go!” said Tubby.

“But Divisional Reserve?” cautioned Mitchell.

“Forget it.” grunted the Colonel.

It wasn’t the politest, most matter-of-fact thing under the sun to shift 600 fighting men [baseball players pro-tem] from one position as recorded on the brass-hat’s map to another position some seven kilometres away. Not it was not done. Not by a long shot!

The men love their Tubby and when Mitchell, just prior to entrainment on the tooter, went among the 600 men whispering that “Mum” was the word, they grew Masonic in mien, crossing their hearts and hoping to die they’d never tell. And they didn’t either. And somehow or other the brass-hats never got wise to Tubby’s trick. Or if they did, they never said anything. Perhaps the liked the ball game too.[v]

Map

The approximate locations of Villers Camp (Villers-au-Bois) and the baseball match at Coupigny. Note Vimy in the lower right and the town of Lens to the east.

The 18th Battalion War Diary states simply and innocently:

“Semi-finals of Canadian Corps Baseball and Football championships were played at COUPIGNY. 18th Battalion Baseball team being defeated by the 1st. D.A.C. No parades were held today.” (author’s italics)

No wonder no parades where held “today.” It appears the entire Battalion absconded from their assigned battalion area in the division and went to see a baseball game. One can assume from the tone of the story that no authorization was asked for this movement of an entire battalion from one area of the division area to another. The game is held, and the Battalion loses the game. The War Diary gives a plaintive and curt description of the day’s events never quite coming to express the true feelings of men of the 18th would have felt by the loss. One can almost sense the dejection of the men during the long trip back on the “tooter” as the Battalion returned to its assigned billet area. The War Diary, being an official record of the Battalion’s experiences must account for the day. It does, though not revealing why there were not any parades held that day.

a001926-v8

LAC MIKAN no. 3387310: “General Sir Arthur Currie behind the screen at a baseball game at the front. (Spectators) September, 1917.” It would be interesting to imagine that General Currie is surrounded by men of the 18th, they knowing full well that they should not be at this game.

It is interesting to note that the story related in “Duty Nobly Done” has no references. The story exists, but the source of the story, this legend, has no attribution. Regardless, this probably happened, and it is ironic that the Battalion may have been at the game when their Divisional Commander, General Sir Arthur Currie may have attended the game as well. It was something for Battalion esprit-de-corps to put something over Brigade Command, but one wonders if they knew Currie was going to be attending and perhaps this fact motivated them even more to attend as a unit.

The Battle of Hill 70 had been hard fought. The Battalion was rebuilding, and Passchendaele lay a head of them. This was small and necessary compensation for their sacrifices in the past and for those in the future and expresses very clearly the popularity and importance of sport, especially baseball, as part of a unit’s experience in the C.E.F.

Lt.-Col. Jones’ actions that day probably cemented his popularity with his men for some time to come and was a shared act of unit delinquency that would be the stuff of soldiers’ stories to come in the future.

 

[i] Thanks to Andrew Taylor for furnishing the meat of this article with his contribution of a news story from the Folkestone Herald relating a match between the 18th Battalion and the 2nd Divisional Supply Column.

[ii] Field Comforts for Fighting Canadians, Canadian War Contingent Association, Summer 1917.

[iii] Horrall, Andrew (2001) ““Keep-A-Fighting! Play the Game!” Baseball and the Canadian Forces during the First World War,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 10: Iss. 2, Article 3. Page 1. (http://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol10/iss2/3)

[iv] Horrall, Andrew (2001) ““Keep-A-Fighting! Play the Game!” Baseball and the Canadian Forces during the First World War,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 10: Iss. 2, Article 3. Page 10. (http://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol10/iss2/3)

[v] Antal, S., & Shackleton, K. R. (2006). Duty Nobly Done: The official history of the Essex and Kent Scottish Regiment. Windsor, ON: Walkerville Pub. Pages 247-248 .

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