A. “Do Your Remember the Night We Left London?”: First in the Series of “MEMORIES”

Introduction

The blog has come into the possession of an exciting and valuable series of documents care of Dan Moat, a member of the 18th Battalion Facebook Group. His Great Grand-Father, Lance-Corporal Charles Henry Rogers, reg. no. 123682 was an active member in the 18th Battalion Association and the Royal Canadian Legion. With is interest in the post-war Association a series of “MEMORIES” in the form of one-page stories relate many of the Battalion’s experiences from the “other ranks” soldiers’ point-of-view.

It appears that the documents were written in the early 1970s, a full 50-years after the end of The Great War and are a valuable social history of soldiers’ experiences as told in their own words about the events that happened a half-century ago to them, and now a full century for us. This is the first of the series, and suffice to say, the reference, names, experiences, and strong immediacy of these stories bring the men of the 18th Battalion alive.

The format of the post will be the “Memory” with associated online references and end-notes.

Article

18th Battalion Association
Windsor and Detroit Branch

Do you remember the night we left London? There was a big crowd to see us off but we eventually got started. Our first stop was Montreal where we only remained long enough to change engines. For the next three days we travelled through some sparsely settled country. There was not much scenery as there was a lot of bush on both sides of the track. We all enjoyed eating in the Dining Car. It was the first time we had ever been in one.

About the third day out we were told to get cleaned up as were going to get off at the next town and go for a march. We did at a place called Moncton, N.B. We marched up the main street, made a right hand turn and came back on a lesser main street. The people were friendly but not overly-excited as other Battalions had likely done the same. About two days later, we repeated and got off at a place called Truro. This must have been a mill town as there was a lot of young women around. While a short over weight Town Official stood by the Colonel reading a speech of welcome, most of the fellows were flirting with the young girls who were standing nearby. They were very friendly and after we had our little march, many of the natives were at the Station all waving goodbye as we pulled out.

On a very rainy Sunday moring [sic], we arrived at dockside Halifax. It didn’t take long to transfer from the train to the S.S. “Grampion[i] [sic] which was docked nearby. As soon as we were settled we had our first meal aboard. It was not too good. Just before dusk the Grampion sailed and we were on our way. There was not too much excitement crossing the ocean. We had some sea sickness, physical jerks Crown & Anchor, etc., and about the sixth day out, we stopped and waited for the H.M.S. “Cumberland” to pull close. A young Naval Officer was rowed over to consult with our Captain. While this was going on our band was on deck playing Rule Britannia and other selections. It didn’t take too long and we were again on our way. The Battleship[ii], the first one we had ever seen, going in the opposite direction[iii].

About two mornings later, we went on deck and found we were sailing up the Mersey[iv]. Two hours later, we landed at a place called Avonmouth. We soon moved from the Grampion to a waiting train and after a short delay we were again on the move. We travelled through some populous districts and about four hours later got off at a little place called Westenhanger. We marched from there to West Sandling camp, a distance of three miles, where our war training was to begin in earnest. We had left London on April 12, 1915, and arrived in West Sandling on April 29th, 1915.

TEMPUS FUGUT [Time Flies]:  It was raining the night we left Sandling for Folkestone. When we got there we immediately boarded the Channel Steamers and were soon on our way. The Fourth Brigade General Staff had embarked the Channel Steamers and were with us. After a long eventful trip we were towed into Boulogne about mid-morning[v]. We then marched up the steep hill to the tented assembling centre at the top. The cooks got busy as everyone was hungry. It had been a long long night. After supper we marched to the Boulogne station where we boarded a French train. After riding in the darkness for nearly seven hours, we detrained, the station sign said St. Omer. The next day and for several days after that we were again on the move always edging closer to the front line. On the Thursday, we arrived at a small French village called Eeyck [Eecke], and were told we would rest here for a few days. We did and while we were there we heard (through the grapevine) that someone had swiped the Colonel’s horse while the Transport wasn’t looking. It turned out to be true.

On the Saturday we were inspected by Major General Alderson who was said to be the Commander of the Canadian Corp. The following day our Chaplain Captain Carlisle held an open-air service that was well attended. He preached a wonderful sermon and we all sang the old favourites. The following Tuesday we were again on the march, and after a day or so we arrived in Dranoutre which was considered the gateway to the Western Front. After supper we started marching again and a few hours later the order “Single File” was given. We then left the cobblestone road and entered a soggy field still in single file. Everything was quiet until Billy Dewer [sic] let out a yell. He had been hit in the leg and dropped. We all dropped with him. The stretcher bearers took care of Billy, our first casualty, while the rest of “d” [company] continued to a sand bagged area, where we relieved the 3rd Royal Fusiliers.

The Platoon officers were busy setting out the guards, possibly the most that had been assigned since the war started. When daylight came it was interesting to read the sign “S.P. No. 20. This strong point must be held at all costs.” It made us feel important. AS we thought things over, we realized we had travelled from Queens Park and Wolseley Barracks to the Western Front. It had taken us nearly a year, (with lots of activities in between) to do so but here we were at last. What the future held only time would tell.

We have omitted some of the details as space is a factor. We know you will understand.

The “memory” relates the Battalion’s departure from London, Ontario where it formed from October 1914 until its departure on April 12, 1915. It relates in some detail giving the reader some insight to the experiences of the rank and file of the Battalion. The images of the “sparsely settled country” of the south shore of the province Quebec and the immense forests of New Brunswick contrast with the rare civilizing experience of dining in the “Dining Car” of the train, giving rise to the logistics involve in transporting the 1,000 odd men of the Battalion. This speaks to the relative small geographic reach a typical Canadian of that era would have experienced, especially the native-born Canadians. Travel by train for a labourer or farmer would be rare and of short distance and duration and the relative economic ability to partake in using the facility of a dining car on a train was rare enough to make the author of this memory remark upon it.

A trip from London, Ontario to Halifax today takes 1 day and 10 hours and appears to mimic the same route by travelling along the north shore of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River until Montreal, where it slides south over the river and follows the south shore, effectively paralleling it until the tracks hit Mont Joli, Quebec. Turning south, the train would cross the Gaspe Peninsula and entering New Brunswick at Campbellton passing through Bathurst, Moncton, Truro until its last stop, Halifax. The trip took seven days and must have been monotonous for the soldiers aboard the train. Even with the breaks at Moncton and Truro the men must have been itching to get aboard the transport and get on their way to the next stage of their service.

A brief description of the crossing offers some insight into the activities of the men. Some gambling ensues “Crown and Anchor” and a later memory relates how one of the soldiers, Private George Dickson, reg. no. 53410, who tattooed the soldiers’ arms with the crest of the 18th Battalion as the men travelled aboard ship. Though there “was not too much excitement” one would suspect that there was tension and expectation and a little melancholy for those soldiers leaving family in Canada and anticipation for those men who still had family in the British Isles.

On April 29, 1915 the Battalion arrived and set foot on the soil of England and very quickly they were transported (in four hours in contrast to seven days) to West Sandling, Kent to begin their next stage of training. The train trip must have an eye opener for the rural born and raised from Canada. They were travelling in the cradle Empire, witnessing a vibrant society that was one of the most powerful Empires in known history. The turn of the century and the end of the Victorian era with its replacement of the Edwardians and the relative comfort and national malaise which helped lead to the current events that lead to war and required the men of the 18th Battalion to train, fight, and sacrifice for this country passing by the windows of the train carriages transporting them closer to the mechanized and organized Armageddon of the Western Front. These soldiers would experience this new era, the Great War, in its full force and fury. But, for now, the pastoral fields of England passed, enveloped by the Spring of 1915.

Seventeen days of travel resulted in four months of training and the Battalion embarked for the Continent and Flanders on September 15, 1915. The “memory” offers a brief description of the route taken by the Battalion and compresses time by relating six days of activity in one paragraph culminating in relating an event very important to the family of the author:

“After supper we started marching again and a few hours later the order “Single File” was given. We then left the cobblestone road and entered a soggy field still in single file. Everything was quiet until Billy Dewer [sic] let out a yell. He had been hit in the leg and dropped. We all dropped with him. The stretcher bearers took care of Billy, our first casualty, while the rest of “d” [company] continued to a sand bagged area, where we relieved the 3rd Royal Fusiliers.”

The War Diary of the Medical Officer relates this event with this entry: “While marching to R.E. Farm no. 53902 Pte. Dewar was wounded by bullet through fleshy part of thigh. Was sent to hospital.”  [emphasis by author] The significance of this event for Private Dewar is not in dispute, but even with the official record of the war diary relating this event there was a certainly lack of certainty making claim that this relative (my Grandfather on my mother’s side) was, in fact, the absolutely first soldier of the 18th Battalion to be wounded during active service. The “memory” not only confirms this but puts it in a broader context, connecting Private Dewar more intimately with the unit as they call him “Billy” and not Bill or William. This was detail gives us his nickname and solidifies his existence in the history of the Battalion. The events being related happened fifty-five years prior to their writing in the 1970s and thirty years after my Grand Father had died, having passed on April 18, 1939. There is a certain comfort and pride that his memory and experience was remembered by the author of this “memory” and it was a shock to see his name on the page. His wounding required over a year and a half treatment and convalescence before he was fit for service and returned to his Battalion.

One wonders what ribbing or teasing occurred from his comrades-in-arms as they met after the war at their Association events and reunions. His wounding and its significance to the Battalion history and folklore may have fueled many stories from the survivors of the original members of the Battalion.

The “memory” stands on its own but there is not doubt of its significance to the author of this blog and his family. Private Billy Dewar. One of the many who made the 18th Battalion a living part of our Canadian Military heritage. Thanks to Private Rogers and his family it can be shared to a larger audience.

 

[i] S.S. Grampian.

[ii] The H.M.S. Cumberland was an Monmouth-Class armored cruiser.

[iii] This is a curious memory as Antal and Shackelton in Duty Nobly Done: The Official History of the Essex and Kent Scottish Regiment, indicate that the Cumberland escorted the S.S. Grampian and other ships of that convoy until they met two anti-submarine destroyers at the Bristol Channel, after which the Cumberland departed.

[iv] The port of Avonmouth, a part of Bristol, is on the Severn River.

[v] One of the paddle-steamers collided with a Royal Naval destroyer during maneuvering at Folkestone, England. This may have necessitated a tow from another ship for the steamer transporting the Battalion to make the journey across the Channel safely. The War Diary is not clear about this event and gives the impression that the Battalion needed more than one steamer to transport the Battalion. See September 14, 1915 War Diary entry for reference.

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