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Private Peat By Harold Reginald Peat Characters: 15196

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

We were the first of the British Colonial soldiers to come to the aid of the Motherland. Judging from the wonderful reception given us, it was easy to see that the people were very pleased at our coming, to put it mildly.

My first night on English soil I shall never forget. After three weeks on ship coming over, we were all pretty stiff. The night we landed in England we marched many miles, and as a result my feet were awfully sore. So, when we finally arrived at Salisbury Plain and were immediately ordered to march across the Plain another ten miles to Pond Farm, I knew I shouldn't be able to do it, and confided my troubles to Bill and another fellow named Laughlin. After we had gone about four miles we came to an inviting haystack; it was too much for us and all three of us slipped out of line, but before we could reach the stack we were caught by Major Anderson. Bully old major! He volunteered to carry my pack. In turn, I carried his greatcoat, and we continued the march.

It wasn't very long before another haystack came in view and again we couldn't resist the temptation. This time we made our goal, and there we slept until early morning. Thus I passed my first night on English soil. Two days later we landed in camp, after visiting Devizes, Lavington and Salisbury City on the way. Laughlin wore the major's coat, and by this device got through where otherwise we should have been pinched.

After the first two days in England it began to rain, and it kept on raining all the time we were there. The people round about the country told us that never before in their lives had they seen such rains, but this must be characteristic of people the world over. In Western Canada when strangers come and it gets really cold, we tell the same story of never having seen the like before.

We hadn't been in camp long when they began to issue passes to us. The native-born Englishmen were the first to get leave, and the Canadians next. At last my turn came, but unfortunately I had to go alone. Personally, I think the English people made too big a fuss over us. The receptions we got at every turn of the way were stupendous; and I am certain a majority of the men had more money than was really good for them. As one young Canadian boy said afterward: "Why, they treated us as if we were little tin gods."

But from a military view-point, we, the boys of the First Canadian Division, did not make such a tremendous hit with British officials. It was not long before they even criticized us openly, and looking at it from a distance I do not blame them. Never in their lives had they seen soldiers like us. They had been used to the fine, well-disciplined, good-looking English Tommy. Of course I will admit that we were good-looking all right, but as far as discipline was concerned, we did not even know it by name. The military authorities could not understand how it was that a major or a captain and a private could go on leave together, eat together and in general chum around together.

The English people, I dare say, had read a lot about the wild and woolly West, but now in many instances they had it brought right home to Piccadilly and the Strand. With a band of young Canadians on pass, I assisted once in giving Nelson's Monument in Trafalgar Square the "once over" with a monocle in my left eye. A few hours later this same crowd commandeered a dago's hurdy-gurdy, and it was sure funny to see three Canadian Highlanders turning this hand organ in Piccadilly Circus.

The folks, of course, took all these little pranks good-naturedly; and, as a Canadian, I can not speak too highly of the treatment handed out to us by the Britishers. If there ever was a possibility before this war of Canada's breaking away from the Motherland, such a possibility has been shot to the winds. No two peoples could be more closely allied than we of the West and they of this tiny but magnificent island.

The little training we had had in Canada was good, as far as it went, and we had devoured it all. But the most vital part of a soldier's up-bringing was absolutely forgotten by our officers-discipline! As I've said before, as far as discipline was concerned, we were a joke. Certainly we were looked upon as such by the Imperial officers.

In one of the leading British weeklies there appeared a series of comments reflecting rather seriously on our discipline. One of the most humorous yet caustic, it seemed to me, was of an English soldier on guard at a post just outside of London. His instructions were to stop all who approached. In the darkness it was impossible for him to distinguish one person from another. Before long he heard footsteps coming toward him:

"Halt! Who goes there?" demanded the sentry.

"The Irish Fusiliers," was the answer.

"Pass, Irish Fusiliers; all's well."

Before long some more steps sounded....

"Halt! Who goes there?"

"The London Regiment."

"Pass, Londons; all's well."

"Halt! Who goes there?"

"Hic ... mind your own damn business...."

"Pass, Canadians; all's well."

At a parade, one bright November morning, when we were at Salisbury, a certain brigadier-general from Ontario, since killed in action, while reviewing the soldiers of a particular battalion, made a unique speech to the boys when he said:

"Lads, the king and Lord Kitchener and all the big-bugs are coming down to review us to-day, and for once in your lives, men, I want to see you act like real soldiers. When they get here, for the love o' Mike, don't call me Bill ... and, for God's sake, don't chew tobacco in the ranks."

There is no doubt about it, the authorities probably looked on us as a bunch of good fellows, but that's about all.

While still in England, all the men of the First Canadian Contingent were issued a cloth lapelette or small shoulder strap; the infantry, blue; the cavalry, yellow with two narrow blue stripes; the artillery, scarlet, and the medical corps, maroon. I was told that these lapelettes were given to distinguish us from other contingents. To-day there are only a few hundred men entitled to wear what now amounts to a badge distinction. Personally, I feel prouder of my blue lapelette than of anything else I possess in the world.

The so-called training that we were supposed to have in England was not really any training at all. The rain was almost continuous, we were constantly being moved from one camp to another, and training, as training is understood to-day, was out of the question.

As I have said, our first camp in England was Pond Farm. It was well named. Later we moved to Sling Plantation. However, it was at Pond Farm we had some of our most grueling experiences. Many a night, owing to the awful rains, we would have to move our tents sometimes in the middle of the night. If any minister of the gospel-except our chaplain-had been standing around on these occasions he might well have thought from the sulphurous perfume of the air that every soldier was doomed to everlasting Hades. But, after all, "cussing" is only a small part of a soldier's life, and who would not swear under such extraordinary circumstances? Again, we have authority for it. It is a soldier's commandment on active service-the third commandment-and here is how it reads:

"Thou shalt not swear unless under extraordinary circumstances."

An "extraordinary circumstance" can be defined as moving your tent in the middle of the night under a downpour of rain, seeing your comrade shot, or getting coal oil in your tea. As a matter of fact, all minor discomforts in the army are

counted as "extraordinary circumstances."

Despite the weather conditions, and the fact that we did very little training, the men in our battalion were enthusiastic and did their best to keep fit. However, we all went to pieces when we were told, early in December, that it was a cinch our battalion would never get to France as a unit.

I'll never forget the day our captain broke the news to us. The tears ran down his cheeks, and he wasn't the only man who cried. We were almost broken-hearted to know we were to be divided, because Captain Parkes (now Colonel) was a real and genuine fellow. He had taught us all to love him. For instance, when after a long march we would come in with our feet blistered, he would not detail a sergeant to look after us. He would, himself, kneel down on the muddy floor and bathe our feet. If at any time we were "strapped" and wanted a one-pound note, we always knew where to go for it. It was always Captain Parkes, and he never asked for an I.O.U. either. On the gloomy wet nights of the winter he would play games with us, and it was common to hear the boys remark that if we should ever get to France as a unit, and our captain got out in front, it would not be one man who would rescue him, but the whole company.

The day at Pond's Farm was more than a sad one when the old Ninth was made into a Reserve Battalion. The men were so greatly discouraged and the sergeants so grouchy that at times it became almost humorous.

One day, in late December, while at the butts, we were shooting at six hundred yards, with Sergeant Jones in command of the platoon. We had targets from Number One to Number Twenty inclusive, and the men were numbered accordingly. At this distance we all did fairly well, except Number One, who missed completely. For the sake of Number One the sergeant moved us down to four hundred yards, and at this distance every man got a bull's eye except Number One. He was off the target altogether. Our sergeant, after a few very pungent remarks, commanded the section to move to one hundred yards. Here again each one of us had a bull to his credit but Number One. Again he had missed, and again we moved, this time to fifty yards.

At fifty yards I can not begin to describe the look on the sergeant's face-to say that his eyes, nose and mouth were twitching is putting it mildly. Nevertheless, Number One missed. Then, something that never happened before on a rifle range on this earth electrified us all. Sergeant Jones shouted at the top of his voice: "Number One, attention! Fix bayonet! Charge! That's the only d--d hope you've got."

Disappointments were frequent enough in camp. Take the case of the Fifth Western Cavalry, who could sport the honor of their full title on their shoulder straps in bold yellow letters. It was they who had to leave horses behind and travel to France to fight in what they termed "mere" infantry. To this day we know them as the "Disappointed Fifth." There was also the Strathcona Horse of Winnipeg who were doomed to disappointment and much foot-slogging with their horses left behind.

Among those made into reserve units we of the Ninth had for companions the Sixth, Eleventh, Twelfth and Seventeenth Battalions. It was obvious that somebody had to be kept in reserve, and we were the unlucky dogs. We cursed our fate, but that didn't mend matters. We had nothing for it but to trust to a better fortune which should draft us into a battalion going soon to the fighting front.

The First Brigade consisted of men of the First, Second, Third and Fourth Battalions of Infantry. All of these battalions came from Ontario. The Second Brigade was made up of men from the West, including Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary and Vancouver. They were in the Fifth, Seventh, Eighth and Tenth Battalions, all infantry.

The Third Brigade was commonly known as the Highland Brigade and was made up of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Sixteenth Battalions. This last brigade included such splendid old regiments as the Forty-Eighth Highlanders of Toronto, the Ninety-First Highlanders of Hamilton and Vancouver, and the Black Watch of Montreal. There were also some of the far eastern men in this brigade.

After all this rearrangement had been made, it was only a few days till the rumor flew about that the battalions might leave for France at any time now. It seemed to us poor devils of the old Ninth that everything was going wrong. The unit lying next to us, the Seventeenth Battalion, was quarantined with that terrible disease, cerebro-spinal-meningitis. For a few days we buried our lads by the dozen. Speaking for myself, my nerves were absolutely unstrung, and I am sure that most of the men were in the same condition. It can be easily understood then that when drafts were asked for, to bring up the regiments leaving for France to full strength, there was a mad scramble to get away.

Without even passing the surgeon, I finally drifted into the Third Battalion, ordinarily known as the "Dirty Third." This battalion was made up of the Queen's Own, the Bodyguards and Grenadier Regiments of Toronto.

I landed in on a Sunday afternoon about three o'clock and was immediately told by the quartermaster that we were leaving for France in a few hours. He told me that I needed a complete change of equipment. At this news I rejoiced, because so far we had all worn, in our battalion, the leather harness known as the "Oliver torture." I knew that the active service, or web, equipment could not be worse.

The rush for equipment issue was like a mêlée on the front line after a charge, as I found out later on. There were some three hundred men newly drafted into the Third Battalion; there were some three hours in which we had to get our equipment and learn to adjust it. As it was, many of the extreme greenhorn type marched away garbed in most sketchy fashion. Some had parts of their equipment in bags; others utilized their pockets as holders for unexplained, and to them inexplicable, parts of the fighting kit.

Another of our trials was the new army boot. In Canada we had been issued a light-weight, tan-colored shoe, more practicable for dress purposes than for active service. Now we had the heavy English ammunition boot. This is of strong-the strongest-black leather. The soles are half-inch, and they are reenforced by an array of hobnails. These again are supplemented by tickety-tacks, steel or iron headed nails with the head half-moon shape. Each heel is outlined with an iron "horse shoe." Until the leather has been softened and molded with much rubbing and the unending use of dubbing, I would say, mildly, that these boots are not of the easiest.

Our departure for France was thrilling in its contrasts. Before setting out we cleaned camp, and then we had a fine speech from our new commander, Colonel Rennie, of Toronto, of whom much was to be heard in the hard days to come.

We slipped out of the camp in silence and utter darkness. Troops were being moved through England and into France with the utmost secrecy. We dare not sing as we marched; we dare not speak to a neighbor. On and on, it seemed endless, through mud and water and mud again. At times it reached to our knees as we plowed our way to the railway, where trains with drawn blinds awaited us.

Before we were half through our march a terrific electrical storm broke over us; the thunder roared and the lightning split the sky open as though Heaven itself were making a protest against war.

We finally embarked on His Majesty's Transport Glasgow.

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