The Canadians On Garrison Duty
( Originally Published 1919 )
DURING the war between the Allies and the Central Powers Canada was called upon to furnish garrisons for the Bermudas and the island of St. Lucia in order that the Imperial troops which had been stationed there might be relieved for service in the actual theatre of war. Three Canadian battalions, in turn, did duty in Bermuda, the Royal Canadian Regiment of Halifax, the 38th Battalion of Ottawa, and the 163rd Battalion of Montreal. The two first-named were at a later date to take their places as units in the firing line in France and Belgium, the Royal Canadian Regiment with the 3rd Division and the 38th Battalion with the 4th Division, while the 163rd Battalion was broken up upon its arrival in England, there being then no opportunity of fresh troops being sent to the front, except as reinforcements.
It may be mentioned, in passing, that the decision not to proceed with the formation of a fifth Canadian division, which was in contemplation, was a bitter disappointment to both officers and men of many a fine battalion. Splendid units had been organized in different parts of the Dominion and it was confidently hoped that the identity of these would be preserved. It was found, however, as the war progressed, that the heavy fighting in the Ypres and Somme areas had demanded such a toll of the forces already in the field that reinforcements were urgently needed. And so, as fresh troops arrived from Canada, the battalions were broken up. The 5th Division was in process of formation, but the project of sending it to France was reluctantly abandoned; drafts were sent forward as required to keep the units already in the field up to strength, and only a very few battalions, after reaching France, were replaced by others of a different name.
The Royal Canadian Regiment was the first to be de-tailed for duty in Bermuda. This regiment had been formed prior to the outbreak of the war, when Canada undertook the garrisoning of Halifax, and relieved the Imperial troops in that city. While it had not seen active service, many of its members were veterans and it was looked upon as a regiment of " regulars." As a matter of fact more than three hundred of the men had previously belonged to the British Army or Navy or to the Canadian Permanent Force. The regiment arrived in Bermuda shortly after the outbreak of the war, relieving a famous Imperial regiment, and remained for eleven months. In August, 1915, the 38th Battalion " took over " from the Royal Canadian Regiment, having the distinction of being the first purely volunteer regiment to do duty in the islands. After it had served there for ten months it was in turn relieved by the 163rd Battalion of Montreal, whose stay was considerably shorter. The Bermudas were, thenceforward, again garrisoned by Imperial forces.
To the reader who is not familiar with the island, or, properly speaking, the group of islands which compose the Bermudas, it may not be quite clear that there was any particular necessity for maintaining such a strong garrison at this place, but a little closer study of the situation will make it apparent that the colony was an important one both in time of war and of peace. And it must be remembered that this garrison was but one of the many, scattered around the earth, looking after the welfare of Great Britain's colonial possessions, just as the fleet was stationed at all corners guarding Britain's interest at sea ever watchful against a German effort to prey on British commerce. Germany thirsted for commercial expansion and the colonial possessions of her competitors were greatly coveted.
In the earlier days of the war some German ships, which were at sea at the opening of hostilities, under-took a series of raiding operations, giving thus no in considerable cause for alarm. Indeed, some of them were so ably commanded that much damage was done to British shipping before they were cornered, and, when they were cornered, they fought with a zeal that was worthy of a much better cause. Aided by friends or agents in all countries they were able to provision at sea and to continue their work until finally destroyed or forced to surrender. Thus, these little islands, known familiarly only to those who dwelt there and to those who were aware of their attraction for the tourist, loomed somewhat large in the history of the war larger by far than even those who knew and loved them best could dream of. Without them the fighting vessels of the British Navy would not have had so many ready harbours where they could be provisioned and pre-pared for their long cruises in search of an artful and determined enemy. And thus the forces which guarded these posts from within and those which protected them. from the sea were in every sense interdependent.
The Canadians who were called upon to leave Canada for Bermuda and St. Lucia, when they were so anxious to be in France, had a great responsibility en-trusted to them, a responsibility which they did not perhaps appreciate, and they also had an opportunity of meeting the men who fought in the same great cause at sea. Several of the British cruisers and battleships were stationed at Bermuda, that is to say, Bermuda was the base ; other fighting ships were coming and going through all the years of the war. When the crews were given " shore leave " the Canadians entertained them, and when visits to the ships were permitted the naval fighters reciprocated. This exchange of hospitality could have but one effect, the promotion of the liveliest good feeling, and so the soldier and sailor came to know each other better and to like each other the more.
Bermuda is possessed of wonderful charms and is considered by professional soldiers one of the finest stations in the world, just as Aden is looked upon as the worst. While the Canadians were there one of these soldiers, who at different periods had been stationed at depots all over the British Empire, completed his twenty-first year of service. Had Great Britain not been at war he would have taken his honour-able discharge. Perhaps he would have gone back to his home, of which he had seen so little, but he averred that when he left the army he would settle in Canada. So much for the good opinion formed by him of Canada through meeting the Canadian soldiers. But he did not take his discharge, and he was warmly congratulated by his commanding officer, when, upon being officially informed that his service had been completed, he urged that he be allowed to continue his duties until the war was ended. He saw the Royal Canadian Regiment come and go ; he saw the 38th Battalion come and go ; he saw the 163rd Battalion come; but when the last named left for England he was with them, having re-enlisted as a Canadian soldier.
This is but an instance of the excellent example shown to the troops who were then in the making. The presence of the few Imperial forces which had been left on the island, the Garrison Artillery and the Royal Engineers, was a fine thing for the Canadians, who had not been soldiers long and did not know the game as well as did their more experienced friends. Many of the Imperials had worked hard for years before having recognition of their services come to them in the shape of even one stripe. They knew what discipline was and what it meant to run contrary to any one of the King's Rules and Orders. They pointed out the folly of making mistakes and particularly of being caught in making them. To the credit of the Canadians they absorbed this instruction and their soldiering was. made much more easy in consequence.
The Bermudas lie 800 miles from Halifax, 700 miles southeast of New York, two days' steaming from the latter city. While there are 300 islands in the group, some of them are so called only by reason of the fact that they are not quite covered by water at high tide, and only some half dozen were of any consequence so far as the Canadians were concerned. The metropolis is the town of Hamilton, which is on what is known as the island of Bermuda proper, the other larger islands being St. George's, St. David's, Somerset, and Boaz. For military purposes the garrison has for years been distributed over these islands, and was reduced some years before the war to a single regiment of infantry and detachments of Royal Engineers and Royal Garrison Artillery. This garrison was considered sufficient and was not increased when the war with the Central Powers broke out.
Nature has provided Bermuda with a protecting shield in the coral reefs with which it is surrounded. These reefs would bring disaster to any ship venturing to make port unless in the hands of a pilot possessing thorough knowledge of the channel. While the Canadians were there ships from: the outside world groped their way along the west coast to the port of Hamilton, which is in the heart of the islands. A new channel was then in course of construction to the harbour of St. George's, which opens eastward, and which, when completed, the Bermudans claimed, would be one of the finest in the world. From a military and naval point of view, however, the Bermudas are most valuable as a coaling station, mainly by reason of the fact that the largest floating dock in the world is established at Ireland Island. This was placed in position in 1902, after a voyage of fifty-five days from England. The first dock, which in its day was also the largest in the world, arrived in 1869, but the increase in the size of Britain's great fighting ships made it necessary to replace it with one of greater capacity. The latest dock to occupy the artificial basin is 545 feet in length, 126 feet in width, and between walls 100 feet. The height of its vertical walls is 53 feet, the length 435 feet, and thickness 13 feet. Its extreme lifting power is 17,500 tons, and the total weight of its hull is 6,500 tons. On St. George's Island are the strong forts, Albert, Victoria, Cunningham, and George, which command all the approaches to the harbour, wherein it is claimed all the ships of the British Navy could ride in absolute security.
These forts were, of course, the special care and the special pride, as well, of the detachment of the Royal Garrison Artillery and the Royal Engineers, while the infantry was distributed at Prospect, Boaz, St. David's, and St. George's, with strong guards posted at other important points. The accommodation was all that could have been asked; indeed, it is doubtful if finer barracks, as a whole, can be found anywhere. The buildings are, for the greater part, of sandstone, and are kept in thorough repair. There are separate buildings for the officers and for the other ranks who are married. The hospitals are perfectly equipped and there are gymnasiums and reading-rooms where the men are invited to spend their hours when not on duty. There is also, it might be added, an imposing detention barrack or " glass house " at St. George's, enforced confinement in which has no special attraction for the unfortunate or ill-advised.
During the warmer weather the training, for the most part, was carried on in the early morning and in the evening. Indeed the humidity was so great during a couple of months in the year that the men, although suitably dressed, were warned against indulging in any violent exercise ; bathing through the day was prohibited; and the parades were discontinued. However, the men were not allowed to remain idle, and when they were compelled to stay indoors they were detailed for such work as polishing up their rifles and equipment. Lectures were given by the officers and senior non-commissioned officers, so that not a moment was wasted. For the rest, the Canadians were kept busy enough. When a company was undergoing its six weeks' training, there was scarcely a moment that the men could call their own. As soon as day broke they were paraded for physical drill, and since this was largely in charge of instructors of the permanent forces it followed that it was real work. Then, after breakfast, came squad, platoon, or company drill until noon. The afternoon was fully occupied in field work, skirmishing, range-finding, scouting, signalling, or bayonet practice. There was a syllabus laid down and carefully adhered to. Even when rain came there was no cessation, for much of the training could be carried on inside the large buildings. There were, however, some disadvantages. The climate is not a bracing one and tended to make the men lose snap. In fact, until the Canadians became more or less acclimatized there was an inclination to expend as little energy as possible. This is not at all an uncommon thing among soldiers when they are not actually fighting, but the climate was considered responsible for the condition. Then, also, there was too much whiteness about the islands. The roads and buildings were of white sand-stone, and to make it more trying to the eyes, every-thing that could be whitewashed, even to the roofs of the buildings, was whitewashed. When the sun was shining the glare was almost blinding, and in some cases the eyesight was affected, temporarily at least. Many of the men were affected by a three-day fever, the result of becoming over-heated during the day and not paying sufficient attention to their dress during the evening.
During the many years a garrison has been maintained in the islands, excellent ranges have been constructed for training in marksmanship. In this the Canadians took an especial interest, and when they were given their final tests in England, before proceeding to France, the battalions which had been stationed in Bermuda stood high in the shooting averages and boasted far more than the average number of ex-pert marksmen. This was decidedly an advantage for the men when they arrived in the trenches and were pitted against the selected German snipers. In Bermuda the companies did their shooting at the various depots where they were stationed, but the battalion competitions, which were very keenly contested, were held at Warwick.
Battalion headquarters were at Prospect, the largest of the camps and the most central. The camp was visited by thousands of tourists from Canada and the United States, who had come to Bermuda to escape the rigours of a colder climate. The attention paid by these tourists to the Canadian soldiers who composed the garrison was not greatly appreciated. Sun-day, although it called for no other parade than that for church service, was a day that was dreaded. All Hamilton and its guests turned out for this event and it was requisite that the troops should be immaculately clean. The private soldier was inspected by the section corporal, by the platoon sergeant, by the company sergeant-major, by the platoon commander, by the company commander, and by the officer commanding the battalion; he waited for the staff parade, which was the most trying ordeal of the day. Then he was marched away to church service, after which it was the custom of the commanding officer to have another inspection and deliver himself of an address. This talk was nearly always confined to the appearance of the men and their conduct on parade. They were told how well they looked and how much better they might have looked if they had spent some of their money on button and shoe polish instead of in the canteen. The chaplain's service lasted less than an hour, but the parade frequently occupied three or four. It is easy to understand why Sunday was not looked forward to and why there was no joy in the soldier's heart until that parade was over.
Route marches were held frequently and were, for the most part, thoroughly enjoyed. Their value was perhaps not fully understood at the time, particularly when the men were ordered to turn out in full marching order, absolutely every article of their equipment to be carried, but this part of the training was to stand them in good stead when they were required to make their way to and from the trenches in France and Belgium. The route marching, the physical drill, and the musketry practice were entered into with a degree of enthusiasm, as the men realized that this training was most necessary to fit them for actual war conditions. They could not, perhaps, appreciate the remainder of the training, much of it seemed unnecessary and foolish, but that it was necessary in the interests of discipline they could understand, and they let it go at that.
The signallers and machine-gun sections were chosen from the different companies, and their training was naturally carried on under the supervision of their own officers, the requirements of these units being different from those of the other men. Incidentally, in view of the all-important part that the machine gun came to play in the war, it is now generally agreed that every man in a battalion should have had a working knowledge of the machine gun, and not, as was usually the case, a selected few. Of course, fighting conditions changed so frequently that no one back of the lines could possibly keep pace with them, and it was often the case that troops, thought to be perfectly trained, learned, upon arrival in England or France, that much of what they had been taught had to be immediately forgotten; in fact they would probably have been better off if they had been taught nothing except to keep in perfect physical condition, to shoot straight, to remain cheerful, and to obey orders.
There were systematic efforts made to give the men a thorough knowledge of trench systems and of bomb-throwing, the latter, of course, with dummy bombs. The trench system training was a success theoretically, but that is about as far as it got. The men could have accomplished as much and could have dug themselves in in shorter order had they been provided with saws instead of picks and shovels, for the sandstone was impervious to the attacks of the latter tools. It was a muscle-building exercise, but if the men had had to depend for safety from an enemy attack upon the trenches they built in Bermuda, but few would have been left to relate their experiences. When all other schemes had been worked out for the moral and physical uplift of the men, there was the fatigue work known as " weeding." Considering the fact that many efforts some of which have failed utterly have been made to grow useful crops in the islands, the number and variety of the weeds that flourish there is amazing. This work kept the men employed when there was absolutely nothing else to be done; and it helped to make the islands more attractive for both themselves and the tourists.
But when men are anxious to get to the front, garrison duty, even under the most favourable conditions, is bound to become irksome. The Royal Canadian Regiment had expected to go direct from Halifax to France at the outbreak of the war. They saw one month run into another without any sign of relief, and began to fear that they would not get to France at all. For this reason news of the Allies' successes had more or less a depressing effect. And so it was with the men of the 38th Battalion after they had taken their turn of duty in the islands. With the 163rd Battalion the lack of contentedness became apparent earlier, for this battalion had from the start abominated the thought of garrison duty, their one wish being to get to the front in France. In passing it may be mentioned that after the men of all three battalions had been in the fighting area for a few days, those who were really honest with themselves admitted that they had not realized how well off they had been in Bermuda, and that, after all, it had been a real home.
When war was declared, as has been already stated, the Royal Canadian Regiment was doing regular garrison work in Halifax, and in order to place it on a war footing additional men were required. To meet this some four hundred men, who had been training in Valcartier, were detailed. These men sailed from Montreal, and joined the regiment at Halifax. The unit proceeded to Bermuda on September 11th, 1914, with a strength of over 1,000 all ranks, under command of Lieut.-Colonel A. 0. Fages. At a later date Major A. E. Carpenter succeeded Colonel Fages in the command of the regiment. Other senior officers of the regiment were: Major J. II. Kaye, Major A. C. B. Hamilton-Gray, Major J. G. Burnham, Captains E. L. du Domaine, E. K. Eaton, C. R. E. Willets, R. J. S. Langford, E. B. Costin, F. L. S. Brett, O. V. Hoad, G. A. H. Trudeau, Lieutenant and Adjutant A. E. Willoughby, Hon. Captain M. A. Fiset, and Hon. Lieutenant and Quartermaster J. W. Coupe.
On August 13th, 1915, the Royal Canadian Regiment was relieved for service at the front by the 38th Battalion of Ottawa (under command of Lieut.-Colonel C. M. Edwards), which had previously been training in Ottawa and at Barriefield Camp for some seven months. This regiment sailed from Montreal, but it had just reached the Gulf of St. Lawrence when it was turned back to Quebec. It camped for a few days at L้vis, opposite Quebec, and then proceeded by rail to Halifax, from which point it sailed for the Bermudas. There was much speculation as to the reason for this sudden change in the original programme, but there has been no official explanation. With Lieut.-Colonel Ed-wards were Major C. Ferguson, as second in command, Major E. R. McNeill, Major J. A. C. Macpherson, Major R. F. Parkinson, Major W. S. Wood, Captains R. W. Stewart, A. A. Sears, T. W. MacDowell, J. Glass, H. I. Horsey, and Hon. Major E. A. Olver.
On the arrival of the 38th, there was a whole-hearted celebration on the part of the Royal Canadian Regiment, though the men of the two battalions had little opportunity for fraternizing. The former battalion arrived in the morning, and in the afternoon the latter was on its way to Halifax en route for the front.
The 38th Battalion remained until May 19th, 1916, when it was relieved by the 163rd Battalion (of Montreal). The senior officers of the 163rd Battalion were : Lieut.-Colonel M. J. H. Des Rosiers, Major O. Asselin, Major R. De Serres, Hon. Captain C. E. Chartier, and Captains P. Chevalier, H. R. Cohen, J. R. Disbrow, J. G. Garneau, R. Garneau, J. A. Le Royer, A. Martin, D. W. Massey, R. A. Normandin, L. Plante, J. G. Raymond, and R. Roy. On November 18th, 1916, the Canadians handed over the duties to Imperial troops.
St. Lucia also came within the scope of Canadian operations in the war, troops being detailed for the purpose of manning the guns there early in 1915 and remaining until after the Armistice had been arranged. This is one of the largest as well as the most northerly of the Windward Islands, its greatest length being twenty-seven miles and its greatest breadth fourteen. The island is volcanic, an irregular mountain chain running through the centre, the principal elevations being Morne Gimi้ and Piton Canaries, each a little over three thousand feet in height, Morne Cochon, Morne Casteau, and the two pointed mountains Gros Piton and Petit Piton. Castries, the capital, lies at the head of a very deep harbour or bay of the same name on the north-west coast of the island. The city is level and regularly laid out and is built chiefly on ground that has been reclaimed from the harbour. This latter fact, together with another one, that it is in a locality well adapted for the propagation of fevers, has given the island a reputation for unhealthfulness which it does not altogether deserve. The chief asset of Castries is its magnificent harbour, which is one of the safest and most commodious in the West Indies. Though its entrance is only about a third of a mile across, it runs inland for nearly a mile and a half, with an average width of three-quarters of a mile, and is almost completely surrounded by hills. It is also the most completely fortified of any harbour in the West Indies outside of the Bermudas, for it was long ago chosen as a British naval station for coaling and stores. Not only is the Vigie headland, north of the harbour entrance, fortified, but also the Cocoanut headland, to the south, and especially the ridge above the city. But for the glorious harbour there would be no Castries ; it is at the best merely a coaling station, but one of the finest of its kind in the world.
Castries is a favourite port of call for men-of-war and merchant ships, and thus it was necessary for Great Britain to guard it carefully during the war. For this purpose, therefore, detachments of the Royal Canadian Artillery and the Canadian Garrison Artillery, drawn from Halifax, Quebec, and Victoria, proceeded there from Halifax on March 26th and April 9th, 1915. The original force consisted of 9 officers and 105 other ranks, the original officers being : Captain (now Lieut.-Colonel) A. E. Harris, R. C. A., who was in command, Captain C. C. Shaw, of the R. C. A., and Lieutenant A. W. Ahearn, of the R. C. A. The attached officers were Captain H. E. Connolly, Army Medical Corps; Lieutenant M. Crockett, 5th Regiment, C. G. A.; Lieutenant C. MacKay, 3rd Regiment, C. G. A.; Lieu-tenant B. F. Sharpe, 1st Regiment, C. G. A. ; Lieutenant R. C. Hoyle, 5th Regiment, C. G. A.; and Lieutenants T. Hamel and R. Samson, 6th Regiment, C. G. A.
This force was subsequently increased and at the time that the Armistice was declared consisted of 14 officers and 204 other ranks of the Royal Canadian Artillery, two officers and 28 other ranks of the Royal Canadian Engineers, and one officer and 8 other ranks of the Canadian Army Medical Corps.
The following cablegram was received at the Canadian Militia Headquarters from Rt.-Hon. Walter Hume Long, British Secretary of State for the Colonies, when the Canadians were relieved :
" Now that the withdrawal of the Canadian garrison from St. Lucia has been decided upon, the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty and the Army Council wish to express their appreciation of the service of the Canadian troops employed, to whom His Majesty's ships and the mercantile marine are indebted for the sense of security which the defence of Port Castries has given during the period of hostilities."