Life Work, Recreation and Survival in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces.
Heritage Group meeting of October 20, 2016.
by Leslie Walsh and Dale Watts.
Captain Gordon Crossley, 17 Wing Heritage Officer, treated a Heritage Group gathering of about 25 members to an informative presentation on what daily life was like for a Canadian Expeditionary Force soldier in World War I. The topic was relevant and timely as many Canadian families had members who served in WW I and it is only a few weeks until Remembrance Day.
As a 44-year member of the Canadian military in progressively more responsible positions, a Director and volunteer with the Fort Garry Horse Museum, and co-author of a book entitled Facta Non Verba, A History of the Fort Garry Horse, published in 2012, Gord knows whereof he speaks. His presentation, along with several WW I military artifacts to illustrate his points about military life for a hypothetical “Private Smith”, presented a clear picture for the Heritage Group audience. Highlights from each slide are summarized below. The bolded title is the title of the slide.
As a typical Private during WW1, Private Smith wore a Canadian pattern tunic, a stiff forage cap and a leather belt with a swagger stick. Because this uniform did not stand up well to field conditions, it was replaced in 1916. At that time, because it was the fashion, soldiers were required to have a moustache, although this was a challenging requirement for some young soldiers who were still in their teens when they joined.
The Canadian Expeditionary Force was voluntary. Motivation to join the force for those who were born in Britain was to fight for “King or Kaiser”, for glory, out of guilt or to follow others who had served. Some of the equipment was not particularly functional. For example, the temperamental Ross rifle was replaced in 1916 by the more reliable British Enfield. Soldiers were provided with a shovel with a hole in the centre. While it obviously didn’t work as a shovel one could use the hole to shoot through and use the shovel like a shield.
Typically, soldiers would be recruited with a rousing speech. The place they would usually go to “sign up” would be a drill hall or armoury. There was a drill hall at Broadway and Memorial Avenue at that time, which burned in a fire in 1919. The present Manitoba Legislative Building was behind the drill hall. The Minto and McGregor armouries, which were completed in 1915, are still in their original locations in Winnipeg.
Soldiers would fill out an application form called an “attestation paper”. The first page had personal information; the second page was for medical information. An interesting point was that as part of the medical information the Medical Officer had to fill out the “range of expansion of the chest”. This was very important at the time since tuberculosis was rampant. Approximately 150, 000 applications were filled out which are now digitized and on-line. The plan is the corresponding service records will eventually be put on-line as well.
The infantrymen received lots of training. Their day would begin with the bugler waking them up to wash, shave and get to work. Soldiers received 14 weeks of basic training. Some of the training included: marching, discipline, internal economy such as washing, shaving, etc., wiring, navigation, anti-gas protection, guns and ammunition, etc. A photo of bayonet training demonstrated soldiers in the en garde position and the training was repetitive so in combat situations, muscle memory would click in.
On their way overseas, up to eight soldiers were crammed into one room usually designed for two persons. They got some limited exercise on board ship. The first contingent sent over was dry (i.e. no alcohol). Subsequently, beer was allowed.
Once the soldiers were in England their training began in the trenches. This included anti-gas training where soldiers would walk through a cloud of pretend gas or tear gas with their gas masks on. Initial gas masks provided did not fit well; these were replaced soon. In a special recreation hut, the men could relax. At each table there were pads of paper and a pen so the soldiers could write home.
On the Way
“Don’t be first, don’t be last and don’t volunteer for anything”
The rule of thumb for soldiers was “Don’t be first, don’t be last and don’t volunteer for anything”. For example, if the sergeant asked a benign question such as “who plays a piano” and a soldier responded then he could end up on latrine duty. They quickly learned other tricks such as putting pants under the mattress at night so they didn’t have to be ironed in the a.m. and avoiding the Sergeant Major.
Things that weren’t crimes in civilian life might be deemed to be so in the military e.g. smoking at certain unauthorized times, spitting, being unshaven.
Gord demonstrated a deactivated “Mill’s bomb”, currently known as a grenade, which all the soldiers had. Originally, this weapon was manufactured with a smooth surface. However, this made it slippery when it rained so a subsequent manufactured version had scoring on the surface to improve the grip.
In the Rear
The “rear” was usually a non-combatant area behind the front lines the soldiers were in if not in the trenches. They were housed in tents that were camouflaged and under trees so they couldn’t be seen from the air. Initially, soldiers were in white tents situated in rows in the open but this made them easily detectable to aircraft flying overhead.
When soldiers got a break they could relax by swimming, playing baseball etc. French civilians often set up small cafes close to the camps where the soldiers could go for eggs and french fries. This was usually the only contact with civilizations that soldiers had behind the front lines.
Soldiers would unload artillery shells from rail cars. Gord demonstrated one smaller shell. Artillery shells were of varying sizes, but some were extremely heavy, particularly those for the large cannons.
With up to 800 men in one battalion, there was a rotation of duties. In the trenches,bayonets would be fixed at sunrise and sunset. Soldiers had to be on guard at these times because at sunrise the sun would be in their eyes and it was the most likely time to be attacked. Similarly, at sunset the sun would be behind them and their heads would be silhouetted.
Boxes with markings on them indicated the code for food in the box. The standard rations for the day were allocated e.g. 1 lb. preserved meat, 12 oz. biscuit, 1 tea bag and sugar, etc. Bully and Biscuit was a staple. The Bully was corned beef from Argentina in a red can that was labelled FRAY BENTOS. The Biscuit was so hard, it often had to be pounded with a hard object so the crumbs could be mixed in with other food. Tea was popular and cheese very common.
Each soldier had a multi-purpose tin called a “dixie” (10 gallon can). Gord showed an example of a mess tin, specifically a round one, which was a cavalry mess tin. The soldier carried the tin with him. The square ones were replaced with round ones as they were easier to clean. No food could get stuck in the corners and cause disease. The tins were often cleaned with sand.
After breakfast, much of the day focused on trench maintenance and placing sand bags to build fortifications. “Duck boards” were used in the bottom of the trenches so soldiers could walk on them instead of in the sewage and mud. An entrenching tool was used to dig or use as a pick. It was small enough that a soldier could dig while lying down. Each man had one.
Soldiers were expected to wash and shave, however, the lack of water was a common problem. If there was no water, leftover tea was used. Shaving was done with a straight razor, which each soldier was given, or safety razors could be bought. Each soldier had a pouch to carry things in and a small pouch called a “housewife” which was a sewing kit.
Preparation for Inspection
Once trench repair was done, then rifles, ammo and gas masks were inspected and needed to be cleaned constantly. The mills bombs were made of cast iron and came in a gooey wax. The wax had to be removed and the fuse put in.Respirators were made of rubberized canvas, which was hot and stuffy to wear.
After a rest, soldiers could read a newspaper and write letters. Trench newspapers such as The Brazier and The Listening Post were not uncommon. These papers were very frank in their comments and not meant for the public or higher brass. Once they were read, they were used for toilet paper.
There were two types of letters that could be sent:
- A Whiz Bang card. This was a card that had sentences that could be crossed off that did not apply e.g. “admitted to hospital, going to be well”. What didn’t apply was crossed off and nothing could be written on the card.
- Longer letters had to be censored. A “Greenie” was an envelope that was distributed for good behaviour. This wouldn’t be censored by the immediate officer, but could be censored farther down the line.
Crown and Anchor was a game often played. However, it was a gambling game and the house usually won. If caught with it, the person running the game was up for a charge.
Empty cans were burned and hauled out. Most soldiers had body lice which they called “seam squirrels.” These lived in the seams of the soldier’s clothes. Chat was the Indian term for lice, so sitting around and “chatting” meant getting rid of the lice in the seams of a shirt. Haircuts were regularly done, at least partly to limit the potential for lice. Hair also needed to be kept short so the gas mask would fit.
All soldiers were given one woollen blanket and a rubber sheet to protect against rain.
More Trench Work
The lower part of the trench was filled with muck and mud. Soldiers spent 3 to 4 days in the trenches and then returned to the rear for a few days. It was constant wait and watch in the trenches and horrendous bombardments prior to an enemy attack which wore people down.
After August 8, 1918, soldiers started fighting in the open. This was the first time since 1914. The trenches were beginning to break down. Once soldiers were out of the trenches there were more casualties but it meant a quicker end to the war. About 24,000 horses were in use during the war.
When the war ended most soldiers were involved in a victory parade. There are archival collections scattered in many Canadian homes. There are films and documentaries which acknowledge the conflict.
2014 to 2018 mark the 100th anniversary of WW I battles and thus there is more interest now. However, no one is left from that war.
Questions Followed Gord’s Presentation, Highlights
- PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) was called shell shock in WWI and battle fatigue in WWII. Alcohol was commonly used to keep the demons away which is probably why there were so many functional alcoholics among veterans who had experienced horrific incidents. Legion halls provided support for veterans.
- Gas masks had activated charcoal in them to filter gasses.
- The basic training today (18 weeks) is very similar to that of WW1 (14 weeks) except for the equipment.
Princess Mary (daughter of King George V) metal Christmas gift boxes were given to everyone “wearing the King’s uniform on Christmas day”.
They contained cigarettes, tobacco, her photo, and a pencil shaped like a bullet. They were customized for different groups of people.
Volunteers typically received the British war medal and the victory medal.
A memorial cross was given to wives and mothers of dead soldiers.
A death plaque made of bronze was given to families of dead soldiers; some were put on tombstones.
“Puttee” means bandage in East Indian. These were woollen-type wraps that were put around soldiers’ legs so they would stand straighter and for protection.