Peel, Dufferin and Halton, and the 4th Battalion, CEF

Pasted Graphic

News that war had broken out with Germany reached Ottawa on the evening of August 4th, and Canada was automatically involved. That night the militia soldiers besieged their company commanders with telephone calls offering service, and within days men began to sign up. On the 12th, units received telegrams ordering them to mobilize, and reassuring them that ‘The individuality of each unit will be preserved as far as possible.’ The 20th Halton Regiment concentrated in at the Georgetown armoury: thirty men came from Milton, commanded by Captain Alf Bastedo; fifteen from Oakville led by Lieutenant F.A. Chisholm; eighteen from Acton led by Colour Sergeant Harry Harwood and groups from Burlington and Georgetown, including Major James Ballantine, who would be the senior officer of the draft. The 36th Peel Regiment drew three quarters of its strength from Toronto (B Company under Captain G.R.N. Collins had just been formed that year of veterans from the Imperial Forces in the city), and accepted the offer of Ravina Rink in West Toronto to use as its barracks. Hundreds of young men presented themselves for medical examination, and some who were accepted were released when parents or wives objected. On the 19th, 167 volunteers from Halton, forty of whom had seen previous service, set off for Valcartier. A vast crowd gathered for the send-off; the chaplain to the 20th Regiment, the Reverend A.B. Higginson, conducted a service; the men from Georgetown were presented with two dollar bills, the men from Milton with money belts. In pouring rain, the crowd followed them as they marched from the armouries to the Grand Trunk Railway station. The Peel Regiment left the following morning, and although Major Hartley Graham was the senior officer, he asked that the command be given to Captain Collins. Only when they arrived in Valcartier did they get a nominal roll, that set out the names of ten officers and 218 Other Ranks (although some of these disappeared into the Quebec woods, never to be seen by their regiment again.
The camp at Valcartier had been a farm a few days before, and was infested by snakes. And it was a place, wrote Collins, where the old military principle of ‘order, counter-order, disorder’ reigned. Battalions were organized with eight companies, changed to four companies and back again as a daily routine. NCOs lost and regained their rank as they were transferred from one unit to another. The old rivalry between city and country regiments waged again as the city corps, too small to form a whole regiment on their own, vied to form the nucleus around which a dozen or more rural corps would be gathered. The draft from the 36th moved from the 7th to the 5th Battalion, and on one occasion had five commanders at the same time. When it was finally incorprated into the
4th Battalion, of the First Brigade of the First Division. It was to be F Company, with a strength of four officers and 112 Other Ranks. Trained machine gunners, medical orderlies and signallers were siphoned off; some of its surplus took regimental appointments; some went to the country’s only permanent force infantry regiment, the Royal Canadian Regiment and accompanied them to do garrison duty in Bermuda, others went to the Royal Canadian Dragoons, the 20th and 5th Battalions.

Pasted Graphic 3
Some of the Halton Rifles at Valcartier

The Halton draft was to form part of the 6th Battalion, from the Toronto divisional area, but soon they were also moved to the 4th Battalion. One day some Acton men were felling trees to build roads, when H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught (the Governor-General) came by, and noticed Private (formerly Sergeant) Coles, because of the South African ribbons he was wearing. The men’s shooting improved as they fired twenty rounds each day: five with the peep sight, ten with the battle sight, and five rounds rapid. They had been issued with Ross rifles, in many cases with with heavy birch stocks instead of walnut. They were innoculated against typhoid fever. The rifle black tunics worn by the Halton men had won them the nickname of “grave diggers,” but the epithet was dropped when they were issued with a khaki uniform and tan shoes. Many of the 36th soldiers already had the khaki uniform, since their regiment was one of the few to have been issued it that summer, but those who had not been so outfitted arrived in the older scarlet uniforms. Ballentine thought that the Oliver equipment, with its stiff leather straps and arm straps that cut into the shoulders ‘might have rated high among the instruments of torture of the Spanish inquisition’. To the three pairs of heavy woollen socks and heavy underclothing they were issued was added the sleeping caps and other comforts sent by the ladies of the Red Cross Society back home. They were keen for the fight, and some boasted,

When the Acton boys get over there,
Wilhelm will be wiser:
We’ll open a pawn shop in Berlin,
And there we’ll hock the Kaiser.

On September 24th they embarked on the on S.S. Tyrolian at Quebec, waiting at the Gaspé until October 3rd, when the armada set sail for England.

Pasted Graphic 2
4th Battalion on the Tyrolian


They arrived at Plymouth on October 14th, and moved to Bustard Camp on the Salisbury Plain, where it was too muddy to do much training, although they had courses in musketry and trench diging. When the Georgetown boys wrote home before Christmas, they said ‘the rain is coming down and down, and down.’ At one point, Collins noted in his diary, ‘This is the 82nd day of rain since arrival at Salisbury.’ Several times the camp was lifted up bodily and moved to dryer ground. The men found good cheer around the stoves in their tents, and at the nightly entertainment put on in the Y.M.C.A. tent. During the first few weeks on the Plains, tailors from Hawke and Company, number one Saville Row, came down to outfit the officers properly. The officers of the Fourth adopted a different style of collar from that used in the Imperial Army, a high stock collar similar to that of the men. In later years this distinction passed away, and the low cut collar, with shirt collar and khaki necktie became universal. The Officer Commanding, Lieutenant-Colonel R.H. Labatt, was sent to Netheravon Hospital in January, and the battalion was briefly commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Buell, who had organized it in Valcartier. At the end of the month, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Birchall was appointed. He had been a captain in the 7th City of London Fusiliers, and at the outbreak of the war was on duty in western Canada. Under his command they left for France, on the 8th of February, with the remainder of the 1st Canadian Division.

Pasted Graphic 1
Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Birchall

The SS Atlantian brought them to St Nazaire, where they waited on board overnight before disembarking and loading the cattle cars that would take them to the front. A group of school chums were sitting with their feet dangling over the edge of the car door when the train went around a sharp curve and hurled one from the train. An NCO fired his pistol to get the driver’s attention, but the man’s body had been drawn under the train, and he was left with French troops for burial. The journey took them via Rouen, Abbeville, Boulogne and Calais to Strazeele, where the troops detrained, and marched to Outersteene, a small village within sound of the guns. The village was a single street type, with a couple of estaminets, and the troops were billeted in the damaged school house. It had been at the turning point of the German Army, here the men heard the atrocity stories that Captain Brown would later use to rouse his audiences at recruiting meetings back home.
In mid-February they were in Erquingham, making their final preparations to go into the lines for the first time. At night the officers were guided to the forward area and each was assigned to a company location of the Scottish Rifles (Cameronians), where they accompanied reconnaisance patrols and received instruction in the routine of trench warfare: how reliefs were carried out, and the posting of sentries and listening posts. Meanwhile the men learned the finer details of entrenching and wiring, and how to make bombs from jam tins and gaspipe. They moved again, by omnibus to Hazenbrouck, then marched through snow and rain to Outersteene, then to Saillys, where they got their first hot tub in the vats of the brewery, and learned that the First Canadian Division was to relieve the 7th Imperial Division.
On the 5th of March they took over the waterlogged trenches on the left of what was now the Canadian line. The enemy were 65 feet in advance on the left flank, 185 yards on the right. Ten feet to their rear was a flooded trench, full of stagnant water and the bodies of friend and foe. The parapet and parados also contained bodies of British, French and German soldiers. There were two machine gun redoubts, and wire entanglements fastened carelessly to hastily improvised posts. They lived hip-deep in water scrounged sandbags to improve their defences, and began the rotation of four or five days in the trenches followed by three or four days of rest.
Snipers were a deadly problem––most of the Cameronian officers who had been mentors to the officers of the 4th had soon fallen prey to them. B Company (now made up of the Peel contingent and the draft from the Dufferin Rifles, and commanded by Captain Collins) devised a number of ways to hit enemy snipers, but they retaliated by concentrating whenever one of their number was shot. The company built posts among the debris of no-man’s land, with loophole plates for protection and sacking for camoflauge, and disposed of three snipers. But the position was soon discovered and destroyed with armour-piercing bullets. Two miners, Privates W. Jones and T. Patterson, built a tunnel under the parapet and extablished a loopholed lookout which identified the German sniping positions, and eventually the trench was left alone.
At 10 o’clock each night both sides sent out ration parities. An informal truce developed, contrary to orders. A signal was sent––three sharp blows with a shovel, and both sides set to reinforcing their parapets and wire defences. Patrols in front from both sides would lay quiet, guarding the front and offering no fire. Sharp at midnight the truce would end, and each then took their own chances on working parties. When the Germans broke the truce with machine gun and rifle fire, Collins forbade his men to return fire, but the following night every section were given targets. Sergeant A.G. Scott, who spoke German and had spent many nights on the other side of the enemy wire recording conversations, went out to observe the enemy listening posts, taking refuge in a shell hole, and signalling with a flash lamp back to his own lines. At 12.20 the enemy changed his listening posts, and as soon as the double relief was on the front, Scott flashed his lamp under cover of his cap, and ducked for cover. The company opened up, after which Scott returned to the trench. It was later learned from a prisoner that the whole German trench fell to the fire, and only one man was able to crawl back to give a casualty report.
The 4th handed over their line of trenches to the 2nd Royal Devons on the 25th of March. Coming out of the trenches after five days with little sleep, they had to march 16 miles, weary, wet hungry, suffering with trench foot, with no rations, to their billets.
In mid-April the division moved to the Ypres rear area, and on the 20th moved through Poperinghe to Vlamertinghe, where the 4th was billeted in a large mill. As they prepared to take part in an attack at Zillebeke, the Germans began to bombard Ypres, and the men of the 4th did what they could to assist the refugees fleeing the city, applying first aid and helping the old or wounded through their sector. On the evening of the 22nd, the Germans released a cloud of chlorine gas. Gas had not been used before during the war, and the French colonial troops who bore its brunt fled in panic, leaving a four mile gap. The Germans may not have expected such a successful experiment, and did not immediately exploit it. But the way lay open for them to drive across the Yser Canal towards Poperinge and Ypres and the channel ports. An allied counter-attack would fill the gap and halt thwart the possibility of enemy advance. As a Detachment under Colonel Geddes moved to extend the Canadian left, the 1st and 4th Battalions of the Canadian 1st Brigade were roused at midnight to move into the breech.
The brigade crossed the canal opposite Brielen shortly after three o’clock on the morning of the 23rd, as part of an ill-cordinated advance against Pilckem. They were deployed on a 200-yard front below the crest of a ridge about 1500 yards to the south of the enemy, with the 4th in front, B Company on the left, C in the middle, D on the right and A (the Halton contingent, under Major Ballantine) in reserve. The French to their left were to advance in tandem, and when Birchall mistakenly thought that their movement was hidden by hedges (they did not in fact advance), at daybreak he ordered his unit down the shallow valley, where they faced heavy rifle, machine-gun and artillery fire. D Company was almost decimated, and was reinforced by A Company. Private Fred Burtonshaw from Georgetown thought it an awful sight to see his comrades falling all around or getting blown up in the air, wondering all the time when he was going to get his. About 35 of them took a trench, and as soon as they were in it the Germans started shelling it with poison gas. To their right, two companies of the 3rd Middlesex, under Canadian command, reached a farm within 300 yards of the German position, only to be shelled out again by their own artillery.
The artillery, however, could not silence the fire from a mile of enemy trench. The 4th and 1st were pinned down in the valley, and at 8:30 a.m., Brigadier-General Mercer ordered them to dig in. Throughout the morning, they were harassed with tear gas shells. Captain Gordon Brown of Norval wrote that half his men were killed or wounded and two smothered by gas; to avoid being suffocated they dug holes in the ground and kept their faces in the fresh earth. When the Ross rifle overheated, the bolt would jam; when Private James Keighley got up to kick his jammed bolt, he was shot and killed. About noon a battalion of Zouaves finally established contact on the left, but the main French attack was again postponed. In mid-afternoon troops of the 13th Division reached the ground being held by the 1st and 4th Battalions and the Middlesex companies, and the survivors of all three units joined in, to carry the advance to within 200 yards of the German trenches. Captain Brown was hit as they started to move, but kept going; then was hit by shrapnel but reached a hedge, where he was shot in both hands by machine gun; he received a record (for a survivor) number of ten bullets and one shrapnel wound. The dead were piled in heaps at the hedge; the colonel got through it, but was killed, and only two men who got through the hedge were not hit. Brown lay there from 4:30 till nightfall, expecting any second to be blown to pieces. When it got dark he walked back three miles to the dressing station. By then they had established a line 600 yards south of the German trenches. In the final stage of the attack, Captain Collins noticed several men in Highland uniform moving nonchalantly on the left flank of B Company, realized that it was a German ruse, and gave the order to bring them down before they could reach shelter. Some of the survivors of the 4th were so confused that daylight found them digging in facing the wrong way.
Private Fred Burtonshaw said it was a costly battle, but ‘our boys’ saved Ypres from being retaken by the Germans. Lieutenant Murray McKinley from Georgetown, who was wounded, said ‘the air was literally filled with bullets’, and described the fight as nothing short of hell on earth. There were upwards of 200 casualties per battalion; the 4th lost twenty of the 24 officers who went into the attack, and had 454 casualties. Major Ballantine assumed command––briefly.
The battalion entrenched facing St. Julien a third of a mile away, with its headquarters co-located in a building with those of the 1st Battalion and of the 1st Brigade. All day on the 25th they were subjected to a merciless shelling and occasional machine gun fire. At 5 o’clock an air scout dropped a smoke bomb over the headquarters and in five minutes the shells screamed into the building. Ballantine, who had just returned from inspecting the lines, was knocked over, concussed and hit by rifle fire. He was carried on a chair to a shed in the rear where Dr Robertson from Milton gave him first aid; he thought he was dying, but had never died before so was not quite sure. At dusk he was carried on a stretcher through the falling shells back to the dressing station, and put in a yard with hundreds of others, to wait for a motor ambulance to take him to the clearing hospital. The wounded were Stoic, and he later wrote,
There was practically no moaning, which was quite a contrast to the sounds around the hospital at Poperinge where the French and Algerian troops kept up a noise like one hears at a circus about five minutes before the animals are fed.
An ambulance took him through Ypres, again through shelling, to Poperinge. There they entrained and reached Boulogne Stationary Hospital No. 7. Major Belson of the 4th was there, shot through the stomach; he and Ballantine had boxed on the Tyrolia, and he invited Ballantine ‘to spar with him three rounds.’ From Boulogne he crossed the Channel to Dover, and took the Red Cross train to London. Only then, 48 hours later, the two bullets in him were removed, ‘for German bullets and Canadian blood don’t get on well to-gether.’
The order authorizing the 4th Battalion named the militia regiments comprising it; later battalions would absorb their drafts more anonymously. Although the 4th was perpetuated only by the Dufferin Rifles of Canada (later by the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry), it was ordained that the original regiments comprising the 4th Battalion should be entitled to emblazon the battle honours of the 4th on their colours, or in the case of rifle regiments, on their drums. The first world war battle honours of The Lorne Scots, therefore, include honours won by the 4th Battalion and passed on to The Peel Regiment and to The Halton Rifles.