The 19th Battalion was an infantry unit that fought in many of the deadliest battles of the First World War. Hailing from Hamilton, Toronto, and other communities in southern Ontario and beyond, its members were ordinary men facing extraordinary challenges at the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, Amiens, and other battlefields on Europe's Western Front. Through his examination of official records and personal accounts, the author presents vivid descriptions and assessments of the rigours of training, the strains of trench warfare, the horrors of battle, and the camaraderie of life behind the front lines. From mobilization in 1914 to the return home in 1919, Campbell reveals the unique experiences of the battalion's officers and men and situates their service within the broader context of the battalion's parent formations-the 4th Infantry Brigade and the 2nd Division of the Canadian Corps. Readers will gain a fuller appreciation of the internal dynamics of an infantry battalion and how it functioned within the larger picture of Canadian operations.
David Campbell received his doctorate in history from the University of Calgary, specializing in military history. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and teaches history at Mount Saint Vincent University and Saint Mary's University.
Recruiting and Mobilization: 1914-15
With a flurry of war declarations, the peace of Europe was shattered in late July and early August 1914. On 28 June the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ignited a diplomatic crisis that brought about war between two opposing international alliances. On one side was the alliance led by Germany and Austria-Hungary, on the other was the Entente of Russia, France, and Great Britain. But the conflict was not limited to the geographical confines of Europe, for each of the major powers also mobilized their imperial possessions. Although Canada was a self-governing Dominion within the British Empire, its foreign policy was still orchestrated by the British government. Thus, Canada soon found itself swept up in the maelstrom.1
During the heady days leading up to the conflict, there were many in Canada, even among those who paid attention to world events, who must have wondered what the assassination of an Austrian archduke had to do with the affairs of Britain, much less their own nation. Thousands more Canadians would have been largely oblivious to the diplomatic and military manoeuvrings of the rival alliances immediately preceding the opening shots of the "War to End All Wars." These Canadians were too busy seeing to their own, often uncertain, affairs. Indeed, the fine weather that marked the summer of 1914 belied the anxiety in which a significant portion of the Canadian population lived, for at that time Canada was sliding into the most serious economic depression since the 1890s.2
Left: Major-General Sam Hughes. His October 1915 promotion was backdated to 1912. (LAC C-002468) Right: The Right Honourable Sir Robert Laird Borden. (LAC C-000694)
Distracted as many Canadians were, steadily increasing numbers took notice of the news from Europe during the twilight hours of peace. In the final days of July, crowds regularly gathered outside newspaper offices and in public squares of the large cities, anxious to hear the latest developments. When the German armies struck through neutral Belgium in an attempt to knock France out of the war, Britain, long pledged by treaty to uphold Belgian neutrality, joined the struggle alongside France and Russia. When Britain declared war on 4 August, Canada, along with the rest of the British Empire, was automatically included among the belligerents.
Although the outbreak of hostilities touched off a wave of enthusiasm among thousands of Canadians, there probably was nobody in the country more excited at the prospect of war than Colonel Samuel Hughes. Hughes was the mercurial Member of Parliament for Victoria and Haliburton, who served as Canada's militia and defence minister in the cabinet of Sir Robert Borden, the Conservative prime minister. With respect to military matters, Hughes was at heart a romantic who dreamed of leading Canadian troops to victory in a struggle with imperial Germany - a struggle he had anticipated for some time.3
A committed exponent of what historians have termed the "militia myth," Hughes took every opportunity to extol the virtues and promote the interests of Canada's volunteer amateur soldiers.4 However, he often did this at the expense of the tiny Canadian permanent force. Professional soldiers - Canadian, British, or otherwise - were viewed by Hughes and his ilk as hidebound and imbued with less "common sense" than their amateur counterparts. Since being appointed to his portfolio in 1911, "Drill Hall Sam" had pumped unprecedented amounts of money into the militia, filling out establishments and improving training facilities.5 He also saw to it that large numbers of militia units were put through their collective paces and trained en masse. During the summer of 1914, when more than 59,000 men were in training across the country, Hughes ordered a mixed force of over 10,000 militiamen to assemble at Petawawa, Ontario, where they carried out combined-arms manoeuvres "which more closely achieved active service conditions than any held in Canada since the Fenian disturbances half a century before."6 Thus, the Dominion appeared to be as well prepared as it ever had been to field a military force in support of an imperial war effort. Appearances, however, were somewhat deceiving.
At first glance, the established strength of Canada's land forces in the summer of 1914 seemed impressive (at least when compared to previous years), with 3,110 in the permanent force and 74,213 in the militia. But actual strengths were, in fact, lower.7 Moreover, there was no clear legal authority to send militia units on active duty beyond Canadian borders. Therefore, "only volunteers, as distinct from the Dominion's forces," would be acceptable for an overseas expeditionary force.8 This legal sticking point virtually ensured that any Canadian overseas force would be comprised of composite units, or entirely new ones, with the officers and other ranks being assembled only during mobilization. The cohesion of established militia regiments would be virtually absent in the expeditionary force, and developing that cohesion in the latter would take time. Lacking a large standing army or a European-style system of universal military service, Canada did not have a sizable pool of military men who were fully trained and ready for service in a foreign land.
Between 1911 and 1914, mobilization plans had been drawn up by British officers serving on the Canadian staff, but these would remain essentially unused. The minister of militia, with his characteristic disdain for the ideas of professional soldiers, dismissed these plans on the hazy grounds that they were "devoid of all military merit."9 In assembling the First Canadian Contingent for overseas service, Hughes bypassed the existing mobilization schemes as well as the established hierarchies in the regional divisions and districts in which all military forces in Canada were organized.10 Instead, on the night of 6 August, he issued telegrams directly to each militia unit in the country, instructing their commanders to prepare "descriptive rolls" of volunteers, which were to be forwarded to militia headquarters in Ottawa. From these rolls, men for the contingent would be selected. Regimental commanders would then be informed of the number of men required from their respective units, and once these had been assembled, the men were to proceed to the new camp that was being constructed at Valcartier, Quebec. Over the following weeks, amid a confusing barrage of often contradictory orders that spewed forth from Ottawa, Hughes's mobilization arrangements underwent a number of modifications. Eventually, most militia commanders simply sent as many men as they could to Valcartier, which soon quartered more than 32,000 eager volunteers. It was there that selection for the expeditionary force would take place, with the chosen officers and men in the infantry being formed into composite numbered battalions, many of these representing a particular region of the country.11 Infantry battalions in the First Contingent would be numbered from 1 through 17.
Hughes persistently interfered in the appointment of officers and in the organization of the contingent. But whatever criticism or praise may be heaped upon his actions and his choices, his energy was unfailing, and he was unquestionably the driving force behind the entire enterprise. Despite all the early disorder, 30,617 troops of the First Contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) were successfully shipped to England beginning on 1 October 1914.12 Most of them were organized into a division of almost 18,000 men, which, after a miserable period of training on Salisbury Plain in England, finally proceeded to France in February 1915.13
All in all, Canada had done remarkably well so far. Six months had elapsed between Hughes's "call to arms" and the point at which the 1st Canadian Division was dispatched to the front, having been trained and equipped. This feat compared favourably with the 8.7 months on average that it took the British to ready their Territorial divisions for war.14 The accomplishment was all the more remarkable given the astonishingly minimal experience that the Canadians had in organizing higher army formations, compounded with Hughes's chaotic, ad hoc mobilization arrangements.
Raising the 19th Battalion
On 6 October 1914, only a few days after the First Canadian Contingent had set sail for England, the Canadian government offered "to place and maintain in the field a second overseas contingent of twenty thousand men."15 The following day, anticipating a positive response from the imperial authorities in London, Canada set in motion plans to raise the new contingent. Britain cabled its official approval on 31 October, suggesting that the troops of the Second Contingent be organized into a 2nd Canadian Division.16
In raising the new contingent, Sam Hughes dispensed with the dramatic, centralized concentration of troops that had marked the organization of the First Contingent. He apparently had become convinced that "more satisfactory results" might be gained by mobilizing and training the Second Contingent at a local level.17 Units would be allotted by quota to regional division and district commands throughout the country, the commanders of which would be put squarely in charge of recruiting, quartering, and training activities within their jurisdictions.18 Although at heart Hughes...