Past, Preset & Beyond – The Great War – Pt. 3: Anxious to get to the Front

This is the third part in an intermittent series written by Barbara Roden looking at Ashcroft and area during World War I.

By November 1914 it was apparent that the war was not going to be over by Christmas, despite early optimism. In Europe the opposing sides had dug in for what was clearly going to be a lengthy fight, and in Canada men flocked to join the second contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The “Local News” column of The Journal reported a steady stream of departures from the area, although not everyone eager to enlist was able to do so. Ashcroft’s C.H. Cross left in late November to join the second contingent in Vancouver, but made it no further than Kamloops, where he became seriously ill and remained for almost a month before returning home.

A Red Cross Ladies Knitting Guild had been established, and by mid-November the ladies of Ashcroft were busy knitting belts and cuffs for soldiers at the front. At a meeting in early December “much work was done and plans discussed”, and ladies with work ready were requested to hand it in by the middle of the month, so that it could be sent overseas.

Despite the absence of so many men from Walhachin – who were busy training on Salisbury Plain in England – the town managed to have a happy Christmas in 1914. Mrs. Barnes gave a Christmas Tree party on Christmas Eve, with a gift for every guest, and on Christmas Day Mr. and Mrs. Axten arranged a big dinner at the hotel, which was attended by the whole town. The year ended with a wry observation from editor R.D. Cumming, probably in response to news that the German army was planning another attack on Paris: “If the Germans wish to impose their civilization on the rest of the world they will have to show better samples or it will not be acceptable.”

By now families were receiving news from those who had arrived in England. G. Christie wrote in late December to say that he had arrived safely on his way to the front, and in early January 1915 J.B. Leighton of Savona reported that he had received a letter from his son, who was training on Salisbury Plain and in “the best of spirits”, but anxious to get into the trenches. Later in the month William Higginbottom of Ashcroft heard from his son and a friend that the boys were “weary of training and are anxious to get to the front.” The Journal also received word that the Walhachin “boys” had finished their training in England, and were expecting to leave for France on Jan. 12.

Life at home went on. On Jan. 13 a Winter Carnival was held in Ashcroft, with some 50 costumed participants taking to the ice to contend for prizes. The war was in evidence, to judge by the awards: the prize for “Most Original Lady” went to Mrs. H.L.G. Austin, who was a “Red Cross Nurse”, while Joseph Burr was named “Most Original Gent” for his turn as Germany’s “Kaiser Bill”. The event was such a huge success that The Journal noted “Had the Germans invaded Ashcroft on Wednesday evening they could have captured same without resistance. We were all the carnival.”

In Clinton it was decided to disband that town’s War Relief Fund, and instead form a Clinton branch of the Canadian Patriotic Fund. Both organizations provided assistance to local families suffering hardship because of the absence of a husband or father who had enlisted in the CEF. The ladies of Clinton were active in raising money for the groups, arranging a concert and dance in aid of the War Relief Fund in early January, and planning another concert for Feb. 12. Meanwhile, members of the Red Cross Ladies Knitting Guild in Ashcroft decided to form an independent branch of the Red Cross Society, in order to expand their scope and “do general Red Cross work in connection with the present war”. The ladies had already contributed 240 items for soldiers at the front, including socks, pillow slips, rolled bandages, handkerchiefs, towels, wash cloths, and sweaters.

By early February the bulk of the Canadian First Contingent had left England and arrived safely in France, despite Germany’s threat to destroy the transport ships carrying the troops. On Feb. 15 three trainloads of soldiers went through Ashcroft. They were “the western contingent of the second Canadian Expeditionary Force. Their destination is not definitely known, but it is generally conceded that they will proceed direct to England.”

Even as the second contingent headed eastward, efforts were underway to recruit men for a third contingent. Major H.T. Wilson, commanding officer of the 31st Regiment of the B.C. Horse in Kamloops, wrote that he had received instructions to recruit more soldiers. Applicants had to fulfill several requirements. They should be between the ages of 18 and 45, not less than five feet, three inches in height, physically sound, and able to ride a horse. Their eyesight and hearing had to be good, their speech “without impediment”, and their teeth in decent condition; the “loss or decay of 10 teeth will disqualify”. Successful recruits would be paid $1.10 per day, and married men would draw an additional $20 per month separation allowance for their wives and families.

Despite the gravity of the situation, R.D. Cumming was able to see the humorous side of the war. On Feb. 13 he wrote “There are rumours that an aeroplane passed over Ashcroft on Wednesday evening last at eight o’clock. Several people saw the searchlight.” However, he hinted that those who saw the “aeroplane” might merely have been possessed of overactive imaginations, for he continued. “There were German Zeppelin movies at the theatre the night before.”

Barbara Roden

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