Thomas & James Neill – Training In Canada And England For The Great War

Basic Training In Canada

After enlisting, instead of shipping out to Europe immediately, Thomas and James Neill likely spent time at Camp Borden near Barrie, Ontario for their unit’s basic training. Camp Borden was created to train more troops for Canada’s contribution to the First World War. Known at the time as “Sandy Plains”, it was designated as a new training ground for Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) battalions destined for overseas duty. The Grey and Simcoe Foresters cleared the land, and in the summer of 1916, Camp Borden was officially opened by Sir Sam Hughes, the Minister of Militia and Defense. Thousands of soldiers trained in Borden, and development continued, including 18 kilometres of trenches built to make simulation of trench warfare possible. (Source: Canadian Forces)

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Collection of photos by Lawrence Earl Johns. He was born in Elimville, Ontario in 1893. Johns enlisted at Exeter, Ontario on April 11, 1916 with the 161st Huron Battalion, C.E.F. ,  served overseas with the 58th Battalion and died September 12, 1917. Source: Canadian Letters

An excerpt of a letter home from Camp Borden written by John Cushnie, who went through training there with the 153rd Batallion in July 1916, gives us a glimpse into conditions:

“On Wed. afternoon we went out for our first route march.  It was about 10 miles in length and just long enough for me.  I think I lost about 5 lbs. in sweat but a shower bath afterwards made me feel a lot better.” (Source: Canadian Great War Project – John Cushnie Collection)

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Photo by Lawrence Earl Johns

A short segment of the trenches used has been restored and was opened to the public in 2011 at what is now Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Borden.

Travelling To The Maritimes And Sailing To England

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This is a photograph taken by J. A. Millar from an album depicting scenes of the Canadian Expeditionary Force at Valcartier Camp, at Quebec, and at Gaspe Harbour immediately prior to sailing to Britain in 1914. Millar was a staff photographer of the Montreal Daily Star and produced the album in 1915. (Source: University of Victoria Libraries)

The Neill brothers sailed out of Halifax together on September 25, 1916. They traveled to the East Coast by train – a bumpy ride as described by Vincent McCarter Eastwood in his letter home on July 13, 1916:

“Well I am writing from a very unsteady Pullman on the Intercolonial about 125 miles east of Montreal on a very rough road. We have been travelling all night very slowly. There are about six troop trains all going east. We will likely be about 6 hours aboard train. We had breakfast this morning. Likely sailing Saturday. It’s getting a little tiresome as we had a land day yesterday. We struck all the tents and cleaned up all the lines”. (Source: Letters From Vincent)

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SS Tuscania seen in 1914 (Photo: public domain) A video of SS Tuscania leaving port with American Troops in Hoboken, NJ can be viewed here.

They traveled to Europe on board the SS Tuscania, a former luxury liner, refitted and pressed into service as a troopship. It could not have been a comfortable voyage and there was a constant threat from German U-Boats. A letter home from Cliff Bowes of Bossevaine, Manitoba, who was crossing over to England with the 222nd Batallion in mid-October 1915, describes the conditions:

“We were exactly seven days on the ocean and it sure got tiresome as there was 2,600 troops aboard. Some crowd believe me. Neither Jim or I was the least bit sick on the voyage although it was very rough the last two days out but that was all the better as it is rather difficult for a submarine to work in rough water. Both Jim and I had to do guard on the boat. He had a fine night but I had the worst night of all. How would you like to be out on deck with the waves rolling over the sides, the boat being tossed about like a cork and trying to keep you feet and look out for submarines? Sure was some nerve tonic, believe me.” (Source Letters From The Bowes Brothers (Legion Magazine))

Thomas and James disembarked in Liverpool, England on October 6, 1916. The very ship they sailed on was later torpedoed and sunk by the German U-Boat UB-77 in 1918 while transporting American troops to Europe, with the loss of 210 lives. (Source:  Massie, Robert K. Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea. New York: Ballantine Books, 2004. ISBN 0-345-40878-0)

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This is a photograph taken by J. A. Millar. (Source: University of Victoria Libraries)

Training Camps In England

Upon their arrival at East Sandlings Transit Camp on the south-eastern coast of England in County Kent on October 8, 1916, the 111th Batallion was disbanded and, after being bounced between several units, Thomas and James were finally both assigned to the 35th Reserve Batallion to then be distributed to units already in France and Belgium. Many new arrivals received a week’s leave and a railway pass. They often chose to visit relatives in England.

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James Neill’s service records

Poor barrack conditions (they were housed in wood cabins), particularly the food, and the strict British military discipline were a shock to the Canadian troops; Norman Browning reports back to relatives in Canada in July 1915:

“The air and weather are certainly fine here.  I like the country but do not care much for the towns, the streets seem so narrow and crowded.  I don’t think I could live in one very long. The camp is nothing like the exhibition, we are living in long wooden huts, thirty men in each.  Each man has two boards to go across two blocks, with straw mattresses and blankets and they are folded up and stood against the wall in the day.  They are pretty comfortable.  Of course the work is much harder here, and we are settling down to hard training and little discomforts.” Source: Canadian Great War Project 

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Huts at Sandling Training Camp in Kent, England. Photo courtesy of SaltwoodKent.co.uk (M. Dugdale)

Very few who enlisted in the CEF expected their battalions to be broken up, with soldiers transferred to other units already in France and Belgium, but this became common practice in late 1916, making the soldiers uneasy and negatively affecting morale; this is also reported by Vincent McCarter Eastwood:

Some of the finest battalions have come over here thinking that they would surely stick together but they are smashed in pieces no what promises have been made to them etc. etc. They are in need of subalterns though and they are taking men out of the ranks and giving them commissions where they think they are any good. Eight of the subalterns left this morning for France to join various battalions over there. Steve went with them and we felt sort of bad about separating having come this far. ” Source Letters from Vincent, Sep 22 & 26, 1916

Of the more than 250 infantry battalions formed in Canada, only about 50 served in France, continually reinforced with soldiers from units newly arrived in England. Galt’s 111th briefly served as a unit before being transferred to the 35th Reserve Battalion. As such, Waterloo County soldiers were spread throughout various CEF units for the duration of the war. Source  “City on Edge: Berlin Becomes Kitchener in 1916” Exhibit at Waterloo Region Museum, on display 2016.

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Interior of huts at Sandling Training Camp in Kent, England. Photo courtesy of SaltwoodKent.co.uk (M. Dugdale)

By February 1915, the area around Saltwood, Kent was dominated by Canadian troops. Due to the area’s proximity to France, they could be training on one day and be in the trenches on the front by lunchtime on the next. Soldiers stationed at East and West Sandling Camps undertook, as part of their training, ‘Entrenchment’ at Tolsford Hill; the digging of practice trenches. Training conditions have been described in a later account by Herbert W. McBride as follows:

Thus we came to our home in England, where we worked and sweated and swore for four solid months before we were considered fit to take our place in the firing-line. All that time, from the top of Tolsford Hill, just at the edge of our camp, we could see France; we could hear the big guns nearly every night, and we, in our ignorance, could not understand why we were not allowed to go over and settle the whole business. We marched all over Southern England. I know I have slept under every hedge-row in Kent. We dug trenches one day and filled them up the next. We made bombs and learned to throw them. We mastered every kind of signaling from semaphore to wireless, and we nearly wore out the old Roman stone roads hiking all the way from Hythe to Canterbury. We carried those old Colt guns and heavy tripods far enough to have taken us to Bagdad and back. But, oh, man! what a tough lot of soldiers it made of us. Without just that seasoning we would never have been able to make even the first two days’ marches when we finally did go across.” Source SaltwoodKent.co.uk and Herbert W. McBride

On November 12, 1916 – only about a month after arriving in England – James Neill transferred to the 4th Batallion already in France. He was now 19 years old.

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Thomas Neill’s service records (1)

Thomas Neill remained in England after his brother joined his unit at the frontlines in France. He was transferred between various units some more, moved along to Shoreham Training Camp on November 29, 1916. He was appointed acting corporal (a/cpl) on November 30, 1916 within the 34th Batallion. The appointment to acting corporal allowed a soldier to apprentice the role before confirmation of their promotion of rank. Thomas spent just over four months in Shoreham. Conditions must have been similar to those in East & West Sandling; troops were again accommodated in wooden cabins.

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Thomas Neill’s service records (2)

In letters home, a lot of pride for helping the war effort is expressed, but also worry and home sickness, as in this letter written by Jim Bowes from Shoreham Camp on December 16, 1916:

“You say don’t forget Manitoba and to hurry back. Mother dearest, if the Atlantic was frozen over the boys would all be skating back. You may be sure that we will all be back as soon as possible. Canada looks better than ever to the boys.” Source: Letters From The Bowes Brothers (Legion Magazine)

From Shoreham Camp, Thomas Neill was again moved to another Training Camp, this time in Bramshott, on April 5 1917. There, training also included preparation for gas attacks, as John Cushnie writes home on July 21, 1917:

“We also went through the gas chamber on Friday. You know we have anti-gas drill quite often to get accustomed to the use of the Gas Helmets. We went through a very mild concentration of gas with a P.H. helmet on and didn’t notice any difference from the pure air. The Gas Chamber is underground and we simply walk in one door and out the other. The gas is just like a smoke colour. We also went through tear gas which has no ill effects whatever but just makes the eyes water. It is just like peeling onions on the eyes. They have special goggles for tear gas but we didn’t wear them as they just wanted to give us some idea of what it is like.” Source Canadian Great War Project – John Cushnie Collection

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Sir Robert Borden watching practice with live grenades, Bramshott, England, April 1917. Apparently Canadian soldiers were unhappy with conditions in training camps and called for improvements. This was followed up with a visit by the prime minister, who in a speech in the House of Commons on May 18, 1917 stated “I found the men in good spirits, in good physical condition, and undergoing careful and effective training ; at least it seemed to me excellent. (…)I did not hear a complaint from any man.” (Photo Source: Library and Archives Canada)

Thomas remained in Bramshott with the 4th Reserve Batallion until finally re-enforcing the 18th Batallion already in the field in France on May 10, 1917. At this time, Thomas also reverted to his former grade of private at his own request. We can only try to imagine what may have led to this decision – maybe it felt like too much responsibility in the face of his imminent departure into battle. It had been more than a year since he joined the CEF and he had recently turned 18 years old.

To learn where the Neill Brothers continue their experience in The First World War, please continue following this blog. Retrace Thomas Neill’s role with the 18th Batallion in France in the coming segment of this story. 

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