Unending Seige

The Canadian Combatant

Infantry Training and Service Conditions in England

So much for the training, knowledge and equipment of the young recruit departing for England. Once there and under experienced warriors on Salisbury Plain, he would be readied for the real shock of combat. It would not take long for the young man to discover that more than his training had been botched. His tunic came apart at the seams and his cotton and wool coat protected him from neither rain nor cold. His boots, made hastily to meet the needs of an army expanding at a frantic pace, fell apart in the mud. To offset their flimsiness, the soldier slipped on rubber overshoes sent by the defence department.

Most of the problems would be corrected. In South Africa the British had discarded the Oliver equipment in favour of the Webb, which was more practical for an overladen infantrymen. This made Britain a supplier to its Canadian colony, which had failed to back up its determination to run its own military show. In addition to the Webb, the British provided more durable boots and looser tunics.

At this time, an infantry division would have some 6,000 horses, most of them used for drawing wagons. Once in England, the Canadians were surprised to find that the harness provided by their British allies (designed so that horses wounded or killed could easily be unhitched) did not fit their water wagons. Even their wagons were unsuitable: The wood used for their manufacture in Canada was too green and thus tended to split, break and rot; and they could not be drained or cleaned. Canadian motor vehicles were soon off the road because spare parts were unobtainable in England.

In all these cases, Britain came to the rescue of her colony. Grappling with a rearmament problem themselves, the British were periodically faced with the sometimes pitiful stubbornness of Canadian politicians refusing to replace the Ross rifle or the Colt machine gun. The MacAdam shovel was to be used as a shield against bullets while soldiers used a hole in the upper corner to observe the battlefield. Too heavy at nearly 5'12 pounds and virtually useless for digging, especially in mud, the shovel was abandoned.

The Canadians training on Salisbury Plain hardly lived it up. Every morning they were served porridge and tea. At noon they received a serving of stew they would long savour. The evening meal of bread, jam and tea recalled a Canadian breakfast. Delicacies were rare.

The rules of order and discipline governing Canadian soldiers on British soil were those of Canadian military law. Their British counterparts were subject to British civil law as long as they were still in Britain. Offshore, however, they observed a military code identical to that observed by the Canadian troops. This code governed officers and men alike, but it appears not to have been applied very fairly. Between 1914 and 1918, for example, some 25.4 percent of officers, but only 10.2 of other ranks, brought before a court-martial were acquitted. Of the numerous officers tried for cowardice, desertion in the face of the enemy and other offences punishable by death, none was brought before a firing squad.