World War I

At the outbreak of World War 1, I was working for the Grand Trunk Pacific at Portage la Prairie. Four days later, which I think was August 14th 1914 I enlisted with the local militia unit there, namely the 99th Manitoba Rangers. Other units throughout the district were raised under their various militia names from Brandon, Winnipeg, Fort Francis, Port Arthur and Fort William, which on reaching their quota were entrained together, and on reaching Val Cartier, Quebec, were amalgamated to form the 8th Battalion, 90th Winnipeg Rifles.

The make up of the unit, was composed mostly of men of Old Country extraction, many of whom like the P.P.C.L.I.'s , had seen service with the British Army in India and South Africa, and some with the Royal Navy. The others, like myself, had no previous military experience, but they had one thing in common, all were young and apart from the patriotic motive and the spirit of adventure, was the opportunity of visiting their home-land and of seeing again, the parents and relatives they had left behind, when emigrating to Canada. Whatever the reason they had for enlisting, they were second to none in the front line, and a great many were destined to never return.

Our brief training in Canada was done at Val Cartier Camp, where we were issued a leather harness named the Oliver equipment, the Ross rifle, of cursed memory, a new fitting uniform with the appropriate badges and insignia of our Regiment, putties for the legs, instead of the black leather leggings we had on arrival - so that we began to look like a combat unit, at least we were all dressed alike.

P.S. I should make mention here of the cute little winter coats provided by Sir Sam, which were quietly and quickly removed on our arrival in France. The coats if I remember rightly had no sleeves, just arm-holes, so that they could be pulled over the tunic. They were made of bits and pieces of all the hair-growing animals and had just as many colours; the hair was still on and to the outside. God knows whose addled brain conceived them; when worn we looked like an army of cave men, out after a few heads.

Our training of course was very basic, as we had to start from scratch, the usual parade square drill, route marches and learning to handle our weapons, and shooting on the ranges.

In the meantime a great armada of ships was assembling at Quebec City, perhaps the greatest in history; consisting of thirty transports and ten battleships; then came the day: "Orders to embark" and we left Val Cartier for Quebec, and to the waiting ships. As the ships were loaded they moved out to Gaspe Bay and took up their assigned positions in three lines 400 yards apart each way, and with the arrival of the last transport, the whole fleet, guarded on all sides with cruisers, moved off for Britain.

8th Battalion 90th Winnipeg Rifles on board S.S. Franconia

(I think Hugh came out to Canada on the Laurentic, while we came out on the Grampian- tonnage around 5,000 ton and old boats even then.  I remember taking Hugh's passage papers to him. He was working for a farmer and at the time he was driving and old white horse rolling a field when I arrived.  He cut quite a few cap and the old horse must have thought he had gone crazy.)


The crossing took twenty one days as the regular shipping lanes were avoided due to the fear of submarines, and also to the fact that we could only travel as fast as the slowest boat and some of those were pretty ancient. During the day the naval convoy was scarcely visible, ranging widely on all sides of the carrier vessels, closing in towards nightfall.  The trip itself was uneventful, with the exception that one day a sailor on the "Royal Edward", which was the boat immediately ahead of us; fell overboard.  As he was a good swimmer and clearly visible in the water, and to avoid running over him, the ships following, veered out of line and came to a stop.  Fletcher and I were on the top deck at the time and between us heaved a life belt to him which when it hit the water ignited a flare so that at night it could be easily spotted.  However, he had quite a choice as there must have been half a dozen tossed over to him, selecting the most convenient he dived under and came up with the belt encircling him, and resting his arms across it waited for our life boat, which had been immediately lowered to pick him up and finishing the rest of the voyage aboard our boat the "Franconia".

This incident; whatever signal had been flashed; brought the destroyers tearing in through the lines and for a brief few minutes we had a chance to see the Navy in action. As we neared Britain we were met by the heavier battle cruisers; which was quite a sight; and escorted into Plymouth. As you will note the crossing took 21 days and  sometime towards the end of October we arrived in Plymouth.

From Plymouth we entrained for Salisbury Plains; what a surprise; due to the heavy rains the camp was just a sea of mud and it still continued to rain. It was impossible even to keep the inside of the tent dry. We tried ditching around and even through the inside of the tent to try and drain the water off, but, if successful, only passed it along to the neighbor next door who was not slow in letting you know what he thought of you, as he had more than he could handle of his own.

Private William Peden #1023 - 8th Battalion, "Little Black Devils", Canadian Expeditionary Force

The whole camp was just a slithering mess of mud and our nice soft Canadian brown shoes quickly took on the appearance of soggy moccasins with turned up toes. In fact it was so bad that when I got my leave at New Year to go to Scotland, I walked out of camp with an old pair of shoes, exchanging them for a dry pair which I had in my kit bag after I got out of the mud. Here be it noted that while we were wallowing around in the mud, the British troops were in nice comfortable barracks - this of course was not due to prejudice or intent, but rather the lack of foresight on the part of Sir Sam.

How we fared for food I have little recollection, but I do remember one incident when the orderly officer came around one morning asking "Any Complaints". I told him the porridge was burned, sticking his finger into my mess tin and licking it off, smacking his lips, replied "I like that burned taste", after that I had no complaints.

We were however supplied with a generous amount of what was termed, "Iron Rations", bully beef and hard tack, this was well named and I suspect it also was left over from the South African War or the Rile Rebellion; the bully beef as it was named was good Fray Bentos, and came in handy when on the move, but when one got it everyday in the soup it began to loose its appeal. As to the hard tack, I have seen men with poor teeth putting it in their haversack and pounding hell out of it with the butt of their rifle then scooping the chips into their mouth. So much for the food: We survived. Added to the misery of the camp condition, in which we were practically imprisoned was the fact that on our arrival, the great military genius Sir Sam Hughes had placed all adjacent villages to the camp, "Out of Bounds" to the troops. As we had no wet canteens, all the soldier could do when off duty, was to try and keep warm, the comfort of a glass of beer and a chat with his buddies being denied him also. Sir Sam was opposed to wet canteens.

This stupid Bastard into whose care the Canadian people had entrusted the lives of some 30,000 men, must have had the idea that these were his personal contribution to the Great War, and as such were under his command to equip and manipulate as he saw fit, and in pursuing this idea, was continually at odds with the British.

I recall a muster parade, called by General Alderson who was in command at that time, addressing the troops in which he stated that he was leaving for London to request that unless canteens be granted, he would resign his command, as he had no wish to command an army of men which were being treated as school boys. This address and statement to the troops, is on official record. The outcome of his visit to headquarters, was that canteens were established. This must have upset the micro mind of Sir Sam, but it was an order and he had to carry it out, and this is how he did it. One small tent, the ordinary bell tent was set up, this was the canteen, it was open only at noon for an hour. The men lined up with their mess cans into which a pint was sloshed and had to be paid for, with the result, that when time was up, those at the end of the line did not get served and lost their dinner also.

This did not concern me too much, but at the request of the older buddies, who needed a drink, I would line up, and if lucky, turn it over to them. Sir Sam seemed to have the idea that this was his private army and hated the thought of having to conform to British standards, so that it could function smoothly as a unit within the Imperial forces.

The Oliver equipment, the rations, the shoes, the rifles, which were thrown away with curses at Ypres, my own rifle, after I was wounded, I turned over to another man, who was kicking the bolt of his rifle with the heel of his boot, to try and extract a spent shell - all were discarded and replaced by British equipment.

In the meantime, huts were hurriedly being erected into which we were moved around the turn of the year. Our next move from there was to France and the beginning of a new experience.

William Peden

Next: Arrival in France      Home