Long-forgotten ‘Winnipegs’ get their due Formed in the Prairies and sent into the mud and misery of the First World War, the 27th Battalion has received little recognition over the past century
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On May, 13, 1915, the men of the 27th (City of Winnipeg) Battalion went off to war. The battalion was raised in the great city of the Prairies, the small farm towns of Manitoba and eastern Saskatchewan, as well as the mining and lumber towns of northwestern Ontario.
When it returned on May, 26, 1919, more than 5,000 had served, thousands had been wounded in body and spirit, and more than 800 were left, at best, in the hastily dug, muddy battlefield cemeteries of France and Belgium.
Sadly, the 27th never got to tell its own story. There was an attempt at writing a battalion history in the 1930s but the manuscript sits incomplete and unpublished in the Royal Winnipeg Rifles Museum archives.
Along with it are copies of the battalion trench newspaper, the 27th Battalion War Diaries, and the personal stories told in the diaries, memoirs and letters the soldiers or their families donated to the project.
Battalion soldier Jack Row’s extensive memoir was sent to the Royal Winnipeg Rifles Museum archives in 2021. Hopefully, there are more stories like Row’s tucked away in closets, attics and basements that might come to light to further fill out the battalion’s history.
The city welcomed war in August 1914.
Winnipeg goes wild with news, the Winnipeg Tribune proclaimed.
Not to be outdone, the Winnipeg Free Press breathlessly described the excitement in the city: “The floodgates of patriotism were wide open in Winnipeg last night and scenes of wild enthusiasm were enacted on the main thoroughfares when a Free Press “extra” announced shortly after 8 o’clock that war was declared.
“Winnipeg surely proved to the utmost her loyalty to the flag and her bitter opposition to the German aggression. All the excitement was downtown, there being a funereal stillness markedly noticeable in North Winnipeg and other outlying sections.”
The paper also ominously commented: “The foreigners of North Winnipeg showed good common sense in keeping well out of sight.”
Winnipeg’s men rushed to join the colours. But as the Canadian government kept upping its commitment to send troops to aid the British Empire, more battalions were urgently needed.
“When the First World War broke out in August of 1914, I tried to enlist but I was a skinny 18-year-old, so they told me to go home and eat more porridge. Soon they were beginning to take the war seriously and they were glad to take me,” Row, from Whitewood, Sask., remembered.
They also took his 17-year-old brother Sydney and, in 1915, his youngest brother Francis. Jack’s father, who was a pharmacist, enlisted in the Canadian Medical Corps.
The 27th battalion was mobilized in October 1914, and, in December, the volunteers began living and training at the Old Agricultural College Dairy and Machray Buildings at Tuxedo Park. British-born John Thwaites, a young farm hand living in Moline, Man., remembered it as “a dirty place, horses had been in it and there were still traces of them.”
“When the First World War broke out in August of 1914, I tried to enlist but I was a skinny 18-year-old, so they told me to go home and eat more porridge.”–Jack Row
Before the battalion departed for England, it was adopted by Winnipeg, which wanted its own named battalion much like Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton. The men were presented with “City of Winnipeg” battalion hat badges made by jeweler D.R. Dingwall in a ceremony in front of city hall.
“The design was simple and effective,” commented a local newspaper, “being the city coat of arms mounted on a maple leaf and containing the inscription ‘XXVII BATTN.’”
The battalion was commanded by 59-year-old Lt.-Col. Irvine Snider, who had been a private with the 90th Winnipeg Rifles during the 1885 North-West Rebellion and also served in the South African war in 1900. There were 33 other officers from Winnipeg’s professional class who had militia experience: businessmen, merchants, real estate agents, accountants, bankers, engineers and lawyers.
On May 13, 1915, the battalion’s 1,133 men and officers marched out of Tuxedo Barracks to the CPR station. In a paroxysm of patriotism, the Free Press proclaimed:
The effect of six months military training was plainly seen as the men marched away today. Probably not anywhere in the world has there ever been raised as fine a body of men as the citizen soldiery which left today. The undesirables had been weeded out months ago, and the men who left for the front this morning were as nearly perfect, physically and mentally, as any body of men wearing the uniform of the British King.
Thousands of people gathered on Portage Avenue and Main Street to wish their soldiers goodbye. The men boarded train cars adorned with flags and pennants.
Asked what his farewell message to the city was, Lt.-Col. Snider simply stated: “I’d rather show them than tell them what the Winnipeg Battalion can do — Goodbye.”
Upon arrival in England, the battalion officially became part of the 2nd Canadian Division. With the rumble of the artillery in France as a reminder of the seriousness of the work at hand, the men began training: physical exercises, inspections, parades, close-order drill, instruction, signalling, entrenching, route marches, advances and retreats.
Soldiers had differing impressions and experiences in England. Many were recent immigrants from England and Scotland and reunited with family, relatives and friends.
Some, like battalion diarist Elmer Crossman, enthused over the sights and architectural marvels of the mighty British Empire’s capital and visited them again when he had his one leave of the war.
In his playful letters home, flatlander Jack Row praised the landscape, the fields and the small English towns.
”This is the darnedest country for hills you ever saw,” he wrote. “Our camp is on a sort of plateau so no matter which way we come home we have a long weary climb. Nobody ever gets home drunk here because he heaves everything about halfway up, so you see it is quite conducive to the discipline of the camp.”
London, however, wasn’t for Row. “We went through the outskirts of London and it was sure smoky. I felt like I’d been fighting a Prairie fire only the smoke didn’t taste as nice.”
The battalion departed for the battlefields of France and Belgium four months later. While waiting to board the transport ships taking them to the port of Boulogne, the battalion history records that the men sang their favourite music-hall song, Goodbye-ee:
Wipe the tear, baby dear, from your eye-ee.
Tho’ it’s hard to part I know, I’ll be tickled to death to go
Don’t cry-ee, don’t sigh-ee.
The first page of the manuscript documenting the 27th Battalion’s history.
On Oct. 1, 1915, the “Winnipegs” took up position in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium, where the 8th Canadian (90th Winnipeg Rifles) had stood strong in the face of a German gas attack in the April 2, 1915, Battle of Ypres.
Three days later, Sgt. William Atton was killed while watching a “dogfight” in the sky. “He held his head too high and was sniped,” Lt. Ralph Jones wrote in his diary.
In civilian life, Jones, 42, had managed the Bank of Commerce at Main Street and Alexander Avenue. Now the six-foot-tall Jones pondered the fact “being a short man has its advantages in the trenches.”
When the battalion was relieved and returned to the relative safety of their billets four miles behind the front line, Jones commented, “What amazes me now is how easily we get used to it all.”
Jones was a dedicated, detailed chronicler of life in the trenches. His 350-page diary, held in the Canadian War Museum archives, records how the “Winnipeggers” quickly learned the ins and outs of warfare and settled into the dreary and dangerous routine of defending trenches on the Western Front.
The battalion suffered deaths and casualties from enemy snipers, artillery, accidents and illness on an almost daily basis. The harsh military term was “trench wastage” and the men realized, as Chaplain Charles Gordon, minister of Winnipeg’s St. Stevens Presbyterian Church, wrote, “Death is walking at our side by day and by night.”
In his Nov. 12, 1915, diary entry, Jones described a typical day:
On duty 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and slept from 12:30 a.m., mighty comfortably in spite of heavy rain and strong winds…
Meanwhile 29th (City of Edmonton) advancing from rear several hundred yards back suffered five casualties, the enemy’s fire seemingly being directed over our parapets purposefully. Just after “stand to” in evening, the enemy opened on our extreme right with machine gun and rapid rifle fire. I threw up a number of flares on our company front and neither sentries nor no man could see any signs of enemy.
The enemy artillery sent over a very few shrapnel shells which unfortunately for us were well-placed as one of them found two men in C Company. Our Co. went out avoiding communication trenches and we were amazed to get through so exposed, in the open, with having to drop several times to avoid strafes. It was an interesting and rather thrilling evening…
Military medals awarded to Pte. J. Denny of the 27th Battalion.
Coming to Locre the men plodded say 3 1/2 to 4 miles without a stop and we were caught in a fearful downpour of rain, about the worst I have ever seen lasting probably 15 minutes. I was surprised to find my men so capable of enduring a hard march over cobblestones on a black night with rain and much wind to battle against the whole way. They were all made cheerful by an issue of rum and soup.
One of the few ways the men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force kept up their morale was through their trench newspapers. “Whether they make us swear or smile, they help more than anything else to relieve the monotony and keep one’s intelligence from corrosion or dry rot, and they constitute one of the few real comforts of trench life,” commented the editor of the battalion’s newspaper, the Trench Echo.
Although many battalions published a newspaper, issues were sporadic, and most were only produced once or twice during the war. The 27th battalion published four issues and the poem My Little Wet Home in the Trench is typical of the doggerel found within:
I’ve a little wet home in a trench,
Where the rainstorms continually drench.
There’s a dead cow close by with her hoofs towards the sky,
And she gives off a beautiful stench.
Underneath, in the place of a floor.
There’s a mass of wet mud, and some straw,
And the Jack Johnsons tear
Thro’ the rain-sodden air
O’er my little wet home in the trench.
— The Trench Echo April 1916
After six months in the trenches, the battalion suffered the full force of war during the Battle of the St. Eloi Craters.
“Just a line to say I am well and leave for the trenches in a very few minutes,” Jones wrote in an April 2, 1916, letter addressed to his brother Roy, who was an artillery officer stationed nearby.
“We shall be close to the recent show and may have a look-in when the Boche come back at us, as he does nightly…. Guns around here about awfully noisy recently. Big stuff going over in plenty.”
Between April 3-9, the battalion suffered more than 150 casualties with 38 killed. Twenty two of these soldiers’ bodies, including Jones’s, were never recovered. They are memorialized on the 27th Battalion panels on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres, Belgium.
In an April 14, 1916, letter, Roy Jones wrote to family in England and described how his brother had died, as told to him by a fellow battalion soldier:
During the week they were under incessant shellfire of every description. Ralph received an order to connect up with the Battalion on the left. He gathered the remnants of his men and led off. They found the trenches absolutely levelled by the murderous fire. Ralph started to lead off and a shrapnel shell exploded nearby. He fell at once and was gone without a word. His corporal said his death was instantaneous.
The chaos of battle was made worse by the Canadian-made Ross rifle. It had failed soldiers by jamming in the muddy trenches during the second Battle of Ypres in 1915 and did so a year later at St. Eloi.
“The trenches were in a very bad shape, full of mud, water and dead Germans.… We spent the first night trying to get our rifles in shape to use, but it was almost a hopeless task for they were covered with mud and full of water. It does not take a big spot of mud to put a Ross rifle out of action,” wrote battalion soldier Cpl. George Children, who was severely wounded in the battle.
The Ross was replaced by the trustworthy, British-made Lee Enfield in late 1916, in time for Canada’s entry into the Battle of the Somme.
The bravery of the men and dedication of the officers was sullied when the battalion’s commanding officer, Lt.-Col. Snider, was relieved of command, as a cover for the higher-ranking officers who had ordered an impossible mission. Snider was given sick leave, sent home to Canada and never commanded frontline troops again.
“They said it was shell shock,” he wrote in his memoir found in the battalion files, “but it was hell shock from the way I was treated.” To the anger and humiliation of the battalion’s officers, command was given to a major from another battalion.
“They said it was shell shock… but it was hell shock from the way I was treated.”–Lt.-Col. Snider, battalion’s commanding officer
The “Winnipegs” regained their lost valour on Sept. 15, 1916. The Canadian Corps was moved from Belgium to France to relieve the exhausted Australian divisions, which had been fighting for almost three months in the Battle of the Somme.
The Canadians had occupied defensive positions in and around Ypres, Belgium, but now, for the first time in the war, they would finally be on the offensive and attack German-held territory. The battalion, along with other 2nd Division battalions, was tasked with liberating the French village of Courcelette.
The day also marked a milestone in the history of mechanized warfare. Tanks were going into battle for the first time. Row described the mammoth machines as looking like “threshing separators.” Chaplain Albert Woods, who had been a minister at Winnipeg’s St. Margaret’s Anglican Church, described a tank in his Sept. 15, 1916, diary entry as a “caterpillar fighting machine.” Woods predicted it would terrify the Germans as it ran over and crushed their trenches. “It was our day,” Woods wrote.
Weeks later, soldiers would have been amazed to discover Pte. Thomas Cuddy from Sanford, Man., was credited as being one of the inventors of the “Monster” tank. The Free Press and Tribune reported in late October that year that Cuddy, referred to as a mechanical genius, had devised and patented the design used for the tank’s steering mechanism.
Cuddy had gone to France to work on the Canadian medical corps’ newly invented X-ray machines, but in 1917 was promoted to lieutenant and seconded to work on experimental tanks for the British Ministry of Munitions. After the war, he studied medicine at the University of Manitoba and became a highly respected Winnipeg doctor.
The Free Press reported that “September 15 will ever be an historic day for Canada. Our men have won a singular victory over the enemy.” True, the Canadians took the heavily defended village, but as Row wrote to his worried mother in Saskatchewan, “Syd (Row’s brother in the 27th who was wounded in July 1916) is back with the battalion or at least the remains, as it was practically wiped out, as were most of the Canadians. I was lucky to get only a couple of clean bullet wounds and could walk off the battlefield.”
Row spent 18 months recuperating in hospital and was sent back to the front in June 1918. He was wounded again June 18 and convalesced in England.
In the forgotten September 1916 battles in and around Courcelette, the battalion took almost 500 casualties of which 138 were killed, died of wounds or were missing and presumed dead. Of these, 103 were never recovered for an honourable burial. They have no known graves and are memorialized on the Canadian National Vimy Monument. Twenty-two are known to be buried in the Courcelette British Cemetery, which holds 1,180 unidentified soldiers — 383 of which are unidentified Canadians.
The Canadian Corps suffered 24,000 casualties with 8,000 dead in the 11 weeks the Canadians were on the Somme battlefield. More than half of the 11,000 names on the Vimy Memorial are from the men who fell on the Somme and have no known grave.
“Syd (Row’s brother) is back with the battalion or at least the remains… I was lucky to get only a couple of clean bullet wounds and could walk off the battlefield.”–Jack Row
In mid-October, the shattered 27th marched off the Somme battlefields, joined the battalions of the Canadian Corps and headed north towards Vimy Ridge. The following year saw a new professionalism and reorganization of the corps, a dynamic new Canadian commanding general, triumph at Vimy Ridge and the pyrrhic victory at Passchendaele. The year 1918 saw the advent of modern combined armed battle and ultimate triumph during the Last Hundred Days Battles at Amiens, Droquert Queant and Cambrai.
The war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, but the battalion had been assigned to the army of occupation in Germany and didn’t return home until May 1919.
The names of the returning soldiers were published in the local papers, so families and friends knew who was arriving on the special Canadian Pacific train. A large crowd had gathered at the Higgins Avenue station to greet those returning.
However, as the local papers wrote, “the turmoil caused by the general strike prevented any formal events.” With that, Winnipeg’s own 27th Battalion passed into history without the city’s recognition, then or now.
Ian Stewart is author of Seeing It Through: Manitoba’s Soldiers, 1914-1919.
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