A letter[i] written by Private David Aikin reg. no. 880497, of the 186th Overseas Battalion[ii], gives wonderful insight into the process involved for soldiers of the reinforcing battalions of the C.E.F. being transported from Canada to England. The letter shares the travels of a soldier from Canada to England at the start of 1917. The war had been going since August 1914 and Private Aikin was one of the influx of recruits that joined in 1915 and had been awaiting their turn for action after their training in Canada.
Many battalions were raised in Canada with the hope of being able to reinforce existing Canadian divisions of the Canadian Corps or to be part of the new division of the Corps. In simple terms, most of these battalions ended up being used to furnish replacements for existing front-line battalions. Private Aikin is one such soldier having enlisted with the 186th Battalion[iii] and being, eventually, shipped to the continent as a replacement of the 18th Battalion.[iv]
The value in the letter is in Aikin’s description which almost appears in the format of a daily diary of his trip. The letter starts upon the Battalion’s leave-taking at Chatham, Ontario on March 22, 1917 and ends on Aikin’s arrival at Bramshott Camp on April 8, 1917, indicating the trip from South-western Ontario to England took the Battalion seventeen-days.
Letter by Private David Aikin, reg. no. 880497.[v]
Note: The transcription by this author has added punctuation and capitals for clarity and has left some text and spelling in its original format to give a feel for the authenticity of the letter. See the letter images for original text.[vi]
Mar 22. 1917
Well, we left Chatham about ten o’clock on the C.P.R. everything was moving fine, there was a large crowd at the station to see us off and say Good Bye to the boys nearly every man carried a box of goodies that had been given to him by friends. The 241st Kiltie Band[vii] led the parade to the station. We arrived in London at one o’clock . Everything was going good. The boys were setting themselves to have a good time on their long journey We met several of our old friends in London that have been transferred to special service. The weather was cooler when we got this far after getting water and coal here, we started again. The boys were playing games and singing and doing everything for a general good time
Along this route we see the old familiar scenes that we had seen several times before on our way to Camp Borden. We arrived in Toronto at six o’clock P.M. here we got off for a few minutes and stretched ourselves and we found a dairy and it certainly was well patronized by the soldiers for a while. We got a change of engines then started on our way again we were beginning to get tired so lay down to have a sleep but were awakened about eleven o’clock P.M. by the playing of Bagpipes and cheering and to our surprise there was a large crowd around there. I could not find out the name of the Place.
One thing I did not know was that we were getting into a colder Part of the country than we were used to. When I woke up this morning I was surprise to see about three and a half feet of snow covering the ground This was quite a change to the place we had left the day before Shortly after we were up the train stopped at place by the name of St. Clet[viii] this sounded like a French name to me so I enquired and found that we were about 22 miles from Montreal and right amongst the French Canadians. We had Breakfast at 7 o’clock after arriving in Montreal. We stayed there for about 2 hours and here we met some of our old friends that had transferred to the Construction Batt. This seemed like a military meeting place. We met the 70th & 71st Batteries, the 205th Construction Batt., the Queen’s Ambulance Corps & and the 256th Batt. so there was quite a bunch of soldiers there for a while all destined for the same place.
Here we changed from the C.P.R. to the Canadian Government Railways. On leaving Montreal we crossed the great steel Structural Bridge 2 ¼ miles long wh over the St Lawrence River. After this we struck quite an open country. The People were mostly French along here and seem to be living in Settlements, their farms are laid out backing up to each other and look as if they were about 40 rods[ix] wide and two miles long The the Roads are about 4 miles apart and here the People are settled like a village.
It looks like Poor farming country and judging by the size of the barns and the appearance of the houses the country is up to much all the buildings have a neglected appearance. This kind of land stretches for hundreds of miles then we come to the foothills of the Laurentians and see some beautiful scenery. We got as far as Diamond Junction[x] we could not see much of it as it was dark when we got there. We could see the lights of Quebec City from there, but we did not get close to there.
March 22, 1917 was a Thursday. The 186th Overseas Battalion forms and loads onto a train and begins their journey to England. Aikin’s letter is full of details outline and reflecting the speed at which the troops are travelling across Canada. The enter London, Ontario, 100 kilometers distant and he notes that the weather is cooler, a curious observation in some regard as the climatic conditions of Chatham and London are similar, being influenced by the Great Lakes. Regardless of the reason for this climatic change, the train moves on passed “old familiar scenes” as they make for Toronto, Canada’s second largest city at that time. Five-hours has transpired for the 240-kilometer trip, thus averaging a speed of 50 kilometers-per-hour during that stage. No mention of stops at other towns or sidings are made so one is left wondering why it took that long. Their trip is broken with a short break and the soldiers are able to get off and partake of a “dairy”, most probably a dairy bar with ice-cream and other sweet delights. The train moves off late in the evening and drift off to sleep, undoubtedly having been keyed up and active with the excitement of travelling off to war. Their soldiers’ slumber is broken by bagpipes at some unknown city giving rise wondering exactly what format of that musical demonstration took. Were there pipers simply waiting at a railway station or siding to pipe the troop-train through on its journey to the East coast? Aikin does not know. There was cheering so there appears to be an organized assemblage of people that wanted to recognize the train as it passed their community.
Aikin seems to be a bit obsessed with the temperature and comments on it being colder. This observation is accurate. As the train moved out of south-western Ontario and the moderating effect of the Great Lakes, it moved away from this lake system and the temperature would get colder. The train was also moving northward, but the major influence on the temperature would have been the lack of proximity to water.[xi]
March 23 finds the train at St. Clet, east of Montreal. The train moves on and the troops are fed breakfast making one wonder at the logistics required to transport these men efficiently across Canada. Where the troops fed at the rail-side at a railway station using mobile cooking carriages or by boxed meals of some type? It appears that several trains were marshalled to the area and a confluence of military units meet: artillery, medical, construction, and infantry. All are heading to war and this show of manpower must have made an impression on the men being transported by rail.
Aikin’s train heads south and east bending across the Eastern Townships and he notes mountains and identifies them as part of the Laurentian mountain formation but on the south shore of the St. Lawrence the mountains are not contiguous but isolated and known as the Monteregian Hills[xii]. From a distance they could appear as a chain of mountains, but are in fact, a series of eleven hill formations that are visible to the south of Quebec. This would be a certainty of “Diamond Junction” was Richmond, Quebec, an important rail junction in the Eastern Townships. Some of the details and timing of the letter make it difficult to confirm with certainty some of the details but it is certain the route of the train was on the south-shore.
This morning on awaking we found ourselves at a little town called River DuLoup[xiii] with a population of about 2000 People. There seemed to be a great Lumber industry here although what woods we could see was all scrub Pine and white Birch.
Leaving here we come into sight of the St Lawrence where one sees some of the most beautiful scenery that is to be seen in the world. We run close to the river for a while then it is hid from use by some small mountains these mountains are covered with just scrub and white Birch trees and extend for miles along the river the we emerge from a valley and find ourselves on the very edge of the River bank from here we could see mountains away in the distance across the river. There are some little fishing villages here and more prosperous looking. Now we get to Mont Joli here we have to wait for sidetrack and wait for a train to pass it was loaded with Nurses and wounded soldiers coming from the front we started on our way again and travelled through a rough and hilly country. Some of the hills were almost mountains, some about 600 feet high and covered with deep snow along through here there is thousands of cords of Pulp wood piled along the railroad tracks. There are a lot of small sawmills through this part of the country but few of them seem to be working.
Well we got to Campbellton in the evening it is quite a nice town just on the edge of Quebec and New Brunswick Provinces this seemed more like civilization for the People were English speaking. we had travelled a long way through French speaking territory there was quite a crowd at the station when we got there, we felt almost at home here. But we did not stay long as it was getting quite dark by this time for the night.
This passage speaks to itself. It is a succinct description of the region. Of note is the detail of the train with nurses and wounded soldiers, a detail that was sure to cause the men heading to war some pause, given that this train represented a possible outcome of their service to their King and Country. Also, of note is Aikin’s comment about the sawmills not “working”. It is unknown as to how he came to that observation, but the train was passing through that area on a Saturday, so it might be possible that no work was being done as it was the weekend.
One wonders how Aikin felt as the train passed through this beautiful and isolated area, so different from the flat and verdant fields of his adopted hometown of Wheatley, Ontario. Such a contrast to the rolling wooded hills of the Restigouche region.
Sunday Mar 25
We arrived at Moncton this morning a beautiful town it was quite quiet as it was Sunday, but it showed signs of being Prosperous. Now we travelled through a part of this country that was made to look at I think for it is hills and valleys it is worth half a person’s life to take a trip through this country. Well we reached Truro at 1 o’clock and we took a little march around the Town for exercise. It is a very pretty place with its Brown and grey Stone buildings.
We arrived in Halifax at 4,30 P.M. we had just a short walk to the docks where we got aboard at 7.30 and then we got some supper which certainly tasted good for we had an early dinner and it was a long-time wait for supper
Well we are still in the harbour getting acquainted with the ship, they certainly give us good meals here. We get three course dinners every day and we certainly have good appetites since getting into the ocean air.
Just came off guard This make twice I have been on guard since I joined the army. This ship is well guarded in case there should be any spies on board. We have had Physical drill and life boat drill and wore our life belts for the first time 8.P.M. We weighed anchor at 4 o’clock this afternoon and things became interesting at that time. Our convoy [had] an auxiliary cruiser leading the way out of the harbour there were some pretty sights to be seen coming out. We are now getting out on the real ocean and some are beginning to show signs of it.
The soldiers of the 186th Battalion were onboard the S.S. Lapland. The delay in leaving may have been due to waiting on other units to arrive and embark the ship.
Well I got up at six o’clock this morning and took a walk around the Promenade deck. The air was cool and bracing it was a beautiful morning the ocean is quite calm the air is so fresh that it made me hungry and I forgot that I used to get seasick so went below and eat a good breakfast. Well we did nothing but eat and lie about all day it was to nice a day to work I guess
Not quite so nice yesterday it is getting a little breezy we seen a little maneuvering for action by the boats today and the gunners showed us a little of their marksmanship by shooting at a barrel 800 yards away and they smashed it to atoms, some fine shooting that. I don’t think subs would stand any chance with that kind of stuff
Three more days have passed the sea has been quite rough and there has been a lot of sea sickness, but we done a little Physical drill and carried out our Boat drill.
The observation about the gunners’ marksmanship is interesting. It most unlikely that the S.S. Lapland was armed and that it was the auxiliary cruiser that was engaged in the target practice.
A log kept by a soldier of the 149th Battalion illustrated the average mileage covered by the S.S. Lapland each day.
Well it was a misty raining morning. The sea is calming down and is more like living on we are about to enter the war zone. We received our escorts about 9.30 this morning they are torpedo boat destroyers they look to be about 75 ft long and 10 ft wide and they can travel at a great speed. They are a trim looking little boat they are scouting around looking for subs all the time.
A torpedo boat destroyer was a much larger ship with a beam of 190-200 feet. If the escort was seventy-five feet long it was probably of the motor launch (ML) class. This entry indicates that the risk of attack by submarine (U-boat) was considered high and the Royal Navy engaged active patrols to discourage attacks.
The morning was fine our escorts are still busy hunting for subs. Well we are going to sleep on the deck tonight in case anything happens the boats are swinging over the sides and rations in them ready for any Emergency calls.
We are still on a calm sea. We will soon be out of the danger zone and we are now in sight of old Ireland and there are all kinds of boats out here and they are fishing boats. They all have a nice little gun mounted on their bows so that they can take a shot at a sub or mine. It certainly is fine for boat riding on such a calm sea We expect to dock about midnight so quite a few of us are going to stay on Deck and watch the Proceeding of docking.
Well we have reached camp at Bramshott we are now under canvas.
Well we had quite an experience[xiv] coming up to Liverpool when we were about 15 miles from there it was about 12 o’clock a.m.[xv] we had just got our Pilot aboard and everything looked lovely and we were feeling quite safe so most of us went down below for a little while, till we would get close to the dock. I had just laid down on a bench by the table and was covering my eyes with my cap when there was a crash and rattle everything that was loose [fell] and glasses came down The ship seemed to rise right out of the water [and] then it seemed as if it was going away down into the bottom of the ocean. On realizing that something had happened I found myself on my hands and knees hollering “grab your lifebelts boys“ but somebody had already grabbed mine. I had laid it on the floor beside me when I laid down, but I soon got another. We got up on deck and to our boats as soon as possible There was men Pouring out of the gangways. There was no excitement everyone seemed to be saying “take your time” and they did so. No one got hurt going up. There was two men of the 244 Batt. killed and a couple of men of the 149, and one of our men got hurt by the explosion of the mine. It will take a long time to forget the sound and the gas that comes from it.
We got to our boats and the roll called all men on board answered except two which was killed one of these it was said was seen to fall through the hole that was torn in the ship. After Roll call we stood too our boats the ship began to settle – it looked as if we would have to use the lifeboats, but the pumps [on the ship] were got to work and we travelled at half speed. We stayed on deck by our boats and sung songs till we got to Liverpool at about five o’clock then we went below and got what we could of our equipment. We then disembarked and had to wait a couple of hours for a train. At last it came, and they were curious looking articles with their little engines and coaches that are divided into compartments ten persons in each part. We had an interesting trip from Liverpool to Liphook on our nearest station to the camp we were quite tired, but things were new to us, so we took in all the sights along the way. There are some very large cities and they all seem to be very busy. When going through the large cities the Railways are generally overhead up about two stories above the street, and they run under ground quite a bit. Also, in the cities they have an under-ground railway that will take you to about any part of the city the same as street cars do in The Canadian cities.
Between April 6 and 7 the S.S. Lapland hit a mine laid by German UC class mine laying submarine. The activities aboard ship certainly explain the delay in the diary until Private Akin got to his barracks at Bramshott. From there he summarizes the end of his adventure and posts his letter.
“I promised to write more about our trip over the pond. Good Friday passed off fine but Saturday A.M. Brought forth fin in a hurry. No doubt you people heard at home of the accident to our old friend the Lapland. Well those Huns put a fire cracker in the road and we hit it and hit it hard too. Friday we passed into the St Georges Channel we all felt safe for the first since leaving Canada. About 1:20 A.M. Saturday morning while passing up the Mersey River we hit a mine and stopped the whole works. I was asleep at the time in the 2nd deck cabin and the old devil hit right below in the 2nd floor down below. The explosion tore a hole about 10 feet wide in the side and smashed everything to smitherines.
Had the boys not been on the upper decks sleeping in the open some would have been killed. As it was only two or three of the 244 were killed and several hurt. The 149 Bn were at the rear of the boat and missed the fun. Several of the 149 were on guard and had some experience. I was the only officer of 149 who was down below in the bow of the boats. They shifted me from 139 to 117 room because it was healthier, so that is why I got such a lift. The lift consisted of a bump on the ceiling and then on the floor. I was dressed at the time and all I had to do was put on my great coat and life belt and get out. Believe me no one stopped to share or light a cigarette.
Well everybody went to their boats and stood awaiting orders to move. However they closed the water tight doors and only two decks got flooded. About 27 feet of water came into the front of the boat but still she held and we moved along slowly and landed at Liverpool 4:10 A.M. We were all landed at once and put into sheds until trams arrived. There will be all kinds of yarns about this mine. But it was pure and simple laid for the Lapland and because the boat did not sink was because the bulk heads held us and kept the water from the boilers. The Captain give the boys great praise for their coolness and only for their long training there would have been a panic as the crew all left their posts first. Your hubby was quite cool and did his best to hold the 244 Bn boys who were at the bow from rushing the boats. The boys will tell the rest if Augustine thinks my heart went bad. The Arkona boys all deserve credit for their behaviour.”
This account marries well with Private Akins and shows the discipline and coolness of the men at a trying time.
[Note on back of envelope.]
This is about enough to put in one envelope so will write a letter this evening if possible.
One wonders how the reader felt about the letter, particularly the news about Private Akins’ ship hitting a mine. It is a vivid account of life for a soldier that was going to war from his home in Ontario to England and gives one a feel for his experience 102 years ago.
[i] This letter’s format has been altered to ease comprehension from the original. The transcription is based on the images of the letter and are faithful to the content, saving the corrections (punctuation, capitalization, paragraphing, etc.).
[ii] For more information regarding the recruiting environment in Chatham, Ontario see: Matt Baker (2015) “”The List of the Nation’s Heroes”: Voluntary Enlistment in Chatham, Ontario 1914-1916,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 24 : Iss. 1 , Article 27.
Available at: https://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol24/iss1/27
[iii] Certainly, with regret, the entire 186th Battalion was folded into the 4th Canadian Reserve Battalion on April 10, 1917. This Battalion was also to comprised of the 35th Canadian Reserve Battalion, one-half of the 162nd and 168th Battalions. The 160th and 161st Battalions were absorbed on February 15, 1918.
[iv] For background to this see William Stewart (2013) “Frustrated Belligerence The Unhappy History of the 5th Canadian Division in the First World War,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 22 : Iss. 2 , Article 4.
Available at: https://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol22/iss2/4
[v] Aikin, David. “Untitled Letter.” Received by Myrtle Aikins (Most Probably), 22 Mar. 1917. This letter was contributed by a family member. The letter is edited for clarity inserting punctuation and paragraphs.
[vi] The letter is extremely legible and readable in its original format. Private Aikin literate and writes descriptively. His errors of format and punctuation are consistent and are a minor issue for comprehension and understanding. This transcription’s intent is to make the letter more accessible to a current audience.
[vii] 241st (Canadian Scottish Borderers) Battalion, CEF.
[viii] Saint-Clet, Quebec is east of Montreal before the Ottawa River. It is approximately 50 km. from downtown Montreal.
[ix] A rod is approximately 16.5 feet/5 metres in length.
[xii] The author has travelled to this region and paralleled the route of this trip and can confirm this impression is possible.
[xiv] It is surprising that the censor allowed this passage. Perhaps Private Aikin posted his letter off-base through the regular mail, which was not subject to the military censor.
[xv] Most likely the morning of April 7, 1917. At this time no reference to this event is known to the transcriber in regard to a mine or torpedo striking the S.S. Lapland.
[xvi] There is a series of letters by Lieutenant Williams closely matching the experiences of Private Akin and are valuable for comparison between these two men’s experiencing during the trip overseas.