These letters (transcribed in full below) are interesting as they represent the perspectives of two of the major demographic groups that enlisted in the 2nd Canadian Contingent in the latter part of 1914 with the 18th Battalion: British and Canadian born soldiers writing their first letters from England after their transit to prepare to fight with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces.
Though both men were from Galt, enlisted in Galt they were of different heritage. Private Frederick Henry Spiers was born in London, England and Private (later Corporal then Company Sergeant Major) Eli Watts was born in Galt, Ontario, Canada. Both were tradesmen, Spiers was a bricklayer and Watts was a butcher, that were 11-years apart in age. Spiers, at 34-year old, was 11 years senior to Watts. Their letters show how their heritage shaped their perception of their trip, especially in relation to their feeling about England. Both men where British but one was coming to familiar places and the other was discovering a wider world.
Both letters relate the travels aboard train and ship from Canada to England in a similar fashion. Spiers is a bit miffed at the exorbitant prices being charged for soft-drinks and chocolate, “They soaked us pretty well on the boat for anything.”, and both soldiers’ accounts are similar that they feel familiar to each other. The accounts differ in detail, but we get a similar sense of their journey. The little details like the expensive chocolate and the patriotic Canadian crowds populating the streets and train stations, especially at 2 o’clock in the morning when the Battalion’s train passed through Truro, Nova Scotia, speaks volumes to the enthusiasm for the war and the Canadian effort to sustain it as witnessed by this public display of recognition for men in a train that did not even stop. These details add to the tone of the trip and are priceless.
But their opinions of these men diverge when they get to England.
For Spiers it is a home coming and the vitality of England is, in part, represented by the sight of the Messrs. Sutton and Son’s Royal Seed Establishment[i]. This enterprise represented the wide-ranging influence of British economic and scientific influence as this firm had a world-wide reach. A description of this firm from 1892 reads, in part:
“The transactions of the firm extend all over the earth. The fame of Messrs. Sutton is worldwide, and they number amongst their patrons, emperors, kings, princes, peers and peasants who, all alike, testify to the high value of the articles they purchase. The proprietors of this great business – the largest of its kind in the World – can look back upon a rapid growth from comparatively small beginnings.”[ii]
We can see, from this one enterprise, a summary of a firm, Royally appointed, that represents the height of industry and enterprise that made the United Kingdom the world power it was at the turn of the last century. Suttons was certainly, “…a sight worth seeing…” and there was nothing like it in the world. As Spiers relates later in the same paragraph, “It was quite a site for the Canucks as you can’t see it in Canada so early in the year.” Though Spiers was referring to the early bloom of flowers it almost speaks to a greater pride and differentiation between the maturation and scale of the economies of United Kingdom compared to Canada. England, industrial in nature, represented by the industrialization of the production of seeds for the world, and the smaller scale of the Canadian economy at that time.
In contrast, Watts prefers Canada, though he likes England. He even compliments the country as, “England is just like a big garden, all green, flowers and blossoms.”, but he admits, in the very next line, “I think it is the prettiest country I ever saw but Canada is home[iii].” This Canadian is warm to his experience in England, but perhaps a wisp of homesickness is penetrating his writing, he is writing his mother after all, but this expression is tempered by his new-found role as a soldier – For King and Country. This is important as the context of a soldier born in Canada was that of a British subject. There was no distinction of citizenship at that time in Canadian history. If these Canadian born soldiers carried passports, they would be British passports. Further, Watts, and his comrades where subject to a unified command and code of military justice as Imperial troops and this responsibility was shared by the British and Canadian military bureaucracy throughout the war.
The letters than converge and share a similar tone as these men describe their destination, the camp at West Sandling. Both share the fact that the distance to the front is 4 or 6 hours distant in time, the actual time to the front when the Battalion embarked for active front-line service was more like 4 to 6 days when applied as a real-word transport and logistical problem when they moved from England to Belgium in September 1915.
The letters talk about themes that pervade the interests of soldiers’ time immemorial. Food, money, living conditions, travel. But each man, Spiers and Watts, looked on this shared experience from the perspective of their birth. Spiers, and Englishman, who even sees a place he lived in prior to coming to Canada, and Watts, British born from Canada.
Their fates were connected by their shared enlistment. They knew of each other and perhaps were friends. Sadly, the now, Company Sergeant Major Elli Watts disappeared in the maw and hell of the Battalion’s attack at Courcelette, The Somme, on September 15, 1916. His body was never identified, and he is memorialized at the Vimy Memorial and the Cenotaph at Queens Square, Cambridge, Ontario. Spiers survived the war. He served faithfully in Belgium from September 25, 1915 until January 7, 1916. And then he had had enough, suffering from neurasthenia (shell shock) and Disorderly Action of the Heart (DAH), which invalided him to England until his return to Galt, and his wife, Louisa, in January 1919.
Note: The letters are formatted with paragraphs to aid comprehension.
Cheery Letters From Boys of Eighteenth Battalion[iv]
Dear Fred:– I am very glad that journey is over, as it was a long trip. It took just two weeks to get here, but I must say we had a very nice sea trip. After we were two days out from Halifax the ocean was just like a pond. We never went very fast after the first four days, as we had to wait for another ship loaded with troops, and after they came up to us we had to go slow on account of a cruiser which had to escort us in. She caught us on Sunday, 23rd of April, and of course we felt a lot more secure from submarines. When we were two days from our journey’s end two torpedo boats took the place of the cruiser, H.M.S. Cumberland, so you will see we were protected.
Now I must tell you we were in rotten berths on the ship, as we where they usually put the foreigners, and the stench was enough to know you down, but I must say the food was fairly good. I was not sick, but I had to miss a few meals as I was feeling bad. We spent most of our time on deck.
They soaked us pretty well on the boat for anything. Ginger ale was 25 cents for 3 little bottles, there was not a half a glass in them, and a little box of chocolates cost 20 cents, and a bar of chocolate 10 cents, which you could get here for a penny.
We all had lights out and portholes closed after 7 o’clock at night.
We had a nice trip from Bristol yesterday to here and the country looks fine. We came through Reading and passed Sutton’s[vii] seed grounds, and the flowers were a sight worth seeing. It was quite a site for the Canucks as you can’t see it in Canada so early in the year. We are in a very nice place. We are 4½ miles from Folkestone and 10 miles from Dover, so you see we are only six hours from the firing line.
We saw the first effects of warfare yesterday, as just as we got off the train here, a Red Cross train came dashing through with a load of wounded from the front.
On our journey from Bristol to here we came through Chelsea, Battersea, and Clapham, and I could see the house that I lived in when I left England, and it brought back memories of the past.
We are on proper war rations, no potatoes or butter, but I think ware are going to get 4d[viii] a day allowance which will be all right.
Enjoys Beautiful England
The follow letter for Corporal (No. 53977) Eli Watts[ix], 18th Battalion, 2nd C.E.F., Sandling Camp, Kent, England, to his mother, Mrs. Eli Watts, Dayton street, had just arrived:
Just a line to let you know I am still in the land of the living and well. We had some trip across the Atlantic. We left London, Ont., on Thursday, April 15th, the London Folks giving us a send off. We arrived in Montreal the following morning and after a short stay pulled out of Halifax. At Moncton a stop was made where we marched through the streets with a band; also at Newcastle, and at Troual [Truro] we passed through the town at 2 o’clock in the morning and there was a bid crowd waiting with two bands to cheer us along. We arrived in Halifax Sunday morning, April 19th, and boarded the liner Grampian about ten o’clock and sailed at eight o’clock that night.
I had a good sleep but next morning, (oh my!). If I ever get back I will walk back. When we were in mid-ocean we had to wait for the liner Northland which was about half a day behind. We kept together for the next two days and only went about 6 knots an hour, and then we were joined by the cruiser Cumberland which gave us the news about the big battle taken part in by the First Canadian Contingent. After that we got near Queenstown the cruiser disappeared and two torpedo boats appeared from nowhere and they sure could travel some. They stayed all that day and the next day when we were in the war zone there were about 15 torpedo boats around us. They looked like so many row boats. The stayed with us till we landed at Avonmouth, near Bristol. On Thursday April 29th, exactly two weeks from the time we started, we disembarked at 9 o’clock and took the train at 10 a.m. It was some sight all along the railroad. England is just like a big garden, all green, flowers and blossoms. I think it is the prettiest country I ever saw but Canada is home.
We went from one side of England to the other and are about 5 miles from Shorncliffe and just four hours ride from the firing line. We heard the big guns firing last night at near Dover.
The Canadians sure had a big fight from April 22nd to the 25th and there were a while lot killed and wounded. It took all the rest of the Canadians here before us to fill up the gaps, so that we are the next Battalion to go. (Hurrah!)
We are not getting as much news as you are. The place where our camp is situated is called Sandling Camp. And is laid off in streets just like a small city. We have an awful time with the money over here. One Galt boy by the name of “Dutch[x]” thought the fellow had given him two pence two [sic] much. He was bragging about it and when somebody showed him he had been done for 15 pence he did the war dance for the rest of the night.
Well I guess I have told you about all this time so here’s hoping the next letter will come from France.
Corporal Eli Watts
[ii] Berkshirehistory.com. (2019). RBH: Description of Sutton & Sons’ Royal Seed Establishment, Reading(1892). [online] Available at: http://www.berkshirehistory.com/businesses/sutton_seeds.html [Accessed 21 Feb. 2019].
[iii] Emphasis added by author.
[iv] Galt Daily Reporter. May 27 ,1915 Page 12.
[v] This is most likely Frederick Henry Grove, reg. no. 730040. His attestation papers show he lived at 16 Cathay, Street, Galt, Ontario. He joined the 111th Overseas Battalion in 1915 and was eventually transferred to the 4th Battalion where he served until dying of wounds on June 29, 1917.
[vi] Spiers, Frederick Henry: Service no. 53968.
[vii] Sutton and Sons’ Royal Seed Establishment.
[viii] This is equivalent to $1.69 CDN in today’s currency. Spiers must be referring to the Field Allowance, which was 0.10 cents a day CDN.
[ix] Watts, Eli: Service no. 53977 Watts, Eli: Service no. 53977.