Excerpt: Jonathan Vance's 'A Township at War'

In 1916, army recruiters scoured communities across Ontario looking to enlist volunteers for the Great War. Here's why dozens of teamsters, farmers, and blacksmiths in the tiny township of East Flamborough signed up to fight
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on November 5, 2018
The Waterdown platoon of the 129th Battalion in front of the drill shed. Stan Sawell stands on the left, and Vern Willis is front and centre. Photographer unknown. (Steven R. Sawell collection)



When Stan Sawell had pondered what life as a soldier might be like, he hadn't expected it to involve going door to door with a clipboard. And, yet, there he was on his first official duty as an officer of the 129th Battalion, pounding the streets of East Flamborough in January 1916 to compile a military census. The federal government hadn't gotten around to that yet, so it was up to officers like Stan to record the names of potential volunteers in their designated recruiting areas, to see if they might be persuaded to join up.

Almost everyone knew Stan. The Sawells were from Millgrove, and Stan's mother was a Cummins, a family whose branches spread out across half a dozen counties in southern Ontario. Stan's father operated a shop on Dundas Street that sold painting and decorating supplies cover of the book, A Township at War, showing wartime lifeyear-round and ice cream in the summer.

He never had to introduce himself and was usually invited in out of the cold to make his notes. But there was often a cup of coffee or a slice of pie on offer, and Stan hated to say no, especially when the success of the 129th was at stake. Although he could have listed the men in any given house in a couple of minutes, it was sometimes an hour before he excused himself, after having been suitably refreshed.

That was Canada early in 1916, and East Flamborough was no different — it was all about recruiting. In cities and towns across the country, units were on the hunt for men, using all the tricks of the new science of advertising to catch their attention. Cheery faces in khaki smiled down from billboards, asking men to fight for the Union Jack, the old country, their pals, their family, the people of Belgium and France — or all of the above. Old soldiers from past wars were trotted out as examples for young men. Many units had mascots that acted as ambassadors, and some had specially commissioned recruiting songs. There were pennants and tags, buttons and flags.

In Wentworth County, half a dozen infantry battalions were looking for volunteers, so the 129th faced stiff competition, especially from the better-funded city units. The 86th Battalion commissioned moving pictures of its men doing manoeuvres and arranged to have them shown at local movie houses. In the window of a Hamilton department store, a patriotic tableau featured soldiers of the 120th and 173rd Battalions, surrounded by coloured recruiting posters. The Canadian Mounted Rifles were drawing big crowds with a trench-digging display on the grounds of their Hamilton barracks. Visitors to the Dundas armoury might have thought that the 129th had followed suit, "for a war-like trench ran across the ground in front of the building." Alas, reported the Dundas Star, the reality was a little more prosaic; it wasn't actually a trench, but a drainage ditch pushed through in an endeavour "to remedy difficulties which had developed because of the lack of a town sewage system."

But whatever the event, there were speakers, always more than one. This was the age of the elocutionist, when public speaking was viewed as an art — a minor art, but an art, nonetheless. Those who took the podium at 129th Battalion events gave full rein to their oratorical skills, for few subjects offered better scope for speechifying than a righteous fight against an evil enemy. "We are fighting for the principles of the Magna Carta," said the speaker at one recruiting meeting, and "to save women and children from the hands of the Huns." That was the crux of the matter. Yes, the war was about abstract ideas like democracy and freedom, but ultimately it was a war in defence of Canada. "If we don't go to meet the Germans, they will come here," said Hamilton businessman and historian W.F. Moore, who had a son in the 86th Battalion.

That was all well and good, but would it sway the severely practical man? Much as he tried, he couldn't quite picture a troop of German cavalrymen trotting down Centre Road or zeppelins cruising over Aldershot. For minds like that, there were practical arguments. Enlistment meant opportunities for travel, not just to England, where many of the volunteers had been born, but to France and Belgium. It was a kind of holiday excursion, with genial sergeant majors acting as tour guides. The possibilities for broadening one's cultural horizons were boundless. And physical fitness — Colonel Grafton promised that the CEF would be something like a health club in khaki, turning the spindly, chinless man into a fearsome warrior. Perhaps there were some who wanted to learn a trade. The machine-gun section, while it offered no obvious postwar job benefits, might appeal to the mechanically minded.

All of this assumed that the decision to enlist was a rational one, the outcome of carefully weighing costs and benefits. In most cases, it was anything but. We are blessed with a wealth of personal accounts from soldiers — letters, diaries, memoirs — but they have surprisingly little to say about the fateful decision to enlist. Men offered a mixture of vague motives, from fervent patriotism to the desire for a steady job, but far more of them suggest that they were not really sure themselves why they joined up.

In the last few days of January, Stan's hard work with his clipboard work paid off, and nearly two dozen men were attested into the 129th in Waterdown. They were a cross-section of a typical rural community. A handful of farmers from Carlisle: Lewis Best, Lloyd Binkley, Ingle Bousfield, and Achilles Hearn. And from Waterdown, George Arnold the teamster, Fred Hayman the grocer, Robert Major the farmer, Will Chisholm the clerk, Vern Willis the market gardener, and Richard James the blacksmith. Soon after enlisting, 14 of the new soldiers posed for photos with their officers, Stan Sawell and Cec Nicholson, beside Waterdown's hastily repaired drill shed. The photo is at once intensely local and strikingly archetypal. It freezes a moment and suspends those young men in time, before a shell-burst at Arras tore apart Fred Hayman's foot. Before poison gas corrupted George Arnold's lungs. Before wounds sustained on the Vimy front took Achilles Hearn's life only a year after his wedding. Before everything changed.

Excerpted with permission from Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

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