Not Quite Ordinary Citizens (1)

"We did not fight to make the world ‘safe for democracy’ nor did we wage war to ‘end war’. Our lives, our liberties and our homes were in danger. We confronted our enemies on the field of battle and that is all there is to be said about it." (2)

Victorious Canadians Being Reviewed, Mons, Belgium, Nov. 1918.
J. Castell Hopkins, Canada at War, 1914-1918 (Toronto: The Canadian Annual Review Limited, 1919). ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

Victorious Canadians Being Reviewed, Mons, Belgium, Nov. 1918.

The remaining members of 49th Battalion rested in Mons for about a month after the 11 November Armistice.

After the guns stopped firing on 11 November 1918, the 49th Battalion stayed in Mons for a month relaxing and enjoying the hospitality of the liberated Belgians. The 1st and 2nd divisions crossed the Rhine to take part in the occupation of parts of Germany. Participation in the occupation was an honour, but the Forty-Niners were not envious. As Private Hasse noted in his diary, "the only worthwhile road is that which leads to Jasper Ave." (3) Some months would pass before the regiment saw that road, although they were one of the first Canadian units to return. More than enough shipping space was available to get the troops back across the ocean, but, once there, Canada's railway system, worn out by the demands of war and five years of no replacement of rolling stock, could only handle limited numbers. The Canadian cabinet initially wanted to return soldiers according to a simple formula of "first over, first back." General Currie lost no time in pointing out that this policy was less fair and straightforward than it appeared. It favoured non-combatants, who tended to have longer periods of service because of much lower casualty rates, and would mean breaking up battalions and not allowing them to go home as units. Such circumstances would create severe disciplinary and administrative problems in England. The government reluctantly gave in and gave combat units priority. This meant that the 3rd Division led the way since the 1st and 2nd were on occupation duty in the Rhineland.

The Return to Mons [Nov. 1918], by Inglis Harry Jodrel Sheldon-Williams.
Copyright Canadian War Museum (CN 8969).

The Return to Mons [Nov. 1918], by Inglis Harry Jodrel Sheldon-Williams.

Forty-Niners and other Canadian soldiers enjoyed the hospitality of the newly liberated Belgians after the Armistice of 11 November. On 11 December, they were ordered to ship out of Mons, ostensibly to take up occupation duty in Germany.

The 7th Brigade was among the first to go, perhaps because of an incident that took place on 13 December. Nobody bothered to keep the troops informed about plans for demobilization, and, once the reality of the armistice sank in, they quickly became restless and resentful of efforts to impose peacetime standards of discipline. On 11 December, the brigade was ordered to Brussels from their comfortable billets in Mons. Rumour had it that the men were destined for occupation duty in Germany, and, with many officers on leave and a number of new replacements in place after the heavy fighting of the previous 100 days, too few leaders the men trusted were present to counter the misinformation. Moreover, the march took place with full packs instead of the wartime procedure of having the heavier items of equipment transported. Consequently, when the brigade reached its first day's destination at Nivelles, halfway between Mons and Brussels, talk of mutiny was heard among all four battalions. Several hundred soldiers from the brigade protested and demanded a meeting with Brigadier J.A. Clark. They received their meeting, but Clark refused to hear their complaints. The following day, many men refused to fall in and resume the march. Colonel Palmer restored the situation for the 49th by agreeing to take the complaints about packs to Clark. Colonel Hamilton Gault of the Patricias rushed back from leave and quelled the unrest in his battalion with a 20-mile route march. The mutiny fizzled out, although it was only the first of a dozen or so incidents, some much more serious, that affected the Canadian Corps. Just after Christmas, the brigade began moving slowly south in the direction of the large transit camp at Le Havre, France. The journey occupied the month of January; then, on 8 February, the battalion sailed for England. A month in camp at Bramshott allowed time for leave to visit relatives in Britain.

49th Battalion's Welcome Home Parade, 22 March 1919.
City of Edmonton Archives (Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection, EA-255-14).

49th Battalion's Welcome Home Parade, 22 March 1919.

After their arrival at Edmonton's main railway station, the 49th Battalion marched down Jasper Avenue to the cheers and jubilation of the thousands of Edmontonians who gathered to see them.

On 6 March, the battalion boarded ship for Halifax and, after an uneventful Atlantic crossing, got on two trains for the five-day trip to Edmonton. March is rarely one of the more pleasant months in Edmonton. The streets were still lined with the greying remnants of the winter's snow, and the temperature was struggling to get above the freezing mark when the trains carrying the Forty-Niners arrived at the Canadian Pacific Railway station at 109th Street and Jasper Avenue at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday 22 March 1919. Nonetheless, the sun shone, and the warmth of the welcome more than made up for the weather. The Lieutenant-Governor, the Premier, and the Mayor headed the official greeters, although, as the Bulletin reported, "their importance on this occasion was positively nil. No one paid the least attention to them and they remained with becoming modesty in the far background." (4) Tickets had been issued for family members to enter the station yard, and they, most appropriately, were the focus of the celebration. The 49th then formed up and marched down Jasper Avenue at the head of an enormous parade that included four bands, 200 former Forty-Niners who had returned home with wounds (including the battalion's two Victoria Cross winners, J.C. Kerr and Cecil Kinross), about 1,500 other war veterans, and representative of every group and organization in the city. Not even the fear of the deadly influenza epidemic that was sweeping the world could prevent most of the population of Edmonton from turning out.

In an unprecedented move, the banks opened on Sunday so that the men could be paid, and, by the end of the day, the 49th Battalion CEF had ceased to exist, except on paper. On arriving back in Edmonton, Colonel Palmer expressed the hope that the authorities in Ottawa would see fit to create a perpetuating militia unit with the same number, but, for the moment, returning to civilian life as quickly and completely as possible dominated almost all minds.

  • 1. The quote comes from an editorial in The Forty-Niner, 1:9 (20 July 1929).
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. F.R. Hasse, "A Touched-Up War Diary," The Forty-Niner, no. 38 (January 1944).
  • 4. Edmonton Bulletin, 24 March 1919.
 

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