"[T]he Loyal Edmontons - the only outfit in the Army that we ever considered might be as good, or better, than ourselves.” - Sergeant Basil Smith, Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment (1)
The Edmonton Regiment was launched into its second world conflict with two terse orders issued 1 September 1939: (2)
107 MOBILIZATION - The unit has been ordered to mobilize as from 1st September, 1939.
108 ENLISTMENT - All personnel of the unit wishing to volunteer for active service should report to their Company Commander as soon as possible.
All W.O's and N.C.O's now serving wishing to re-engage in the Field Force will tender their reversion to their Company Commander before they can enlist in this force.
The requirement that all soldiers (the order applied to permanent force units as well as the Non-Permanent Active Militia) formally leave their regiments before becoming eligible to go to war was rooted in the conscription crisis of the previous war. The units that went off to fight were part of a new entity called the Canadian Active Service Force. All men were required to sign a declaration of their willingness to serve overseas. The same political realities that had kept the militia starved of funds since 1918 meant that no room would be left even for the suggestion that this force was not all-volunteer. In spite of the odd technicalities of enlistment, the system was a vast improvement on the previous war. The official history of the Canadian Army put it well: "The force was firmly rooted in the existing Militia organization; unlike the Canadian Expeditionary Force organized in 1914, its units bore the names, badges and battle honours of the established Militia regiments, chiefly of course of the Non-Permanent force. They thus drew strength from traditions and esprit de corps of long standing." (3) Deficiencies in equipment could be made good, given sufficient time, and the regimental tradition provided the necessary foundation to build on.
Not all the peacetime soldiers of the unit were in a position to volunteer, and some could not pass the stringent physical requirements for war service. Their numbers were made up by new recruits who were offered $1.30 a day, 20¢ more than their fathers had received in 1914. As the popular saying in the army had it, "don't enlist if you can't take a joke." In Edmonton, temporary huts were quickly constructed north of the armouries to house as many volunteers as possible, while those who lived in the city stayed at home and reported for duty between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. New uniforms began to arrive to replace the old 1914-18 pattern, and the band received all new instruments as a result of a donation by local businesses. At the end of September, the government announced that the 1st Division would go to England as soon as possible since no training facilities in Canada were capable of handling the requirements. By 10 November, when Major-General A.G.L. McNaughton and Brigadier George Pearkes, commanders respectively of the 1st Division and the 2nd Brigade, arrived to inspect the regiment, they were a highly presentable unit on parade and anxious to get on with the real business of preparing for war. On 13 November, the first of several small advance parties left for England.
Just a month short of the 25th anniversary of the formation of the 49th Battalion, on 3 December 1939, more than 300 members of the Association turned out for a farewell parade with the service battalion. Appropriately, General Griesbach presided and on behalf of the Association presented the new unit with two trophies for inter-company sports competitions. Less than two weeks later, the Edmonton Regiment boarded two special trains that would take them to Halifax. This time there were no ceremonial parades along the way, and four days after leaving Edmonton the troops marched directly from the trains onto the Polish passenger liner Batory. The ship was part of a large and heavily escorted convoy carrying the second half of the division, the first contingent having departed two weeks earlier. The troopships still had their peacetime fittings and crews, so the trip was quite comfortable. The Polish crew of the Batory seems to have included accomplished cooks who, among other things, prepared a Christmas dinner for all with turkeys donated by the Edmonton business community. The Edmonton Regiment were certainly luckier than the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment who sailed in the same convoy but on a British ship. Their steady diet of herring for breakfast and fatty mutton for all other meals might have resulted in a mutiny had they not been in mid-ocean. (4)
The convoy arrived in Glasgow on the last day of the year. After disembarking the following day, the battalion ate a New Year's dinner of bread and cold bully beef aboard trains carrying them south to Aldershot. New barracks were under construction there to accommodate them, although they were not finished, and Brigadier Pearkes, to his intense irritation, was unable to persuade the builders to deviate from their peacetime contract that called for building the cricket pavilion first. (5) At least the battalion did not have to spend their first winter in tents, as their predecessors had done, since the winter of 1939-40 turned out to be the coldest in England so far in the century. The weather and the continuing shortages of equipment hampered efforts to go beyond basic training. For the troops, the early months of 1940 meant more drill and route marches, relieved by the mostly pleasant process of learning the English way of life. In 1915, the majority of the original 49ers were recent British immigrants who had at least some memories of the "old country." England had changed in a generation. Canada, especially western Canada, had changed much more, and most of the battalion found the money, the beer, the food, driving on the wrong side of the road, and other local customs strange.
- 1. Farley Mowat, The Regiment (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1955), 280.
- 2. The Forty-Niner, 1, 30 (January, 1940), 17.
- 3. Colonel C.P. Stacey, The Canadian Army 1939-1945: An Official Historical Summary (Ottawa, Department of National Defence, 1948), 3.
- 4. Mowat, The Regiment, 15.
- 5. Reginald H. Roy, For Most Conspicuous Bravery: A Biography of Major-General George R. Pearkes, V.C., Through Two World Wars (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1977), 138-9.