In honour of the 99th anniversary of the start of the First World War Aug. 4, we remember with this piece.
By John Cunningham
It had been two years since the guns opened up on the the Western Front when a visiting Yarmouth Times reporter wrote, "Aldershot has become, as if by magic, a military town."
Training in Camp Aldershot in the summer of 1916, as Canadians marked the second anniversary of this country’s entry into the First World War, were four battalions of the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade and the Royal School of Artillery.
As many as 7,000 troops at a time were at the facility, named after Camp Aldershot in England, said author-historian Brent Fox, in his book Camp Aldershot - Serving Since 1904. The terrain, with its barren sand dunes, provided a landscape well-suited for drills and maneuvers.
The program was arduous and discipline strict, it was noted in The Nova Scotia Highlander, an in-house camp newspaper published in 1916. Battalion bands marched the soldiers with measured precision through daily changing of the guard ceremonies. Soldiers, responding to barking commands of non-commissioned officers, bustled about.
The ordinary rank soldiers slept six to eight men in damp, musty tents on the plains.
"We are not ducks, but we expect to be if the rain continues," said Pte. Garnet White, in a letter published in a June 1916 Advertiser.
At any given time, 100 to 160 men were being treated because of illness or training accidents at the camp infirmary. Hospitalized soldiers, keenly interested in keeping up with the war news, could follow coverage of the fighting in Belgium and France through fairly current copies of newspapers, provided by the men of YMCA. The "Y" volunteers also honed the dull razors to lessen the "pain and unpleasantness" of "men who must be their own barbers."
In what was revolutionary and unique for the times, the YMCA, in conjunction with the Soldiers Service League, put on concerts of music played over gramophones that were moved from one YMCA tent to another. A call went out to the civilian community to send on any "good double-disc records of which they have grown weary."
A robust sports program of baseball, football and track and field helped keep the soldiers entertained and in shape during off-duty hours. Wives and girlfriends were rarely allowed on campgrounds, so other than the reading rooms and the gramophone concerts, there was little evening entertainment.
Soldiers lucky enough to be granted leave found, after a short railway trip into Kentville, that the town welcomed them. Restaurant and merchants had quickly adapted to accommodate army needs and tastes. E.J. Bishops was taking orders for suits and raincoats for military officers. Campbells, on Main Street, carried a full line of badges, whistles and cords. Teddy’s Khaki Restaurant billed itself as an eating establishment where "every soldier is King." Mrs. A.C. More’s Green Lantern Restaurant tempted soldiers with ice-cold sodas, milkshakes and banana splits.
Back in Aldershot, officers and men of the Nova Scotia Brigade were standing by the camp rail depot at 6 a.m. for the mid-June arrival of Canada’s Minister of Defence, Sir Sam Hughes. A march past involving the entire four-battalion unit took place, along with an inspection supervised by the general, who was visiting camp as part of a cross-Maritime tour.
Hughes had high praise for the men training at Kentville. He said that from all reports, the soldiers had exhibited exemplary character while working in camp or on leave in town.
"Their work showed the most careful training," he said.
The men were training for the trenches at a time casualty tolls were reaching an almost-incomprehensible level. British Forces had attacked the Somme region of France July 1, 1916, preceded by an artillery barrage that could be heard on the south coast of England. What was to have been a triumph had turned into "the darkest day in British military history," when 57,000 soldiers were either killed, wounded or reported missing. The Canadians, fighting further north in Flanders, were about to move down to the Somme.
Most of the men from Aldershot would soon cross to England for more training before crossing over to the Battlefields of France and Belgium. These young men, when war was declared Aug. 4, 1914, had viewed it as an opportunity for adventure and glamour, but were now well aware it was not going to be easily won by Christmas.
Camp Aldershot had been established in 1904 to prepare Canadian soldiers to fight for their county and its values despite the conditions of war. It shows "the determination of Nova Scotians to discharge their duty and obligation to their country," a visiting Yarmouth Times reporter said 98-years-ago. “(Its) debt to the nation, a blood tax as real as any other tax."
John Cunningham is a retired newspaper reporter and is currently writing a book on the First World War.