3 – Training and deployment to England with the Eaton Motor Machine Gun Brigade

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Canadian soldiers in training at the Canadian National Exhibition Grounds in Toronto during the First World War.

By February of 1915, the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force (COEF) had become a fact. The 1st Canadian Division had arrived in France in February and would soon be thrust into the fight on the Western Front (Iarocci, p 56).  In 1914, when the first waves of recruits clamoured to sign up the, COEF was still more of an “idea” than a fact. Up to that point, Canada didn’t have what might be thought of as a standing army – certainly not in the way we think of it today. There was a small permanent force of some 3000 professional soldiers under British command (Nicholson, 2015). In addition to this professional force were the non permanent active militia’s – part time civilian forces – across the country numbering about 74,000 soldiers (Iarocci, 1976). The Canadian forces, their make up, their capabilities and their place in the Imperial hierarchy had to be invented, and the effort to build Canadian competence as a separate force was going to take some time and considerable effort.

For Will Grummett, his part in the effort to build Canadian military competence began at Exhibition Camp in Toronto and basic training from sometime after his February enlistment until June of 1915.

The first contingent of the COEF, made up of recruits from every corner of  the country, were all trained at a new base at Valcartier in Quebec.  By the time Will signed on,  additional training locations had been added to meet the demands for soldiers. Among them was The City of Toronto, which had offered the Canadian National Exhibition grounds.  The Army would make use of the site as a training camp throughout the War often participating in the CNE events and demonstrating Army training and tactics to an eager public.

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Soldiers in training execute a mock “over the top” charge from a trench work while the public looks on, CNE Grounds Toronto (City of Toronto Archives)

Basic training was intended to prepare soldiers to function within the army hierarchy and to learn basic soldiering, including how to move as part of a unit of soldiers which begins with marching and extends to simulated combat drill.  Other areas of focus would likely include communications, use of firearms and basic fitness.  None of this would have been new to Will.  While at the University of Toronto, in addition to his regular studies, he was a member of the University’s Officer Training Corps. While in high school, he had risen to the rank of Captain in the cadet training program of the 31st Regiment, Grey County.

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Will Grummett (standing back row left) a Cadet of the 31st Regiment Grey County circa 1910-1913

At some time, likely immediately following basic training, Will was assigned to the Eaton Motor Machine Gun Brigade. The Brigade was one unit of a number of Motorized Machine Gun Brigades in the new Canadian Army that were the brainchild of Raymond Marc Pierre Brutinel (Brigadier General Brutinel by war’s end).

Brutinel was a self-made man with deep pockets and a deeper interest in the potential effect of machine guns on modern warfare. He made an offer to the Canadian Minister of Militia,  Sam Hughes, to raise and equip the Brigades. They were a first, and not just for Canada but for the world – no other country introduced a mobile armoured unit so early in the War. (Pulsifer, 2001)

with the Eaton Brigade at Shorncliffe
Armoured car, W.J. Grummett at the wheel, Eaton Motor Machine Gun Brigade, Camp Niagara on the Lake, 1915

Essentially, the machine gun brigades were units of lightly armoured vehicles, purpose-built and adapted armoured cars, used in civilian law enforcement, with the addition of mounted machine guns. The Eaton Brigade, was so named simply because John Eaton (of the T. Eaton Co.) donated $100,000 to its establishment. (Cook, 2007)  While the Brigades foreshadow the mobile nature of wars to come, their effectiveness in the static trench warfare of the Western Front was minimal. “Brutinel’s armoured cars would cross over to Europe by the end of the year (1915), but his machine gunners would fight on their feet for much of the war.” (Cook, 2007)”

By early June of 1915, a postcard he received and retained,  reveals that Will was with the Eaton Brigade at camp Niagara on the Lake, on the opposite shore of Lake Ontario directly across the water from Toronto, at the mouth of the Niagara River.

Niagra on the Lake Camp - credit Niagra on the Lake Public Library
CEF Camp, Niagara on the Lake, 1915 (Niagara on the Lake Public Library photo)

Subsequent correspondence, again in the form of post cards, confirms that by August of 1915 he had made the trip to England.  In fact, the Eaton Brigade had departed from Montreal aboard the troop ship, Metagama, a Canadian Pacific North Atlantic Passenger Liner, on June 4, 1915.

The Metagama was a new ship and had been afloat for less than a year when it assumed troop transport duties on the North Atlantic. The convoy system, in which several troop and supply ships are assigned to a Naval escort group for protection during the crossing, was not implemented until 1917. In fact, the Canadian Navy had only been formed 4 years prior to the outbreak of war and by 1915 had just 7 ships on active duty. It would seem the Metagama, at least in the early years of the war, faced the threat of German U-boats and surface vessels, solo.

metagama-01

That the Atlantic Ocean was an active theatre of this new and total war was made evident by the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania by German U-boats off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915, just one month before Will set sail on the Metagama. Two thirds of the allied shipping losses during the war, amounting to eight and one half million tons, were sunk, primarily by U-boats, in the Atlantic theatre of war.

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Crossing this embattled water in an unarmed troop ship, without escort of any kind, nor any hope of help in the event of attack must have made for a very long and nerve wracking journey. The trip took nine days.  Nine days of trying not to think about lurking u – boats,  trying not to scan the horizon for unfriendly surface ships or the nearby water’s surface for the glint of light or telltale vee that would betray the periscope of a submarine.  The Brigade arrived at Devonport, Britain on the 13 of June, 1915. It seems that not only was the Metagama a new and capable ship, she was a lucky ship. Throughout the war she transported troops across the North Atlantic without incident.

From Devonport, the Brigade proceeded to a British military base on the English Channel coast at Folkstone, Kent. An August, 1915 post card notes that Will was resident at the Shorncliffe Military Base, “Caesers Camp”.

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Postcards from which Will Grummett’s movements were confirmed.
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Card fronts from the above postcards depicting the sentiments and thinking typical of the period early in the War (1915)

Shorncliffe had been chosen as the location for the Second Canadian Contingent in an effort to overcome difficulties including excessive rain, mud and exposure experienced by the First Contingent troops at the initial Canadian camp located on the Salisbury Plain, (Wiltshire, England) . “The open fields beside Shorncliffe and the rolling Kentish countryside beyond proved ideal conditions for company and battalion training…”(Nicholson, 2015) As the crow flies, Folkestone is a mere 90 miles from the Belgian town of Ypres and the front lines. At this distance the rumble of the artillery on both sides that front, could be heard.

Eaton Brigade
Will Grummett (at right middle row) and fellow soldiers with the Eaton Motorized Machine Gun Brigade at Shorncliffe Camp, Kent, 1915

As Christmas of 1915 came around Will and the Eaton Brigade remained resident at Shorncliffe; hostages to the difficulties of building the Canadian Army and fitting it into the British system. I think it is reasonable to believe that Will was impatient to be at the front and quite possibly becoming frustrated – despite being involved in the development of a new kind of fighting – with his role in the war to that point. Nearly a year of soldiering as an enlisted man in an army struggling to invent itself couldn’t have been easy.

By comparison to most who signed on to Canada’s new army, Will’s training as part of his local militia and in the University of Toronto Officer Training Corps was advanced.  However, the fact of his training seemed to go unnoticed at the time he enlisted. He was signed up as a private soldier. This is perhaps as it should be, but by 1915 it would seem he still didn’t see any clear opportunity or mechanism to make use of the command training he had worked hard to accumulate.

It was this combination of impatience to be in the fray, a recognition that he had more to offer given his previous military training and his native intelligence that likely spurred him to petition his Commanding Officer, Captain E.L. Knight for permission to apply for a commission in the New Army, Imperial Forces – that is the British Army. This request was granted and he was readily accepted as an officer candidate in the British Army. As seemingly simple as it was to get into the Canadian Army, he left it – for the British.

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Will Grummett’s request for permission to apply for a British commission

What he could not have known was that his efforts to get to the front would, in fact serve to keep him from the front. The Brigade he left behind would receive orders to join the fight on the Somme in January of 1916. Within seven months, his former commanding officer, Captain E.L. Knight, by then Major Knight, was killed by a high explosive shell at Pozieres Ridge during the Battle of the Somme.

Burial of Major E. L. Knight
The Eaton MMG Brigade buries their Commander,  Major E. L. Knight, September of 1916.  (photo Lt. Col. George Scroggie, COEF)

Will would remain in England for another nine months, and in theatre specific combat training and then hospital for a further eight months after that.

Next installment coming in March,  A Gentleman Officer.

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