Thursday, November 10, 2016

Sepia Saturday #345 :The Canadians at Shorncliffe

I found this great account on the website - it describes the situation at Shorncliffe, where my father was sent for training before shipping off to France. He was at Shorncliffe from April 29th, 1917 to October 15th, 1917, when he was shipped to Witley Field and then to France arriving there on October 16th, 1917. He had a leave of absence from October 2nd to October 8. There's a note in his service form that says he received "free transportation." Wish I knew to where. 
Francis Joseph Killeen - 1917

The Canadians in Folkestone during the Great War

Forty thousand Canadians came to the area in 1915 and, in the towns of Folkestone and Hythe many local people even started to talk like Canadians, saying ‘sure’ instead of ‘yes’. The local people welcomed and liked the Canadians. The Maple Leaf Club was started by a small group of English women to provide home comforts, such as a bed, bath and a meal at reasonable rates. The Canadian soldiers did lots of things which helped to make them popular with the people of Folkestone. Their bands played music in the bandstands on the Leas and at local churches, and they also marched through the town. They arranged sports days at Radnor Park and showed how good they were at horse riding.

The huts and tents where most of the men lived were very basic. After they had spent a hard day training there was not much for the men to do to relax. To help them, the people of Folkestone and elsewhere raised money to put up a special hut, the YMCA Hut, where the men could enjoy their free time. The hut on St Martin’s Plain was officially opened in April 1915. The event was reported in the local Folkestone and Hythe Herald, "The patriots from Canada greatly appreciate the comfort and advantages of the YMCA’s admirable building which is tastefully fitted up. On week-days concerts and cinematographic performances are given to the men, while on Sundays services are held. At one end there is a counter where the men can procure refreshments of all kinds. Writing paper and envelopes are provided and there is a gramophone and bagatelle table."

The soldiers could also come into Folkestone in their spare time. One soldier, Private Broome, wrote home to his family in Canada, telling them: “29th September 1915: We have had nice weather here till today and it’s raining cats and dogs. We are fixed up alright though. We are in huts. About 30 men live in each hut and have their beds and tables and chairs and crockery. The food is brought from the cookhouse and we eat right in our huts. They are pretty big although the name makes one think they are small. I believe I told you we are near Folkestone. We go there nearly every night. I am learning to roller skate. It is great fun although kind of rough for a learner.”

Other soldiers wrote home from Folkestone to tell their families about the War. Folkestone was very important because most of the men who had to fight in France (the Western Front) had to travel by ships from Folkestone harbour. Private Louis Duff wrote to his parents, “29th June 1915, Dibgate Camp, Shorncliffe: Just a line to let you know we arrived OK and am well…We have two pretty coast towns close by, Hythe west of us an hours walk and Folkestone, a popular seaside resort, east of us…On a clear day France shows up plainly. Submarines and Torpedo Boat Destroyers are patrolling the sea all the time. Aeroplanes and dirigibles are a common sight.” 

The soldiers had to work hard to learn how to use their rifles and to march and how to dig trenches. In France there were thousands of miles of trenches and the soldiers spent most of their time in them. They were dirty, muddy places but they helped to protect the men from the guns of the enemy. Once the training was finished the men were ready to go to war. They must have felt excited, but also nervous and frightened. Even though Folkestone was not where the real fighting was, the town was close enough to France and Belgium to hear the sounds of the battles. Lieutenant Kirkland, wrote home from Folkestone to say, “When there is a heavy bombardment on around Zeebruge or at the west of the battle line at Dunkirk, or in the direction of Ypres, we can distinctly hear the rumble of the big guns…I thought at first the noise I heard was thunder but as I was hearing it every morning I made enquiries and was told it was the noise of battle.” When the day came to go off to war, the men soldiers marched to Folkestone Harbour to board a Troop Ship for the crossing to Boulogne in France. One of the many thousands of men who crossed was Harry Patch. Harry died in 2009 and was the last surviving British soldier (Tommy) who had fought in the Great War. He described what it was like to leave England to face the unknown horrors of the war, 

“Our small group walked up a narrow gangway and was packed together in an old paddle steamer. As we pulled out of Folkestone harbour, we watched England and the white cliffs gradually recede into the darkness. I wasn’t the only one who wondered whether we would ever set foot on her soil again. Would I come home and, if I did, would I be in one piece?”  

With so many thousands of soldiers in Folkestone training for the war, and many more who came back from the fighting in France and Belgium with injuries, it was necessary to provide hospitals and medical staff, nurses and doctors, to treat the ill and wounded men. Many places which, before the war had been schools, hotels and ordinary homes, were turned into hospitals. Most of the ill and wounded soldiers recovered, but not all. Some died. It was decided that the Canadian soldiers who died in Folkestone should be buried at the Military Cemetery at Shorncliffe Army Camp. As so many of the Canadians were buried so far from their homes and families, the people of Folkestone and Hythe decided to help remember them and this led to the idea for Canadian Flower Day. Children from local schools would go to Shorncliffe Cemetery each year to say payers and place flowers on the grave of a Canadian soldier. The first time this happened was in 1917 and, apart from a short break during the Second World War (when local school children had been evacuated to safer parts of the country) the ceremony has happened every single year since. 

Manitoba Historical Society

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  1. A heart-warming story. I imagine this same scenario was played out across many small villages and towns - welcoming soldiers into their midst and treating them with kindness. It does give you hope, yet, for the human race.

  2. What a place Folkestone must have been. So nice that they were so welcoming to the Canadians.

  3. We hear much about the American G.I.'s, but less so about the Canadian contribution, so your account was very enlightening.

  4. We hear much about the American G.I.'s, but less so about the Canadian contribution, so your account was very enlightening.