Cameron Highlanders of Canada Memorial Site

Organization And Training

Once Britain had declared war on Germany, all 497 members of the 79th Cameron Highlanders of Canada offered to serve overseas. On 6 August, the Camerons, led by the Regimental and Brass bands, paraded through Winnipeg and St. Boniface. The streets were lined with thousands of cheering citizens. By the end of the day, over 500 civilians were asking to join the Camerons for overseas service. In just a few short hours, there were enough men to form a Cameron infantry regiment a thousand strong.

However, Sam Hughes had not authorized the mobilization of complete battalions. Instead, Militia Regiments across Canada were allowed to organize various drafts as required by the authorities. Therefore, the 79th Cameron Highlanders formed the following units from August - October, 1914:

  1. One Company, 10 officers and 253 other ranks, Captain John Geddes commanding, mobilized 13 August 1914. Proceeded to Valcartier Camp 23 August, and became No. 4 Company of the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish), C.E.F., 3rd Brigade, First Canadian Division.
  2. Detachment of Signalling Section, 10 other ranks, Sergeant H.J. Ford and, later, Lance Sergeant A.C. Newell commanding. Left Winnipeg 10 September 1914 and served at Quebec and Halifax until 29 January 1915.
  3. One Company, 5 officers and 250 men, Major R.M. MacLeod commanding, mobilized 23 October 1914, as No. 1 Company of the 27th (City of Winnipeg) Battalion, C.E.F., 6th Brigade, Second Canadian Division.
During the fall of 1914, the regimental chaplain, Rev. Charles W. Gordon, was overwhelmed with speaking engagements. After speaking to the Canadian Club in Winnipeg, he was asked to present a proposal to the Government suggesting that the Canadian Club take an active role in securing men for overseas service. Gordon understood the need for Canada to enlist as many men as possible while they were still "flocking to the Colours." This led to meetings with Colonel Sam Hughes and Sir Robert Borden. At one of these meetings, Gordon convinced Hughes to send a Cameron Regiment to the front.

Formation of the 43rd Battalion

Hughes kept his promise and Lt.-Col. James Alexander Cantlie, Jr., was authorized, on 16 December 1914, to raise a complete battalion. Two days later, the "Volunteer Overseas Battalion" was gazetted and mobilization commenced. Because Colonel Cantlie was in poor heath, Lt.-Col. Robert MacDonald Thomson, Reserve of Officers, and the original commander of the 79th Cameron Highlanders of Canada, welcomed the opportunity to be its commanding officer.

Within six weeks, the 43rd was up to full strength. Unsuitable men were weeded out and training began to establish a full complement of Non-Commissioned Officers. The winter of 1914-1915 was severe, but the new recruits drilled daily at the new Drill Hall on Erin Street.

#420434 Sgt. David McMillan
The severity of the weather did not slow us down. If it was no colder than zero, we worked outside. Because of the cold we had to go to it vigorously, and it was quite a sight to see a Company blowing icy breaths, and doing physical jerks as if it were a matter of life and death. Then there were the long route marches about every other day. We wore balaclava helmets, but it was quite common to see frozen noses and cheeks. The troops got toughened up by this rigorous training and as far as I was concerned, I never felt in better health.

As the numbers of recruits increased, the problem arose as to where the men should barrack. This problem was alleviated somewhat by temporarily placing men in the basement of St. Stephen's Presbyterian Church. Fortunately, the Camerons moved into the newly constructed Minto Barracks during the first week of March 1915.

As was the custom of the day, the 43rd was presented with numerous gifts before leaving Canada. The former mayor, Alexander Macdonald, gave a complete set of 16 bagpipes imported from Glasgow; the St. Andrew's Society gave a complete set of band instruments. Also, several field kitchens were received by the battalion.

Just prior to leaving for the front, the shocking news of the Second Battle of Ypres reached Winnipeg. It was in this terrible battle that the first heavy casualty lists of members of the regiment appeared.

#420032 Sgt. William J. Cunningham
In those days we didn't know what the hell gas was till we went over[seas].

Among those killed was Captain John Geddes, 16th Battalion (The Canadian Scottish). A memorial service was immediately planned to honour the men of the regiment who fell in the Ypres Salient. The service took place at St. Stephen's Church, 5 May, conducted by Rev. Gordon. That same evening, orders were received for the 43rd Battalion to prepare for overseas. Two days later, the citizens of Winnipeg bid the unit farewell in the Industrial Bureau, organized by the St. Andrew's Society. Breif patriotic speeches were given by Sir Douglas Cameron, Lt.-Governor, and Mayor Waugh. On 29 May, the men marched to the CPR Station and crowds lined the streets to see them off. At the head of the column stood the placard: 43rd Battalion, Minto St. Barrack - Berlin.

#420638 L/Cpl. James Low
We marched all the way from Minto Street right down to the CRP depot where the freight sheds are. There was so much crowd, excitement and everything that, my God!, you couldn't move.

43rd in England

On 1 June, the 43rd Battalion, with a strength of 40 officers and 998 other ranks, sailed from Montreal on the Allan Liner HMTS Grampian. Officers assigned to the stately first-class cabins had the exclusive use of the lounge and smoking rooms; meals served in the dining salon included cocktails, wines, the best quality food, and desserts. Non-Commissioned Officers were given the second-class quarters; the ranks found themselves in the crowded, foul-smelling lower decks and slept in hammocks. Their food, if not poor, was monotonous. They ate in the same crowded decks where they slept.

After a fairly fast voyage, the men disembarked at Davenport, and travelled by rail to a destination unknown.

Hon. Capt. Rev. Charles W. Gordon
During the long, sunny spring day, our little train whisked us briskly through the beauty of the English southern counties. The next afternoon we arrived in a misty rain, hungry, our rations exhausted, weary from ship and train travel. At the little station we were kept waiting in the pouring rain. As the night grew wetter and darker, the men sat on their kit bags or found such shelter as they could, growing more indignant and more disgusted with the British high command, the war in general, and the Kaiser, who, in the last analysis, they considered responsible for their misery

At long last, orders were received to proceed to camp and the battalion set off in the dark. When they arrived late that night, they discovered nothing ready for them. They received blankets and tents from British Ordnance and set up camp that night in the darkness. This was done so efficiently that they were called upon to prepare camp for units that arrived afterwards.

Meanwhile, the 16th Canadian Scottish had suffered terrible casualties at the 2nd Battle of Ypres and Festubert. Since the Canadian authorities had not prepared for such losses, it was necessary for the 43rd Battalion to send men to the 16th. A total of 386 other ranks were sent to France that July and the 43rd now needed reinforcing if it was to remain intact.

Lt. J. Gordon Young
There was a great competition amongst the various militia units to go overseas as a unit, to retain their militia identity. It was quite a threat when we sent several hundred men to the 16th. It looked like it was the end of the battalion, much to our disgust.

Fortunately, the 43rd received four drafts of men from the 79th Cameron Highlanders in Winnipeg. After many weeks at Shorncliffe Camp and, later, Bramshott Camp, the 43rd proceeded overseas to France 19 February 1916.