During the First World War, more than 75,000 men and women of the Canadian Expeditionary Force trained for battle at Niagara Camp in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Author Richard D. Merritt, of Niagara-on-the-Lake, tells their story in his newest book, Training for Armageddon: Niagara Camp in the Great War, 1914-1919, publishing soon.
Merritt is a past president of Niagara Historical Society, Friends of Fort George, Niagara Foundation, and is the co-chair of the Niagara-on-the-Lake War of 1812 Bicentennial Committee.
Thursday, he was at Royal Canadian Legion Fonthill Branch 613, sharing some of the stories from his book. Bringing the author in was a joint effort of the Legion and Pelham Public Library.
He talked about early Canadian involvement in the war, a contingent of men who immediately volunteered, went through Valcartier, QC, Salisbury Plain in England, and then on to Belgium to participate in the second Battle of Ypres, the Canadians first major engagement in the First World War.
Many who went right away were reservists who did regular training in Niagara Camp in the years leading up the war.
“Many of those boys trained at Niagara Camp,” he said. “They were in the militia and they trained there.”
Merritt went on to talk about the Welland Canal Force, which was established to protect the area.
“As soon as war was declared, they immediately established what they called the home guard and these home guards were to defend against saboteurs. There was a great fear of saboteurs because there were a fair number of Austrians and Germans in Canada and the United States,” he said.
“Their job was to protect munitions storage areas, power generation stations, bridges and until the Americans came into the war, they protected the border.”
Part of the force was stationed at Niagara Camp.
“During the winter there was a lot of munitions stored in the buildings at Niagara Camp, so, there were about 40 men stationed in Niagara-on-the-Lake to protect this,” Merritt said.
“There were three battalions that were actually raised in the Niagara Peninsula,” he said. “The 81st, the 98th, and the 176th.”
He went on to talk about the battalions raised a little later in his talk.
“Officially, the active participation of Niagara Camp began 100 years ago this month because in May 1915 there was the boisterous arrival of 1,300 Canadian Officer training camp boys who arrived from the University of Toronto and McGill University for some intensive training,” he said.
Merritt went on to tell how many of the officers trained there in that first group were seconded to different armies to aid in their training.
Throughout the talk, Merritt was able to tell stories of different soldiers that passed through camp.
“This is Joseph Trainer,” he said with a photograph of a soldier dressed and posing for the camera on ascreen behind him. “He was a farm labourer in St. Anns, not too far from here. When war was declared, he joined up with the 98th. I don’t know what happened to him, he wasn’t killed, but, I don’t know if he came back to Canada or the Niagara area after the war.”
“This is a young lad from Thorold, “ he said with the head and shoulders portrait of a man on the screen behind him. “His father was a deputy reeve of Thorold. He actually trained here in Niagara Camp, he was with the 67th battery (Canadian Field Artillery) which trained here. Unfortunately, he was killed in June 1917.”
Because of the opening of Camp Borden in 1916, training at Niagara had come to a standstill until 1917 when more than 22,000 Polish American and Canadian soldiers would be trained in Niagara Camp over the next 19 months. There was some problems for provisions for the Polish soldiers training there and Merritt tells a story about what the residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake did.
“The little community of Niagara-on-the-Lake, roughly about 800 souls at the time, opened their public and private buildings as well as their hearts to these strangers.”
Another piece of camp history that Merritt talked about was the little known Siberian Expedition. Canadian soldiers were trained at Niagara Camp who went overseas to support White Russian forces against the Bolshevik Red Army during the Russian Civil War.
Merritt has a few reasons for wanting to write the book.
“The first book, On Common Ground, the chapter on the First World War captured a lot of interest,” he said “I thought that maybe there was enough to do a whole book on that subject. I had a lot of postcards and letters and things that I could use.”
On Common Ground is Merritt’s book about the ongoing area referred to as the Commons in Niagara-on-the-Lake which has a rich military and political history.
“We are on the Centennial of the war and it’s important to really recognize what sacrifices were made, not just those that were killed, but, those that remained, the effects on the families. So by telling the story I think it reminds Canadians of that.”
“There has been a lot of attention paid, and rightly so, to the battles and the men who fought in the war,” he said. “There really has been very little attention paid to the training camps in Canada in general that we know was an important part of their training. “
“No one had done an actual in-depth study of the training done at the Niagara Camp itself, an important part of Niagara history,” he said.
The proceeds from Merritt’s new book Training for Armageddon: Niagara Camp in the Great War, 1914-1919, go to support the Niagara Historical Society Museum.
The book will be available through the Niagara Historical Society Museum, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON. (905-468-2665) or www.niagarahistorical.museum.
It will also be available through FriesenPress Bookstore (on-line) plus an e-version will also be available.