Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Cane

Bill and his father Frederick in later years. Bill was 15 when this picture was taken.

A prized possession of Bill Humphrey is a handmade walking stick his father Frederick had fashioned some 92 years ago. The cane is painted a rich reddish color and has a thin veneer of varnish. It could be made from a piece of driftwood that Frederick Humphrey happened upon while walking along the shore of the Irish Sea.

Near the handle is marked ‘KINMEL’. It’s a name that Bill says, gives him shivers.

Bill Humphrey holds the walking stick that his father made over 90 years ago. It brings shivers when he reads the inscription near the handle.

It was at the Kinmel Camp, at the village of Bodelwyddan in north east Wales that Bill's father, along with 15,000 other Canadian soldiers, waited to be repatriated to Canada. It was March of 1919 - 4 months after the end of the war – delays in shipments of supplies to the camp forced the men onto half rations, pay was delayed, and worse of all, transport ships were tied up because of a labour strike. To soldiers impatient to return to their native country to reunite with family and lovers, it must have felt as though Canada was a million miles away. There was no coal for the stove in the cold huts. Forty-two had slept in a hut meant for thirty, so they each took turns sleeping on the floor, with one blanket each."

Frederick Humphrey as a young soldier. A tough Ontario farm boy, Humphrey was not one to back down.

Health conditions in the camp began to deteriorate and a flu epedemic ripped through the Canadian contingent. The tiny cemetery in the nearby town became the final resting place for a number of Canadians.

At Kinmel Camp, there was the military bureaucracy to overcome. Troops awaiting transport had to fill in some 30 different forms with approximately 360 questions. The food they were fed was bad; it had been compared to “pigswill”.

At night, the troops had access to “Tin Town” a nearby group of shops and pubs that had inflated their prices to take advantage of the, comparatively, well paid Canadian soldier. After a month of these rates, many soldiers were broke. Sir Edward Kemp, the Overseas Minister, commented on the camp: “You cannot blame the soldiers for kicking and complaining … You are living in paradise in Canada as compared to this place”.

The men felt that they were stuck in the United Kingdom, with no way to influence their release. At Kinmel, probably because it was supposed to be a short term camp, the men did not receive regular pay.

Canadian soldiers on parade at Camp Kinmel Park

In late February it became common knowledge that a number of large ships had been reallocated to the American troops, who hadn’t been overseas for as long as the Canadians. As a last straw, at the beginning of March, General Sir Arthur Currie made a decision to transport the 3rd Infantry as a whole back to Canada, instead of the troops waiting at Kinmel Park, who were originally scheduled for these ships. There was no question that these were combat troops who deserved to return quickly, but they hadn’t been overseas as long as many of the men stationed at Kinmel Park

General Arthur Currie

On the evening of March 4, 1919 at around 9:00 PM, approximately 1,000 troops rebelled and started a riot. The idea likely came from a strike that the British troops staged a few months earlier, resulting in their early demobilization. Once the riot started it quickly got out of control.

It started with one of the canteens, spread to a sargeant's mess quarters and then into "Tin Town" where the troops took their revenge against the local profiteers. The mutineers remembered their dept to the Salvation Army, and these quarters were spared. The YMCA and the Navy and Army Canteen Board (NACB) were viewed to have inflated prices; their buildings were looted and damaged. The overall damage was calculated to be in the thousands of dollars, with stolen or destroyed cloths, food, alcohol, cigarettes and tobacco and equipment.

On the morning of March 5th, the officers tried to take control of the situation. They organized some of the ‘loyal’ troops to try to bring the situation under control. They encountered some of the mobs that had formed and things quickly got out of control.

Five Canadians were killed in the subsequent encounters and 28 wounded. In the aftermath, soldiers were arrested, and then quickly released fearing that arrests would lead to more outbreaks of violence.

In the end 51 Canadians faced a court marshal, 27 were convicted and sentenced anywhere from 3 months to 10 years. The government essentially covered the mutiny up, sealing all records of it for 100 years.

Local newspapers covered the affair, and added their own sensationalism. The London Times reported on March 7, 1919:

“The rioters then proceeded to the quarters occupied by the girls, who were in bed, and carried away their clothes. The girls were not injured, but had to remain in bed the next day because they could not dress themselves. Next day, the rioters were masquerading about the camp in girls' clothing.”

The Regimental Diaries report that, after investigation, the allegations of rioters going into the womens' quarters were unfounded; the clothes had been taken from the NACB store. The Times later recanted (March 8):

“The girls' camp was not attacked. As a matter of fact the girls were treated with the utmost chivalry. No man entered the girls' bedrooms while they were occupied.”

The Times also initially reported, and later recanted, that the rioters had killed a Victoria Cross winner. They did, however, accurately sum up the incident:

“In view of the splendid discipline and record uniformly maintained by Canadian troops since the beginning of the war in England and France, the ‘incident’ at Kinmel Park is regretted. It is considered that by comparison with others, discipline amongst the Canadian troops is of a high order. It is also regretted that reports of the incident have been exaggerated.”

The Aftermath

Although the means did not justify the end, the result of the mutiny was that troops stationed at Kinmel were given priority for returning to Canada, and by March 25th approximately 15,000 soldiers had been redeployed to Canada.

This is one of the most misunderstood and undocumented parts of the Canadian effort in the First World War. The riot itself, was not unusual. There were many other mutinys by French and British troops, many more serious than the riot at Kinmel Park. During and after the War, the British military hierarchy tended to downplay the role the "Colonials" had played, and while they kept tight censorship on the British mutinys, they were more than happy to let the press know about the goings on at Kinmel Park.

Bill is not sure what role his father may have played in the mutiny, but he was a man well known for standing up for his rights.

After 5 years of war, it must have been suprising to the residents of Bodelwyddan to hear about soldiers waiting to go home being killed. They provided a custom tombstone for a soldier who was killed during the rioting. It reads:

“Someday, sometime we’ll understand”

The village graveyard contains many Canadian soldiers. Some died as a result of the mutiny while others died of influenza.

This monument to fallen Canadian soldiers was placed by local townspeople.