Canadians and Witley Camp

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Surrey in the Great War: Canadians and Witley Camp

Research and text by Kianna Gnap

Canadians had an integral role alongside the British and the Allies during the Great War. Throughout 1914-1918, about 7 percent of the Canadian population served in the Great War, not to mention the efforts and support of Canadians back home.[i]   The Canadian Army entered and fought in the war as part of the British Empire’s Dominions and Colonies. As such, Canadians spent a significant amount of time in various areas of Britain, including Surrey, before heading to the front.

The overseas Canadian force was called the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Out of the 630 000 Canadians that enlisted, 424 000 journeyed overseas as the CEF.[ii] In Britain, the Canadian forces were put through basic military training at various camps across England. Two of the largest were in Surrey at Bramshott and Witley. Witley Camp was built on Witley Common in Surrey, which is located about 40 miles southwest of London. The Surrey countryside provided an ideal landscape for artillery training, with rolling hills, sandy soil, as well as good roads and beautiful scenery and villages.[iii] The camp provided the soldiers with housing, medical attention, recreation facilities, and shops, also known as ‘Tin-Towns,’ found on the edge of the camp.[iv]

The 160th (Bruce) Battalion was a unit of the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War. Reproduced by permission of Surrey History Centre, ref: SHC 8408/2Witley Camp and its surrounding area hold importance to the history of Canadians in the Great War. For example, it was the training site of the 13th Canadian Infantry Brigade that arrived in the autumn of 1916, and trained in the area for fifteen months. This brigade was eventually formed of the 128th Battalion from Saskatchewan, the 134th and 160th (Bruce) Battalions from Ontario, and the 202nd (Sportmen’s) Battalion from Alberta.[v] Because the men were spending an unforeseeable amount of time away from home and in the harsh conditions of war, the camp became their community. The Bruce in Khaki Magazine, for example, reflects the way that training camps encouraged community atmosphere for the soldiers. The magazine includes stories, jokes, news, advertisements, and invitations to events at nearby camps. For example, in the 9 November 1917 issue, readers are invited to a lecture at the Canadian Y.M.C.A. in Godalming, not far from Witley.[vi] The activities and fraternity among soldiers stationed at military camps during the Great War are also depicted in an illustration by Dame Laura Knight. This illustration is titled “Canadians Boxing at Witley Camp.”[vii] It may be posited that this activity was for training purposes, or possibly entertainment, as seen with a large crowd of soldiers gathered in the background cheering on the participants. Witley Camp’s role in the war, and link to Canadian soldiers, also continues into the immediate post-war operations.

Witley, Witley Camp - showing two boxers fighting in an open-air ring with soldiers in uniform watching from the side. Reproduced by permission of Surrey History Centre, ref: PX/159/67

Witley was among several military bases in England that experienced riots and unrest from Canadian soldiers in the months after the war. A notable use of Witley Camp is its role during the demobilization and repatriation at the end of the war. Perhaps an often-overlooked aspect of war is the fate of the thousands of soldiers after the fighting has stopped. Many men in the CEF felt reluctant to obey military protocol after Armistice was announced.[viii] Thousands of soldiers now faced the process of repatriation and demobilization, which took up to a year, and was often very frustrating. For Canada, this included repatriating more than 250 000 men from the fighting areas in Europe.[ix] The CEF was repatriated in two waves: first, the major units of the Corps under their own officers, totalling 100 000 men, and second, the remainder placed into several drafts.[x] Since Witley was one of the larger camps, it received these Canadian Corps units during the process of demobilization.[xi] To ease this process, the military promoted things like physical training programs, sports and recreation, entertainment, and even offered the opportunity for education with the Khaki University that was established in 1917.[xii] Unfortunately, the government was slow to repatriate the troops. This delay had to do with issues of overcrowding the ships, which in turn lead to a backlog on railway transport in Canada.[xiii]

On Armistice Day of November 1918, February 1919, and June 1919, Canadian soldiers engaged in riots in Witley Camp, and the surrounding area. Most likely due to boredom, lack of information, rumours, confusion, and anger, there were as many as thirteen incidents of unrest at camps in England between 1918 and 1919.[xiv] The Tin-Towns in Witley suffered major disturbances and damages. There are extensive records of legal correspondence relating to damage claims by local shopkeepers as a result of these riots. For example, a Mr. L. Brilliant was a victim of the February and June riots, claiming upwards of £500 as compensation for damage to stock, goods, fittings, and fixtures.[xv] C.T. Broadbent, Major Acting A.P.M. at Witley Camp attests to the riots by Canadian soldiers. He claims that their actions were a result of the unjust overcharging practiced by the shopkeepers towards the Canadian soldiers.[xvi] The Canadians had to resort to asking English soldiers or civilians to make purchases for them to avoid this treatment. The situation was made worse by the fact that there was an influenza outbreak and a quarantine in Godalming and Guildford, meaning that the men were restricted to only shopping within the camp, to which the shopkeepers clearly took advantage.[xvii] By June, the riots even escalated into the burning down of a large portion of the Tin-Towns at Witley.[xviii] It is very likely that the frustratingly long process of repatriation and demobilisation, and post-war effects caused this anger among the Canadian troops.

The legacy of Witley Camp remains as its role in both World Wars as a training base and living quarters. It is still remembered among the Canadian community. For example, last year a Canadian rugby team visited the site of Witley Camp to learn about the history of the Canadians in the Great War.[xix] The camp was eventually rebuilt for the Second World War on the Rodborough Common in Surrey.[xx] Today Witley Camp is the site of archaeological digs, where exciting finds are revealing more about the life of soldiers during the war.

 

 

[i] Canadian War Museum. Canada and the First World War. ‘Canada at War’ <http://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/going-to-war/canada-enters-the-war/canada-at-war/ > [accessed 3 March 2016]

[ii] Canadian War Museum. Canada and the First World War. ‘Canadian Expeditionary Force’ <http://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/going-to-war/canada-enters-the-war/canada-at-war/> [accessed 3 March 2016]

[iii] The 60th C.F.A. Battery book, 1916-1919, quoted in Adam Burns-Mace, 202nd Overseas (Sportsman’s) Battalion CEF (2016) <http://www.tudorrow.com/202battalion/witley.html> [accessed 3 March 2016]

[iv] Desmond Morton, ‘“Kicking and Complaining”: Demobilization Riots in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1918-19,’ Canadian Historical Review, 61. 3 (1980) <http://www.utpjournals.press/doi/pdf/10.3138/CHR-061-03-03 > [accessed 10 March 2016], p. 338

[v] Richard Laughton. Great War Research Company. ‘Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group “The Matrix Project”’ (2013) <http://cefresearch.ca/matrix/Army%20Corps/Divisions/5th%20Division/ 13th%20Infantry%20Brigade/160th%20Battalion.htm > [accessed 11 March 2016]

[vi] Surrey History Centre Archives, 8408/2, 160th (Bruce) Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Witley Camp: Bruce in Khaki Magazine, 9 November 1917

[vii] Surrey History Centre Archives, PX/159/67, Illustration of Canadians Boxing at Witley Camp by Dame Laura Knight, n.d. [mid 20th century]

[viii] Morton, p. 334

[ix] Morton, p. 335

[x] Morton p. 337

[xi] Morton, p. 338

[xii] Canadian War Museum. Canada and the First World War. ‘Repatriation and Demobilization.’

<http://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/after-the-war/veterans/repatriation-and-demobilization/ > [accessed 3 March 2016]

[xiii] Morton, p. 341

[xiv] ‘Repatriation and Demobilization’ < http://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/after-the-war/veterans/repatriation-and-demobilization/>

[xv] Surrey History Centre Archives, CC28/333, Riots by Canadians Forces from Witley Camp 11 Nov 1918, 9/10 Feb 1919, 14/15 June 1919, 1918-1920

[xvi] Surrey History Centre Archives, CC28/333, Riots by Canadians Forces from Witley Camp 11 Nov 1918, 9/10 Feb 1919, 14/15 June 1919, 1918-1920

[xvii] Surrey History Centre Archives, CC28/333, Riots by Canadians Forces from Witley Camp 11 Nov 1918, 9/10 Feb 1919, 14/15 June 1919, 1918-1920

[xviii] Robert Bartlett. The Open University. ‘Part 2: Policing Wars and Consequences 1902-1950’ (2016)

<http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/history-from-police-archives/RB1/Pt2/pt2WitleyCamp.html> [accessed 14 March 2016]

[xix] ‘Canadian Rugby Team Visit Witley Camp,’ Surrey News (20 October 2015) <http://news.surreycc.gov.uk/2015/10/20/round-up-canadian-rugby-team-visit-witley-camp-fire-station-opening-doors-to-public-new-first-aid-course-for-schools/ > [accessed 26 January 2016]

[xx] ‘Memorial Unveiled for Witley Camp,’ Get Surrey (2 July 2013) < http://www.getsurrey.co.uk/news/ local-news/memorial-unveiled-for-witley-camp-4824005> [accessed 14 March 2016]

 

 

Sources and Secondary Reading:

Burns-Mace, Adam, 202nd Overseas (Sportsman’s) Battalion CEF (2016) <http://www.tudorrow.com/202battalion/witley.html> [accessed 3 March 2016]

Canadian Rugby Team Visit Witley Camp,’ Surrey News (20 October 2015) <http://news.surreycc.gov.uk/2015/10/20/round-up-canadian-rugby-team-visit-witley-camp-fire-station-opening-doors-to-public-new-first-aid-course-for-schools/ > [accessed 26 January 2016]

Canadian War Museum. Canada and the First World War < http://www.warmuseum.ca/ firstworldwar/> [accessed 3 March 2016]

Laughton, Richard. Great War Research Company. ‘Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group “The Matrix Project”’ (2013) <http://cefresearch.ca/matrix/Army%20Corps /Divisions/5th%20Division/ 13th%20Infantry%20Brigade/160th%20Battalion.htm > [accessed 11 March 2016]

‘Memorial Unveiled for Witley Camp,’ Get Surrey (2 July 2013) < http://www.getsurrey .co.uk/news/ local-news/memorial-unveiled-for-witley-camp-4824005> [accessed 14 March 2016]

Morton, Desmond, ‘“Kicking and Complaining”: Demobilization Riots in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1918-19,’ Canadian Historical Review, 61. 3 (1980) <http://www.utpjournals.press/doi/pdf/10.3138/CHR-061-03-03 > [accessed 10 March 2016]

Robert Bartlett. The Open University. ‘Part 2: Policing Wars and Consequences 1902-1950’ (2016) <http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/history-from-police-archives/RB1/Pt2/ pt2WitleyCamp.html> [accessed 14 March 2016]

 

Primary Sources:

Surrey History Centre Archives, CC28/333, Riots by Canadians Forces from Witley Camp 11 Nov 1918, 9/10 Feb 1919, 14/15 June 1919, 1918-1920

Surrey History Centre Archives, 8408/2, 160th (Bruce) Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Witley Camp: Bruce in Khaki Magazine, 9 November 1917

Surrey History Centre Archives, PX/159/67, Illustration of Canadians Boxing at Witley Camp by Dame Laura Knight, n.d. [mid 20th century]

 

 

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4 Responses to “Canadians and Witley Camp”

  1. Theresa Melvin-Covey

    I would like to know any information about my grandfather, Private Walter R. Melvin of the C.E.F. No. 515095. He died 3 years before I was born and know very little about him, never saw a photograph of him. He later served in France. Thank you

    • Kirsty Bennett, Surrey Heritage

      Dear Theresa,

      Thank you for your enquiry, which we have forwarded to Surrey Heritage’s dedicated enquiries team. You should receive a reply within a couple of weeks.

      With thanks,

      The SGW Team.

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