World War 1: the 209th Waiting in Digby (Part 4)

This is the fourth post in a series about a group of World War 1 soldiers from Mill Village, Nova Scotia who all enlisted for the 209th Battalion in Swift Current, Saskatchewan. For full context and more information about the people below, Part 1 is here. There is also a remembrance page with links to all the posts in this series, which can be found here.

The Journey Across Canada (October 9th – October 13th, 1916)

After the “Annual Inspection” at Camp Hughes, the 209th was one of the first battalions sent to Nova Scotia to embark for England.

“There is no word yet of date of leaving, the 209th just received orders this afternoon to entrain[?] on Monday 9th & they are not getting any final leave.” — Will Mayse of the 222nd Battalion in a letter dated October 7th, 1916.

Troops leaving on one of the Troop Trains. Photo from the National Archives

The men weren’t entirely sure of their destination when they boarded the train in Manitoba, but they knew they were going to Nova Scotia to meet one of the troopships that would take them to England.

Thomas William Johnson, the Methodist priest from the “B” Company writes on October 12th, 1916 that,

We are running as I write about 40 miles from Truro in Nova Scotia, & we dont know yet where we are going. Ever since we got orders that we were to leave Camp Hughes, we understood we were going to Digby on the bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia for three weeks. Now a rumour – official enough – comes that we are going straight to Halifax where the transports are awaiting us. And we dont know which to believe. One man thinks we may go anywhere, but he is sure of one place only, & that is Hell.

The journey itself was like a grand party. People at various stations rushed the troop trains seeking souvenirs and interactions with the soldiers.

Thomas William Johnson muses about the different receptions the soldiers received in the different provinces. His observations are interesting because they give insight into the social and political climate in Canada during the war years.

Some of the things I hear are very funny if you have a sense of humour. As I wrote the last sentence I heard a Scotch soldier in the next seat say to a man with him “There is one damn thing sure anyway, if we get torpedoed, I shall drown as sure as Hell.” It may not be the language you would use to Mrs Aitkin or in your next Sunday’s sermon, but it is clear enough anyway. The combination is to say the least picturesque.

But curiously enough, half of the fun of our trip is the various receptions we get at the different towns as we pass. In Ontario we got the finest reception. Girls and women would crowd along the cars on the platform & shake hands with us through the windows & wish us good luck. Some would hand us their names & addresses written on slips of paper, others would ask us for souvenirs, others gave us candies or chewing gum. Some would trade a kiss for a badge; the result is that badges are getting scarce; one man told me that he had none left, & had started on his buttons.

When we came to Quebec province a great change took place. The stations were almost deserted while very cool receptions met our yells & wolf calls & choruses. The men would stand stoically on the platforms & regard us with mild indifference. No one likes to be caught like that & soldiers not less than anyone else; it makes us look crazy. The result was that they are mad at them. At one place where we stopped near the St. Lawrence river, about 100 miles east of Quebec we disembarked for a little march through the town for a little exercise. The people seemed not to be able to talk English, all signs were in French. They were absolutely indifferent. As soon as we got back to the train the men were so mad that they were ready to go out again & “clean up” the whole town, it would have taken very little to make them trot out & do it. They took it out by throwing cups of water on the unwary on the platform as we moved out.

But it changed again when we got to New Brunswick where old men & women & children would come out & stand at the doors, or run to the track, as we passed, waving union jacks & waving handkerchiefs. One old man stood on the top of a high embankment at the salute & with a union jack in his left hand. His perfect stillness showed him to be an old soldier & the men went wild with enthusiasm.

The same thing happens now as we pass through Nova Scotia. It is dark, & we all watching the stations to see what towns we pass through to see whether our destination is to be Digby or Halifax.

Waiting in Digby (October 13 – October 31, 1916)

The final destination was Digby and there was no troop ship waiting. Due to either a lack of transportation or secure passage across the Atlantic, the men were told to wait in Digby until a transport could be arranged. Eventually, there would be three CEF battalions who camped here: the 209th, the 4th, and the 237th Battalions.

On October 13, 1916, Thomas William Johnson writes to his future wife, We have just arrived at Digby, N.S., and have just put up our tents on a cliff overlooking a magnificent bay. Trees, trees of all sorts; it is fine. The only stocks are made of fish, and the crops are of apples. It is the best kind of a change… We may be at Digby two weeks or only a few days.

The 209th camped at the Digby Pines Hotel near the Racquette while they waited for further orders.

View looking down into the Racquette in 1914. From the National Archives.

The Pines Hotel was constructed in 1903 and was considered “modern” for the time. While the men camped on grass overlooking the Racquette, the officers stayed in the hotel and enjoyed electricity, hot water, and all the conveniences associated with a 1900s Nova Scotia resort.

Leadership for the 209th Battalion were lax in their duties and later deemed “not efficient” by the military. Luckily for the researcher, the paperwork this created provides snippets into the interactions that the soldiers had with the people of Digby.

While here, the battalion went on a spending spree. The military police dined at the Winchester Hotel, soldiers bought stationery and books, the Quartermaster ordered camp stoves for the troops, soldiers expensed a meal at the East End Restaurant, and for some reason “medical supplies” that were not-medical supplies were purchased from the local drug store.

None of these bills were paid and the most persistent and endearing in trying to collect was Mrs. M.H. Winchester who wouldn’t give up until she was paid her $7 (about $164 in 2017 dollars). The details and story that she provides show a snippet of the last night troops spent in Digby… and a misunderstanding (or prank).

The letter makes reference to a Lieutenant Tracey, who was not a member of the 209th Battalion; he was a Bookkeeper and has a regimental number from the block given to the 219th Nova Scotia Highlanders.

Letter from the National Archives; photo taken by Sharlene McKinnon.

It was during this time, Max and Amos took two days leave. I assume this was to visit family in the Village. In 1916, the railway in Nova Scotia was well established and it would have been easy to get to the East Coast of the province (from Digby to Liverpool).

In the archives, I could find no actual evidence of what they did with their time off because the Daily Orders pages for this period were missing. Generally, in the Daily Orders, the names of men who go on leave are listed and a short explanation of why is given.

None of the names of the Cabri or Mill Village men appear in any of the records from this short period, which means they stayed out of trouble or left no evidence behind.

A Goodbye from Digby

Before leaving town, the Nova Scotia Red Cross threw the troops a dance at the Bijou Theatre and then donated the money raised to the battalion hospital.

Clippings from the Swift Current Sun.

In the few letters that I’ve seen from this period, all the writers comment on the warm hospitality given to the troops by the people of Digby. Thomas Johnson writes rather earnestly about this:

We were sent to Digby, N.S. instead of to Halifax, where we stayed just two weeks and two days. They were days of keenest interest, instead of as I feared – days of weary waiting.

It is a little village on the Annapolis Basin, just inside the Bay of Fundy and is very beautiful. It is surrounded by orchards but depends for its prosperity on fish and summer visitors. The leaves when we arrived were just beginning to fall, and I never saw such a profusion of harmonious colours. The sea and the “sheaves” of fish set out to dry were very curious for us all. Some had never seen the sea before, and when they saw the tide out it was fine to hear the comments. We had a good camp amongst the trees on a cliff overlooking the sea, & we had our “drill” at another part, where we found a field or golf links, the only open space for miles around of any size. The rest of the time we spent in route marches & holidays.

But what I liked best of all was the great reception given to us by the people. From the first they did all they could to make us feel at home. They had given all their young men to the war, and felt that we were taking their places. The Methodist Church from the first few days gave us the use of their school room and provided us with writing paper & ink as did the Presbyterian & English Church later on. They invited us to their homes – the townspeople as a whole I mean – and we grew to know them as our real friends, & we were very sorry to part with them. Nova Scotia now has a place on the map for a thousand Westerners from Swift Current.

I called at the parsonage during the first week and made acquaintance of the minister & his wife, daughter & son – a soldier in training. I preached to a huge congregation of soldiers & civilians on the second Sunday evening & also at an afternoon appointment out in the country to which I had a delightful drive. On the third Sunday – the day we received unexpected word to entrain on the Monday – I preached in the morning at a church quite a long drive away right on the Bay of Fundy. They were all fishermen & I felt as if I was amongst perfect strangers; but as the church was full I soon felt at home. In the afternoon I preached again in a crowded little school to a heterogeneous crowd where I enjoyed myself. But that school! – We should have been heartily ashamed of it even in the remotest place in Saskatchewan – I think I know something of Sask. schools. One of our fine new schools with such beautiful scenery around it would be ideal however.

A “farmer” drove me. But you would never know he was a farmer. I believe I could have put all the wheat he had to sell in my pocket! He seemed proud to tell me that he grew enough to supply the whole of this year’s flour. But then it came to apples!!! Well, then he was a farmer, I saw a sample of his wheat and passed judgment on it before I knew he had grown it. Our chaplain fittingly refered to it as No. 1 Nova Scotian!

On the evening of October 31st, the 209th Battalion left Digby and arrived at Halifax at 2 a.m in the morning. Soon after they marched onto the Caronia and prepared for the journey across the Atlantic.

A Final Note on the 209th Badge

One of the most persistent and known 209th collectables from this moment in time is the battalion cap badge.

R.J. Inglis Limited, based in Montreal and Winnipeg, was one of the Canadian military suppliers responsible for creating customized equipment like sword scabbards and uniform badges. In July 1916, they were called upon to create a custom badge for the 209th. Traditionally, battalions wore the standard Canadian CEF cap badge; but, under certain circumstances, a battalion could receive a special badge.

Brig.-General Samuel Hughes had a soft spot for locally raised and trained battalions and he approved a custom design for the 209th on July 3, 1916 (signed as John Hughes). The requisition for the badges was signed and authorized by the Quartermaster-General on July 10, 1916; the formal design was completed by July 12, 1916. The condition of approval by the Minister of Defense was that the badges were to be made without expense to the public.

The design is gorgeous; a British crown resting on three sheaths of wheat that are surrounded by a wreath of Canadian maple leaves. The words, “Overseas 209 Battalion Swift Current Canada” make up the lower half of the badge. The original hand-drawn specifications initialled by “SH” that were sent to HQ are in the National Archives in Ottawa.

Design from the National Archives; photo taken by Sharlene McKinnon.

It’s unknown if the men ever saw the custom 209th badge. There was continual confusion over the location of the troops and when the badges arrived in Montréal, the troops had already left Canada. The badges were then lost in a paperwork shuffle.

Inglis and HQ argued about bill payment ($70) for over a year before finally admitting that the men of the 209th never received their badges and corrected the account. Resolution came long after General Hughes and Col. Smyth had left the military; and, after many from the 209th had already joined other battalions or had died in action. It’s likely that many didn’t know of their existence.

Letter from the National Archives; photo taken by Sharlene McKinnon.

If you are looking to find and purchase one of these “lost” badges, they are in pristine condition all over the internet on various auction sites.

The Remembrance Series

But wait… there’s more! The following posts follow the Mill Village Boys on their journey through the war.

World War 1: The Mill Village Boys (Part 1)
World War 1: the 209th Waiting in Swift Current (Part 2)
World War 1: the 209th Training at Camp Hughes (Part 3)
World War 1: the 209th Waiting in Digby (Part 4)
World War 1: the 209th’s Journey and Arrival Overseas (Part 5)
World War 1: the 9th Battalion in Shorncliffe (Part 6)
World War 1: the 9th Reserve in Bramshott (Part 7)
World War 1: Taken on Strength… to France (Part 8)
Arleux-en-Gohelle (a.k.a Finding Max)
The Dominion British Cemetery (a.k.a. Finding Jack)

1 comment on “World War 1: the 209th Waiting in Digby (Part 4)Add yours →

  1. I tracked down these two photos from the 209th Battalion’s time in Digby; the originals are in the Admiral Digby Museum. Both are from a “church parade” held by the men.

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