Contributed by Sidney Allinson.
The little men in khaki seemed impossibly short to be Canadian soldiers. Barely over five feet in height, they marched proudly, four abreast, to tunes of their brass band, smiling at the cheering crowds that lined Humboldt Street, Victoria, that bright morning of February 10, 1917.
These tiny soldiers of the 143rd Overseas Battalion (B.C. Bantams), were being given a civic send-off by fellow townspeople with mixed emotions. After three years of what was known as the Great War, the notably patriotic city of Victoria had previously bade ‘adieu’ to seven other army units. — including splendid soldiers of the Canadian Scottish Regiment, strapping Naval reservists, and picked men of the Victoria Rifles. But never had they expressed such a fond farewell or sent off a more improbable unit than these almost Lilliputian warriors.
Boots polished to a black sheen, buttons bright and puttees tight, soft peaked caps square on heads, bearing heavy back-packs, the men were like miniature Guardsmen in their smart military turnout, singing lustily:.
Wipe that tear from your eye,
The British Columbia Bantams were volunteers all, and keen to be getting a chance to fight at last. Almost half of them would never see Canada again.
More thoughtful observers that morning might have wondered about the departing soldiers for other reasons than their novelty. Here were perhaps living symbols of the extreme scarcity of British Empire manpower reserves, that now such undersized recruits were needed to make up for the carnage of trench warfare on the bloody Western Front.
Slaughtered, ignored, their survivors even dismissed as failures, the Bantams formed one of the most unusual and little-known chapters in the annals of military history. Theirs is a neglected story, which involved over 50,000 British and Canadian soldiers who never quite made it into the war books. They volunteered to serve when they could have stayed safely at home, suffered physical hardship often beyond their capacities, and sometimes endured with good humor the ridicule of less-courageous men, all for the privilege of fighting for their country in some of the fiercest battles of the First World War. Among them were almost 1,000 men who served in a little-known unit dubbed proudly, “The B.C. Bantams”.
It was modelled on 20 other Bantam battalions raised by the British Army, to mobilize the many volunteers who were below the regulation minimum height. Revised medical standards to allow for bantam-size troops specified acceptable heights between 4ft. l0ins, and 5ft. 3ins. “with a proportionately good chest expansion.”
Mobilization was authorized for the 143rd Overseas Battalion (B.C. Bantams) and recruiting begin in Victoria on February 20, 1916. Driving force behind this unique formation was Lieutenant Colonel A. Bruce Powley, a front-line veteran, who had been wounded twice in battle before being invalided home to Victoria. Eager to get back into the fray, he managed to gain command of the 143rd, and engaged a talented group of local officers to assist with recruiting.
There was a steady stream of volunteers towards the hoped for total of 1,000 men, but LCol. Powley soon found it difficult to find accommodation for the thousand men he hoped to sign up. The situation was solved by a grant of $9,000 by the city of Victoria, to secure building materials for a new camp at Beacon Hill Park parade-ground. The recruits themselves built wooden structures for sleeping barracks, cook-house, and headquarters, far more comfortable than the usual canvas tents.
At this stage of the war, Canada had 200,000 men under arms, all volunteers. The nation had been quick to supply fighting-men after the outbreak of war, and many Victorians were among the First Contingent that sailed in October, 1914. By early 1916, Canada had sent three divisions to the Western Front, forming the Canadian Corps. They had fought in many major battles, always in the thick of things, and suffered heavy casualties. (The 1914-1918 war cost Canada a total of 65,000 war dead.)
Sparsely-settled British Columbia had responded whole heartedly early in the war. Intensely loyal, with a high proportion of British immigrant stock quick to volunteer, BC had virtually shot its bolt by early 1916 in its capacity to supply manpower.
With recruits at a premium, the coal-mining communities up-Island promised the likeliest source of strongly-built bantam-sized men. One of them was Benjamin Barnes, a red headed Cornishman who volunteered from his well-paid job as fire-boss of Coal Creek Mine. Another was Peter Campbell, an office worker from Sidney, who joined “B” Company in camp just down the road from his home. Allan Bell came over from Vancouver on the same ferry that brought Humbert Campbell back from his job on an Alberta ranch.
“It seemed the greatest adventure in the world”, said Bell. “The sun shone on the water and the mountains stood out against the sky as we sailed across that day, and I felt my chest swell as if we were all setting out on a great crusade. My comrades proved to be such happy chaps, forever telling jokes, with never a cross word, and I never felt so happy in all my eighteen years.”
Despite such enthusiastic recruits, LCol. Powley could not enlist enough suitable men at the pace needed. He regretfully reported to Ottawa on Oct. 15, 1916. “We were finally forced to take in some larger men as well, with a view to exchanging them later for smaller men from other units. But exchanges are not easy, and the result is I have a battalion of over half bantam, and the balance of larger men, though the average height is still below 5ft. 4ins.”
When the unit returned from a summer of hard training at Sidney Camp, its members were so outspokenly impatient to be sent to France, they were known as “The Fire-eaters”. Their attitude was all the more remarkable, considering the high proportion of family men in the ranks. Oldest of whom was Joseph Daniel, a 43-year-old Sidney resident who managed to wangle his way to combat in France.
Among those chafing to get overseas, was Ben Barnes, who as an accomplished cornet-player, found himself in the battalion band. In January, 1917, he wrote to his brother in immaculate penmanship from the Dominion Hotel. “We are all classed as soldiers, and though bandsmen do not put in as much time now with a rifle, we are all well prepared for the firing-line. Each of us in the band has learned machine-gun drill, signalling, first-aid, and stretcher-bearing.”
He wrote again, soon after, excited by news of embarkation, but depressed by feelings of foreboding. “I get a little down-hearted when I dwell too much on my home, but shake it off as best I can, and will be content when I get a little more excitement at the front. If I get a bullet to put me to sleep, I will only be among my comrades, so I should not worry.”
With men so keen, there was some disappointment when Ottawa announced the 143rd would be sent to France as a Railway Construction battalion, instead of as infantry. However, they were mollified by learning that trench railway duty was as vital as it was dangerous, a prime target of German artillery.
News of their departure brought out a tremendous wave of affection from Victoria residents, who cheered the little men all along their march from Beacon Hill, past flag-draped balconies of St. Joseph’s Hospital where patients and nurses gave rousing cheers. Banners proclaiming “Good Luck – God Speed” hung from buildings at the mouth of Courtney Street, and people leaned through open windows, adding their applause to those packing the sidewalks.
By the time the soldiers reached the wharf on Bellville Street, they had to break ranks and march in single file through the press of dense crowds. It gave opportunity for many emotional scenes; last-minute kisses from families, friends and sweethearts, Quickly, the 32 officers and 667 other ranks boarded two CPR ferries, ‘Princess Victoria’ and ‘Princess Mary.’ where many climbed the rigging for better views as the vessels pulled away. Cheers, cries, and shouted well-wishes mingled with a cacophony of horn-blowing from other ships in the harbor, while the Bantams’ band played a last refrain of “Old Lang Syne” as they sailed off to war.
Three weeks later, the British Columbians were in England, at the Canadian Holding Depot, Shorncliff. “We felt like cattle, the way they treated us there,” said Allan Bell. The Canadian Corps needed more men in France in a hurry, and made no secret that we were viewed as cannon-fodder. One could not help but notice that while ordinary soldiers were getting this treatment, there were over five hundred lieutenants lounging around camp, many of whom had stayed there in safety since the previous summer.”
“But that was the least of our irritations, because it didn’t take long to figure out that the BC Bantams as a unit were about to be broken up forthwith!”
Peter Campbell recalled how it was for the crestfallen Victoria battalion. “After a brief landing-leave in London, we were called before a medical board at Shorncliff. The 143rd was broken up so suddenly that Lt. Col. Powley and his officers were not even given time to say farewell to us.”
About a third of the unit became railway troops, while the rest were sent to the trenches as infantry after all. Ben Barnes was among a draft of 667 men from the B.C. Bantams who went to the 24th Canadian Reserve Battalion in France on May 11, 1917. They joined the new formations thrown immediately into the hideous meat-grinder known as the Battle of Lens.
This affair was yet another brain-wave of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, British commander in chief. He decided to increase pressure on the Flanders front, and as part of some grand strategy, flung the Canadian Corps against Lens as the first objective.
The Canadians surveyed the black slag-heaps, the shell churned graveyard of so many troops before them, and were not inspired. “If we have to fight there at all”, said General Sir Arthur Currie, the one-time Victoria school-teacher who was now corps commander, “Let us fight for something worth having.”. Why not try to sidestep Lens, he asked, and burst out into open mobile warfare? But Haig was adamant. Lens was to be taken by direct assault.
On August 15th, the Canadians took Hill 70; little more than a low mound, really, but riddled with concrete pill boxes, machine-gun nests, and concealed artillery. In a single morning, they captured the hill which had repulsed the British Guards Division in 1915, and pushed on through smoke and poison gas and shrapnel into the mining hamlets on the outskirts of lens itself. The ruined suburbs — St. Emilie, St. Pierre, Calonne — were made up of clumps of miners’ cottages and pithead workings, and had been fortified in an interlocking maze of strong German defences over the past two years.
All Lens was like that; street after street of rubbled buildings hiding blockhouses and m.g. posts inter-connected by miles of passage-ways knocked through cellar walls. Alex Batchelor recalled an officer telling him, “Fix your bayonet, soldier. We have to winkle the Huns out.”
Batchelor and other Bantams found their small size to be an advantage during the next ten endless days and nights, though it singled them out them for very hazardous duty. “We could pop through those tunnels as easy as could be. We left our packs off, stripped down to undershirts and went crawling around with a bagful of bombs and a revolver. Find a Heinie hole, bung a grenade through, then nip in after it before the dust settled.” Batchelor explained, still matter-of-fact in his old age. “After a while, I could tell if no bomb was needed in the next cellar. My nose would tell me when the Heinies in there had been dead for a long time.”
Allan Bell fought there, too, attaching himself to some Nova Scotian machine-gunners to keep them supplied with ammunition. He would make repeated trips back through the hellish streets, casually employing his Lee-Enfield to snipe stray Prussians who tried to stop him. On one such journey, he stopped to aid the wounded Humbert Campbell, the clergyman’s son he’d first met on a British Columbia ferry.
Street by street, the 4th Prussian Guards were forced back, dying hard for every cellar and crossroad. On the third day, reinforcements came in: two more Guards Divisions, the 11th Reserve, and the Saxon Brigade, until there were 46 German battalions battling to keep the Canadians from capturing the battered compost-heap that used to be the town of Lens.
Ben Barnes told a little of this to the folks at home. “Had a busy time of it,” he pencilled in flawless copperplate on YMCA stationery. “But we all went forward and accomplished our objective. It was mostly street fighting, and we worked hard for protection from gunfire. When we got settled in our new ground, Fritz did not give us much rest as he had our range down pretty fair.”
The indomitable attitude of Barnes and his comrades comes out in his final paragraph. “The Bantams certainly made a name for themselves this time. We are all of British stock here and fight with British spirit, and the Canadian Bantams are not going back without a name worthy of being set down in history for future generations to take notice.”
He was never to know the eventual irony of those words he wrote on the battlefield. There have been so many other cataclysms throughout this century, that there is scant public memory now of distant heroism. Yet the belief sustained this modest soldier, whose letters were filled with loving memories for nephews and nieces he had met for only a few precious days. Though he had already seen so many friends cut down six thousand miles from homes they left in beautiful British Columbia, he retained his generation’s simple faith in posterity’s appreciation. It was a faith that sustained so many men through the misery of the First World War.
Then the Canadians went north to Flanders again, summoned to help break the deadlock on a vile, mad place called Passchendaele. This dread region in the Ypres Salient had already become the graveyard of hundreds of thousands of dead, and for four months previously British, Australian, and New Zealand regiments had lost entire battalions in a matter of days. On October 26, 1917, it became the Canadians turn, and they went forward through torrential rain mingled with the sleet of lead and steel from German guns. After a week of some of the war’s most desperate fighting, four Canadian divisions managed to capture the previously impregnable Passchendaele at last, on November 6, 1917.
The day after the battle ended, Sir Launcelot Kiggel, Haig’s chief of staff, arrived to take his first look at the battlefield. When his Daimler limousine began to lurch through the mud, the general stared out unbelievingly at the endless quagmire, then burst into tears. “My God!”, he moaned. “Did we send men to fight in this?”
One of the men who had, was Benjamin Barnes. On October 29, during a lull, he wrote home in despair. “Had a very busy time of it for eight straight days and nights. I am sorry to say my pal Alf Patterson got napooed [killed] yesterday. I had many narrow escapes myself. One shell burst outside the dug-out, buried three of us. One blinded, one wounded, and all I got was shock. When I heard about Alf, it brought tears to my eyes, and I had the painful duty of writing to his aunt in Cumberland. Kindly excuse scribble, as I am quite upset. Au-re-voir.”
As there was no conscription in Canada, fresh volunteer replacements were getting scarcer every month for the embattled Canadian Army. Veteran troops were kept in the line until death, or a lucky “Blighty” wound released them to hospital. Barnes managed to get letters home past the indulgent censorship of his officers. “Not many of the originals left now,” he wrote on January 22, 1918. “If we did not get our rum ration, we would be laid up more often, as we are subject to wet feet and chills through our system. Disappointed at no leave, anxiously awaiting a square deal, and we cannot see why we have not had it yet.”
There were only a few more letters from Barnes that year, in which he made no further mention of warfare, other than his address, “In the trenches.” He sent a stream of suggestions about how to make his nieces and nephew happy, and often sent them what money he could afford.
His last letter was devoted to them. “Whenever you feel like making up a parcel for me, fix things fine, then let the children have a party of their own instead, to enjoy the contents … Not much time to write. Continually on the alert. We Bantams are in a battle platoon, so we are not here as ornaments.”
A week later, he heard his C.O. read out a commendation for his gallantry in rescuing a wounded comrade. The same day, August 11, 1918, Ben Barnes’ luck finally ran out. He was killed in an obscure skirmish near Amiens — one of the last of the B.C. Bantams to die in the Great War.
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