With the Highlanders En Route to England…

With the Highlanders En Route to England

by Peregrine Acland

Toronto Globe, Tuesday October 6th, 1914.  Page 2.

On board S.S. Megantic, in the Gulf.  –The sound of hearty cheering from thousands of glad Tommies came across the St. Lawrence on Wednesday afternoon as one troopship after another steamed away from the grey walls of Quebec and storied heights of Levis, down the broad pathway that leads to the open sea.  Ship after ship of the great fleet of transports, with decks lined with enthusiastic and impatient troops, moved off in slow and stately manner, bidding a long farewell to the romantic hills on which were enacted the first and brightest scenes of Canada’s history.

The cheers came both from the troops who were at least under way and from those who expected almost immediately to follow.  One of the last vessels to leave was the Megantic, which had aboard the 48th Highlanders of Toronto, the divisional ammunition column, the corps of the clearing hospital (for the line of communication) and the first field hospital.  Under the heading of the “48th Highlanders” must be included several smaller corps, the 37th (Sudbury), the 31st (Owen Sound), the 2nd Dragoons (Grimsby), and the 26th Stunstead Dragoons (from the Eastern Townships, Quebec).  These were joined to the 48th at Valcartier to make the 15th (provisional) Battalion.  The members of these corps have taken as readily to the spirit as to the uniform of the Highland regiment.  And if one finds an occasional Englishman, or Irishman, or Frenchman in kilts, or hears an ex-dragoon gaily dubbing himself a “horse Highlander” it need not be taken as anything astonishing.  They all add good fighting material to a regiment of which the backbone is still composed of Sandies [?] and Duncans and Donalds and Archies and Atees [?] to more than make good its right to its sporrans on parade.

Off at last.

“Last post” and then “lights out” had been sounded on the bugles before the gangplanks were at last drawn in, and the Megantic veered away from the wharf.  The Highlanders were graced with a splendid setting for the moment of their departure.  Looked down upon from above by the dark mass of the Citadel and brilliance of the Frontenac, their vessel shouldered its way through the star-bright waters, past the few remaining troopships, each of which was aglow with a thousand lights.  At last we were off.  The illumination of the city soon began to fade in the distance, but overhead was a gold of a full moon, against which the men in the rigging loomed up black, and to the north was the shining magnificence of the Aurora.  It was no such slight thing to leave Canada.

And we were troops, Imperial troops now, bound for England, and then perhaps for India, or Egypt and the Nile, but more probably for the battlefields of the great war.  Who said romance was dead?

All on board the Megantic have been more than comfortable during the few days in which the ship was riding at anchor off Quebec.  Not only are the officers and non-coms happy in the luxury of the first and second cabins, but the Tommies have found that third cabin can be made much cosier than camp.  And although their “grub” may be labelled “second-class” the men find it first-rate.  “They are feeding us like kings,” said one enthusiast.

Keeping in Condition.

In order that the men will not get out of good physical condition during the voyage a large part of the day is given up to physical drills.  As space is decidedly limited, it has to be carefully divided.  The Highlanders take one deck, while the other is left for the other corps.  From 9 o’clock to half-past ten in the morning the right-half battalion of the 48th occupies the deck; from half-past ten until 12 o’clock the left half has its opportunity.  In the afternoon each half-battalion has another hour.  In this way the 1,100 men of hte 48th and the 700 men of the ammunition column and the Medical corps are kept from becoming soft and slack.

The physical drill is, next to cook-house, the big feature of the day.  It is new to many of the men, and is quite different from the rifle and company drills to which they have been accustomed.  Adapted from the Swedish system of exercises, with emphasis laid on tenseness of muscle and precision of movement rather than on speed or violent muscular contractions, the physical drill was at first regarded by the men as something specially designed for children.  But they soon found that it required all the attention and alertness at their disposal, and exercised every muscle in their bodies.  Still, it must be admitted that it is an amusing sight to see several hundred Tommies lying on their backs and slowly raising their legs into the air, or, with knees bent, sitting erect on their heels and keeping a precarious balance on their toes.  It will be more amusing yet when the ship begins to roll.

Concerts in the Evenings.

In the evenings a couple of companies at a time arrange concerts in which their best singers, reciters and accordion players take part.  And then there are always the pipes.  The pipers make a gallant showing outside the officers’ mess in the evenings, and their inspiring music can be heard in all parts of the ship.  Even those members of the 48th who haven’t much Scotch blood in them soon take kindly to the pipes.

Between times there is constant letter-writing.  The soldiers have now a chance to use another privilege: Their letters need not be stamped if franked “War Service” in the corner.  And now as the mail is to be landed at Father Point, is a good time to make the first use of the privilege.  The mail bags of the 48th will be as plump as a German Hausfrau (before the war).  And now, we presume –“Next stop, England.”

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My military experience is slight, (a reserve infantry private that never deployed outside the province) but I’m absolutely flabbergasted every time I read this article.  There is so much operational detail revealed: the name of the vessel, the number of men aboard, their battalions, their capability, their daily routines, etc.  The 48th Highlanders disembarked from the Megantic in England on October 14th –which suggests to me that Acland mailed this article (marked ‘War Service’ no doubt) to the Globe via the mail drop at Father Point.  The article ran in the Globe on the 6th of October, while they were still at sea!  Different times, I guess, and vastly different notions of operational security; he’d be doing the hatless dance before a court-martial today!

The Globe 1914 – 10 October 06th – Tuesday p.02

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