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Brandon Sun - PRINT EDITION

Local boys off to training

Large recruitment ads for military service were a common feature in the pages of the Brandon Daily Sun during the latter half of 1914.

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Large recruitment ads for military service were a common feature in the pages of the Brandon Daily Sun during the latter half of 1914. (FILE)

While the First World War was winding up in Europe, patriotic spirits still ran high in Brandon.

Hundreds of Brandon men had left for training camp at Valcartier, Que., and dozens more were signing up to fill their spots.

Most of the replacement recruits were married — men who couldn’t leave their dependent families behind to head off to war.

Although opinion was split on whether it would be a very quick or only a moderately long war, local authorities were adamant that Brandon needed to do its share to help the Empire.

"Remote though Brandon is from the seat of war, it is impossible for any one to predict … (no) immediate call for the local trained militia," wrote Lt. Charles Blake in a Brandon Daily Sun front-page appeal to young Brandon men.

Blake, then the adjutant for the 99th Manitoba Rangers, thought it was essential that a well-trained militia be on hand for any future emergency at home.

"Military training is … one of the paramount duties of every good citizen," he said.

The city agreed, with Mayor Joseph Hughes calling for a meeting in September to discuss the formation of a Home Guard, although he didn’t think it would be necessary.

In an interview with the paper, the mayor dismissed as ridiculous rumours that local Austrians had been conducting military drills, and at any rate he’d instructed the police to keep a close eye on the foreigners living north of the tracks.

Reporters also checked in for news from any of the troop trains passing through town, but there was little hard information. A group of soldiers on the way through from the West Coast did have something to offer though: they handed out "famous B.C. apples" to citizens who had gone down to the platform to wave them on to Valcartier.

From that training camp, where eager young Canadians were massing, some reports did filter back to Brandon about how the local contribution was doing.

"The rifle ranges ring with shows all day, thousands of men engaging in target practice," wrote the Brandon Daily Sun on Aug. 27, 1914.

Ten medical tents, housing about 20 physicians, were set up to screen all the recruits, despite them having passed a doctor’s exam when first signing up. This test would be more severe — fail it and be sent home immediately.

Some 30,000 men had made it to Valcartier within the first couple of weeks; thousands more than had been expected. Volunteers were said to have refused to get off the train.

Although the first full army division of 22,000 was expected to ship out for Europe by mid-September, in the meantime there wasn’t room at Valcartier for all the troops to train. It would be infantry only for now; artillery would have to stay where they were until room could be made.

Not everyone had made it to training camp. The day after the first train left, the paper reported that nine of the volunteers had failed to show up. One pleaded that he had fallen asleep. The other eight, it was worried, had simply been attracted by the guaranteed room, board and pay, and weren’t too interested in the fighting.

Although the penalty for desertion could include death, it was expected that Winnipeg authorities would take "a lenient view of the matter, as is often done when dealing with volunteers."

Meanwhile, overseas, the German advance on Paris looked relentless. By the end of the month, the kaiser’s forces were reported within 60 miles of the French capital, and non-combatants were fleeing the city as it prepared for a siege.

Despite the dire-looking situation, newspaper reports kept up a drumbeat of patriotism.

Front-page stories emphasized the toughness of British soldiers — even if the battle was a loss, as it was in Tournai.

Remembered now as just part of the much more famous Battle of Mons, the Battle of Tournai was headline news in the Sun on Aug. 29, 1914, when the paper ran a report from the Boulogne correspondent of the London Daily Mail.

Although the Belgian town of Tournai fell, swarmed by 50,000 German cavalry, it was the 700 or so British troops who held them off who were written up as a "revelation of British prowess" in the "titanic battle."

It was only when the Germans mounted machine-guns on their ambulances that the valiant British had to fall back, the paper wrote.

The Sun made no apologies for its patriotic tone.

Nor did it apologize for its helping to suppress details of war movements that the paper feared might help the enemy — possibly putting local boys at risk if, for example, it published details of when they might sail for Europe. That self-censorship, the Sun said, was a policy "gratifyingly" shared by almost every newspaper in Western Canada.

"Newspapers will … assist very materially in the best interests of the empire," it editorialized at the end of August 1914, pledging that the Sun would not just "display such patriotic spirit" in censorship, but would also co-operate with authorities "who are in a position to know just what is best at such a critical stage in the Empire’s history."

British forces were often said to fight "splendidly," while German and Austrian fighters seemingly always suffered heavy losses. Reports from the battlefield repeated the endless terrible deeds of the enemy, who were nearly out of petroleum reserves, beset by deserters and who were calling up old men and boys in a desperate attempt to fill out their thinning ranks.

Meanwhile, keen volunteers were reported to be surging in from all corners of the British Empire, which was just starting to swing into action.

In the coming weeks, those British troops would join with French forces and break the German advance just short of Paris, sending both sides scrambling in a "race to the sea" that would leave behind a Western Front of bitter trench warfare for four years to come.

» ghamilton@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @Gramiq

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition August 27, 2014

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While the First World War was winding up in Europe, patriotic spirits still ran high in Brandon.

Hundreds of Brandon men had left for training camp at Valcartier, Que., and dozens more were signing up to fill their spots.

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While the First World War was winding up in Europe, patriotic spirits still ran high in Brandon.

Hundreds of Brandon men had left for training camp at Valcartier, Que., and dozens more were signing up to fill their spots.

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