100 years ago the Canadian soldiers stationed across England and Wales were not happy. The armistice of November 1918 effectively ended the War and thousands of men returned from the battlefields of Flanders to Britain awaiting repatriation to Canada.
This was a slow process. Most of the troopships that had been used to bring the men across the Atlantic (the route was usually Halifax to Liverpool) had been requisitioned ocean liners but these had been returned to their owners so there was a shortage of vessels.
During the winter of 1918/19 thousands of people had died of the influenza pandemic and thousands of these were Canadian soldiers. At Seaford in Sussex many of these Canadians were just recruits with less than a years military service whereas others were experienced soldiers who had seen two or more tours of duty at the front line.
Early May 1919 saw one of the unhappiest incidents of the military occupation of Seaford. On Saturday, 3rd May Canadians soldiers at the South Camp who were angry about restrictions being placed on them leaving the camp, disobeyed orders and assaulted their officers. They set about causing considerable damage to their recreation huts and canteens. The mutinous soldiers descended on the town next, indulging in what one resident described as ‘general destruction and looting’. The East Sussex Police were unable to contain the men and called for assistance from London. The army established picquets both in Seaford and at the Camps to deter or prevent disorder. These were in place until Sunday 11th May. A picquet is an advance line of sentries. (The term ‘picket’ derives from this word)
The riot is described in a history of St Wilfrid’s School, which was in Sutton Avenue, Seaford: ‘One evening a howling mob smashes its way round the town and is soon heard approaching the silent precincts of St Wilfrid’s. In the darkness, behind the front door, stands Mr. Hall (one of the masters), a loaded 12 bore gun in his hand, firmly resolved that if the place is to be wrecked it shall not be without a struggle. Nearer and nearer come the rioters, right to the corner of Sutton Avenue, when, by the mercy of Providence, they turn off in a different direction leaving St Wilfrid’s intact.’
Sussex was not the only place to see military unrest.
Rhyl, North Wales was the site of a large muddy base called Kimmel Camp, the temporary home to 15,000 men awaiting passage to Canada. The trouble started when rumours spread that the available troop ships were being used to repatriate US soldiers before the Canadians. The men were sleeping in cramped uncomfortable conditions and problems with the supply of food meant that the men were on half rations. The Camp Commander, Colonel Colquhoun could not contain the unrest and officers messes and food stores were looted and much of the camp was damaged.
The Colonel later related an amusing occurrence when several rioters, their arms full of looted food approached him, put down the bundles of food, saluted him, picked up the loot before continuing on their way!
The rioting at Rhyl turned nasty and on one occasion a gun fight ensued when men tried to break into a food store. In total five men were killed and twenty one injured.
The rioting of Spring 1919 should be put into context of the global politics of the time. The Russian Revolution of 1917 had led to the overthrow of the monarchy and there were fears that the rioting was connected with a feared ‘workers revolution’. During the rioting in Wales some of the soldiers had shouted support for the ‘Bolsheviks’ and a Canadian who had raised a red flag above the camp had been shot. It was reported at the time that one of the men killed was a Canadian Victoria Cross holder who was trampled to death whilst trying to quell the riot but I have not been able to verify this.
Fearing the unrest could escalate into civilian areas (as it had to in Sussex) the Canadian Chief-of-Staff arranged for the swift repatriation of the soldiers at Rhyl and the 15,000 men at Kimmel Camp were transported home by 25th March 1919.
Soldiers however remained at other places in the UK including Surrey. In May 1919 there were clashes between young Canadian soldiers and local civilian boys at Guildford. Although the event was called a riot it is clear that it was not so serious as the perpetrators were fined rather than being imprisoned. The Mayor of Guildford haughtily declared that the Canadians had behaved in an “unseemly manner who, unlike Englishmen, should have vented their grievances in a proper manner”.
One of the worst incidents occurred on 17th June 1919 (Derby Day). Two Canadians had been arrested for fighting in the Rifleman Pub and were being held at Epsom Police Station. At 11pm the ‘Assembly’ bugle was sounded in the nearby Woodcote Camp and several hundred Canadian Soldiers gathered and marched through the town smashing windows and looting shops. The rioters crowded around the Police Station with a view to releasing their colleagues. The police station was defended by 15 metropolitan Police Officers led by Sergeant Thomas Green who lived above the police station with his family. Rocks were thrown smashing the windows and a mob broke into the building. The rioters were joined by colleagues who had travelled by late night trains from other camps to join in.
The two arrested men were released by the mob but during the siege, which lasted for over an hour, Sergeant Green was attacked and beaten around the head with an iron bar. His frightened wife and children were just a short distance away and he died a few hours later.
Eight Canadians were later arrested for rioting and manslaughter. The ring-leader was apparently Private Allen McMaster, a blacksmith from Nova Scotia. He had seen action at the front line and had survived a bout of Influenza back in England. It is interesting to read that when he was admitted to hospital in 1917 for Myalgia his admission card is endorsed ‘Hysterical in Character’. When he was deemed fit he was sent to Sussex for recuperation where he was based in camps at Shoreham and Seaford before being sent to Epsom ‘invalided and awaiting repatriation to Canada’
There was no evidence to show which of the men arrested at the Police Station had killed Sergeant Green and each soldier was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment for rioting. Mc Master was taken to Wandsworth prison but within a few weeks he and the rest of the detained men received a Royal Pardon and were repatriated to Canada. Allan McMaster confessed to killing Sergeant Green in 1929 but, as he had been the subject of a Royal Pardon, received no further punishment.
Having spent a huge amount of time in researching and reporting on the brave Canadian Soldiers who helped to restore freedom in Europe during the Great War I am sad to report on some of the bad behaviour by the men but, given their sacrifice and the appalling conditions they had been subjected to, not only at the front-line but whilst awaiting repatriation in the UK, there is no wonder there was unrest. It is clear by the relative lenient punishments received by the rioters and their subsequent Royal Pardon that there was a good deal of sympathy towards the men. It is also clear that the unrest caused the authorities to double their efforts in quickly arranging for the men to return home quickly to be with their loved ones.
I think it is right to remember all victims of the Great War including Police Sergeant Green who is buried at Epsom Cemetery under a grave donated by his colleagues. A plaque has now been erected on the site of the Police Station.
SOURCES: National Newspaper Archives, Canadian Military Archives, Epsom and Ewell History Explorer, Bourne Hall Museum and Clive Gilbert.