Researching The Royal Canadian Regiment

Veterans Tales #1 - Niagara

By: LCol Ted Shuter (Ret'd)

Let joy be unconfined, I have been accepted by the Army! Specifically by B Company The Royal Canadian Regiment, 20 July 1935 at Niagara-on-Lake. My joy is understandable if you can recall or read about the "hungry thirties", no job, no great hopes, no money and an emotional as well as a financial depression, so this shift in fortunes was a great thing to me.

I was living with the Royal Canadian Dragoons, in Niagara-on-lake, waiting for a vacancy to join them when the corpulent figure of the Company Sergeant Major of the RCR came to me to say "your father was a Coldstream Guardsman? Then why are you here with the bloody cavalry? Get over to the RCR Orderly Room and sign up!" So I eagerly did so. As a recruit, you received FREE clothing from the skin out, plus a shaving kit, brushes and button stick etc. and a kit bag to carry all this. The summer dress was short sleeves, shorts and puttees over Army black boots. The boots were WW I issue and were solid brown leather, so the first order of business was to have them dyed black. The peaked cap, with shiny hat badge and brown polished chin strap helped shade the strong Niagara sun, but the knees and arms were quickly sunburnt. The treatment was Calomine lotion. Unlike my militia days, crowding 10 - 12 in a bell tent, we lived in "luxury", two to a bell tent, with two half circles of wooden floor boards together, folding cots, a palliasse filled with straw, and the same old grey Army blankets. These latter were to be folded just so each morning and placed outside the tent, with dishes and wash basin for inspection.

The kitchen was a wooden edifice, the mess hall a marquee, sides down to cool off, the food abundant! The cooks were slow on desserts, but gathered fallen peaches in nearby orchards for our use. By splitting a pint of the old "brick" of ice cream with someone, it made a lovely dessert. Calories ? Never heard of them ! The washrooms were a roughly but strongly built building, but there was hot water, and flush toilets, with a permanent latrine orderly, identified by a skin well browned in the hot sun, and many rolls of toilet paper strung on a mop handle. He had a very happy summer, doing the same job every year.

On the vast plain just outside town our tents were pitched in precise rows, first the RCD, then the RCR, and the rest of the plain filled with thousands of militia for a week or two in rotation of summer camp. The sergeants had their own mess tent and the officers, the Orderly room and medical room had more permanent buildings some distance away.

With the issue of the trusty .303 Enfield rifle and a 12 inch bayonet, our training began. After six years with militia, and an NCO course conducted by WO1 (Blondie) Dadds (RCR) in Barrie Ont. the training was a breeze, but , as coached by the "old sweats" of the RCD - "do not mention your previous service - but do profess skills in all sports" and so I got by - and we got paid - all of $1.10 per day! In perspective a labourer, or many others started at $7.00 to $10.00 per week at that time, so with almost everything "found", it was not bad.

No recreation was provided, there was a "wet" canteen (beer) and a "dry" canteen for our pleasure. The "wet" canteen served only Cosgave's beer. The na´ve militia (often under age) would swagger to our canteen and order Labatts, Molson's etc. and the barman, Cpl Ernie McNamara would cheerfully serve their order, all from the same tap-- and they never knew the difference! As recruits we could not wear civilian clothing, but could go to town, in uniform. with permission, and back by 10.00 PM! Everything was called by bugle; reveille, parades, meals, retreat, first post, last post (2200 hrs) lights out (2215 hrs).

The clean air of Niagara was washed periodically by violent thunderstorms. Each was a signal to rush out, and to drop the tent side and loosen the tent ropes, as the expanding canvas would quickly snap the tent pole. It was quite a sight to see the wet soldiers rushing about to release the ropes, then try to dry off in their tents. Naturally, there was another bugle call - "No parades today".

The Niagara camp was mainly there for the summer training of the Militia, and part of our tour was to assist their training. For the Militia of greater Toronto- Hamilton and Niagara, it was all a glorious holiday and the nights resounded with their celebrations. It was a bad time when the kilted units came, and their pipes wailed all night - I still do not like the pipes! As far as I know, we all had jobs. The first year after becoming a trained soldier, I spent as a waiter in the Officers' mess, others were batmen, etc. As the officers paid "extra messing", the food was pretty good! I did learn to become a waiter, and a part-time barman for that year. The NCO's (I finally became one)all added a stripe (without pay) and were instructors. Each had an assigned space and an assigned lesson, and clumps of Militia would visit each in turn, not a bad system This was an easy chore, which I enjoyed in later years and took place in regular hours, giving us time to go to town (in civilian clothing) in the evenings and week-ends. The town had a park with a centre dance hall which was a popular spot to visit. The taverns, on pay-days were popular too for those who drank their pay. The other fun was to get to Niagara Falls, cross the Rainbow bridge to Niagara Falls NY and then on to Buffalo. By wearing a broken down pair of the so-called "PT" shoes we could discard them to purchase, at a great price, new "Tom Mc Can "shoes, very sharp ! Many of our group zeroed in on the joys of 11th St,. particularly one called the "White Elephant". The "girls" there were obliging, for the vast sum of $2.00, and there was a continuous poker game in session.

At the end of the Militia training, there was usually a try at field exercises for us. These adventures amounted to much dashing around, with little information on what we were supposed to be doing, and there was not much knowledge gained. The other task was to visit the rifle ranges to qualify in all weapons, rifle, and Lewis guns (pistol and Vickers Machine gun for the MG Platoons, plus requalifying on the range- finder). This was not always good shooting as the ammo was all WW1 leftovers and not necessarily reliable ! One year, "C" Coy from London Unit joined us for "exercises" and, of course, there was a track and field meet. Here my declaration of sports expertise was called to the challenge, and to my surprise, I found that it was not hard to place in several field events (not track!) In the great game of soccer, I had no real experience, or talent, so I was made the goalie. In softball I was the pitcher, but a lousy hitter.

In 1938 we marched from Niagara to Toronto. It took us three days, camping out each night. No great feat as most of us were well hardened to marching- NOT so for the officers, who were soaking tired feet one evening when I paraded before them to ask permission for some of us to go to the Burlington dance hall!

In 1939 we were on another of those great exercises when the news broke about us going to war. The exercises promptly folded, camp was struck, and we were rushed back to Toronto. Our unit, in the war plan, was to break up and form an instructional cadre for the Militia. This idea was scrapped and we were assigned to go as a unit, more on that later.

And so, with regret, we said good bye to Niagara-on-Lake, never to return. It had been a very pleasant way to spend the summers. We were accepted by the town, indeed, five of my recruit squad were from town. We enjoyed the beaches of the Niagara River and the friends we met in town and the trips to and from Toronto by the ferry - either the Cayuga or the paddle wheeler, the Chippewa, only $2.00 each way! Gradually the trips home declined as the Army became our "home".

Pro Patria

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