The arrow on the above photo is pointing to Gunner Robert Gordon Brown, whose letters home to his family from the point he enlisted in the batteries then recruiting at Queen’s University until after the Armistice open an interesting window onto Queen’s involvement in the First World War. Battery recruitment was just one of the ways Queen’s was contributing to the war effort, so this view is a partial one, but at the same time it is personal and often quite detailed. (Thus, this post is quite long. I’ve tried to whittle things down to the essentials while at the same time maintaining some personality and background, which is not easy to do.)
NB: Unless otherwise indicated, all images and materials quoted in this post are from the Canadian Letters and Images Project. However, it’s an old website and some of the links no longer work, namely the Copyright link. Judging from the policy of the very similar Great War Archive, University of Oxford, my use here should be fine, but as with anything else on this blog, if you feel something should be removed or altered, please do let me know. I run a pretty tight ship on this blog.
Brown was born in Beamsville, Ont. in 1896 and appears to have spent his childhood in Ottawa. By the time of the war, his family was living at Caintown, Ont., a hamlet north of Mallorytown. He was enrolled in Arts ’17 at Queen’s. (Fun fact: while at Queen’s he boarded at 212 Stuart St., the unusual “Tower House” torn down last year to make room for the massive new residences. Hey, it’s fun to me.)
On January 9, 1916, Brown wrote to his mother about his decision to enlist in the 46th (Queen’s) Battery:
The idea of joining the Battery appealed to me very strongly and I have always felt I would rather join it than the hospital bunch. I finally decided I would join the Battery. […] I have been thinking of joining for a long time but kept putting it off, partly because I never could get up enough nerve to do so. Now, that I have taken the step, I am not sorry.
“The hospital bunch” were the reinforcements for No. 5 Stationary Hospital, a Queen’s hospital at that point established in Cairo, which later became No. 7 (Queen’s) Canadian General Hospital. Brown also describes the enlistment process at the barracks, which were located in the Sydenham Public School building:
I went to the barracks to join on Thursday afternoon and was told to come around next morning, I did so . . . A doctor came over in the forenoon and I passed the medical examination quite easily. In fact, there wasn’t much of an examination to it. I guess they are far less strict in that than they were at first. After that, we went down to a lawyer’s office and were sworn in.
After that, we came back to the barracks and were given most of our stuff. […] The barracks is full now and they are putting some of them in top of Nicol Hall at the University. I have to sleep there at nights. It is a very good place to sleep.
In Brown’s January 23, 1916 letter, he goes over the various duties required of men in the battery: barrack and kitchen fatigues, guarding the Clergy St. barracks and Nicol Hall, and also the ammunition works, which were located at the Canadian Locomotive Company factory on the waterfront. (Here you get a sense of how much the War infiltrated even a small city like Kingston.) One Friday, Brown skipped the Battery dance and had to attend guard duty at the ammunition works from 7 a.m. that morning to 9 a.m. on Saturday morning, in alternating shifts of a few hours each. Unfortunately, not only was he was unable to fall asleep at all on his off-hours, he was left with a bad cold and a day of missed classes, which were only to increase.
Brown seems to have been somewhat ambivalent about missing classes for such duties:
Capt. Gill [a professor in the department of Electrical Engineering, commanding the 46th Battery] thought the students shouldn’t consider their classes at all in this matter. He thought that enlisting in it was the great thing and that getting one’s year should not bother one much. He felt sure the senate at Queen’s would make it right with them anyway.
Indeed, the feelings of many Queen’s faculty, including those of Principal Gordon, were all for student participation in the war effort. As Brown notes in a February 7, 1916 letter, “Notices are up all over college asking for recruits,” and apparently Principal Gordon felt extra encouragement was necessary in the face of students’ apathy in this respect. However, he was also sensitive to the aftermath of this encouragement, sending Christmas cards to all students on active service and letters of condolence to families of student and alumni casualties. Nevertheless, the Queen’s Journal, as the voice of the students, took a somewhat more democratic stance and defended those who chose not to enlist, while at the same time covering war news and publishing letters and casualty lists, though less so as the war went on and became more “normal.” A similar thing happened with campus social events, which were cancelled in the 1915-16 year (military dances don’t count, I guess) but brought back the next year.
Although Brown had enlisted in the 46th (Queen’s) Battery, the first of the Queen’s batteries formed after authorization from the Department of Militia, it had a surplus of men and was being split up. He found himself in the group of those going overseas immediately; but not wishing to leave so soon, he chose to remain in Kingston and become part of the new 50th (Queen’s) Battery. The next year, a third Queen’s battery, the 72nd, was formed.
In his February 7 letter, Brown evocatively describes the 46th’s departure four days earlier:
On Thurs. forenoon there was quite a time in Kingston. It was bitterly cold but a very large crowd was out to see the four batteries of the 9th Brigade entrain for overseas. At a quarter to 10, the Queen’s Battery was out beside the barracks loaded down with kit bags, bandoleers, mess cans, water bottles & haversacks – just about all they could carry. A large crowd of people lined the sidewalks, nearly all the students were there – walking up & down the ranks bidding their friends good bye. They marched down to the Tete du Pont barracks. The other batteries of the 9th Brigade also marched there and after quite a wait, the whole brigade marched over to the train and boarded it. Our Queen’s Battery was in the 1st, 2nd & 3rd cars. There was fourteen cars altogether I think. People crowded alongside all the cars bidding friends good bye and giving them things to take with them. I heard someone say that one or two of our fellows were in tears – parting from relatives. I didn’t wait to see the train pull out. I think it went about noon. It was rather sad to see the fellows going – I know so many of them real well.
After drilling and training with guns and horses in Kingston, the 50th, comprising only a handful of Queen’s students, but apparently a number of alumni and others primarily from Vancouver, left on May 29, 1916. This time, they were not leaving for training in England, but took the K&P railway line to Petawawa.
From this point on some telescoping through time is necessary. The 50th Battery, after training at Petawawa, departed for more training in England and arrived there on September 25, 1916. Meanwhile, back at Queen’s, someone had the bright and undoubtedly not unique idea of sending parcels from students at home to students overseas. On January 3, 1917, Brown wrote home and described the package he and a friend received on December 29:
[I]t was from Queen’s University – from Arts ’17 At Home to ’17 Overseas. I suppose all ’17 members received similar parcels. It contained two parcels, one for me and the other for Erwin – we are the only two from ’17 in the Battery. So, I took the two parcels into him and we opened them together. Contents were identical – a little package of figs, a couple of cakes of Baker’s chocolate and a box of cigarettes, also a little card telling who it was from and mine contained a letter from one of the girls of ’17. You see, whole parcel was addressed to me. Erwin was only in the year for the first two terms and isn’t so well known I guess. The letter was a very short one and contained merely some news of the college and the year. I guess the girls were each given a certain fellow of the year who is overseas to write to. They did that in Arts ’18 too. It is quite an idea, is it not?
Friendships and connections were very important to men within units, so when news came that the 50th Battery was to be split up for reinforcements, Brown was disappointed. He was first moved to the 54th Battery, then after arriving in France in March 1917 to the 1st Divisional Ammunition Column, then finally to the 6th Battery.
In letters home, Brown writes unusually little about the war, preferring mostly to discuss events back at home, interesting letters he’s received (including such gems as a 13-page-long epic from a young lady admirer in Brockville) and minor daily activities. No doubt he wanted to worry his family as little as possible, but there’s also the sense that he viewed active service as a kind of unpleasant but necessary chore, one that was best done by putting your head down and letting the reality of the war affect you as little as possible. This likely included not going over close escapes and other wartime adventures in letters. (Of course, soldiers often didn’t describe what the conditions of the war were really like, but Brown seems to particularly avoid referencing it.)
The events he describes in most detail are happy ones such as going to the Boulogne seaside for a rest (which got him out of the attack on Hill 70) and getting Paris leave over Christmas and New Year’s 1918 with his new friend Casey. He also very much enjoyed getting copies of the Queen’s Journal from a friend in Kingston, writing on June 19, 1918 that he liked them “about as much as anything, they bring back so vividly old times & places.”
By the time the above photo was taken, Brown had been promoted to Bombardier, a position he did not want and referred to in an April 14, 1918 letter as “that confounded stripe” (meaning the single stripe this rank received on the sleeve), because it took him away from his friends and gave him responsibilities he felt he wasn’t suited for. This was probably a reason why in June 1918 he was off to England with Casey to pursue a commission in the Royal Air Force, thus remaining out of the line of fire until the Armistice. Never being wounded or seriously ill, even through conditions like the fighting at Passchendaele, he was very lucky indeed.
Brown was demobilized in 1919 and graduated from Queen’s in 1920. Kathryn Bindon, writing in 1978, suggested that Queen’s role in the First World War is not often recognized, being overshadowed by the likes of McGill and the University of Toronto. However, by the end of 1915, four out of ten male undergraduates at Queen’s were enlisted, and by 1918 the university had 1500 men on active service, with 187 killed, 271 decorated, and 114 mentioned in dispatches. As well, many of them would have appreciated the efforts of the nursing sisters at Queen’s hospitals, not to mention the women students at home who put together parcels and sent along news to students overseas. Most of those who participated in the First World War were just ordinary people placed in an extraordinary and terrible situation, and that’s how they should be remembered.
Robert Gordon Brown Collection, Canadian Letters and Images Project
Bindon, Kathryn M. Queen’s Men, Canada’s Men. Kingston, ON: Queen’s University Contingent, Canadian Officers’ Training Corps, 1978.
The First World War, Queen’s University Archives page