Canadians, Bexhill and the First World War

An overview by Dr. Luke Flanagan

Canada, as a self-governing Dominion of the British Empire, was automatically at war because Britain was at war. There was, however, a strong attachment to the Empire which meant that it enthusiastically supported the war effort. The first Canadian contingent left for Europe on the night of the 23/24 September 1914. The Canadian Expeditionary Force arrived in Britain on 14 October 1914.

The core Canadian narrative is dominated by how its contribution to the war, typified by victory at Vimy Ridge in 1917, necessitated a greater role in imperial governance and helped to shape a greater sense of attachment to Canada. It was argued that Canada entered the war a colony but emerged a nation in its own right.  In 1916, a process of ‘Canadianisation’ was assumed to have begun as Canada sought to take control of the command and administration of its war effort from Britain. The establishment of the Ministry of Overseas Military Forces of Canada in October 1916 and the appointment of General Arthur Currie as the first Canadian born Commander of the Canadian Corps in June 1917 typified this context. The activities of the Canadians in Bexhill underscored the process of Canadianisation and revealed that a greater sense of ‘Canadianness’ was emerging.

 Canadian Training School, Bexhill and Canadian Trench Warfare School, Bexhill

Band of the RCA's at Cooden Camp
Band of the RCA’s at Cooden Camp1917, image courtesy of Paul Reed.

The relocation of the Canadian Training School (C.T.S) and Canadian Trench Warfare School (C.T.W.S) to Bexhill was a component of the Canadianisation of Canada’s war effort.

Date the C.T.S arrived in Bexhill:

 The C.T.S relocated to Bexhill from Crowborough on 12 March 1917.

 The C.T.W.S relocated to Bexhill from Crowborough on 10 May 1917.

 Reasons for relocation to Bexhill

  •  The C.T.S and C.T.W.S relocated to Bexhill for both operational and tactical reasons.
  • The favourable topography of Bexhill for training and drilling. Bexhill was able to replicate many of the conditions in France.
  • A clean, smart little town, with good broad promenades along the [sea] front for drilling, a first class parade ground in what was called the Marine Grounds, and good hotels to house the officers and N.C.Os (Critchley, 1962: 73).
  • The coastal location of the C.T.S meant live rounds could be used to better prepare them for combat. The cadets practiced with live ammunition by firing out to sea. Grenades were also used.
  • It would have been absurd to allow men who had never heard a bullet fired in anger, to go out to France without some idea of what it was like. Since we could fire out to sea we could make it pretty realistic. Also lobbed hand-grenades (with small detonation charge) over the trainees just to let them see what would happen (Critchley, 1962: 75).
  • The lack of other soldiers in the town made questions of discipline easier.
  • The schools dovetailed the training in England with that of France to prevent unnecessary deaths through lack of knowledge and training.

Purpose of C.T.S

The specific purpose of the C.T.S was “to train Officers to fill the places of Platoon Commanders in France which have become vacant through casualties of promotion” (Ministry of Overseas Forces of Canada, 1918: 1). A Platoon Commander would command between 40 and 50 men and, within the context of the overall military hierarchy, was often commissioned at the rank of Lieutenant. The men who attended the C.T.S did so in one of two ways:

  1. Men were chosen for a Commission owing to “peculiar qualities of leadership which they have shown in action” (Ministry of Overseas Forces of Canada. 1918: 1).  
  2. Men who were commissioned as Officers in Canada sent out to the front-line as reinforcements (Critchley, 1961: 69).

Structure and duration of the Training

The syllabus at the C.T.S was a mix of lectures and practical training. Practical subjects taught at the C.T.S included; bayonet fighting, use of grenades, map reading, patrol work, offensive and defensive use of gas, revolver and machine gunnery, and small tactical schemes such as embracing protection, reconnaissance, marches, advance to the attack, and defence (Ministry of Overseas Forces of Canada, 1917b: 1-7).

The syllabus at the C.T.W.S was also a mix of lectures and practical training. Subjects taught included; Lewis gunnery, entrenching, Stokes gunnery, asphyxiating gas, and tactical problems.

A course at the C.T.S was between six and eight weeks in duration (Ministry of Overseas Forces of Canada, 1917c: 1).

Cadets from the C.T.S would spend two weeks receiving instruction at the C.T.W.S

Standalone courses at the C.T.W.S would last between four and six weeks

Location of the C.T.S and C.T.W.S

  • The Headquarters of the C.T.S was Ormesby, Cantelupe Road.
  • The Headquarters of the C.T.W.S was Wickham Lodge, Sutherland Avenue.
  • The main training ground of the C.T.S was Egerton Park.
  • The main training ground of the C.T.W.S was land where St. Augustine’s Church now stands.

Other locations used by the C.T.S and C.T.W.S included;

  • Park Avenue (drilling and inspections)
  • Down’s School, present day King Offa School (lectures for C.T.W.S)
  • The Kursaal, later Bexhill Pavilion (lectures and entertaining)
  • Southcliff (the cliffs below Southcliff were used for rifle training and target practice)
  • Sackville Hotel (entertaining)
  • Pelham Hotel (entertaining)
  • Metropole Hotel (billets)

Impact of the Schools

The impact of the C.T.S and C.T.W.S can be measured in three ways; contribution to the Canadian war effort, impact on local citizens in Bexhill, and what it can tell us about the evolution of Canada as a country.

Contribution to Canadian War Effort

The C.T.S and C.T.W.S was recognised as the leading Canadian training school in England because it provided uniformity with the training in France. The location of Bexhill allowed this to be the case. The ability to replicate conditions on the front-line provided ‘battle ready’ officers who could go straight into combat. This point can be corroborated using the words of David Love:

“A regular supply of officer cadets was despatched from France for training at the Canadian Officers School, Bexhill. The advantage of this source of personnel was that chosen individuals were already trained and experienced in trench warfare and combat conditions. As such they were able to assume their new duties immediately, and with confidence, upon completion of their officers training” (Love, 1999: 83).

Impact on local citizens in Bexhill

The Toronto Daily Star noted in November 1917 that twenty percent (20%) of Canadian soldiers would bring back British brides to Canada at the end of the conflict. Within the same article, Bexhill was singled out as ‘matchmakers paradise’ owing to relationships between local women and Canadian soldiers based in the town (Toronto Daily Star, 12 November 1917: 13).

The Department of Agriculture, Canada supplied four maple trees which were planted in the grounds of the Conservative Club in Bexhill, 22 January 1919.

Quote from the Mayor of Bexhill in a letter to general Richard Turner – Commander of Canadian Forces in England – when it was rumoured that the schools were moving elsewhere –

“I wish to assure you that all classes of our community feel a very special interest in the Canadians who have been quartered here; the relationship between the Town and the School has been most cordial. Bexhill residents and visitors have been much impressed with the excellent discipline and general bearing of the men, and the prospect of the removal of the school is a matter of very general disappointment. I am desired to urge – assuming any decision has been come to – whether the subject can be reconsidered etc.”

The residents of Bexhill often turned out to support and cheer on the Canadian sports teams. These were called ‘rooters.’

A final parade was held by the Canadian soldiers in November 1918.

Evolution of Canada

A sense of the Canadianisation that was occurring as a result of the war can be seen in Bexhill. This school [the C.T.S] is all the time in every way distinctly Canadian. There is not an Officer of another nationality on the Staff. It is built up by Canadians from their own experience in all phases of modern war (Ministry of Overseas Forces of Canada, 1918: 1).

Within the training there was a focus on ‘patriotism’ and the Creation of Canadian Esprit de Corps

Arthur Cecil Critchley (Commandant) –

“We started out with the idea of making the school an institution worthy to train Canadian officers so that they might be fit, in their turn, to uphold the glory and honour of Canada and the Canadian Corps.”

Sense of ‘Canadianness’ – Singing of patriotic songs: At the Sackville Hotel on 18 June 1917 the Canadian soldiers sang ‘O Canada,’ ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘God Save the King.’ The singing of ‘O Canada’ is important because it revealed a deeper sense of attachment and loyalty to Canada as a homeland than perhaps would have been the case with the established patriotic song ‘The Maple Leaf Forever,’ which alluded to Britain as the true ‘home.’ However, the singing of God Save the King is equally significant because it indicated continued allegiance to the Empire, of which the King was head, and commitment to the war.

English-French Tensions – There was an acute sense of division over the question of conscription in Canada. The opposition of French Canadians to conscription provoked a sense of treachery amongst those serving in Europe. This was articulated in the editorials in ‘Chevrons to Stars,’ the official magazine of the C.T.S.

Key Figure

Lt-Col Arthur Cecil Critchley – Commandant of C.T.S, March 1917-October 1917.
The C.T.S in Bexhill was very much his ‘vision.’ He had established the Corps School in France and sought to establish the C.T.S in its likeness. He chose Bexhill as the location of the school after expressing his dissatisfaction with Crowborough. He was Canadian-born but spent time in Eastbourne at the Meads Preparatory School from the age of eight.

The C.T.W.S had its own command structure and HQ but, as of August 1917, was under the overall supervision of the Commandant of the C.T.S

Bibliography

Critchley, A.C. 1961. Critch! The Memoirs of Brigadier-General A.C. Critchley C.M.G., C.B.E., D.S.O. London: Hutchinson of London.

Love, David. 1999. A Call to Arms: The Organisation and Administration of Canada’s Military in the First World War. Winnipeg: Bunker to Bunker Books.

Ministry of Overseas Forces of Canada. 1918. Canadian Officers Training School, Bexhill-on-Sea. London: Ministry of Overseas Forces of Canada.

Toronto Daily Star. 1917. “20 Per Cent of Canadians Will Bring Back British-Born Brides.” Monday 12 November: 13

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