Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The British Columbia Bantams

The B.C. Bantams

by Sidney Allinson.

The little men in khaki seemed impossibly short to be Canadian soldiers. Barely over five feet in height, they marched proudly, four abreast, to tunes of their brass band, smiling at the cheering crowds that lined Humboldt Street, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, that bright morning of February 10, 1917.
These tiny soldiers of the 143rd Overseas Battalion (B.C. Bantams), were being given a civic send-off by fellow townspeople with mixed emotions. After three years of what was known as the Great War, the notably patriotic city of Victoria had previously bade 'adieu' to seven other army units. -- including splendid soldiers of the Canadian Scottish Regiment, strapping Naval reservists, and picked men of the Victoria Rifles. But never had they expressed such a fond farewell or sent off a more improbable unit than these almost Lilliputian warriors.
Boots polished to a black sheen, buttons bright and puttees tight, soft peaked caps square on heads, bearing heavy back-packs, the men were like miniature Guardsmen in their smart military turnout, singing lustily:.
Don't cry-ee,
Wipe that tear from your eye,
The British Columbia Bantams were volunteers all, and keen to be getting a chance to fight at last. Almost half of them would never see Canada again.
More thoughtful observers that morning might have wondered about the departing soldiers for other reasons than their novelty. Here were perhaps living symbols of the extreme scarcity of British Empire manpower reserves, that now such undersized recruits were needed to make up for the carnage of trench warfare on the bloody Western Front.
Slaughtered, ignored, their survivors even dismissed as failures, the Bantams formed one of the most unusual and little-known chapters in the annals of military history. Theirs is a neglected story, which involved over 50,000 British and Canadian soldiers who never quite made it into the war books. They volunteered to serve when they could have stayed safely at home, suffered physical hardship often beyond their capacities, and sometimes endured with good humor the ridicule of less-courageous men, all for the privilege of fighting for their country in some of the fiercest battles of the First World War. Among them were almost a 1,000 men who served in a little-known unit dubbed proudly, "The B.C. Bantams".
It was modelled on 20 other Bantam battalions raised by the British Army, to mobilize the many volunteers who were below the regulation minimum height. Revised medical standards to allow for bantam-size troops specified acceptable heights between 4ft.l0ins, and 5ft.3ins. "with a proportionately good chest expansion."
Mobilization was authorized for the 143rd Overseas Battalion (B.C. Bantams) and recruiting begin in Victoria on February 20, 1916. Driving force behind this unique formation was Lieutenant Colonel A. Bruce Powley, a front-line veteran, who had been wounded twice in battle before being invalided home to Victoria. Eager to get back into the fray, he managed to gain command of the 143rd, and engaged a talented group of local officers to assist with recruiting.
There was steady stream of volunteers towards the hoped-­for total of 1,000 men, but LCol. Powley soon found it difficult to find accouunodation for the thousand men he hoped to sign up. The situation was solved by a grant of $9,000 by the city of Victoria, to secure building materials for a new camp at Beacon Hill Park parade-ground. The recruits themselves built wooden structures for sleeping barracks, cook-house, and headquarters, far more comfortable than the usual canvas tents.
At this stage of the war, Canada had 200,000 men under arms, all volunteers. The nation had been quick to supply fighting-men after the outbreak of war, and many Victorians were among the First Contingent that sailed in October, 1914. By early 1916, Canada had sent three divisions to the Western Front, forming the Canadian Corps. They had fought in many major battles, always in the thick of things, and suffered heavy casualties. (The 1914-1918 war cost Canada a total of 65,000 war dead.)
Sparsely-settled British Columbia had responded whole­heartedly early in the war. Intensely loyal, with a high proportion of British immigrant stock quick to volunteer, BC had virtually shot its bolt by early 1916 in its capacity to supply manpower.
With recruits at a premium, the coal-mining communities up-Island promised the likeliest source of strongly-built bantam-sized men. One of them was Benjamin Barnes, a red­headed Cornishman who volunteered from his well-paid job as fire-boss of Coal Creek Mine. Another was Peter Campbell, an office worker from Sidney, who joined "B" Company in camp just down the road from his home. Allan Bell came over from Vancouver on the same ferry that brought Humbert Campbell back from his job on an Alberta ranch.
"It seemed the greatest adventure in the world", said Bell. "The sun shone on the water and the mountains stood out against the sky as we sailed across that day, and I felt my chest swell as if we were all setting out on a great crusade. My comrades proved to be such happy chaps, forever telling jokes, with never a cross word, and I never felt so happy in all my eighteen years."
Despite such enthusiastic recruits, LCol. Powley could not enlist enough suitable men at the pace needed. He regretfully reported to Ottawa on Oct. 15, 1916. "We were finally forced to take in some larger men as well, with a view to exchanging them later for smaller men from other units. But exchanges are not easy, and the result is I have a battalion of over half bantam, and the balance of larger men, though the average height is still below 5ft. 4ins."
When the unit returned from a summer of hard training at Sidney Camp, its members were so outspokenly impatient to be sent to France, they were known as "The Fire-eaters". Their attitude was all the more remarkable, considering the high proportion of family men in the ranks. Oldest of whom was Joseph Daniel, a 43-year-old Sidney resident who managed to wangle his way to combat in France.
Among those chafing to get overseas, was Ben Barnes, who as an accomplished cornet-player, found himself in the battalion band. In January, 1917, he wrote to his brother in immaculate penmanship from the Dominion Hotel. "We are all classed as soldiers, and though bandsmen do not put in as much time now with a rifle, we are all well prepared for the firing-line. Each of us in the band has learned machine-gun drill, signalling, first-aid, and stretcher-bearing."
He wrote again, soon after, excited by news of embarkation, but depressed by feelings of foreboding. "I get a little down-hearted when I dwell too much on my home, but shake it off as best I can, and will be content when I get a little more excitement at the front. If I get a bullet to put me to sleep, I will only be among my comrades, so I should not worry."
With men so keen, there was some disappointment when Ottawa announced the 143rd would be sent to France as a Railway Construction battalion, instead of as infantry. However, they were mollified by learning that trench railway duty was as vital as it was dangerous, a prime target of German artillery.
News of their departure brought out a tremendous wave of affection from Victoria residents, who cheered the little men all along their march from Beacon Hill, past flag-draped balconies of St. Joseph's Hospital where patients and nurses gave rousing cheers. Banners proclaiming "Good Luck - God Speed" hung from buildings at the mouth of Courtney Street, and people leaned through open windows, adding their applause to those packing the sidewalks.
By the time the soldiers reached the wharf on Bellville Street, they had to break ranks and march in single file through the press of dense crowds. It gave opportunity for many emotional scenes; last-minute kisses from families, friends and sweethearts, Quickly, the 32 officers and 667 other ranks boarded two CPR ferries, ‘Princess Victoria’ and ‘Princess Mary.’ where many climbed the rigging for better views as the vessels pulled away. Cheers, cries, and shouted well-wishes mingled with a cacophony of horn-blowing from other ships in the harbor, while the Bantams' band played a last refrain of "Old Lang Syne" as they sailed off to war.
Three weeks later, the British Columbians were in England, at the Canadian Holding Depot, Shorncliff. "We felt like cattle, the way they treated us there," said Allan Bell. The Canadian Corps needed more men in France in a hurry, and made no secret that we were viewed as cannon-fodder. One could not help but notice that while ordinary soldiers were getting this treatment, there were over five hundred lieutenants lounging around camp, many of whom had stayed there in safety since the previous summer."
"But that was the least of our irritations, because it didn't take long to figure out that the BC Bantams as a unit were about to be broken up forthwith!"
Peter Campbell recalled how it was for the crestfallen Victoria battalion. "After a brief landing-leave in London, we were called before a medical board at Shorncliff. The 143rd was broken up so suddenly that Local. Powley and his officers were not even given time to say farewell to us."
About a third of the unit became railway troops, while the rest were sent to the trenches as infantry after all. Ben Barnes was among a draft of 667 men from the B.C. Bantams who went to the 24th Canadian Reserve Battalion in France on May 11, 1917. They joined the new formations thrown immediately into the hideous meat-grinder known as the Battle of Lens.
This affair was yet another brain-wave of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, British commander in chief. He decided to increase pressure on the Flanders front, and as part of some grand strategy, flung the Canadian Corps against Lens as the first objective.
The Canadians surveyed the black slag-heaps, the shell­churned graveyard of so many troops before them, and were not inspired. "If we have to fight there at all", said General Sir Arthur Currie, the one-time Victoria school-teacher who was now corps commander, "Let us fight for something worth having.". Why not try to sidestep Lens, he asked, and burst out into open mobile warfare? But Haig was adamant. Lens was to be taken by direct assault.
On August 15th, the Canadians took Hill 70; little more than a low mound, really, but riddled with concrete pill­boxes, machine-gun nests, and concealed artillery. In a single morning, they captured the hill which had repulsed the British Guards Division in 1915, and pushed on through smoke and poison gas and shrapnel into the mining hamlets on the outskirts of lens itself. The ruined suburbs -- St. Emilie, St. Pierre, Calonne -- were made up of clumps of miners' cottages and pithead workings, and had been fortified in an interlocking maze of strong German defences over the past two years.
All Lens was like that; street after street of rubbled buildings hiding blockhouses and m.g. posts inter-connected by miles of passage-ways knocked through cellar walls. Alex Batchelor recalled an officer telling him, "Fix your bayonet, soldier. We have to winkle the Huns out."
Batchelor and other Bantams found their small size to be an advantage during the next ten endless days and nights, though it singled them out them for very hazardous duty. "We could pop through those tunnels as easy as could be. We left our packs off, stripped down to undershirts and went crawling around with a bagful of bombs and a revolver. Find a Heinie­hole, bung a grenade through, then nip in after it before the dust settled." Batchelor explained, still matter-of-fact in his old age. "After a while, I could tell if no bomb was needed in the next cellar. My nose would tell me when the Heinies in there had been dead for a long time."
Allan Bell fought there, too, attaching himself to some Nova Scotian machine-gunners to keep them supplied with ammunition. He would make repeated trips back through the hellish streets, casually employing his Lee-Enfield to snipe stray Prussians who tried to stop him. On one such journey, he stopped to aid the wounded Humbert Campbell, the clergyman's son he'd first met on a British Columbia ferry.
Street by street, the 4th Prussian Guards were forced back, dying hard for every cellar and crossroad. On the third day, reinforcements came in: two more Guards Divisions, the 11th Reserve, and the Saxon Brigade, until there were 46 German battalions battling to keep the Canadians from capturing the battered compost-heap that used to be the town of Lens.
Ben Barnes told a little of this to the folks at home. "Had a busy time of it," he pencilled in flawless copperplate on YMCA stationery. "But we all went forward and accomplished our objective. It was mostly street fighting, and we worked hard for protection from gunfire. When we got settled in our new ground, Fritz did not give us much rest as he had our range down pretty fair."
The indomitable attitude of Barnes and his comrades comes out in his final paragraph. "The Bantams certainly made a name for themselves this time. We are all of British stock here and fight with British spirit, and the Canadian Bantams are not going back without a name worthy of being set down in history for future generations to take notice."
He was never to know the eventual irony of those words he wrote on the battlefield. There have been so many other cataclysms throughout this century, that there is scant public memory now of distant heroism. Yet the belief sustained this modest soldier, whose letters were filled with loving memories for nephews and nieces he had met for only a few precious days. Though he had already seen so many friends cut down six thousand miles from homes they left in beautiful British Columbia, he retained his generation's simple faith in posterity's appreciation. It was a faith that sustained so many men through the misery of the First World War..
Then the Canadians went north to Flanders again, summoned to help break the deadlock on a vile, mad place called Passchendaele. This dread region in the Ypres Salient had already become the graveyard of hundreds of thousands of dead, and for four months previously British, Australian, and New Zealand regiments had lost entire battalions in a matter of days. On October 26, 1917, it became the Canadians turn, and they went forward through torrential rain mingled with the sleet of lead and steel from German guns. After a week of some of the war's most desperate fighting, four Canadian divisions managed to capture the previously­impregnable Passchendaele at last, on November 6, 1917.
The day after the battle ended, Sir Launcelot Kiggel, Haig's chief of staff, arrived to take his first look at the battlefield. When his Daimler limousine began to lurch through the mud, the general stared out unbelievingly at the endless quagmire, then burst into tears. "My God!", he moaned. "Did we send men to fight in this ?"
One of the men who had, was Benjamin Barnes. On October 29, during a lull, he wrote home in despair. "Had a very busy time of it for eight straight days and nights. I am sorry to say my pal Alf Patterson got napooed [killed] yesterday. I had many narrow escapes myself. One shell burst outside the dug-out, buried three of us. One blinded, one wounded, and all I got was shock. When I heard about A1f, it brought tears to my eyes, and I had the painful duty of writing to his aunt in Cumberland. Kindly excuse scribble, as I am quite upset. Au-re-voir."
As there was no conscription in Canada, fresh volunteer replacements were getting scarcer every month for the embattled Canadian Army. Veteran troops were kept in the line until death, or a lucky "Blighty" wound released them to hospital. Barnes managed to get letters home past the indulgent censorship of his officers. "Not many of the originals left now," he wrote on January 22, 1918. "If we did not get our rum ration, we would be laid up more often, as we are subject to wet feet and chills through our system. Disappointed at no leave, anxiously awaiting a square deal, and we cannot see why we have not had it yet."
There were only a few more letters from Barnes that year, in which he made no further mention of warfare, other than his address, "In the trenches." He sent a stream of suggestions about how to make his nieces and nephew happy, and often sent them what money he could afford.
His last letter was devoted to them. "Whenever you feel like making up a parcel for me, fix things fine, then let the children have a party of their own instead, to enjoy the contents ... Not much time to write. Continually on the alert. We Bantams are in a battle platoon, so we are not here as ornaments."
A week later, he heard his C.O. read out a commendation for his gallantry in rescuing a wounded comrade. The same day, August 11, 1918, Ben Barnes' luck finally ran out. He was killed in an obscure skirmish near Amiens -- one of the last of the B.C. Bantams to die in the Great War.
Victoria writer Sidney Allinson is author of "The Bantams: the untold story of World War One", Pen & Sword Books, UK, 2009.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

THE BANTAMS march again!


"The untold story of World War One" is the sub-title of "The Bantams", a recently revised military history book by Canadian author, Sidney Allinson.
"The Bantams" provides fascinating additional details to the factual but nigh incredible story of how the British and Canadian armies recruited over 50,000 tiny men who volunteered to serve as front-line soldiers. Such Bantam battalions eventually numbered over twenty units in Britain, plus two battalions from Canada. The movement spread all over Britain, particularly the coal mining regions of Wales and Northern England, then to Canada, particularly among British immigrants there.
Originally published by Howard Baker Press, London, in 1981, this revised 2008 version includes new material, and reveals disturbing new information about battlefield executions by firing squads that was only recently released from British official records long held secret from the public. It adds even more poignancy to the story of how thousands of patriotic ‘bantams’ -- not much taller than a rifle themselves -- well below the army’s 5ft. 3ins. minimum regulation height, flocked to the colours.
Canadian military historian Sidney Allinson's researches took him off on a three-year quest for information, journeying across Britain, Canada, the U.S., and the old battlefields of Flanders. He contacted over 300 survivors of the Bantams, to gather the many first-hand accounts of battle told in his book.
It also recreates the social conditions in Britain and Canada during the First World War. Patriotic fervour enabled many famed British regiments to recruit eager volunteers for bantam-designated battalions. English and Scottish Bantams fought along the Somme front, while Welsh Bantams helped win the Battle of Bourlon despite hideously large casualties. In Canada, the 216th Bantam (Toronto) Battalion was recruited within a few weeks, and the 143rd B.C. Bantams was quickly raised on Vancouver Island. Soldiers from both these now-forgotten Canadian units served at Vimy Ridge and in other later battles.
"The Bantams" has been recognized as an important new volume of original military research into the Great War of 1914-1918. Allinson served overseas in the Royal Air Force, and is a past director of the Royal Canadian Military Institute, Toronto. He now lives in Victoria, British Columbia, where he is Chairman of the Pacific Coast Branch of the Western Front Association. Contact him at: allsid@shaw.ca

For a free sample chapter, go here:

Monday, May 26, 2008

"The Onion Files."

[Victoria Times Colonist, May 25, 2008.]

Ex-Intelligence Chief Val Pattee Now

A Successful Author of Spy Novels.

By Sidney Allinson.

Val Pattee is fit-looking and courteous, with a wry humour and shrewd observations about the current perilous state of international affairs – a retired military general perfectly suited to his new career as writer of espionage novels. Still tanned from spending three months in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with his artist wife Joan, he says, “Our annual winter vacation works very well for us both creatively; Joan busy at her easel, painting local scenes, and me at the keyboard almost non-stop, writing a sequel to “The Onion Files.”

That title of his first book, which came out last fall, refers to a multi-layered plot of international intrigue that reflects a good deal of his own first-hand involvement with the grim world of espionage. Starting as a young Canadian Air Force jet-fighter pilot, Maj.-Gen. Pattee eventually became Chief of Intelligence & Security at headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] in Mons, Belgium, during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

He recalls, “Every morning, my desk would be flooded with new secret information from space satellites, signal intercepts, allied counter-intelligence services, and our espionage agents in potentially hostile countries. My job was to quickly assess all this detail and boil it down into a concise daily situation report for military and political leaders of NATO’s sixteen European member nations, including Canada, the United States, and Britain.”

Pattee also worked in Paris to help combat Action Direct terrorism, and in Germany when the Red Army Faction was creating havoc across Europe. On leaving the Canadian Forces, he moved to British Columbia to become Assistant Deputy Minister of Police Services, then the Director of BC Ambulance Services, and finally “retired” for good in Victoria five years ago.

All this front-line knowledge of dangerous international intrigue uniquely equips him to become a successful author of spy thrillers. He says, “Considering what I do these days, it’s almost funny that most of my professional life required me to compress masses of information into a very tight digest form for strategic briefings. Now, as a novelist, the situation is reversed, and I’m faced instead with the need to expand material to make entertaining novels. Usually I aim for about 96,000 words.” He did not just stumble onto that particular number, his study of the trade having found most publishers ideally prefer book-lengths to total just below 100,000 words.

Pattee obviously tackles writing novel-writing with great enjoyment. “I find the process of writing comes easy to me. I just capture related thoughts, character traits, and incidents, and flesh them out. My approach is not the usual first-draft, second-draft, and so on. I continually rewrite or rearrange the manuscript daily, as the story unfolds. That’s where my laptop word-processor is so marvellous. You can go back to revise a paragraph to suit a time-line, or move an entire chapter from here to there. The technology makes the physical act of writing so easy, I can’t imagine how authors did it in the old typewriter-and-paper days. I’ve got the second book pretty much all down already. I just have to refine it, add some details, and it should be ready for publication in a couple of months. Unlike a lot of techno-thrillers, I don’t add a lot of fluff; those clumps of extraneous details that can bore readers and don’t move the story along at all.”

There is no danger of that, judging by his first book. “The Onion Files” flings us into a fast-paced chillingly-possible scenario that never lets up. It is that rarity, a believable spy yarn, whose heroes and villains alike seem credible human beings, unlike the comic-strip characters who populate some thrillers. The lifelike opponents include a pair of intrepid agents from the Central (Defense) Intelligence Agency, abetted by a sympathetic Soviet spy, who battle evil master-mind Osama bin Laden and his fanatical cohorts across the world. They are portrayed in such an authentic atmosphere, that many so-called fictional incidents portrayed in it could have actually occurred. He confirms that by saying, “Many of the anecdotes in my book are the real stuff, encounters during my own experience, altered just enough for security’s sake.”

Not to give away the story, but his book focuses on countering a devilishly clever terrorist scheme to cause a catastrophic disaster aimed at killing millions of civilians across the United States. Drawing on his insider knowledge, Val Pattee expertly describes the technicalities of how to cause this mass atrocity so well, one hopes his novel does not fall into the wrong hands and give them another nasty idea to use against us. Moreover, “The Onion Files” could make a useful defensive primer for governmental security agencies on both sides of our border.

His strategic skills obviously helped make careful analysis of the publishing process and the modern author’s prospects for getting into print. “I find that the entire publishing trade is in a state of turmoil,” he says. “Large conventional publishing houses are overwhelmed by changes in public reading tastes, and by computer innovations that affect printing, marketing, and distribution. New print-on-demand technology that can instantly publish one or a thousand copies at push of a button is doing away with the need for bricks-and-mortar warehouses. Authors too are suffering, from the squeeze for shelf-space in bookstores, a huge increase in the number of people writing books, and most seriously by the difficulty of getting into print the old-fashioned way.”

“Prospects for most writers to get their work accepted are pretty limited today. Few if any publishing houses will accept manuscripts if they are not submitted by a literary agent. That goes to the near impossibility of getting an agent to take on new unknown authors. Time and again, agents sent back my own writing, saying, ’Good story, but you have to understand we get hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts every month, so we simply cannot handle most of them.’”

“Had I been writing twenty years ago, I might have had it much easier. This style of book was very popular then – and Clancy, Forsythe, McCarry, Ludlum, and company were very big sellers. But by the time I jumped in, I found myself way behind the power-curve in terms of readership, and that’s mainly a question of time. Societal change, too. Now, there’s what can be best described as general disinterest in espionage, military subjects, and so on. Notwithstanding people are aware of Afghanistan and Iraq, there simply are so many other diversions that people find it hard to be as interested in those conflicts the way they did back in the Sixties and Seventies when the threat of nuclear war was very real to everyone. So the market for my kind of book has shrunk somewhat.”

All of which is why Val Pattee decided to self-publish his book, and turned to Agio Publishing House, of Victoria to produce it. He seems very happy with the result. “Now here I am, an old Cold War warrior who even had to learn how to type, with a published-on-demand book in hard cover and paperback, plus a web site and a podcast. Even though the podcast doesn’t directly give me any return financially yet, the idea is to start some buzz on the Internet and spread worldwide awareness of my book’s availability. And that it’s done in spades, as my book is already the sixth most popular title on Podiobooks. Sales are definitely starting to look up, and better still, I am having a lot of fun writing -- which is the main thing after all!”

Victoria-based novelist Sidney Allinson

is a past-Director of the Royal Canadian

Military Institute.

Military history

VIMY RIDGE: A Canadian Reassessment.

VIMY RIDGE: A Canadian Reassessment, Edited by Geoffrey Hayes, Andrew Iarocci, & Mike Bechtold, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, 353 pages, photographs, maps, bibliography, index.

The three military historians who compiled this study are acknowledged experts on Canadian participation in World War One, particularly well-equipped to select these commentaries on one of our country’s most epic battles. The result is a compendium of twenty cogently written opinions and reports about the final bloody struggle for possession of Vimy Ridge, now considered not only an important military victory but also a defining moment for Canadian nationhood.

They tell how (unusually for those days) the Canadian troops at all levels of rank were given detailed briefings on the planned strategy before the attack was launched, which enabled even private soldiers to surge forward confidently to fight a “corporal’s battle,” often independent of direction by officers.

The book puts the struggle in context; the hill’s strategic significance, the seldom-mentioned British participation, and the German point-of-view. It also provides insights about the personalities and military styles of various senior officers – including General Julian Byng, Canadian Corps commander, and Major. Gen Arthur Currie, who insisted on meticulous preparations before the attack by his First Canadian Division.

Excellent photographs movingly show Canadian warriors of all ranks who fought so valiantly that day, and good clear maps help readers follow various tactical moves during the battle. This retrospective provides a thorough explanation of exactly why those monumental concrete towers now stand atop Vimy Ridge.

-- Sidney Allinson

Military history

"In Flanders Fields."

My own late father, Private Thomas Allinson, served in the First World War as a soldier with The Green Howards, a famous regiment of the British Army. To my eternal regret, I seldom made enough of the opportunity to break through his modest silence about the horrors he faced in the trenches. However, one casual mention by him that our family had a connection with the author of the most famous war poem of all time: “In Flanders Fields.” did not dawn on me as significant until many years later, when I finally set about learning the details.
The incident is described in "Welcome to Flanders Fields - The Great Canadian Battle of the Great War: Ypres, 1915", by Daniel G. Dancocks. It recounts:
"On May 3, Maj. McCrae had spent 17 weary days performing surgery on hundreds of wounded soldiers, and took a brief respite on the back of an ambulance near his dressing station beside the Canal de l'Yser. McCrae vented his anguish by composing a poem. In the nearby cemetery, McCrae could see the wild poppies that sprang up in the ditches there, and he spent twenty minutes of precious rest time scribbling fifteen lines of verse in a notebook."
"A young soldier watched him write it. Cyril Allinson, a twenty-two year old sergeant-major, was delivering mail that day when he spotted McCrae. The major looked up as Allinson approached, then went on writing while the sergeant-major stood there quietly. 'His face was very tired but calm as he wrote,' Allinson recalled. 'He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Lt. Helmer's grave.' When McCrae finished five minutes later, he took his mail from Allinson and, without saying a word, handed his pad to the young NCO."
"Sgt. Maj. Allinson was moved by what he read, saying later, 'The poem was an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word 'blow' in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene.'"
I now feel a quiet pride that an Allinson relative -- Canadian cousin of my father -- was the first person to read the immortal words of "In Flanders Field" moments after it was penned by Major John McCrae.
Sidney Allinson.


"Breaker Morant" is one of the best motion pictures set during the Anglo-Boer War ever filmed. However, it took a lot of liberties with the actual historical events concerning the execution of Lt. Harry "Breaker" Morant. It did not mention that Morant was not Australian -- being in fact an Englishman -- or that on the night before his execution he met with the Reverend Canon Scott and signed a note in which he confessed his guilt of shooting Boer prisoners -- contrary to the movie's premise that he was an innocent scapegoat. One particular dramatic scene in the film depicts Morant shouting defiantly at the firing-squad: "Shoot straight, you bastards!" In reality, he said nothing of the kind. Here is an eye-witness account of his real last words and the calm manner of his dying, published soon afterwards in an Australian newspaper.



Mr. G. Aldridge, who was a member of the Second South Australian Contingent, has received a sad letter from Mr. J. H. Morrow, warder of the Pretoria Gaol, with reference to the shooting of Lieutenants Morant and Handcock. Aldridge was a friend of Morant's. The letter was dated March 1, 1902, and is as follows :-

"Dear George, I write these few lines to you on behalf of Lieutenant H. H. Morant, who was shot here on February 27, two days ago, by order of court-martial. His last word was that I should write and tell you that there were four officers- one South Australian, one Victorian, one New South Welshman, and one New Zealander, all Australians - concerned. The South Australian and the New South Welshman were shot, and the others were transported. It is quite a mystery here regarding the deed. All I know is that they shot 38 Boers, and there are rumours circulating that these Boers surrendered to them. Morant told me that he was guilty of shooting the Boers because they shot his captain.

I was the warder who was in charge of the officers the last week they had on earth, and they faced their doom as brave as men could do. Everyone said it was a pity to shoot two such brave men. Morant came out here with the South Australian Mounted Rifles with which you and I enlisted. Morant got a commission with the Bushveldt Carbineers, and I went on the railway duty here, and I was only transferred to this prison about six weeks ago. I was not here when they came here. They had been in prison at Pietersburg for four months, and then they were transferred to Pretoria, where sentence was passed upon them.

They were shot next morning at 6 o'clock, and were buried at 5 o'clock in the evening. There were a large number of Australians at the funeral; no less than 30 of them were Australian officers. I felt it very much. The only reply given by the two men when asked if they were ready was, 'Yes, where is your shooting party?' and the men marched out hand in hand.

The firing party went to blindfold the men, but Morant said, ‘Take this thing off,’ and pulled the handkerchief off. As the two sat in the chair awaiting death Morant remarked, ‘Be sure and make a good job of it.’ Morant folded his arms across his chest and looked them straight in the face. The firing-party fired, and Morant got all in the left side, and died at once. With his arms folded and his eyes open, you would have thought he was alive."

Military history