When Britain’s ultimatum to Imperial Germany for withdrawal of her forces from Belgium expired in early August 1914, the Empire was at war and so, too, was the young country of Canada. Canada had only gained independence from Britain barely 47 years before, in 1867.
While Canada had sent men to the Boer Wars, the largest force Canada could call on in 1914 was a militia of approximately 75,000 volunteers. Despite these humble beginnings, by October 1914 30,000 men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) were in England and by February 1915 they were in the trenches in France and Belgium. Their baptism of fire came during the first chlorine gas attack north of Ypres in April 1915. Algerian troops to the left of the Canadians took the brunt of the poisonous cloud and fled while the Canadians filled the gap and withstood German attempts to exploit the shock of the new weapon.
By late 1915, Sam Hughes the Minister of Militia, had convinced Prime Minister Robert Borden to agree to raise another 100,000 men to bring the CEF to a quarter million. This number was to be raised from a total population of only 8 million. Ultimately these recruitment drives across Canada in 1916 created battalions numbering up to 260. These volunteer battalions raised in 1916 became the 5th Division.
One of those battalions was the 160th from Bruce County Ontario, an area settled by Scotch and English pioneers and named for James Bruce the sixth governor general of the Upper Canada prior to confederation. It is a rocky, wooden peninsula jutting into Lake Huron and is easily identifiable on any map of the world. The Wiarton Echo in January 1916 asked the young men of the county “What Reason Can You Give For Not Enlisting In The Bruce Battalion?” With a population of only 43,000 in the entire county, the men from Tobermory in the north to Lucknow in the south answered the question and joined in record numbers in early 1916. While the strong response would seem to indicate the men who were recent immigrants had heeded the call to fight for their King and birth country, yet surprisingly 83 percent of the men indicated Canada as their place of birth with 61 percent being born in Bruce County. Their average age on enlistment was 25.
The 160th was officially formed on December 22, 1915. Companies were recruited from specific areas contributing a built in morale factor, not unlike British Pals Battalions. My grandfather William Stimson enlisted on January 3, 1916 and joined Platoon “D”.
Following kitting up and time at a camp in Valcartier Quebec the 160th sailed from Halifax on the Metagama in late October 1916. The unit numbered 1009 ranks and one black bear cub from the wilds of Bruce County taken along as a mascot, with the unimaginative name of Teddy.
The first two days on the Atlantic were rough with many seasick and the ninth day out brought reports of submarines. They arrived safely in Liverpool on October 27th in Liverpool and subsequently moved on to Witley Camp in southern England.
The 160th remained in England for over a year undertaking route marches, training in trench warfare and open warfare. The battalion’s 1916 Christmas dinner menu indicates turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and turnips with plum pudding and finishing with a toast to the King and cigarettes and figs. The entertainment portion featured violin solos, recitations and something called a “bear dance.” We can only hope if this did involve Teddy, he was not subjected to too much indignity.
While the four active Canadian divisions in France took Vimy Ridge, the men of the reserve 5th Division claimed they captured every hill within 20 miles of Witley Camp. On July 27, 1917 as part of the CEF they were reviewed by King George V during a Brigade march past at Milford.
The 5th Division was broken up in February 1918 to serve as replacements for the deployed Canadian divisions. Canadian battalions at full strength were 1,000 men creating divisions of 21,000 men compared to a British division of 15,000. The men of the 160th were transferred throughout the various battalions in France and Belgium. William Stimson was transferred to the 1st Western Ontario Battalion, seeing action at Amiens, Arras, Drocourt-Queant line and the attack on the Canal du Nord, where he was wounded in the neck on September 28, 1918 and his war was over.
His only comments ever to me regarding the war were his luck in surviving being due to his having been on a machine gun crew. He also said he hated eating bully beef out of a tin. As a child I didn’t have the knowledge and appreciation of what he had done and did not ask the thousands of questions I have now. But he left me these badges.
A History of the 160th Overseas Bruce Battalion published July 2, 1934 indicated special battalion cap and collar badges were created early in the organization of the battalion. The cap badge had a large maple leaf with crown and the words “Bruce-Canada-Overseas” and the figure “160” inserted. The collage badge was taken as the battalion crest, which had the maple leaf, crown and thistle (for Bruce County) and the words “Bruce-Overseas Battalion-Canada” and “Amo Patria” the motto of the 32nd Regiment and “160.” Soon after arrival in England a small red cloth badge with “160-Bruce” worked in white silk was created and worn on the top of the sleeve of the tunic and greatcoat.
In July 1917 orders were received that this was to be discontinued. Special battalion buttons, engraved with the Battalion crest, were also created and were worn instead of the ordinary Canada buttons. I have not seen examples of these buttons.
All Canadian battalions had distinctive cloth shoulder patches with a rectangle indicating the division by color and the symbol above indicating the battalion. For the 160th it was a purple rectangle for the 5th division, with a green triangle above, denoting the 160th battalion.
There were several issues of a magazine called Bruce In Khaki, published in Witley camp and available for the soldiers. Issues are still obtainable from various sources.