Norfolk in The Great War

2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the commencement of the Great War of 1914-1918. By the time hostilities ended in late 1918, over 625,000 Canadians had answered the call to arms. This was an incredible response from a Country that was drawing young people from a total population of 7.5 million. In 1914, the population of Norfolk County stood at 28,000. It is estimated that at least 2,000 Norfolk men and women would serve in the Great War..

The Canadian government had encouraged a larger military in the first decade of the century, mainly in volunteer reserve forces across Canada and the development of youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts. In Norfolk, the standard was flown by the 39th Militia Regiment. Most of the men that joined the regular force had been a member of the 39th. One had to be 18 years of age before taking the King’s sovereign. Beyond that simple criterion, however, the men and women of Norfolk who enlisted came from many different walks of life. They were farmers, fishermen, bank clerks, school teachers, carpenters and labourers and by the end of 1918 they were the most potent fighting force on the Western Front.

When war was declared in August 1914, the men of the 39th came forward to volunteer in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Following careful screening, 31 were selected to serve and they were sent off to Camp Valcartier in Quebec. The call went out again in November 1914 for a Second Contingent which was answered by 42 more men from Norfolk. This was followed by a third call up in March 1915 resulting in 50 more men from Norfolk volunteering to serve. Finally, a 4th Contingent of 25 men departed for Valcartier in August 1915. They were placed in Battalions from across Canada and will see action alongside British soldiers in the latter part of 1914. By early 1915, however, they will be brought together to form the 1st Canadian Division which will play a heroic part in standing against the German gas attack at the 2nd Battle of Ypres in Belgium.

Sometime in mid-December of 1915, orders were received in Simcoe to begin the process of recruiting men for the 133rd Norfolk Infantry Battalion. The Battalion will be divided into four Companies: “A” from Simcoe; “B” from Port Dover, Woodhouse and Simcoe; “C” from Port Rowan, Houghton and Walsingham; and “D” from Middleton, Delhi, Windham, Waterford and Townsend. Ideally a battalion consisted of about 1,000 men of which 650 would be front line infantry men. The remainder would be support staff – cooks, stretcher bearers, drivers and officers. In forming the 133rd this late in the war, the recruiting efforts had to compete for Norfolk men that were enlisting in Haldimand, Brant, Oxford and Essex Regiments.

In July 1916, the 133rd will embark for Camp Borden to complete their training and on November 1st they set sail for England in the SS Lapland. They will, however, never go into battle as the 133rd. Toward the end of November 1916 they were sent to France and placed into the 23rd Reserve Battalion. From here, the men of Norfolk were transferred to other Battal­ions whose ranks had been depleted in the bloody warfare in the Somme over the course of 1915-16. 240 men went to the 14th Battalion, the Royal Montreal Regiment, and 250 went to the 4th Battalion, Central Ontario Regiment. In September 1917 Corp. Jas Hawkins wrote home: “The battalion to which the majority of the boys were sent to reinforce were the 4th, 14th, 19th, 29th and 123rd.” But others had enlisted in battalions from British Columbia to New Brunswick and many others volunteered for the Canadian Machine Gun Corps and the Royal Canadian Dragoons and the Royal Flying Corps. Another soldier would write that Norfolk was represented in at least fifteen battalions in France.

By War’s end, over 67,000 Canadians had been killed; 35,000 killed in action, 4,430 reported missing and presumed dead, 11,260 died of wounds, 133 died at sea, 7,796 died of disease and accidents; and 126,595 were wounded. The bodies of 16,000 Canadians were never found or identified, many lost in the mud and holocaust of trench warfare. Fifty-nine of those with no known grave are from Norfolk. The names of the dead are immortalized on gravestones throughout the United Kingdom, France and Belgium; on Memorials to the missing at Vimy Ridge and the Menin Gate at Ypres, Belgium; and in some cases – in a grave in Norfolk County.

The War touched every part of the County with 250 men and one woman dying from wounds, accidents and disease. Every town, village and Township lost a son or daughter.

Walsingham                        16

Port Rowan                        11

St. Williams                        9

Houghton                           14

Charlotteville                     11

Middleton                          12

Delhi                                  18

Windham                           11

Townsend                          16

Waterford                           19

Port Dover/Woodhouse     33

Simcoe                               55

The number that came back home suffering from wounds, gassing and illness; amputations and lost eyes; and the devastating effects of shell shock can only be guessed. Extrapolating from the number of wounded the Canadians suffered for every death, 800 could have come home to Norfolk with a disability. It would have devastating effects on the operation of family owned business like farming and fishing. Norfolk would never be the same again.

To many of us, The Great War is a distant past event that we consigned to archives and buried in cemeteries. Canadians have a tendency to like our heroes small, but 100 years ago those men and women from Norfolk, and every other town and village across the County, roared like lions and with a display of casualness and heroism that belied the ferocity of the battle, they captured Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 and Passchendaele over the course of 1917; regrouped in 1918, they began what will be known as “Canada’s 100 Days”. They won the Battle of Amiens on August 8 to 14, followed by a victory at the Battle of Arras in late August; won a stunning victory at the Battle of Canal du Nord; defeated the Germans at the Battle of Valenciennes on November 1st; and – with the Australians on their right flank – raced 24 miles into enemy held territory – finally resting on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

 “We Will Remember Them”

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