Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Brace yourself Britain, the Canadians are coming!

Proudly bearing arms, a battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force

This post is my small tribute to the volunteer soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force who helped Britain fight the Great War. Their reputation as fighters was second to none and as they began arriving in this country on their way to the Front, disembarking from ships in in large numbers, loud, brash and eager, it was clear they would take some getting used to!

At the turn of last century we Brits were a modest, mild-mannered lot. We liked our homes and gardens, we had no wish to travel further than the nearest seaside resort, and most of us were quite happy to abide by the established Edwardian social order in which everyone knew their place. Such folk had departed Britannia's shores in their droves during the early 1900s to make a new life for themselves in Canada, but their sons who returned were a different breed completely. Coming from a country that was huge and wide open, many found Britain stiflingly small ... and weren't afraid to say so.

The extract below is from my new book 'Letters from the Trenches' and describes the arrival of George Lamb, a bank clerk from Kamsack in Saskatchewan, in 1916. A tougher character you couldn't wish to find, although he had plenty of charm too.

English trains 'sure were a joke' said George Lamb
Coming from a land of wide open spaces, everything about the ‘old country’ seemed tiny to Lamb and his fellow Canadians. When they arrived in Liverpool, they could hardly believe the size of the train and the box-like little carriages that awaited them: ‘Eight men were put in each contrivance and there you were shut off from the rest of the train in this stuffy little room, they sure are a joke, their engines are about the size of a threshing engine’ he wrote. Interestingly, an American airman, Ned Steel, used very similar words to describe his first impressions of Liverpool when he there landed in 1918, en route to France: ‘With a squad to each compartment on our funny little coaches we started across “Merry Old England”, the dinky little engine quite surprising us with its speed. What a beautiful country.'

Lamb wasn’t blind to England’s bucolic charm either and he acknowledged it in letters home: ‘The scenery is beautiful and trees are still quite green, the hedges are cut off by the men who own the land and kept in fine shape.’ But such descriptions were now and again tempered by coarser observations: ‘The streets and roads are so narrow a person can spit across them.’

Not exactly what we were used to, but his heart was in the right place! There are plenty more of Lamb's colourful letters in my book - details of which are at the top of the page on the left - but I should warn you that his story does not have a happy ending. In my next post I'll tell you what sort of impression the Aussies made.

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