Last week’s column described the first week of the 1871 training encampment of Wellington County’s 30th Battalion volunteer militia at Goderich. The story of the 16-day adventure concludes this week.
During the first week of the training exercises there were a couple of guests at the Goderich encampment. Lt. General Sir Hastings Doyle was the officer in command of the military forces in British North America, and Lt. Colonel R.S. Service served as Adjutant General. The two witnessed the exercises and drills during the first week, and inspected all the men in camp. On June 24, they wrote their report. To the relief and pleasure of the junior officers, their comments commended the men and their officers, concluding that the militia units were in “a high state of efficiency.”
Copies of the report circulated around the encampment on the second Sunday of the session. The men read and commented on between the non-denominational religious services that day.
Training sessions and exercises resumed the following morning, and continued on the Tuesday and Wednesday of the second week. Wednesday evening featured a huge banquet and entertainment for all the officers in the camp, hosted by the officers of Wellington County’s 30th Battalion. The event carried on into the small hours of Thursday, and with the arrival of daylight the grounds presented a scene littered with whiskey and wine bottles and other indications of a major bacchanalia.
Some of the officers, embarrassed that accounts of the affair might reach home, took pains to explain that they had left the affair early in order to rest and present a better model to the men in their command.
The following day’s schedule included examinations of the officers, a dismaying prospect to the more serious celebrants of the evening before. Altogether, only three officers in the encampment failed to meet the standards, and all were demoted on the spot. None were from the 30th Battalion. Some of those witnessing the examinations thought the standards expected of the officers to be very low.
For the junior ranks, there were more exercises that day, but the intense training sessions were over. More drills and marching followed on the next morning, a Friday. In the early afternoon the officer in charge of the 30th Battalion, Col. Charles Clarke of Elora, assembled his men, and addressed them briefly, stating that he was proud of them and honoured to be their officer in command.
Not a single man of the 30th, he boasted, had been guilty of any insubordination at the encampment, or any violation of military law. He did note that a few cases of conspicuous dissipation had occurred, but recognized that such excessive drinking was perhaps inevitable when groups of men assembled. Overall, though, he said that the 30th Battalion was the envy of most of the other officers in the camp, and he urged the men to do nothing to sully their reputation.
The men responded with deafening cheers to Col. Clarke’s remarks. He then dismissed the 30th Battalion. To fill the remainder of the day the men organized another field day, with races and jumping competitions. The sports continued until sundown, sometimes with competitions against men from the other military units. There was even a horse race, won by Major McMillan, of Elora, who had brought his horse “Garibaldi” to the encampment.
Friday afternoon brought two visitors to the men of the Fergus unit: William Robertson, who owned the 200-acre property that was the site of the Goderich encampment, and his friend, Dr. George Orton of Fergus, who served as the surgeon for the 30th. The doctor visited with all the men from the Fergus area, and brought them gifts of tobacco.
Col. Clarke and his junior officers insisted that the men turn in very early that night. It would be a short one. A bugler awakened the men at 2:30am. They finished packing their belongings, and then headed for breakfast at 3am. Following their meal they took down their tents in the darkness, and turned them over, along with their blankets, to the quartermaster.
By 5am, they were on the road, on a three-mile march to Goderich’s Grand Trunk railway station. By then the other units in camp were all awake. They cheered the 30th as it left the encampment to the strains of Auld Lang Syne, played by the band of one of the other battalions.
The men were aboard a special train shortly after 6am. Unlike the trip to Goderich 16 days earlier, it was a quick and uneventful return trip to Guelph.
The 30th arrived in Guelph in late morning, greeted by a welcoming committee that was preparing a big dinner. Col. Clarke, and most of the others from the central and northern parts of the county, were anxious to get home. Rather than staying for the festivities, they hopped on the midday train north, arriving at Elora before 1pm, and at Fergus a short time later. As Fergus was then the end of regular train service, the volunteers from the north and west of Wellington still had a long trip to get home.
The 1871 training camp, occupying 16 days of the men’s time, was one of the longer ones for the 30th Battalion. Most of the encampments afterward were scheduled closer to home, frequently at Kinnettles, at the western edge of Fergus, or along the Grand River below Elora in Pilkington Township.
Those sessions usually ranged between five and 10 days, and only seldom did units from outside the county participate.
Local people often visited the encampments, watching the exercises and training sessions from a distance. The local encampments offered opportunities for local businesses. Fergus and Elora merchants vied for the contracts to supply bread, meat, and other items.
The annual encampments continued to combine military training and drills with social activities in the evenings as long as they lasted. The quality of the training and drilling was always dubious, and it degenerated over the years as military threats to Canada diminished.
Membership and participation in the volunteer militia remained popular with young men until after 1900. Promotion to the officer’s ranks became a very desirable achievement amongst men with social and political ambitions. Col. Charles Clarke was already an MPP, and a former reeve of Elora, at the time of the 1871 encampment, and the surgeon for the 30th, Dr. George T. Orton, was also in local politics as reeve of Fergus and would soon go on to serve in the federal House of Commons.
There were many other men with the rank of major or colonel in Wellington County’s politics in the latter decades of the 19th century, in both local and upper level offices, and representing both the Liberal and Conservative parties. For them, the militia opened doors to the “old boys club.”
Wellington’s 30th Battalion was at the centre of local political and social life for several decades. For the rank-and-file militia men, participation represented respectability and responsibility in the eyes of the larger community.
Though military men at the time, and perhaps some today, would be horrified at the idea, it is obvious that those considerations outweighed the importance of the military training the men received at the annual encampments.