The 117th Eastern Townships Overseas Battalion, CEF
"The only Eastern Townships Battalion to leave Canada"

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(updated 14 February 2010)

 

HISTORY OF THE 117th BATTALION

On November 5, 1915, the Parliament of Canada issued an Order In Council authorizing the organization of the 117th Battalion, C.E.F to be recruited from Sherbrooke, Quebec. The city of Sherbrooke had already provided soldiers for the 12th Battalion, as part of the first Canadian Division, and soldiers for the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles (5 CMR), as part of the third Canadian Division. When the CEF reorganized into the Imperial Army four double-company system during the winter of 1914-15, the 12th Battalion was one of four battalions (the 9th, 11th, and 17th Battalions were the others) designated to accept the excess manpower from the first Canadian contingent. The 12th Battalion became the 12th Reserve Battalion and its original draft of soldiers were transferred to front line battalions. By April 1915, many the original soldiers of the 12th Battalion were hardened veterans fighting in France with with the 15th Battalion, while the soldiers of 5 CMR were in England and preparing for their initiation on the front lines.

Despite enthusiastic recruiting efforts, which saw many men from Sherbrooke and many soldiers of the 53rd and 54th Regiments recruited into the 12th Battalion, the 12th Battalion was still not at full complement and continued the draft in Valcartier prior to sailing for England. By the time the 12th Battalion arrived in England, it did not resemble a battalion with its rank and file recruited from Sherbrooke. The same could be said about 5 CMR in that, although headquartered in Sherbrooke, its ranks were filled with soldiers from Quebec and Nova Scotia, although the majority of soldiers were from Sherbrooke and the Eastern Townships. Given that the population of Sherbrooke in 1915 was just over 19,000 and the Eastern Townships population in 1911 was just over 206,000, there was concern that Sherbrooke could not support recruiting for another battalion.

In late 1915, recruiting in Quebec had not yet reached the crisis stage it did in late 1916. The citizens of the Eastern Townships, largely of English descent, were still eager to serve King and country. City and military officials decided that the 117th Battalion would be named the 117th Eastern Townships Overseas Battalion, CEF and be recruited from men from the Eastern Townships. Rationale for this decision was it would be a battalion with a distinct Eastern Townships demographic and thus help with recruiting. Military officials realized the majority of recruits would be already serving members from the 53rd and 54th Regiments, the 7th Hussars, 11th Hussars, and the 26th Stanstead Dragoons who missed the draft for 5 CMR. It was a decision that proved successful.

The recruiting drive, spearheaded by the Sherbrooke Recruiting Association and the Eastern Townships Associated Boards of Trade, officially began in November 1915. With the 117th Headquartered at the Sherbrooke Exhibition Grounds, Commanding Officer Lieutenant-Colonel Levi Jerome Gilbert, Adjutant Captain Abel Whitehead, and Staff Sgt Clifford Oughtred opened the office doors and welcomed the first recruits. Some of the first recruits were from the bugle corps of the 53rd Regiment, lead by Sgt James Byrd. The majority of the bugle corps although underage, some as young as 14, were allowed to attest to the 117th as Bugle Boys, but would not be sent overseas.

Within months, the 117th had recruiting offices throughout most of the Eastern Townships. Recruiting was strong in the towns of Richmond, Danville, Coaticook, Bury, Stanstead, and Sherbrooke. Even the smaller communities such as Lennoxville, Rock Forest, Hatley, Compton, Milby, Ayers Cliff, Cowansville, Knowlton, and East Angus were busy recruiting for the 117th. By April 1916, the 117th recruited 944 men from throughout the Townships. The numbers were as follows: English-Canadian 327, French-Canadian 255, British 280, and others 82. The majority of the men were farmers and labourers. After six months of ambitious recruiting, men were still attesting, albeit at a slower pace.

At the beginning of May 1916, the 117th made an unexpected move to St John, Quebec (now commonly known as St Jean). The recruiting association cited the move was due to a lack of accommodation in Sherbrooke. The citizens of Sherbrooke felt there was ample billets in Sherbrooke and Richmond and did not understand why the entire battalion had to move outside the Eastern Townships boundary. However, it was required that the 117th recruit another 150 men, and with recruiting slowing down in Sherbrooke, a move was necessary, despite the opposition. Recruiting in St John did prove successful although falling short of the 150 men wanted. However, an examination of attestation papers during this period reveals that many of the men who recruited in St John listed present addresses in the Eastern Townships.

At the end of May 1916, the 117th was ordered to report to Valcartier for further training. The battalion, almost at full strength, left St John and the Eastern Townships for the last time as a battalion. Recruiting continued in Valcartier and between June and July when the 117th reached full establishment. The 117th Eastern Townships Overseas Battalion, CEF now stood at a strength of 1278 men and 39 officers. Though not all of these men would sail to England either being medically unfit, too young, or other reasons, the total numbers attest to the dedication of the citizens from the Eastern Townships. Between September 1914 and July 1916 the men of the Townships answered the call to three recruiting drives providing over 3,000 men to the call to arms.

During their stay at Valcartier the battalion conducted training in all military skills including drill, musketry, and close quartered fighting. On 12 August 1916, the 117th left Valcartier for Halifax where they would sail aboard the "Empress of Britain". With the voyage taking ten days the 117th arrived in Liverpool on 24 August and made its way to Bramshott for further training and garrison duties. Letters home to loved ones share the soldiers' experiences while crossing the Atlantic. Some told of seasickness, cramped conditions, and boredom. However, the general theme of the letters was the soldiers were happy and felt a certain esprit de corps within the 117th.

Between September 1916 and October 1916, the 117th Battalion moved from their landing in Liverpool England, to Shoreham, and Bramshott, and finally south to Folkestone. In a letter written by Major Hanson on 01 October 1916 and published 25 October 1916, Major Hanson spoke highly of the battalion and commented that the move to Folkestone was "a move in the right direction" alluding to the closer proximity to France and the front lines.

According to sources contributing to Wikipedia, under the titlte of "Queens Guard" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen%27s_Guard#cite_note-8), the 117th Battalion had a honour bestowed up them in September 1916 when they were chosen to mount the guard at Buckingham Palace. However, throughout the course of research conducted by this writer, there has been no mention of such an honour recorded in Daily Orders Part II, newspaper articles, or entries in soldiers' private journals. A letter written to this writer by the Royal Archives, dated 11 February 2008, indicates that their holdings have no records of any Dominion regiment having mounted the Guard during World War One.

The summer of 1916 had proven costly for soldiers of the Empire. The Somme offensive was a complete debacle and with casualties mounting there were growing concerns for reinforcements. By November 1916 rumours were abound that battalions in England would be broken up to reinforce already serving battalions in France. Soldiers' letters to home highlighted these rumours and enraged the citizens of the Eastern Townships.

By mid-November 1916 the men of the 117th Battalion were being drafted into other battalions. In November 1916, the first draft of the 117th Battalion saw over 100 men joining the ranks of 5th CMR. These 100 men would be the first 117th Battalion soldiers to serve in France and would spend Christmas Day 1916, in the trenches. Another draft in December 1916, saw 120 men transferred to the 148th battalion and 100 men transferred to the 150th battalion. Although rumours had been circulating for some time that the 117th Battalion would be disbanded, many soldiers believed that the first and second draft was the beginning of the end for the 117th Battalion. Letters home enraged the people of the Townships when it was learned that junior battalions remained intact while the 117th was being slowly disbanded. Those not drafted in November were transferred to the 23rd Reserve battalion and awaited further disposition. A third draft saw 165 men transferred to the 5th CMR giving them some solace in serving with a somewhat homegrown battalion. These men would be initiated into the front lines by the end of January 1917.

Newspaper editorials served to remind military officials that the 117th Battalion was a distinct battalion recruited with a promise the men would fight as a battalion and that the people of the Townships would take pride in keeping the battalion up to strength. Many accused LCol Gilbert of not being strong enough to stand up to the other commanders. Letters and calls from the Sherbrooke Recruiting Association and the Boards of Trade to the Premier and military officials demanding the battalion remain intact went unheard as the bells tolled for the 117th Eastern Townships Battalion. In fact, disbandment was a fate that awaited the majority of the higher numbered battalions. Decisions such as disbandment were made high above the rank level of Lieutenant-Colonel. Battalion commanders would have had little say in the matter, and although perhaps they would be given a chance to plead their case for their Battalion, political, demographic, and policy (both Canadian and British) certainly outweighed the espirit-de-corps and desire of a battalion to remain intact. Even the 148th and 150th Battalions, to which many 117th Battalion soldiers were transferred to, were also disbanded.

On January 11 1917 the last of the 117th men were drafted into other battalions and left the shores of England for France. Self-proclaimed the "diehard" a group of 13 NCO's marched out of Shoreham wearing their 117th cap badge until joining their new battalions in France. Quite possibly the only ones to proudly wear a 117th cap badge in France. These men continued to "carry them in our pockets to wear back to good old Sherbrooke. The "diehard" also proclaimed "we might be absorbed by the 23rd, but not buried."

The disbandment of the 117th Eastern Township Battalion was complete as the last of "Gilbert's Gallopers" marched out of the gates of Shoreham. Though some remained in England with the 23rd Reserve battalion, those who went to the front fought with pride, honour, and distinction. The soldiers of the 117th went to reinforce several battalions including: 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles, 1st Bn, 7th Bn, 13th Bn, 14th Bn, 16th Bn, 22nd Bn, 24th Bn, 42nd Bn, 43rd Bn, 60th Bn, 87th Bn, Canadian Field Artillery, Canadian Machine Gun Corps, Canadian Army Service Corps, Canadian Engineers, Canadian Labour Corps, Canadian Forestry Corps, and various administrative and garrison positions.

In total, 162 men who attested with the 117th Eastern Townships Battalion gave their lives between 1916 and 1918. Another 7 men would die as a direct result of their wounds between 1919 and 1921.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW ROLL OF HONOUR

Honours and Awards

During 1917 and 1918 52 men were bestowed honours and awards as follows:

14th Battalion

748982 Pte Walter Percy Adams - Military Medal and Distinguished Conduct Medal
748098 Cpl George Berryman - Military Medal
748378 Pte Ivan Heyer Bowden - Military Medal
748421 Sgt Albert Edwin Chatwin - Military Medal and Distinguished Conduct Medal
748072 Pte Alfred Edward Cowling - Military Medal
748956 Pte Clarence Arnold Elliott - Distinguished Conduct Medal
748175 CSM Gilbert Fairbairn - Military Medal and Distinguished Conduct Medal
748951 Sgt Alfred Joseph Jacques - Military Medal and Bar
748051 Cpl Herbert Readshaw - Military Medal
748280 Cpl Foster Travis Shorten - Military Medal
749150 Pte Alexander Blair Smith - Distinguished Conduct Medal
749213 Cpl Andrew Gale Tilton - Military Medal
749155 Pte Charles Victor Tuttle - Distinguished Conduct Medal
748828 Pte Frederick West - Military Medal and Bar

16th Battalion

748749 Pte Percival Abraham - Military Medal

22nd Battalion

748807 Sgt Theophile Barron - Distinguished Conduct Medal
748980 Sgt Samuel Echenberg - Name brought to notice
748591 Sgt Omer Flamand - Military Medal
748323 LCpl Simeon Lachance - Military Medal
748745 Pte Hilarion Lapointe - Military Medal
748266 Sgt Albert Nadeau - Military Medal

24th Battalion

748566 Cpl Charles Frederick Franklin - Distinguished Conduct Medal and Military Medal
748821 Sgt John William Gillard - Military Medal and Bar
748096 Cpl John Jones - Military Medal
749211 Pte Arthur Phillip Long - Military Medal and Bar
749252 Pte Percy McCormick - Military Medal
748918 Pte Lawrence Ernest Tarrant - Military Medal

87th Battalion

748378 Pte James Franklin Barber - Military Medal
749030 Pte Neil Forester Creller - Military Medal

5th Canadian Mounted Rifles

748724 Pte Carl Benham - Military Medal
748065 Sgt Philip Boy - Distinguished Conduct Medal
749308 Pte Ernest Cloutier - Military Medal
749200 Sgt Clifford Russell Golden - Military Medal
749253 Sgt Hubert Lawrence - French Croix de Guerre
748236 Cpl Thomas Gordon McAulay - Distinguished Conduct Medal
749224 Pte William Rodgers - Military Medal
748658 Pte Theodore William Seale - Mention in Despatches
748147 Pte Leslie Shaw - Military Medal
748037 Sgt Henry Smith - Mention in Despatches

 

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