Originally from Orillia, Ontario, Ernest Nelson enrolled in the 157th Battalion in October 1916. For him and thousands of compatriots, this step had many consequences and for many marked the beginning of an experience that led to a new outlook on life. Like many soldiers, Ernest Nelson kept a personal diary of his observations and thoughts about his service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The first pages of Ernest Nelson's personal diary, describing his path from the recruitment office to the training camp in Witley, England, reflect the optimism of recruits who had not yet experienced combat and life in the trenches.
Ernest Nelson was not the only optimistic soldier in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Far from the Front, recruits did not have a very clear idea of what it would be like there. The soldiers of the Expeditionary Force were not experienced military officers but rather, in most cases, young men in search of adventure, spurred on by the prevalent patriotic mood or drawn by the prospect of a steady income. Few of them thought about what might await them overseas.
Ernest Nelson's Military Career
The personal diary of Ernest Nelson describes, in the optimistic tone typical of recruits who have never experienced life in the trenches, his path from the recruitment office in Orillia, Ontario, to his arrival at Camp Witley, in England. He talks about the public celebrations held by the community to mark the departure of local troops to Europe. He recounts his train trip through Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, always mentioning the public enthusiasm for the new recruits. In 1916, when Nelson enrolled, the military authorities did not give civilians on the domestic front a very accurate picture of the events of war; this was a deliberate attempt to maintain public support for the war effort.
Nelson also describes his boarding of the S.S. Cameronia and life on board the ship. The last pages selected from Nelson's diary recount his arrival in England and his first days in Europe spent at a British training camp, and the daily life of the Canadian soldiers there.
With the permission of Mr. Donald Jenkins on behalf of the Nelson family. Library and Archives Canada. MG30-E459, diary from 01/10/1916 to 08/12/1916
Excerpt from the Personal Diary Kept by Private Ernest Nelson during His Military Service, 1916-1918
This excerpt from Ernest Nelson’s personal diary recounts his military experiences from the recruitment office to his arrival in England.
Library and Archives Canada, PA-022731
Convoy Taking the Canadian Expeditionary Force to Britain, October 8, 1914
This photograph shows a convoy of ships taking the first contingent of Canadian soldiers to Europe. The convoy system, in which a group of vessels sailed together under escort, afforded the men, equipment and supplies being transported a more effective defence against German submarines. This convoy preceded the one that carried Ernest Nelson, but the convoy principle remained unchanged until the end of the war.
Library and Archives Canada, PA-022742
Church Parade on Board the S.S. Franconia, October 1914
This photograph shows a regular activity on board vessels heading for Europe -- mandatory religious service for the travelling soldiers. Ernest Nelson’s diary mentioned this event on the S.S. Cameronia.
Library and Archives Canada, PA-005495
Physical Exercise at Camp Witley
Once in England, the Canadian soldiers were taken to British training camps for a few weeks before being sent to the Front. Private Ernest Nelson was sent to Camp Witley. He referred to the daily exercises in his diary.
Library and Archives Canada, PA-005547
Canteen at Witley
One of the most common complaints in soldiers’ war stories had to do with the quality and quantity of the food provided to them in the armed forces. The presence of commercial canteens allowed them to supplement their rations. Ernest Nelson mentioned the canteen at Camp Witley in his diary.
At the beginning of the First World War, a wave of patriotism swept Canada: many Canadians felt a duty to enroll in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. With little military experience, most Canadians had never been involved in armed conflict. For many citizens, enrolling in the Canadian Expeditionary Force was considered a duty to their motherland, while others viewed it as an opportunity to earn a regular salary, to embark on a great adventure or to test their courage and moral fibre.
The first contingents of the Expeditionary Force were formed in record time. But after the initial burst of enthusiasm, enrolment started to drop off. Military authorities resorted to all kinds of measures to provide a continued supply to the recruitment offices, from a ever smaller pool of potential recruits. The recruitment of Canadian soldiers culminated with compulsory military service, imposed by the Borden government in 1917, to the great dismay of many and going back on previous promises.
Library and Archives Canada, PA-C-029568
Enlist! More are coming -- Will you be there?
This recruitment poster appealed to Canadians’ sense of common cause, urging them to join their countrymen at the Front. The poster also suggested the possibility of becoming a hero and the place Canadian soldiers would occupy in history.
Library and Archives Canada. RG9 III-D-1, vol. 4774, Mobilization of First Contingent
Militia Mobilization Orders for Overseas Service, August 17, 1914
On August 17, 1914, the Minister of Militia and Defence issued mobilization orders for overseas service. The militia orders set out the details and conditions of enlistment.
Library and Archives Canada, The Ottawa Citizen, June 28, 1915, p. 2.
Recruitment article "Col. Herridge’s Strong Appeal for Recruits" published in
The Ottawa Citizen, June 28, 1915.
This recruitment article clearly demonstrates the type of values promoted by military authoritiesand the importance of enrollment and patriotic duty.
Library and Archives Canada, C-095381
"Nous défendrons le précieux joyau de la liberté"
This recruitment poster about "defending the precious right of liberty" played on the patriotic feelings of soldiers called to defend freedom and crush tyranny.
The departure of Canadian Expeditionary Force troops for Europe involved not only sending thousands of individuals, but also the creation of an organizational infrastructure to supply them with uniforms, weapons, equipment, food, shelter, medical care, sanitary facilities and transportation in the field.
Library and Archives Canada, RG9 II-B-3, vol. 80, 155th to 163rd battalions
Embarkation List of the Canadian Expeditionary Force
Embarkation lists included the soldier’s name, rank, unit, contact person, address and place of birth, as well as place and date of enlistment. Held at Library and Archives Canada, these lists are organized by unit and are valuable tools for anyone attempting to trace members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force or their families.
Library and Archives Canada. RG9 III-D-1, vol. 4774, Embarkation
Report on the Numbers of Individuals and Horses Carried on Some Vessels of theFirst Contingent, 1914
This report shows the numbers of officers, men and horses of the Canadian Expeditionary Force that sailed for Europe with the first contingent.
RG9 III-D-1, vol. 4774, Embarkation
Detailed Report on the Individuals, Equipment and Supplies Carried by the Ships of the First Contingent, September 26-30, 1914
The figures in this report’s "cargo" column clearly show the organizational and financial demands of sending an armed force overseas