Guarding the cage: No. 2 Special Services Company of the CEF

[Cap badge, No. 2 Special Service Company] 2015.03.17.00001 Gift of Dr. Desmond Morton, McGill University.
[Cap badge, No. 2 Special Service Company] 2015.03.17.00001 Gift of Dr. Desmond Morton, McGill University.
We recently received a donation of Canadian corps and infantry cap badges from a member of the Montréal community; along with a badge from the very interesting colonial cavalry company King Edward’s Horse, we also received cap badge for the No. 2 Special Service Company. The badge itself is quite rare, but finding out about the company is even more difficult. In total, there were 4 Special Service companies operation during the war; from what I can glean with only several hours of research, they were affiliated with the Canadian Military Police detachments, formed in 1917, and responsible for regular guarding duties of Canadian military prisons, as well as of prisoners of war. Though enemy aliens were interned in Canada, unlike during the Second World War most German prisoners of war were send to camps in the UK and not further afield.

Prisoners of war posed an enormous problem for all the armies involved in the conflict. Not only did provisions need to be made to confine thousands of military personnel and feed them, but armies also had to provide areas to confine, disarm, and interrogate those recently captured in battle. Arrangements at the beginning of the war were understandably ad hoc, with prisoners simply being sent behind the lines in groups and guarded until they could be transported to larger camps outside the area of fighting; however, the sheer number of prisoners taken in any one attack meant that plans had to be made to ensure that they could be reliably confined and prevented from making trouble in the rear. At the battle of Vimy Ridge alone, the Canadian Corps took 4 000 prisoners; all of whom had to be escorted to the rear and detained.

The Canadian system, overseen by the Military Police CEF, used a series of “cages” to move prisoners further behind the lines and to ensure that they were all processed correctly. Each division established a divisional cage close to the firing line before an attack where prisoners would be searched and interrogated; from there they were taken to the Advanced Cage, which was the gathering point for prisoners from all divisions involved in the attack. At this point, prisoners would be sent further to the rear to the Corps Rear Cage and held for an undetermined amount of time until they were sent to Allied prison camps throughout France and the UK. Throughout this process, the Special Service companies would have provided guards to ensure order. It was not infrequent that prisoners moving to the divisional cages were pulled out for use as stretcher bearers or in aid stations, depending on how severe shortages of men were. Though there has been a significant amount of scholarship done on Allied prisoners of war, there is much less available regarding the experiences of those German and Austrian prisoners who ended their war behind Allied lines. As with the CEF’s Special Service companies, there remains much to discover.

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5 thoughts on “Guarding the cage: No. 2 Special Services Company of the CEF

  1. The International Red Cross Museum in Geneva (Switzerland) has the WW1 records of its International Prisoners of War Agency on display. Part of its mandate to reunite families. Moving and overwhelming display! Thank you for sharing this Canadian piece of the picture.

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    1. I also found a great website while researching for this post that creates geomaps of all the camps in Europe during the war. Unfortunately, most of its summaries of camp life are in French… If French is in your stable of languages, it’s really worth the read.

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    2. I also found a great website while researching for this post that creates geomaps of all the camps in Europe during the war. Unfortunately, most of its summaries of camp life are in French… If French is in your stable of languages, it’s really worth the read.

      Like

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