leaving for war with

William Reid Duncan

served with

14th Battalion

3rd Regiment,
Victoria Rifles of Canada

rank

Sergeant

Age upon enlistment: 30

Place of Birth: Coatbridge, Scotland

Previous Occupation: Laborer

Significant Other: Married to Mrs Maud Duncan

[Photograph] ‘Sergeant William Reid Duncan’, Date Unknown, Collections Royal Montreal Regiment.

Portrait of Sergeant William Reid Duncan, probably taken after the war.

William Reid Duncan was part of the first wave of soldiers who enlisted in the Canadian Army in August 1914 to go fight in the First World War. Through his eyes, we can learn much more about the impressions and questions of a young soldier preparing to leave for Europe. 

[diary] ‘Sergeant William Reid Duncan-Diary’, June 20, 1915, Collections CCGW

"Sgt Wallis & I had swim in canal 10.30 a.m. Had fine dinner to-day. Sgt Wallis, Whiteman, Cpl. Plow, Wright & I bought some tinned salmon, lattice (sic), onions & had a fine salad then finished up with tinned peaches."

JUNE 20, 1915

Fond of numbers and detailed-oriented, Duncan was very precise in his diary, and steered clear of emotional descriptions.

As a result, his entries are full of geographical indicators and time markers, making it easy to retrace his journey during the war. Duncan was also a food enthusiast. He often described his best meals, and liked sharing them with his friend and fellow non-commissioned officer, Sergeant Wallis.

Training for War

[Flag] “Valcartier” Pennant, 1914, Collections CCGW

Valcartier Military Training Camp

On August 4, 1914, when the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, Canada was automatically brought into the conflict. The same day, the Canadian government decided to raise an independent expeditionary force for the first time: the Canadian Expeditionary Force is born.

The Canadian government had little time to put together the mobilization process and a new training base in Valcartier, near Quebec city. In a matter of days, the Valcartier’s farm fields became a small city, with tents, rails, rifle ranges and telephone lines.

From August to October 1914, 32,665 volunteers from all over the country, among them Duncan, would converge here. At Valcartier, soldiers practiced drilling and shooting. Most importantly, they met with their future companions and spent time with their battalion.

[Photograph] “Valcartier-General View of the Camp”, 1914, Collections CCGW

"Few notes about camp. There was a fine level stretch of ground where all the tents were pitched then all around us was surrounded by very high hills [...] During our stay in camp from the 25th Aug till 28th Sept we were busy getting fitted our with clothing etc & drilling & shooting every day. We had very good weather all the time except one or two day a bit wet but on the whole we had a very good time & enjoyed ourselves."

SEPTEMBER 28, 1914

At their arrival on site, future soldiers would go through a medical examination and an inoculation before receiving their clothing and equipment. They would also sign attestation papers to confirm their enlistment in the army.

Travelling to England

The Dangers of High Seas

After a month of training in Valcartier, the 14th Battalion left for England aboard the S. S. Andania, with Duncan among them.

[Photograph] “The S. S. Andania”, 1913, Maritime Digital Archive Encyclopedia

"Sea got pretty rough most of the men were seasick. Large wave came on deck about 7 P.M. & struck a few men. One of them struck his head on a peice (sic) of iron & died shortly after."

FEBRUARY 12, 1915

Even if he was excited, Duncan knew that in wartime, crossing the Atlantic could be dangerous. Safety measures employed on the ships were not always effective, especially in bad weather, and some soldiers died before reaching England.

Soldiers were also aware of the dangers of submarines or torpedo boats, which could easily sink a ship. When the transports neared their coast, the British Navy employed gunboats and torpedo boat destroyers to protect against these threats.

"Land in sight on our left. Six torpedo boat destroyers met us & escort us into Plymouth sound where we anchored at 5.P.M."

OCTOBER 14, 1914

Preparing for the Front

[Photograph] “The Canadian Mudlarking on Salisbury Plains”, 1914, Library and Archives Canada, 1964-114 NPC

Canadians soldiers walking in the mud in Salisbury Plain, in 1914.

"Moved our tents about 200 yds down the hill owing to the ground we were on being abut (sic) a foot deep with mud"

Duncan notes in November

Duncan's Experience in Salisbury Plain Camp

Upon reaching England, soldiers trained for four months at Salisbury Plain camp. The winter of 1914 in England was characterized by incessant rain and cold, and Canadian soldiers had to deal with a lot of mud. It even reached a point where soldiers renamed the training camp ‘Mudbury’ Plain.

"...the water was up to the horses bellies for about 100 yards".

Towards the end of his stay there, he once again describes the camp state as being ‘terrible’

The weather conditions made it difficult for soldiers to train well. Target practice and drilling were often interrupted by storms of rain. The Canadian equipment, such as their boots, did not survive the winter well, and most of it had to be replaced by British supplies. Even the Ross Rifle, the Canadian-issued rifle, would be prone to jamming in the field and had to be changed in 1915.

[Footwear] “Ammunition Boots”, Date Unknown, Collections CCGW.

The Canadian boots would be replaced by the British Ammunition Boots.

Soldiers could leave Salisbury Plain to travel in England from time to time. Around Christmas time, Duncan was delighted to leave the camp, travelling to London and Glasgow to spend time with his friends and family.

[diary] ‘Sergeant William Reid Duncan-Diary’, January 3, 1915, Collections CCGW

“Went to church 12 oclock then saw a lot of my old friends. Went down to Glasgow 4 PM to Uncle Willie’s & saw aunt’s brother Charlie.” – January 3, 1915

Duncan's Journey During the War

After months of training, Duncan was sent to the Western Front in February 1915, to fight in France and in Belgium. 

Wounded in June 1916 by a bullet during the Battle of Mount Sorrel, Duncan had to spend 165 days in the hospital. His injury led to a partial loss of one of his arms’ functions. Recuperating from his wound, Duncan was sent back to the battlefield in 1917. He survived until the end of the war, and came back to Montreal in 1920.

[Photograph] “Mount Sorrel with Armagh House in the foreground”, 1916, Collections CCGW, 2016.3.1.2-53.

Photograph of a dugout destroyed during the battle of Mount Sorrel, in June 1916.