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Beyond these historic barrack gates, which are to be spared, the decline of Shorncliffe in recent years is clearly visible. (Jim Ross for The Globe and Mail)
Beyond these historic barrack gates, which are to be spared, the decline of Shorncliffe in recent years is clearly visible. (Jim Ross for The Globe and Mail)

Forged in Battle: National identity and the Great War

Army base where Canadians trained in the Great War faces wrecking ball Add to ...

The latest series in the Globe and Mail's coverage of the First World War's legacy at 100

Before they reached the Western Front, most of Canada’s fighters in the Great War got their first true taste of what was to come at a historic military base here on the windswept southeastern tip of Britain.

But now a sign that reads “Danger – Keep out” hangs from the padlocked iron gates, and trees grow out of derelict buildings that were once barracks housing soldiers anxious to get to the war before it ended.

One hundred years ago on Saturday, rail cars carrying members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s second great wave of recruits arrived at Folkestone, a sleepy seaside town not far from the famed white cliffs of Dover. They were bound for nearby Shorncliffe, a red-brick compound on a rocky redoubt overlooking the English Channel and within earshot of the thunderous conflict they were soon to join.

Although the CEF’s first division was already in the trenches – and about to make Canada known as a warrior nation, by facing the horror of poison gas at Ypres – the awful pointlessness of the war of attrition had yet to sink in. Newspapers of the time say the Canadians who arrived here on April 18, 1915, were a cheerful bunch, naively hoping for a taste of battle before the quick victory they still expected.

Many who trained at Shorncliffe came back on stretchers, and not all of them survived. Of the 471 First World War graves in the local military cemetery, more than 300 contain Canadians. Even more, of course, didn’t come back at all. The nervous camaraderie they experienced at Shorncliffe was likely the last real happiness they knew.

Now, the scene of those warm memories is under threat. Many of the squat buildings that housed the Canadians en route to Belgium and France are seeing their last days. The British Ministry of Defence (MOD) is poised to hand much of Shorncliffe, which is less than 90 minutes from London, to one of Britain’s leading home builders.

Last month, local councillors endorsed a plan that calls for demolishing several barracks as well as the stable that once housed Canada’s herd of war horses. Much of the former training area will also be paved over to make way for 1,200 new houses and a sports complex.

“This heritage will be gone. This is what saddens me,” says Chris Shaw, who has spent a decade battling to preserve the site. As the 52-year-old amateur historian describes how important he feels Shorncliffe is, or should be, both to Canada and to Britain, tears well up in his eyes.

He is an unlikely defender of Canadian military history – his true passion is the Napoleonic era, and his day job involves installing high-end entertainment systems for England’s rich and famous.

Originally from Bromley, near London, he says his passion for battle re-enactments led him to Shorncliffe. He wondered what had become of the place the Duke of Wellington’s revolutionary Light Division had trained in before locking horns with Napoleon – and was shocked by what he saw: a venerable institution overgrown with trees and weeds; with spent bullets, fired in training long ago, and now green with age, scattered among beer bottles and other rubbish. “I had this realization,” he recalls, “that it was the birthplace of the modern British Army, and it was in a terrible state – and it was down to me to fight for it.”

So the heritage trust he now leads is trying to raise millions of pounds to create a museum and education centre – a campaign given a boost last Christmas when a bevy of British pop stars released a charity recording in aid of the Shorncliffe Trust and the Red Cross.

On guard since 1794

The museum would celebrate a base that is more than two centuries old and now houses one of the British Army’s few remaining Nepalese Gurkha units.

The army began to buy up land in the area in 1794, after French revolutionaries executed their monarchs and declared war on Britain. Although the invasion never came, the fear remained, and when Napoleon made the same threat a decade later, smoke from his army’s fires could be seen across the channel. Now, Mr. Shaw says, the vast majority of the facility is to be lost forever, a victim of what he calls “the perfect storm of neglect, ignorance, complacency and lack of vision.” The principle “Lest we forget” is being subsumed by the public’s waning interest in military history and by the modern realities of its financing.

Not that Shorncliffe is alone. The MOD is unloading real estate across Britain as it grapples with a shrinking budget. The tactic is one way to forestall, at least temporarily, even deeper cuts as the army reduces its active troop strength by 20 per cent, from 102,000 to 82,000 (the Gurkhas at Shorncliffe also face the axe).

With British warplanes carrying out air strikes against Islamic State positions in Iraq, the defence brass is trying to find budget-conscious ways to also deal with Moscow’s increased presence on its doorstep: Russian warships and aircraft have made ever more frequent appearances in the English Channel lately. There has also been renewed Argentine sabre-rattling over the Falkland Islands.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the fate of Shorncliffe falls well down the MOD’s list of priorities – despite its storied past and a deep, abiding connection with Canada.

Locals spoke Canadian

The first Canadian troops sent to Britain late in 1914 camped about 250 kilometres west of Shorncliffe on the Salisbury Plain, not far from Stonehenge. But officers complained of harsh conditions during an especially wet winter when many soldiers fell sick and dozens died, both in training accidents and from an outbreak of spinal meningitis.

In the spring, after the Canadians had crossed the channel, Shorncliffe was made available for the second wave. “And so,” reads The Globe’s report on the July 1 festivities of 1915, “the fields and plains, the lanes and roads are filled with Canadian soldiers, celebrating their Dominion Day drilling, bayonet fighting, route marching, while overhead soars thrumming the watchful airship, Britain’s Eye. For Britain has a business on hand.”

In all, more than 600,000 Canadians enlisted during the war, and “a very large proportion of those raw recruits who were coming through to the Western Front would have been trained at Shorncliffe … in particular, Vimy Ridge,” says Kent Fedorowich, a transplanted Manitoban who teaches imperial history at the University of the West of England in Bristol.

“You could argue,” adds Dr. Fedorowich (who has a “special fascination” for Britain’s relations with its dominions) “that a very well-established Canadian colony developed.” Throughout the war, Folkestone was a major debarkation point for troops headed for the fighting. But it’s also where many were billeted with local families, and where almost everyone liked to spend their free time.

Shorncliffe and Folkestone became so Canadianized that there are reports of locals picking up Canadian expressions and accents. Historians have noted that local residents started saying “Sure” instead of “Yes.” A baseball league was formed, and a Maple Leaf Club was opened.

Shorncliffe was also the hub of efforts by a group of Canadian women, the Canadian Field Comforts Commission, who sought to provide a touch of home – everything from socks and underwear to familiar-brand cigarettes – to the soldiers stationed here. Locals jokingly referred to the Folkestone area as a suburb of Toronto.

According to a waterfront plaque, the Canadians “became part of Folkestone life” – so much so that people picked up Canadian expressions and accents. Researchers have found that, when asked something, they began to say “Sure” instead of “Yes.”

So, by the time Folkestone and Shorncliffe had a baseball league, a Maple Leaf Club and the Canadian Field Comforts Commission, which offered a touch of home, from Canadian-made socks and underwear to familiar brands of cigarettes, locals jokingly referring to their town as a suburb of Toronto.

There was occasional trouble – petty theft was a problem, bigamy not unknown, and religious leaders criticized soldiers for playing sports on Sundays – but, Dr. Fedorowich says, “the locals really embraced the Canadians.”

A century later, the feeling lives on.

“When I was a schoolboy – so, 60 years ago – we used to go up to the cemetery and put flowers on the Canadian graves, and they still do it today,” says Mark Hatton, warden of nearby St. Martin’s Church. “It became a tradition somewhere down the line, and British people like tradition.”

In fact, schoolchildren have lain flowers on the military cemetery’s 300-plus Canadian graves almost every July 1 since 1917. (More recently, someone placed a Canadian penny on the top of each of those graves.) The tribute began shortly after soldiers helped dig out the town’s casualties after a surprise attack by German bombers left 79 dead, many of them women and children. Seventeen Canadian soldiers also died.

The raid brought home reality, and as the conflict dragged on, the mood at Shorncliffe became more grim. Stories emerged about how gruesome the carnage really was, and, because the base also housed a large medical complex, fresh arrivals from home could see the risks even as they prepared for the trenches.

The beat of cannon fire across the channel contributed to the increasingly downbeat mood. “We can distinctly hear the rumble of the big guns,” Lt. Stuart Cameron Kirkland wrote in 1916 to family back in Dutton, Ont. “I thought at first the noise I heard was thunder but, as I was hearing it every morning, I made inquiries and was told it was the noise of battle.”

The following year, he was wounded at Vimy Ridge.

Housing trumps history

Although a century has passed, the area’s connection to Canada remains readily apparent. Even the altar at St. Martin’s, more than two centuries old, has a gold Bible stand inscribed “in memory of the Canadian boys who worshipped here and have since.”

But Mr. Hatton, the warden, says local people object to the big housing development less because of what it will do to Shorncliffe than because of the traffic problems it’s expected to cause around the station where the first Canadians stepped off the train. Chris Shaw of the Shorncliffe Trust is resigned to the fact that the project will go ahead. His fight now is to preserve more of the barracks and training facilities (such as practice trenches that prepared the Canadians for underground life at the front) and to build a museum and tourist facilities.

But he says that neither the MOD nor the local council seem interested in anything beyond the anticipated budget boost. And Shorncliffe is a major project even for a builder as big as Taylor Wimpey, which put up 12,454 houses in Britain last year alone and had pretax profits of more than $660-million. The company did not respond to several requests for comment on its plans, but an MoD spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail that “preserving heritage … has been taken into consideration.”

Canadian military specialist Jack Granatstein, whose many books include Who Killed Canadian History?, says that “it’s always sad when historic sites are developed,” but he acknowledges that it’s “largely an unstoppable process in an ahistoric age.”

He says that selling military land may make sense to a cost-cutting government, “but there are ramifications,” such as the loss of jobs, often in areas where work is hard to find, and that the tactic is shortsighted: “If you get rid of bases and training areas, you won’t have them the next time you need them – and nations always do.”

He argues that the importance of Shorncliffe – to Britain’s past, even more than Canada’s – justifies “a suitable memorial” to keep its memory alive.

The campaign turns to Canada

Taylor Wimpey’s project will leave Shorncliffe a vastly reduced garrison, but will affect neither the cemetery – kept in immaculate condition by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – nor the main gate to the barracks and the base library, both deemed to be historically significant.

Also, the MOD spokeswoman notes, the Shorncliffe Trust has been given the opportunity to purchase the redoubt where the practice trenches were located. As a result, Mr. Shaw and his associates are trying to raise £3-million (about $5.5-million) “to regenerate the old training grounds and set up a dedicated heritage park and education centre.” To that end, they have received some high-profile help, with Julian Lennon and Engelbert Humperdinck joining members of the Proclaimers and Massive Attack to record the fundraising single.

But as he walks along the old trench works the Canadians once used, Mr. Shaw battles to keep his composure while describing the sacrifices of those now in the cemetery. He says he has given up hope that his government will act, and is looking across the Atlantic. “We want Canadian businesses, and Canadians, to support us,” he says.

Dr. Granatstein, whose most recent book is The Greatest Victory: Canada’s One Hundred Days, 1918, warns this may prove difficult with “so much centenary fundraising on here now.”

But Mr. Shaw is undaunted, saying he hopes to enlist rocker Bryan Adams, whose father served in Canada’s army.

“We’ll look after your boys forever,” he tells Canadians, “but we need to fight against the ways of the world, the councillors and the property developers. We’ve got to convince them to do the right thing.”

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