The Story of the 91st Battalion – Elgin’s Own

 

 

Recruiting for what became the 91st began in September of 1915. Volunteers became part of the Elgin Company of the 70th Battalion to be trained in London. The 70th also drew men from Essex, Kent, Lambton and Middlesex counties. By the end of the month, the Company had reached its full compliment of nearly 250 soldiers and it left for London.

 

Soon after this, the decision to attempt to recruit entire battalions (of about 1000 men) from individual cities and counties was made and the Elgin Company of the 70th be-came the foundation for the 91st (Elgin’s Own). The Elgin Company came down from London to continue training. They and the recruits that came after were housed in the Thomas Brothers woodenware factory behind the Armoury, later occupied by Victor Gasket.

 

Initially, the Battalion continued to accept recruits from Kent County, but, in January, Kent received its own battalion and the 91st lost a whole company. The strength was now down to about 700 and building it up to the required 1000 plus members would be a challenge. In February, two companies marched out from St. Thomas, one east to Port Burwell and one west to Rodney, to publically encourage volunteers. 28 men volunteered but there was still a lot of ground to cover. In March, the Battalion went door to door in St. Thomas regis-tering eligible men who were to report later to the recruiting centre and provide reasons why they were not in uniform. Billboards, meetings with patriotic speeches, and even min-strel shows put on by the troops, were used to bring the Battalion up to strength.

 

Recruitment continued right up to departure. Among the last to join was a man from Leamington as well as a US Marine doctor who had served in the Philippines. He was one of 46 Americans including a man from Pittsburgh whose uncle had died in the sinking of the Lusitania. Of the eventual total of over 900, about one-third provided addresses for their next of kin that were in St. Thomas, about one-quarter were from elsewhere in Elgin County. Over 150 provided address-es in the British Isles with the reminder from other countries including Russia, Denmark, and Greece, and other places in Canada.

 

With the total strength hovering around 900, the battalion was told to prepare for departure. On the day selected, June 25th, the men formed up at the barracks and marched into town to the Michigan Central Railway station (now the CASO station). Along the way as many as 20,000 people cheered the troops as they passed by. At the station, final farewells were made and the men made their way onto two separate trains, many of whose cars were chalked with the words “St. Thomas to Berlin” on the side. They reached Halifax on the 27th and boarded the Olympic, sister ship to the Titanic. 7000 troops were aboard and the crossing took seven days. They were housed at Otterpool Camp in southeast England, where it was decided that the Battalion would be broken up to provide reinforcements for the existing battalions in France.

 

Some were sent straight to the Battle of the Somme which had begun just days before the arrival of the 91st in England. Some men were not even able to visit their English relatives before being shipped across the Channel. The Somme was merely the beginning for the men of the 91st who would take part in every battle in which Canadian troops would be engaged from the time of their arrival to the end of the war.

 

Individual members while serving in various battalions were awarded four Military Crosses, four Distinguished Conduct Medals, 38 Military Medals, and one Military Medal and Bar. A total of 181 were lost.

 

The battalion colours were laid up at Trinity Anglican Church in St. Thomas in 1932 after a service which saw most of the veterans of the battalion reunited. Subsequent reunions, including one in 1975 which saw 76 mem-bers, came to a close in 1990 when but one member remained alive.

Today the colours still hang in a chapel at trinity dedicated to the memory of the 91st.

 

This story is drawn from the work of Brendan Carey and from the book The Elgins by Capt. L. A. Curchin and Lieut. B. D. Sim.