Friday, 8 May 2020

A Remarkable Life: R.C. Royston, Part 2

This is the continuing story of Private R.C. Royston #29015; a Canadian soldier in the 16th Battalion Canadian Scottish, who enlisted at Valcartier and was taken prisoner at the Second Battle of Ypres. It was inspired by a single photograph and name in Library and Archives Canada.


Cunard Line RMS Alaunia, 1913



When Richard Cuthbert Royston arrived in St. Nazaire he was a long way from Creston, British Columbia, his home for six months before the outbreak of war. He would never have imagined when he left Liverpool a year earlier, arriving in Halifax aboard the Cunard liner RMS Alaunia on February 13th, that he would be back in England eight months later, and in France two months after that.  He was an accomplished engineer, already a patent to his name at the age of 22 for improvements in the design of furnaces - but engineering was not his passion; it was the prospect of farming that drew him across the ocean.  

At the turn of the century Canada was opening up its land with grants to those willing to work hard and take their chance. Creston was a small town on the Crow's Nest Pass, halfway between Nelson and Cranbrook with a population in 1914 that was still well under 1000 people. But it was a fertile fruit growing district with more than 50,000 acres of rich fruit land, much of it for sale - and help would be needed on the farms. 

Farm land advertised for sale in Creston
in the 1910 edition of Henderson's
BC Gazetteer and Directory


Richard Royston was just one of many in his family who would make their way to Canada and take the CPR across the country.  A good many of his relatives left Lancashire in the early 1900’s to head out on their own and settle in Western Canada.
The first family member was an uncle and namesake who, along with a number of his countrymen from Lancashire, settled in the Kootenay’s in 1904. They settled in the fast growing mining town of Morrisey, not far from Creston.  Two cousins, both farmers, also travelled to Canada over the next two years, taking root in Winnipeg and becoming very much a part of that burgeoning gateway to the Prairies; and in late 1911 a second uncle, William Drage Royston, also an engineer, arrived in Vancouver with his wife and their 29 year old daughter.

But Royston’s stay was short-lived. Less than six months after he arrived in Creston Britain declared war on Germany and Canada was automatically in the fight. Like so many other young men across the country, particularly those from Britain who were newly settled in Canada, Royston was anxious to enlist. On the last Friday in August he stood on the platform of Creston station with five other young men ready to catch the train that would take them east to Valcartier as part of the West Kootenay’s contribution to the first Canadian contingent.

That same week, across the ocean, the British and German armies clashed for the first time in a decisive struggle at the Battle of Mons. The stories on the front pages told of the serious losses to both sides
High casualties and a long fight
The Vancouver Daily Province, August 25, 1914
and the desperate fighting expected to go on for many weeks.  On Sunday, August 23rd the Germans had attacked the British with overwhelming superiority in the town of Mons along the French-Belgian border: 160,000 men and 300 guns compared to the British strength of 70,000 men and 160 guns. Despite holding out for several hours the British were forced to retreat, withdrawing over a two week period to the outskirts of Paris. When they counter-attacked with the French army at the Battle of Marne on the 6th of September they forced, in turn, a German retreat - and what followed was the Race to the Sea that set the battle lines for the Western Front for the next four years.

In Creston, the send-off for the six men was pulled together on short notice because of the uncertainty of their departure date. The station was dressed in gala attire with flags in evidence everywhere, including the town’s flag that flew aloft on the new pole erected near the station the day before.  After the bands played and the crowd sang their selections, Edward Mallandaine, a prominent citizen of the town who was one of its early settlers and a witness to the driving of the Last Spike at Craigellaachie in 1885, delivered a brief but heartfelt thanks. He offered a few tokens of appreciation for their “loyalty in volunteering for active service in defence of the King and Empire and also as deep feelings of patriotism of the Canadians.”  The men were presented with a pipe, a pouch and a generous supply of tobacco.
The send off for the Creston Men, joining others in the
Kootenay Contingent from Nelson, Trail, Kaslo,
Rossland and Greenwood on August 28th, 1914 

The six men, Philip W. Barrington Foote, Dennis Bunbury Howard, Robert Sinclair Smith, Patrick Douglas Hope, and H.B. Ford boarded one of the three cars on the regular CPR Train 514 that would take them on the start of their journey. The first leg was a three hour journey to Cranbrook. From there they would join up with the rest of the Kootenay/Boundary contingent and board a troop train - eight first class carriages in length, along with baggage and dining cars - that would take them across country to Valcartier. 
But before Train 514 got to Cranbrook on the first leg of its journey, and unbeknownst to the men on board, an accident occurred that saw the first death of a Kootenay volunteer.  It was a short distance out of Creston when William Reid, a man well known in the area, accidentally fell from the train when he was standing on the platform of the rear car to wave good-bye to one of his friends whose shack was near the tracks.  Although he survived the initial fall he lay down on the rails a short time later to rest and, falling asleep, was struck by a train going in the opposite direction. It was a sad, tragic start.

Troop Train in Cranbrook, B.C. leaving for Valcartier with the West Kootenay Contingent
August 28th, 1914
By the end of the War two of the original Creston men, Howard and Smith would be dead; Foote, Hope and Royston would survive. Of the sixth man, Ford, there is no trace - there’s no service record and his name is not mentioned in the nominal roll of any the seventeen battalions that formed up in Valcartier. A story circulated that one of the Cranbrook volunteers deserted from the Camp after arrival, but the rumour was dismissed by the Sargent responsible for the Cranbrook men. In his letter home he wrote that "the boys are all well and that there is no truth in the report of a desertion of a Cranbrook volunteer. All of the boys behaved as gentlemen on the journey and are now encamped at Valcartier." 

Certainly a number of men did walk away from the camp before the enlistment process began in ernest in the middle of September, unwilling to put up with the discipline, drills and other requisites of being in the army. Hundreds of other would-be volunteers were declared medically unfit for any number of reasons.  For those who persevered and met the grade it was the beginning of the Great Adventure.

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