Throwback Thursday: April 1916

We begin this edition of Throwback Thursday by reaching back 102 years to April 1916, when Canada was at war, and any open space that was big enough might be called upon to serve as a drill field, or at least a photographic backdrop. Former CRA board director Keith Lawrance sends us this from his new perch at Toronto City Hall. He notes that the view extends from Geneva Street on the left, through the Zoo as it then was, as far as Broadview Avenue.

The photo is of the 180th “Sportsmen’s” Overseas Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Here it is  again in three sections, from left to right of the formation, so that details are more easily visible.

Left

Centre

Right

Local amateur war historian John Thompson of the Royal Canadian Military Institute, tells us that “Sportsmen’s Battalions” originated in the U.K. as part of the Pals & Battalions of 1914/15, usually reruited among star athletes from football, cricket, rugby and other sports teams, and then using them to draw supporters of those teams into the battalions. (The “Pals” system of  recruiting led to entire neighbourhoods of young men being slaughtered in the battles of 1914-15 – one reason why the Canadian Reserves of today are never committed as full units).

For this reason among others,  Canadian recruiting worked differently. Local militia regiments would continue to recruit men until 1917. Men would go into the drafts of the numbered battalions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

The Sportmen’s Battalions in the U.K. were emulated by two Canadian battalions, the 180th and 202nd. The 180th Sportsman’s Battalion was recruited in the Toronto area in the winter of 1915/16, sailed for the U.K. in November 1916, and was absorbed into the 3rd Reserve Battalion on January 6, 1917. It had one commanding officer, LCol R.H. Greer.

It continued recruiting through most of 1916, playing up its “Sportsman” image to reach its full authorized strength, which probably explains their appearance on a Cabbagetown sports field. Other than this, the unit did nothing that history remembers it for, but the men it recruited and trained would have been at Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, Amiens, and on through the 100 days that broke the back of Germany’s armies.

This photo shows a little over 500 officers and men. Mr. Thompson notes that if the normal ratios held,some 20 per cent of the men in the photo would have been killed in action or died of wounds, and 40 per cent would have been wounded at least once.

Technically, the photo is a remarkable example of a panoramic group photo. The panoramic technique was pioneered in 1844 and there are still panoramic cameras being made, though the smartphone is probably fast replacing them. The panoramic cameras of the early 20th century used a geared lens turret, which allowed even exposure. In graduation photos, it also allowed the class wise guy to appear at both ends of the group if he was fast enough. (This practice was discouraged in military photography.)

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