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How Queen's engineering students helped prepare Canada for The Great War

READY TO SERVE: The 5th Field Company Canadian Engineers made a significant contribution to the war effort in the summer of 1914. Some 150 Queen's engineers designed and built a staging camp at Valcartier, Quebec to accomodate and prepare more than 30,000 soldiers for deployment to Europe. Thanks to the foresight of one Queen's engineering professor, Queen's was equipped and prepared to help when war broke out in Europe. It was a first among universities in Canada.

In 1914, when war broke out in Europe, there were just more than seven million Canadians. More than half of them were younger than 25 and only about four in a hundred were older than 65. Home electrical and telephone service were fancy novelties and women had not yet won the right to vote.

PRESCIENT LEADER: Queen’s engineering professor Alexander “Sandy” MacPhail, believing Queen’s ought to be ready for war in Europe, lobbied the Engineering Society to form an engineering company as early as 1909. He oversaw construction of the Valcartier Training Camp before leading a contingent of 50 Queen’s engineers in the First Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Kingston had a population then of about 15,000 and Queen’s was really coming into its own as an institution. It was, after years of struggle and uncertainty, relatively financially stable and national in reputation. It was on a facilities-building streak – Grant, Nicol, Jackson, Kingston and Gordon Halls were all new – and had a fine society of alumni, faculty and students. The footprint was much smaller than it is today, effectively bounded by University, Stuart, Barrie and Union Streets. Campus was surrounded by a smattering of suburban homes and grassy pastureland. It marked the city’s outskirts.   

Notions of military preparedness weren’t new among Queen’s students and faculty. Various civilian militias operated on campus from at least the 1880s. The demographics of the Queen's community were overwhelmingly Anglo, with many recent immigrants from Britain, including veterans of the Boer War, eager to serve and defend the empire.

So, as clouds of war began to gather over Europe in the early years of the 20th Century, a Queen’s engineering professor became convinced a corps of well-trained Queen’s engineers ought to be ready to serve king, country and empire in the interests of national defence.

Alexander “Sandy” MacPhail became a professor of civil engineering at Queen’s in 1904. It’s a role he held throughout his working life, even serving as department head for more than 20 years. MacPhail advocated for military training for Queen’s volunteers as early as 1909. He guided the formation of a rifle association comprised of 75 students that spring and by the end of the year had easily convinced The Engineering Society to sanction a company of Canadian engineers. The university proposed the plan to the Canadian government and by April, 1910, the Fifth Field Company Canadian Engineers was a legitimate, state-sanctioned militia unit. There were supplied rifles, ammunition and equipment, paid drill for members and rigorous, ongoing training by qualified military officers.

TECHNICAL TRAINING: Queen’s engineering professor Douglas Ellis (centre facing) was one of the early officers in the Fifth. He went on to command the company in the 1920s and later served as Dean of Applied Science at Queen’s from 1943 to 1955. In this photo, about 1910, each man has a battery and telegraph key. They appear to be practicing Morse code.  

This was a first among Canadian universities. Government previously declined offers of military assistance from university administrators or to grant official sanction to student military groups. With government support, the Fifth became a skilled and well-prepared company years before war erupted in Europe.  

On August 6, 1914, two days after Britain declared war on Germany, then-Major MacPhail received a lettergram from the federal government’s Militia Department inquiring about the company’s readiness. Less than two weeks later, some 160 members of the Fifth were deployed to an empty, grassy field near a railway line at Valcartier, Quebec with orders to build a camp large enough to accommodate, train and equip 30,000 soldiers on their way to Europe. Water and sewerage, roadways, electric lighting, communications systems, storehouses, armouries and ammunition dumps, weapons ranges, command and administration facilities, transportation support, stables and even entertainment venues had to be planned, built and functional virtually overnight.

It was a very big task for a very few men and the engineers of the Fifth distinguished themselves and Queen’s immediately by somehow making it all work seemingly instantaneously. As more and more volunteers and additional companies of engineers arrived at Valcartier, the Fifth was diffused into other units. Fifty men, including MacPhail, joined the First Canadian Expeditionary Force when it crossed the Atlantic to England in the first days of October, barely two months after the declaration of war. The remaining members mostly stayed at Valcartier for a time before returning to Kingston to continue training and studies and to aid recruiting efforts. Dozens more Queen’s engineers joined the Second Canadian Expeditionary Force when it left for Europe in 1915.

In all, some 1,500 Queen’s students and faculty served in The Great War; most accounts are that 167 of them didn’t come back. Contributions by members of the Fifth are memorialized by Fifth Field Company Lane. It’s the road off Union between Nicol and Miller that leads past Clark Hall. Those limestone gateposts at Union mark the original gates to campus and Fifth Field Company Lane as the original main road around which Queen’s was built.

THE STAGING GROUND: When war was declared on August 4, 1914, Valcartier was nothing more than a grassy field near a rail line. By September 8, more than 36,000 soldiers had gathered there from across Canada for training and staging. A month later, most of those men shipped to Europe with the First Canadian Expeditionary Force.   

It’s a fitting honour for an amazing early contribution to our national history by Queen’s engineers. But over the years, signage has worn and torn, the gateposts have weathered and taken their knocks and modern concrete and steel buildings have overshadowed the area. So, in the spring of 2017 as part of Queen’s 175th anniversary celebrations, Fifth Field Company Lane will be rededicated with new signage and memorial accoutrements.