The driver and the general

When the first world war broke out, the volunteers from the Halton Rifles concentrated at the Georgetown armoury, before heading out by train for Valcartier, and eventually overseas as part of the 4th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Cap badge of the Fourth Battalion

Captain Frank Chisholm brought a group of fifteen soldiers from Oakville as their contribution to the army. He would be told that he was too old to go himself, but later he was the recruiting officer for the 164th Battalion. We know the names of most of those who came from Acton and Milton and Georgetown, but it takes a bit of detective work to discover who the Oakville volunteers were.

One was Private Ernie Davis. Don’t believe everything you read in the papers. Here’s a notice from the Toronto Star, whose headline and picture caption confuse his initials with those of his father Joseph. Another notice said he inherited his ‘warlike tendency’ from his father, who served during the Fenian Raid.

Ernie was born in Aurora, but he was working in Oakville with his brother-in-law, William Whitaker Jr, a plumber. Ernie joined up with the Halton Rifles, was attested with the 4th, went overseas with them. But when he arrived in England, he was selected to be the driver for the British commander of the Canadian Contingent, Major-General Edwin Alderson. 

Major-General Alderson

Alderson had been chosen by the Minister of Militia, Sir Sam Hughes, but soon the two were locked in conflict – close conflict, because Hughes had preceeded his men overseas. Hughes insisted that the Canadian contingent were fully trained, and had the best equipment available. They weren’t and they didn’t. Alderson began by toughening the troops camped on Salisbury Plain that wet autumn, and dismissing some of Hughes’ political allies who had been appointed officers, but whom Alderson considered inefficient.

One of Sir Sam’s innovations was the Hughes shovel, which he patented in 1913. The idea had been suggested by his personal secretary, Ena MacAdam, and it had a detachable handle, a heavy blade that was supposed to deflect enemy fire, and a sight hole to fire through. It proved too heavy to dig with, and too light to protect against gunfire, and was scrapped. He fought a long battle to preserve the reputation of the Ross rifle, produced in Canada by one of his friends. It was a good target or sniper rifle, but jammed when it overheated, or when it got dirty, as it inevitably did in the trenches.

The Hughes shovel

The 4th went to France in February 1916, and after Ernie rejoined his unit in April. In May he was wounded, shot in the neck, but he returned to the front, and in the middle of June he was reported missing. By the end of the month, he was reported killed in action. Private A.E. Davis is commemorated on the Vimy Memorial, on the Aurora centotaph and in George’s Square in Oakville.