Aldershot’s first Canadian visitors

By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum

It is well-known that Aldershot was the centre for the Canadian Army Overseas throughout the Second World War, and the links forged during that time remain strong to this day. However, the units which arrived over the winter of 1939-1940 were not the first Canadian soldiers to come to Aldershot, for some 29 years earlier the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada had been honoured guests of the town.

The origins of their visit go back to the celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Among a small contingent of Canadians representing their country was Major Henry Pellatt of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, who commanded the Colonial Guard of Honour for the Queen at Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Henry Pellatt was born on 6 January 1859 and grew up in Toronto, Ontario. In his twenties he founded the Toronto Electric Light Company, which brought him considerable prosperity. Henry later inherited his father’s successful stockbroking business, and further shrewd investments in the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Toronto Electric Railway Company saw Pellatt’s fortune grow to some 17 million dollars, making him one of the wealthiest men in Canada.

Pellatt was a staunch patriot and supporter of the British Empire, and in 1876 he volunteered as a rifleman in the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada. He worked his way through the ranks until, in 1901, he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and commanding officer of the regiment. The following year Pellatt commanded the Canadian contingent at the coronation of King Edward VII and brought with him, at his own expense, the Queen’s Own Rifles’ Bugle Band. Further honours followed, as Pellatt was appointed Honorary Aide-de-Camp to the Governor General of Canada, was knighted in the New Years’ Honours List of 1907, and promoted to Colonel later that year.

1910 was a significant year for the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, as it marked the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the regiment in 1860. The regiment had fought in the Fenian Raids of 1866 and in the North-West Rebellion of 1885. With his immense pride in his regiment, and memories of his earlier visits to Britain, Sir Henry Pellatt decided to mark the golden jubilee of the Queen’s Own Rifles by bringing them to England to take part in the autumn Army manoeuvres.

The long trip began on 13 August 1910 when 632 men of the regiment marched from their depot to Toronto railway station, from where they travelled via Montreal and Quebec to Port Levis. On 20 August they boarded the SS Megantic, specially charted for the voyage to Britain, which docked at Liverpool on Saturday 27 August. As the regiment came ashore they were met by large crowds and given a fine civic welcome, before boarding two special trains to bring them to Aldershot. This was another long railway journey, taking four hours from Liverpool to London and another two hours to Aldershot. For refreshment, the men were each given a special box “with a suitable inscription outside, and inside a substantial luncheon, together with a glass and bottle of mineral water”. Sir Henry and Lady Pellatt enjoyed the use of a luxury saloon carriage, while their horses travelled in the Royal horse box formerly used to transport the horses of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII.

Throughout August Aldershot had been buzzing with excitement about their special visitors. The original plan was for the trains to go into Government Sidings, but this was abandoned as so many people wanted to see and greet the Canadians. Instead it was decided that they would arrive at Aldershot Station and march through the town centre to their camp. The route from the station, along Wellington Street and Union Street, was decorated with “flags of every nation, streamers and bannerettes by the mile, and words of welcome at all points of vantage”, while huge crowds estimated at over 20,000 lined the streets. Many of these were in position from around 8 o’clock in the evening but they had a long wait, as the Canadians’ special trains did not arrive until a few minutes before 10 o’clock.

Assembled at the station were all the members of the Urban District Council, senior military officers from the garrison, and other local dignitaries. The Chairman of the Council presented a ceremonial address of welcome, and the Canadians formed up behind a massed military band consisting of musicians from the Scots Guards, Irish Guards, Gordon Highlanders, the Buffs, the Norfolk Regiment, and the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. As they marched through the town the waiting crowds cheered and shouted their welcome. The Canadians’ camp site was on Rushmoor Hill, close to the Wellington Statue, where the Royal Engineers had set up searchlights to help the visitors into camp. On arrival the men were provided with hot drinks and refreshments before getting some much-needed sleep.

For the next few days the Queen’s Own Rifles had a full programme of drills, route marches, and rifle practice. They were also given ample opportunities to meet with the resident Aldershot battalions and see them at work, including a “sham fight” between the Buffs and the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry on Fox Hills. The band accepted an invitation from the 3rd Dragoon Guards to a joint musical evening, and a Canadian team played a cricket match against the Buffs. For the people of Aldershot the visitors’ camp was a source of fascination. “Thousands of people flocked to Rushmoor Camp on Sunday to see our Canadian visitors”, reported Sheldrake’s Aldershot Military Gazette, “The fellows seemed to thoroughly enjoy their stay here. And what flirts!”

On 7 September the Canadians began the most important part of their programme, which was to take part in the Aldershot inter-Divisional manoeuvres. They were attached to the 2nd Division, and were given the honour of leading the march out of Aldershot. Field Marshal the Duke of Connaught visited the Queen’s Own Rifles’ camp to conduct a formal inspection as the King’s representative. After welcoming them, he said: “In the King’s name, I assure you of the very great pleasure and the very great satisfaction which it has been to him to know that you have been the first representative of his armies over the seas to take part with British regular troops in peace manoeuvres.” The Duke also delivered the King’s command for Sir Henry to visit His Majesty at Balmoral. With a small detachment Sir Henry travelled to his audience with the King, who conferred the Royal Victorian Order on Sir Henry and three other officers of the regiment, and the silver medal of the Order was awarded to the senior non-commissioned officer, Colour-Sergeant MacDonald.

The Canadians were allowed a short break from the manoeuvres to visit London from 13 to 16 September. In the capital they were accommodated at the Duke of York’s Military School, Chelsea, and although the visit was largely recreational there was an inevitable formal parade on the last day. This began with an inspection by Mr Richard Haldane, Secretary of State for War, after which the Queen’s Own Rifles marched through the city to the Guildhall for a formal reception by the Lord Mayor of London. Along the route were large crowds who cheered the visitors and shouted “Bravo, Canada!”.

Following their few days in the capital, the Canadians returned to the manoeuvres which were underway on Salisbury Plain, where they worked with 6th Brigade. After the exercises finished the Queen’s Own Rifles departed from Dinton Station on 24 September, cheered on their way by their British comrades. Waiting at the station was the Duke of Connaught who gave a speech or farewell and congratulation before the men boarded the train for Liverpool, from where they sailed home on the White Star liner SS Canada. The entire cost of the visit was borne by Sir Henry Pellatt and was estimated at some £20,000 (a value of around £2.1 million in today’s prices).

The overall satisfaction with the great success of the Canadians’ visit was regrettably overshadowed with sadness at the end. During their visit seven men had been taken ill with typhoid fever, among them Sir Henry’s son, Captain Reginald Pellatt, who was unable to return with the regiment. Lady Pellatt remained in Britain to nurse her son, who made a full recovery and was able to go home a short time later. Captain Pellatt was treated privately in London, but the other patients were taken to the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot. All recovered from their illness except for one young officer, Lieutenant Roy Gzowski, who died on 25 September 1910, aged 21. Unfortunately Gzowski had contracted pneumonia after the typhoid, and he did not survive this second illness.

There was widespread grief at the loss of this young man and sympathy for his family. The King sent a message of condolence to Lieutenant Gzowski’s parents, and at his funeral Lord Strathcona, Canadian High Commissioner, represented the Canadian Government. Gzowski was given a full military funeral, attended by many senior officers from Aldershot Command and detachments from every regiment in the garrison at the time. He was buried in Aldershot Military Cemetery, where pipers from the Cameron Highlanders played the lament “The Flowers of the Forest” and the Buffs provided the firing party over the grave.

Roy Gzowski was the first Canadian serviceman to die while on duty with his unit outside Canada. A fine red terracotta monument was erected over the grave, designed by Mary Seton Watts and made in her workshop at Compton. The inscription says that he “died whilst doing duty in the Mother Country” and around the base are the words: “Erected by the Officers of the Aldershot Command in token of the fellowship which binds England to Canada and all soldiers of the Empire to one another”.


Article originally published in the The Garrison, Winter 2019

Copyright © Paul H. Vickers. This article, including the accompanying pictures, may not be reproduced or republished, in whole or in part, either in print or electronically, including on any websites or social media sites, without the prior permission of the author.