Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Soldiers Disturbing the Peace: Crime and Drunkeness in Nova Scotia, 1941-45

Military Districts in Atlantic CAN Hyperwar.
It is hard to deny the overarching narrative of the Second World War as the "good war".  In the reduced, synthesized, and simplified version of the conflict, Nazi villains are thwarted by the Anglo-American heroes in a clean story of right and wrong.  Individual experience, of course, rarely matched this crisp moral contrast, as lives are lived in the complex blur of intentions, identities, and circumstance.  In Military District No. 6 (Nova Scotia and P.E.I.) during the war there is plenty of evidence to support Kipling's thesis that, "single men in barracks don't grow into plaster saints."

VE Day Riots, Halifax. Life as a human blog.
Halifax was clearly a disciplinary problem during the war, and the major efforts to keep the peace made by Military District (MD) No. 6 and Atlantic Command were in the capital city.  The most celebrated incident of military misdemeanour was the VE Day Riot of 7-8 May 1945, but there were plenty of  disturbances before the end of the war in Europe.  Almost a year earlier, on 3 June 1944, the Halifax Daily Star reported:

In some parts of Halifax the misconduct of service personnel has already become notorious. [...]
         So far as most citizens can see, the Provost Corps is more concerned with raising vegetables within the precincts of Citadel Hill than in patrolling the streets and apprehending offenders. [...]
            The plain fact of the matter is that discipline among military personnel in this community just isn't being maintained in the manner that citizens have a right to expect.
            Far too many instances of women being accosted, insulted and exposed to ridicule have taken place for authorities to admit of the least complacency.

The military and civilian police in Halifax simply couldn't keep up with massive influx of service personnel.  There was a lack of provost to police them, and a lack of accommodations to entertain them.

Smaller towns across Nova Scotia also had their problems with rowdy soldiers.  Places like Kentville, New Glasgow, Debert and Tormentine, towns on the railway line or near training bases, experienced troubles with late-night revelry getting out of hand.  Restaurants and hotels were ransacked and goods stolen.  Fights were a common occurrence.

That Canadian soldiers acted contrary to a sanctified memory which puts them on a pedestal is no surprise to the student of military history.  John Baynes in his 1967 classic Morale: A Study of Men and Courage notes that even first-class battalions could cause troubles in their local garrison town.  Baynes wrote in reference to British regiments before the First World War that, "The experienced officer knows almost by instinct whether the trouble is due to poor morale or high spirits.  Good soldiers must have a bit of devilment in them, and it is no good becoming alarmed at occasional outbursts of misbehaviour." (95)

In January 1943, the St. Peter's Anglican Church in Eastern Passage Nova Scotia was the site of soldierly debauchery.  The organist there discovered property damage, spilled beer, and vomit around the altar, "from which there was a odor [sic] of liquor".  (RG24 Vol. 2189) Other evidence left at the scene of the crime, as reported by an inspector on the case, borders on the absurd:

"INVESTIGATING THIS MATTER FURTHER THE WRITER again contacted Rev. E.A. KINGSBURY, at this time he informed the writer that there was still a package of hot dogs in the church which he though had been left there by the persons responsible for the desecration of the church.  Rev. KINGSBURY went to the church with the writer and handed these hot dogs over.  Further enquiries were then made at Murdock's Canteen and Miss FAULKNER recalled that these three men, whom she had identified on January 19th, had ordered some Hot Dogs done up so as they could take them out with them, also that one of the men had asked her to put a cigar in one of the buns instead of a sausage so that he could play a joke on someone.[...]
Three empty beer bottles, and the two hot dogs are contained on the attached [form] 246. and are held at this office pending further developments in this case."(Inspector TW Chard to the Deputy Attorney General, Province of Nova Scotia, "Re: Desecration of St. Peter's Anglican Church, Eastern Passage, N.S. Complaint of Rev. A.E. Kingsbury","Disturbances M.D. No. 6 - Canadian Active Service Forces", Folder HQ-54-27-63-7, Library and Archives Canada, RG24 Volume 2189, 22 February 1943.)

Aside from weenies and beer bottles, there was testimony that singled out the culprits, identifying one man as having returned to barracks wearing a priest's gown and ordering his fellow soldier to "get down and say his confession." One gunner was given twenty-one days detention with forfeited pay, and the other reverted to the rank of gunner permanently."Statement No. 2: Statement of Reg. No. B.600160 Gnr. Samuel MONTAGNA, R.C.A. Devils Battery, Eastern Passage, Nova Scotia", RG 24 Volume 2189,  19th January 1943.

Trouble around military pay-day was common, and there was no lack of business proprietors calling for guards to be stationed near their properties.  Having one's premises placed out of bounds was another possible remedy, but this action was clearly not favoured due to the loss of military business.

Alcohol was almost always involved in these disturbances.  Several early incidents surrounded bootlegging establishments, with soldiers getting drunk and causing trouble.  In Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia on 14 June 1940, Antonio DiVito's candy store, where bootleg liquor was refused to soldiers, became the site of a quarrel and some petty property damage.  Ethnicity was a factor in this case.  DiVito was an Italian naturalized in 1922 (or '23) and a woman had attempted to incite the crowd to destroy Italian businesses by suggesting that since she had a son in uniform that DiVito should be enlisted as well."Proceedings of a Court of Inquiry assembled at Sydney Mines, N.S. on the 16th June, 1940. by order of Lieut.-Col. W.H. Dobbie, D.S.O., R.C.A. Commanding Sydney Fortress. for the purpose of inquiring into and reporting upon the circumstances surrounding a disturbance in Sydney Mines, N.S. on Friday, 14th June 1940 in which troops of the Sydney garrison are alleged to have taken part.", RG 24 Volume 2189, 16 June 1940.

Soldiers training in New Glasgow, 1940.
The Memory Project.
In New Glasgow in early February 1941, a number of soldiers on leave got into a huge brawl and burned the house of a bootlegger.  Race again was a major factor here, as the African-Canadian bootlegger worked and lived in a black neighbourhood.  Much racist vitriol was exposed in the court proceedings.  A Mr J.C. Dorrington, who sold beer from his house, had denied the soldiers drink as he was closing up his shop.  When they forced entry into his home, he and some friends beat them up.  Soldiers returned later with a  mob and drove Dorrington and his family out of his house, destroying it.

The prime culprits were members of the Essex Scottish regiment.  Judge-Advocate General R.J. Orde's comments on the incident suggest that racist attitudes by southern American personnel in the unit may have prompted the destruction of the house.  The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry were also involved in the incident, and it appears that there was also brawling between members of the two regiments that night in New Glasgow.  The court martial proceedings of this case are rich enough to be quoted at length in a future blog post. RJ. Orde, [likely to Adjutant-General] "The trouble in New Glasgow",  RG 24 Volume 2189, 11 February 1941.
What are we to glean from these cases of soldiers gone wild?  Jeff Keshen's work Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers: Canada's Second World War, takes issue with the notion of the good war, and discovered a great deal of Canadian soldiers and civilians alike behaved in unpatriotic and even criminal ways.  The record of disturbances in Nova Scotia certainly confirms this.  Perhaps Keshen's categories, however, of saint, sinner, and soldier, are not mutually exclusive.  While the racist clash in New Glasgow, with its drunken vitriol and violence, are not the stuff of military heroism, is it not possible that some members of the Essex Scottish regiment or the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry acted bravely in battle in August 1942 when they stormed the beaches in the ill-fated Dieppe raid?  Were the saints of Dieppe past sinners at New Glasgow?

The Canadian Encylopeida
 on the Dieppe Raid
Our conception of military valour takes a snap-shot of a life and defines an individual by it.  It would be ridiculous to suggest that one of the men awarded the Victoria Cross at Dieppe, (a Lieutenant Colonel and a padre), were involved in these previous digressions, yet it is not unreasonable to believe men who behaved very poorly on that drunken night in Nova Scotia, later proved themselves as brave soldiers under fire.  Military crime scuffs the polished finish of military memory, betraying a tarnished halo adorning the statuesque good war.  To take time to consider transgressions of military discipline, however, is not to smear the name of the Canadian soldier in the Second World War, but to humanize him.

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