May Day

The weather in Toronto, Ontario on May 1, 1916 was mild and dry: the high temperature was 19 degrees Celsius (66 F) and the low was 9 C (48 F). (1) Nothing to complain about for a spring day in Canada.

In France, by contrast, the temperature was close to freezing, which would not have been a big problem except for the Army’s official proclamation that summer begins on May 1st. Therefore blankets had been collected and returned to the Army Service Corps for cleaning and storage until winter.(2)

HIghlanders and sandbag bundles crop

Soldier with a bundle of sandbags (3)


“Nearly every army problem has a solution if given the right approach, ” wrote Captain Robert Clements over fifty years later. On May 1, 1916, the 25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Regiment), in which he had enlisted and of which he was writing, were shivering in tents in western Flanders. Nearby was a storage dump, where huge numbers of new sandbags awaited filling. Sandbags were made of coarse sacking, but a thick layer of empty hessian bags was found to make a “fine soft bed to sleep on,” and “others tied together formed very comfortable top blankets.” Clements reports that the 25th helped itself to more than 50,000 of the bags, which were carried off in their neat bundles of fifty. Despite the wrath of the officer in control of the supply dump, an hour of negotiation and “four or five stiff drinks” sufficed to come to an arrangement. The 25th could keep their sandbags while they stayed in the temporary camp, as long as they rebundled the bags and returned them to the storage dump when the regiment moved on.

The 25th slept comfortably for a week, the bags were returned as promised, and the weather, thankfully, improved.

In Toronto, the weather stayed temperate the whole week, and only a fraction of an inch of rain fell.

(1) Climate and weather records of the Government of Canada
(2) This story comes from Clements, Captain Robert N. Merry Hell. The Story of the 25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Regiment). Ed. Brian Douglas Tennyson. Toronto: 2013. 115
(3) The Atlantic’s World War One in Photographs.


Copyright 2016. See “About this project.”

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