MANDATORY MILITIA TRAINING ONCE FACT OF LIFE (October 7/05)

In last week’s column on the 1909 diary of Dempsey Corner farmer Dimock Bowlby I mentioned that in his time mandatory militia training was a fact of life.

Actually, since just before the arrival of the Planters in the 18th century, all male Nova Scotians were required to attend military exercises at least once a year. A so-called universal militia law was proclaimed in Nova Scotia as early as 1758. Arthur Wentworth Hamilton Eaton writes in his Kings County history that under this law, “all male persons, planters, and inhabitants, and their servants, between the ages of sixteen and sixty, residing in and belonging to this province, shall bear arms and duly attend all musters and military exercises.”

What this meant to farmers like Dimock Bowlby was that at least once a year he had to report to Aldershot Camp, sleep in a tent and live the life of a soldier for a few weeks. His daughter, Janet Parker Vaughan, tells me Bowlby received a commission “in the early 1900s as a Lieutenant or Captain,” first training near Aylesford where the camp was then located and later at the site of the current Aldershot Camp. Bowlby’s diary indicates that militia training was held late in the year, running from September 7 to September 18.

As I mentioned in last week’s column, Mr. Bowlby’s diary entries were for the most part sparse in detail and to the point. The entry for October 12, to give an example, is typical: “We were picking and sorting apples.”

However, when Mr. Bowlby was forced by law – right at harvest time – to leave his farm and participate in military exercises, he begins to add a few more details to his usually terse diary entries. The tone of the reports on his militia training period is… well, there are no complaints and no entry that indicates he was a reluctant civilian soldier. In fact, one can sense that he seems to enjoy the break from the never ending labour inherent in life on the farm; he doesn’t complain anyway.

“September 7, Tuesday. I went to camp at Aldershot,” Bowlby writes about the start of his militia training. The next day his diary shows that “we went to Kentville for the arms,” which since he was an officer apparently means he was supervising the removal of firearms from stores for shipment to Aldershot Camp. The same entry indicates there was a medical inspection and a “muster parade and squad drill.”

On the third day of training at Aldershot, there was “squad drill skirmishing (mock warfare?) and “rifle and musketry exercise.” This reference puzzled me since rifle exercises and musketry exercises seem to be the same thing. However, military expert Gordon Hansford cleared this up, explaining that the former refers to drilling with rifles, the latter to firing rifles on a range.

The remainder of Bowlby’s entries refer to ongoing drill and mock war manoeuvres. There’s an interesting entry on September 17, the next to final day of militia training. “A sham fight in the forenoon,” Bowlby writes. Bowlby was probably serving with the Kings Canadian Hussars. In his history of Aldershot Camp, Brent Fox notes that several militia outfits from around the province trained at the camp the same times as the Hussars and rivalry was keen. The sham fight Bowlby blandly refers to may have been what Fox called “spontaneous pugilism between the Nova Scotia militia units.”

Anyway, Mr. Bowlby survived life in the tents and the rivalry and by September 18 his life was back to normal. His entry for that date: “We were picking crab apples and mowing grain.”

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