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Langley’s Mounted Rifles

A century after the outbreak of the First World War, Warren Sommer recounts how Langley residents answered the call of King and Country
Dr. Benjamin Marr, Langley’s sole physician when the First World War broke out, first trained for and served in the cavalry before transferring to the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Below: George Ripley on horseback; Dave Lattimer; Art Johnston; Jessie Wright and Archie Payne.

When Langley farmers opened their copies of the British Columbian weekly of  June 30, 1914, it was the 100th birthday of New Westminster’s Mrs. George Debeck that dominated the Fraser Valley newspaper’s front page.  News of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which had occurred just two days earlier, was consigned to a story on the side.

Murdered in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo, the late Archduke was heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.  His murder by Serbian extremists was seen in Austria as part of a sinister plot on the part of the Serbian government to destabilize the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Despite his lofty status, Franz Ferdinand was little liked by the Austrian government.  His death nonetheless offered an irresistible excuse for Austria to take military action against its troublesome Balkan neighbour.  Yet after the initial drama of the assassination, the press made little mention of the incident.

There was nothing to suggest an emerging regional conflict, much less an impending global conflagration.

On July 23, however, the Austrian government presented Serbia with an inflammatory ten-point ultimatum.  Within days, Serbia had agreed to each of its demands, save for one that would have jeopardized the nation’s very sovereignty.  Serbia’s non-compliance was sufficient excuse for Austria to declare war, and at that point a complex web of international treaties, alliances and understandings all came into play.

Russia rallied to the defence of Serbia and Germany to the support of Austria, thereby placing Russia at war with Germany.

France’s alliance with Russia ensured her participation in the emerging conflict.  If that was not enough, Great Britain’s understandings with France and Russia put her on the side of those two countries, though it was not until Germany sent troops through neutral Belgium that Britain entered the growing fray.

As a British dominion Canada had a peculiar status within the British Empire, enjoying full independence in all matters save for foreign affairs.

With close to 60 per cent of its residents tracing their origins to the British Isles, however, the vast majority of Canadians considered themselves loyal members of a world-wide family of British nations, each of them prepared to fight for the Empire.

Most Canadians shared the view of Sir Wilfred Laurier, Canada’s former prime minister: “When Great Britain is at war, Canada is at war!”  It therefore came as no surprise that when Britain declared war on Germany in early August, Canada also began to mobilize.

Canadian support for the Empire’s cause was greatest in the nation’s westernmost province, where over half the population was British-born and 68 per cent of residents claimed British ancestry.  Many of these were recent immigrants from an over-crowded mother country who had come to British Columbia in search of cheaper land, new opportunities, and a healthier, wealthier life.

Though Langley was by no means the most British community in the province, its recent population growth had been largely fuelled by immigration from the British Isles.  The new arrivals were a mixture of families and young single males, including skilled agricultural and industrial labourers.  Many came to their new homes with varying degrees of military experience, having served in the British army overseas or in their home counties’ militia units.

Even so, of all the belligerent nations, Canada was perhaps the least prepared for war.  The Royal Canadian Navy was barely four years old, equipped with two aging cruisers, and boasted a total strength of just 295 officers and men.  The nation’s army was only slightly stronger, but with a permanent force of 3,110 officers and men, it posed little threat to the millions of Germans and Austrians then under arms overseas.

Canada’s military strength lay instead in its local militias, the equivalent of today’s army reserves.  These totalled between 45,000 and 60,000 men, each of its members more or less trained in the arts of drill and musketry.

A handful of Langley men, such as Aldergrove sawmill worker Crossland Oddy, belonged to Vancouver’s Duke of Connaught’s Own Regiment.  Others, like Fort Langley fisherman Jesse Wright, were members of what would later become the Royal Westminster Regiment.

Langley had no militia unit, though attempts had been made to establish an arm of the Westminsters in nearby Cloverdale.  With war on the horizon, however, Langley residents took steps to establish a force of their own.  Initially known as the Langley Volunteers, this small group of men was subsequently designated as “C” Squadron of the 31st B.C. Horse (Mounted Rifles).  The unit appears to have been led by Art Johnston, a veteran of the Boer War and proprietor of the general store then housed on the ground floor of the old Murrayville Hall.

Others involved in the organization included George Blair, Langley’s chief of police (and only policeman); George Sellers, a prominent resident of Fort Langley; Archie Payne, the clerk of the municipal council; Dr. Benjamin Marr, Langley’s sole physician; Dave Lattimer, owner of Milner’s livery stable; Fort Langley blacksmith George Medd; and Murrayville poultry-man Harry Witcombe.  Formerly a sergeant in the Royal Garrison Artillery’s gunnery school, Witcombe took charge of instructing the unit in military drill.

During the autumn of 1914, Langley’s squadron of the B.C. Horse rode out every weekend, honing its riding skills and patrolling the countryside.

Fears that enemy saboteurs would slip across the international boundary were apparently pervasive.  The British Columbian reflected these concerns when it reported in early October:

“The B.C. Horse were out on a scouting expedition in Abbotsford on Saturday, camped there that night and rode back to Langley on Sunday afternoon after thoroughly patrolling the border country.  Desperados and Germans who cannot give a good account of themselves had better keep across the line!”

The formation of the B.C. Horse was timely, the outbreak of war having thrown the country into a state of considerable panic.  Innocent, but inexplicable occurrences were routinely attributed to the German menace.  When the pot-bellied stove in Milner’s general store exploded, fingers were pointed at a suspicious stranger who locals recalled hanging about the area the day before.  Mysterious lights in the sky over Aldergrove were feared to be a German aircraft.  Even the bothersome thistles that lined Langley’s roads felt the community’s ire, being characterized as German, rather than native weeds, and thus all the more threatening.

Port Kells farmer Carl von Mackensen, a nephew of the soon-to-be-famous German field marshal, was labelled a German spy and interned in Vernon.  Many considered his hilltop mansion, with its interconnecting passages and rumoured secret tunnel, a hotbed of enemy espionage.

Burdened with a German-sounding surname, Murrayville’s hitherto-respected Hagelstein family felt obliged to become the Hazelsons, if only for the war’s duration.  Even the community’s wartime mayor, Irish-born Robert Wark, suffered at the hands of the hysteria.  As Wark’s daughter Mary recalled 90 years later:

“My mother tended to hire as household help women who desperately needed a job and for whom she felt sorry.  (We got an occasional doozy!).  One of these decided that my father, an Irishman with a brogue right out of Londonderry, was a German spy.

“She made this known frequently to all within earshot.  I can still see my Dad striding down the road to the station, her suitcase on his shoulder, the lady following close behind screaming that accusation at him.”

In the face of all these false alarms, the Langley unit of the B.C. Horse must have been gratified when it encountered a group of apparently genuine Austrian reservists trying to avoid internment.

As the British Columbian reported: warned of their presence by Police Chief Blair, “Corporal Marr and Sergeant Sellers, with Privates Bartlett, Gay, Hope, Wright, Ripley, and others, left the Fort at the gallop” in pursuit of the enemy soldiers.

Rendezvousing with Captain Art Johnston at Milner, the B.C. Horse continued south to the American border, surrounded the alleged reservists in their camp, took them into custody, and sent them by hired bus to jail in New Westminster.  But the Langley men’s hour of glory quickly descended into farce.  While riding across a wooden bridge, Dr. Marr’s horse “fell foul of the planking and slipped half way through.  Constable Blair’s horse, coming on behind, kicked Marr twice,” rendering him lame for a week.

Ironically, Dr. Marr had earlier written to Sir Sam Hughes, the Minister of Militia, offering his services as a cavalry officer.

With an army already burdened with surplus horsemen, Hughes declined Marr’s offer.  But Marr was persistent and eventually trained for the cavalry.

When the army finally realized the limitations of cavalry in a highly mechanized war, Marr transferred to the Canadian Army Medical Corps, serving both in England and on the Western Front.  The British Columbian proved accurate in predicting a distinguished career for the doctor: “In future years, Fort Langley residents may have good cause to be thankful for experience gained at the terrible instance of war.”

Despite its initial celebrity, Langley’s unit of the B.C. Horse melted away as its officers and men enlisted in units destined for service overseas.  There, danger from loose planking faded into insignificance in the face of the indescribable horrors of trench warfare.  Soldiers sent to Europe were not “home by Christmas” as many had predicted.

Troops on both sides dug in for a lengthy war of attrition.  In the face of modern, mechanized warfare, men on horseback were routinely re-designated as foot soldiers.

Art Johnston, the Langley unit’s senior member, became a major in the 102nd Canadian Infantry Battalion and was posted to Belgium in June 1916.

Three months later, while leaving the safety of his dugout to help relieve another company, a stray bullet hit him in the temple.  Johnston died almost instantly, lamented by his men and admired by his commanding officer “as a friend, comrade, and soldier.”

Sgt. Jesse Wright, son of George and Mary Wright of Fort Langley, was killed in action at Vimy in April 1917, a few days after the Canadian Corps’s much-lauded capture of the strategic ridge.  Wright has no known grave and is remembered on the Canadian Memorial at Vimy.

Lt. George Sellers, a Fort Langley land agent, boat-builder and entrepreneur, survived three years of unspeakably bloody combat, only to be cut down by a German bullet eight weeks before the Armistice.

Not long after, his widow succumbed to the Spanish flu, her two young children left as orphans.

Seventeen years later, the Sellers’ newly-married daughter Kitty honoured her father’s memory by placing her floral bouquet on Vernon’s cenotaph on leaving her wedding service.

Archie Bartlett, an early member of the B.C. Horse, enlisted in the Canadian Army Service Corps in October 1917.  The morning he was to have reported to his unit a neighbour found him dead in his Fort Langley shack, a rifle by his side.  Bartlett had been an active and apparently contented member of the Langley community; his inner torment and suicide were never fully explained.

Sgt. Harry Witcombe survived the war, having served as an artillery instructor in England and later, as a gunner in France.

Many years later, his mind perhaps unhinged by carnage witnessed on the battlefield, he too ended his life with a shotgun blast.

Alex Hope eventually enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps, but got no nearer the front than Texas.

In later years he became active in politics, serving as Langley’s reeve and later as its MLA.  George Medd served as a driver and farrier in the Canadian Artillery and lived out his life in Langley.  George Ripley returned to his native Ireland but resettled in British Columbia after the war, where he died in 1929, aged just 36.

Archie Payne and Dr. Marr both survived the war, Payne having earned the Military Cross for gallantry under fire at the Battle of Passchendaele.  When the two men met again in Langley, the community was a vastly different place.

Close to half the adult male population had served in uniform.  Of those, one in ten lay buried in the blood-soaked fields of France or Flanders: victims of shell-fire, machine gun bullets, or poisonous gas.

Dozens more would never return to Langley; the disruption of war had directed their lives elsewhere.

Stirred by memories of service and suffering overseas, Marr and Payne lobbied to have the roads of Langley renamed in memory of the fallen.

Payne became a champion of veterans’ rights and helped to found the Langley branch of the Great War Veterans Association, now the Royal Canadian Legion.

Marr initiated the planting of memorial trees throughout the Township and inspired the construction of the Murrayville and Fort Langley cenotaphs.

Although the Langley squadron of the B.C. Horse had disbanded by the time the memorials were completed, the sacrifice of its members would long be remembered.

Warren Sommer is an author currently working on a book about Langley and the First World War.