Accidental. That’s how military records describe the March 5, 1919, deaths of William Tarasevich, Joseph Young, William Haney, Jack Hickman and David Gillan. These First World War Canadian soldiers all died in Wales, miles away from the Allied front—and four months after the war ended. They died in a military training camp called Kinmel Park, where they were among thousands of veterans awaiting ships back to Canada. Despite pleas from family members, the Canadian army has never revealed the full circumstances of these five fatal “accidents.” In fact, critics charge, it even failed to thoroughly investigate the deaths that occurred in what the official military record calls the country’s “most serious” postwar riot.
On March 4, 1919, soldiers from the camp’s eastern Ontario division, frustrated with the delays in returning home, sparked the riot by looting their dry-food depot. For two days, up to 800 uniformed men ransacked canteens, YMCA buildings, quartermaster’s stores and officers’ messes, pilfering their contents. While many men were drunk, most were “soberly intent” on having their demands met, insists Julian Putkowski, London Guildhall University lecturer and historical consultant to a new documentary, Kinmel Park Riots (to be broadcast on Dec. 20 on History Television).
The Kinmel Park uprising was just one in a string of postwar protests as demobilized soldiers waited—some up to 15 months—while governments and shipping agents negotiated transportation arrangements, and endured overcrowding, poor food, delays in pay and considerable boredom. But the greatest tragedy occurred at Kinmel Park, the final stop for those
scheduled to embark at Liverpool, 50 km away.
By the end of February, 1919, demobilization of the 19,000 troops stationed there had slowed to a trickle as camp commander Col. Malcolm Colquhoun announced one shipping delay after another. Then, news spread that the next unit scheduled to return was the 3rd Canadian Division, many of whom were recent draftees. This outraged the waiting men, especially those who had volunteered early in the war and adhered to the popular “first over, first home” principle. One of them was Gordon Boyd, who told Macleans before he died on Oct. 13 at age 101: “We were on parade and word passed around— there was a riot. So we just broke.”
Initial attempts to re-establish order met with little success. Some officers organized squadrons to defend their divisions, but non-rioting soldiers, who had little sympathy for the officers and were unwilling to risk injury, were reluctant to help out. Although Colquhoun forbade the use of ammunition, one major managed to secure 1,000 rounds. The first fatality, 30-year-old Sapper William Tarasevich, suffered a bayonet through the stomach. Cpl. Joseph Young, 36, fell next, also from bayonet wounds. William Haney, a 22-year-old signaller from Talbot, Alta., was shot in the face, and Gunner Jack Hickman, 21, of Dorchester, N.B., took a bullet in the chest.
But the most controversial “accident” involved Pte. David Gillan, a 20-year-old Cape Bretoner, who defended the camp in the final confrontation. According to the autopsy report and one officer eyewitness at the Canadian court of inquiry that followed within days, Gillan was shot in the back of the neck while advancing towards the rioters, raising the likelihood that one of his fellow camp defenders felled him. But the military
judges seated in Liverpool chose not to pursue the matter.
Kinmel Park Riot, a WelshCanadian co-production, records the Gillan family’s frustrations in trying to ascertain who was responsible for the fatality. “The family never heard about David’s death,” says Gillan’s grandson Stewart in the documentary. “There was no telegram, no acknowledgment to this day more than 80 years later about how David died.” British historian Putkowski, contacted by the Gillans in the mid-1990s, believes the inquiry’s failure in this regard is its greatest miscarriage of justice. “If David wasn’t a rioter, then who shot him and why weren’t any of the rioters prosecuted for murder?” asks Putkowski.
Historians agree that it would have been impossible for the rioters not to have been influenced by the 1917 Russian Revolution and the rash of civil and military strikes that punctuated the war’s end. But Canadian historian Desmond Morton also places much of the responsibility on recalcitrant officers. Kinmel Park’s transitional nature, he says, meant that “officers had no commitment, no connection to the soldiers,” and they did not, as a result, “take all vigorous steps to suppress the mutiny.” A similar lack of vigour is evident in the army’s efforts to understand how five young men died that day. ESI
Why did five Canadian soldiers die while waiting to return home?
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