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Gilbert's Gallopers: The Rise and Fall of the 117th Eastern Townships Battalion, C.E.F.

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medium_morrill.5.jpgOn November 5, 1915, the Parliament of Canada issued an Order in Council authorizing the organization of the 117th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force , to be recruited in Sherbrooke, Quebec. The city of Sherbrooke had already provided soldiers for the 12th Battalion, as part of the first Canadian Division, and soldiers for the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles (5 CMR), as part of the third Canadian Division. By November 1915, the soldiers of the 12th Battalion were hardened veterans of the front lines in France, while the soldiers of 5 CMR were in England and preparing for their initiation on the front lines.

The citizens of the Eastern Townships, largely of English descent, were still eager to serve king and country. City and military officials decided that the 117th would be named the 117th Eastern Townships Overseas Battalion, C.E.F., and be recruited from men from the Eastern Townships. The rationale for this decision was that it would be the first battalion to have a distinct Eastern Townships demographic which would thus help with recruiting. It was a decision that proved successful.

The recruiting drive, spearheaded by the Sherbrooke Recruiting Association and the Eastern Townships Associated Boards of Trade, officially began in November 1915. With the 117th headquartered at the Sherbrooke Exhibition Grounds, Commanding Officer Lieutenant-Colonel Levi Jerome Gilbert, together with adjutant Captain Abel Whitehead and Staff Sgt. Clifford Oughtred, opened the office doors and welcomed their first recruits.

Within months, recruiting offices appeared throughout most of the Townships. Recruiting was strong in the towns of Richmond, Danville, Coaticook, Bury, Stanstead, and Sherbrooke. Even the smaller communities such as Lennoxville, Rock Forest, Hatley, Compton, Milby, Ayers Cliff, Cowansville, Knowlton, and East Angus were busy recruiting for the 117th. By April 1916, the 117th had recruited 944 men from across the Townships. The numbers were as follows: English Canadian, 327; French Canadian, 255; British, 280; and others 82. The majority of the men were farmers and labourers

By the end of May 1916, the 117th Eastern Townships Overseas Battalion, C.E.F., stood at a strength of 1278 men and 39 officers. Though not all of these men would sail to England, due to poor health, age, or others reasons, the total numbers attest to the dedication of the people from the Eastern Townships.

morrill.6.jpgOn August 12, 1916, the 117th left Valcartier for Halifax, where they would sail aboard the "Empress of Britain". With the voyage taking ten days, the 117th arrived in Liverpool on August 24, and made its way to Bramshott for further training and garrison duties. Letters home to loved ones share the soldiers' experiences while crossing the Atlantic. Some told of seasickness, cramped conditions, and boredom. However, the general theme of the letters was that the soldiers were happy and felt a certain esprit de corps within the 117th.

The 117th had an honour bestowed upon them in September 1916, when they were chosen for guard duty at Buckingham Palace. To this date, it is an honour that has only been extended to a few Canadian battalions.

By November 1916, rumours were rampant that battalions in England would be broken up to reinforce battalions already serving in France. Soldiers' letters home highlighted these rumours and enraged the citizens of the Eastern Townships.

Newspaper editorials served to remind military officials that the 117th was a distinct battalion recruited with the promise that the men would fight as a battalion and that the people of the Townships would take pride in keeping the battalion up to strength. Letters and calls from the Sherbrooke Recruiting Association and the Boards of Trade to the Premier and military officials demanding the battalion remain intact went unheeded.

By mid-November 1916, the men of the 117th were being drafted into other battalions. Many accused Lt. Col. Gilbert of not being strong enough to stand up to the other commanders, as the original draft saw 120 men transferred to the 148th and 100 men transferred to the 150th Battalion. Those not drafted in November were transferred to the 23rd Reserve Battalion and awaited further disposition. The second draft saw 165 men transferred to the 5th CMR, giving them at least some solace in serving with a somewhat homegrown battalion.

On January 11, 1917, the last of the 117th men were drafted into other battalions and left the shores of England for France. Self-proclaimed the "diehard," a group of 13 NCO's marched out of Shoreham wearing their 117th cap badge until joining their new battalions in France. Quite possibly the only ones proudly to wear a 117th cap badge in France, they continued to "carry them in our pockets to wear back to good old Sherbrooke.”

The disbandment of the 117th Eastern Township Battalion was complete as the last of "Gilbert's Gallopers" marched out of the gates of Shoreham. The soldiers of the 117th went to reinforce the following battalions: 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles, 1st Bn, 7th Bn, 13th Bn, 14th Bn, 16th Bn, 22nd Bn, 24th Bn, 42nd Bn, 43rd Bn, 60th Bn, 87th Bn, Canadian Field Artillery, Canadian Machine Gun Corps, Canadian Army Service Corps, Canadian Engineers, Canadian Labour Corps, Canadian Forestry Corps, as well as various administrative and garrison positions.

Without a battalion to command, Lieutenant-Colonel Gilbert was deemed surplus to C.E.F. requirements and released from military duties. He returned to Sherbrooke in 1917 with the daunting task of trying to explain why his battalion was disbanded.

In total, 162 men who attested with the 117th Eastern Townships Battalion gave their lives between 1916 and 1918. Another seven men would die as a direct result of their wounds between 1919 and 1921.

For further information on the 117 th Battalion, please visit www.117thbattalion.com