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Saluting the 5th Field Company

Saluting the 5th Field Company

[Archival photo of the 5th Field Company at Queen's University, 1911-12 session]
Queen's University Archives C2-Mil-FieldCo-4

Professor McPhail, front row centre, with members of the 5th Field Company, 1911–12 session.

In 1914, when war broke out in Europe, Canada’s population was just over seven million. More than half of them were younger than 25, and only about four in one hundred were older than 65. Home electrical and telephone service were fancy novelties, and women had not yet won the right to vote.

Kingston had a population then of about 15,000, and Queen’s was really coming into its own as an institution. The university was, after years of struggle and uncertainty, relatively financially stable and independent. It was on a facilities building streak – Grant, Nicol, Jackson, Kingston, and Gordon halls were all new – and had a fine society of alumni, faculty, and students. The footprint was much smaller than it is today, and the university was effectively bounded by University, Stuart, Barrie, and Union streets. Campus was surrounded by a smattering of suburban homes and grassy pastureland. It marked the city’s outskirts.

Notions of military preparedness weren’t new among Queen’s students and faculty. Various civilian militias operated on campus from at least the 1880s. The demographics of the Queen’s community were overwhelmingly Anglo, with many recent immigrants from Britain, including veterans of the Boer War, eager to serve and defend the British Empire.

So, as clouds of war began to gather over Europe in the early years of the 20th century, a Queen’s engineering professor became convinced that a corps of well-trained Queen’s engineers ought to be ready to serve king, country, and empire in the interests of national defence.

Alexander “Sandy” MacPhail became a professor of civil engineering at Queen’s in 1904. It’s a role he held throughout his working life, and he even served as department head for more than 20 years. He advocated for military training for Queen’s volunteers as early as 1909‚. He guided the formation of a rifle association, comprising 75 students that spring, and by the end of the year had easily convinced the Engineering Society to sanction a company of Canadian engineers. The university proposed the plan to the Canadian government, and by April 1910, the 5th Field Company Canadian Engineers was a legitimate, state-sanctioned militia unit. They were supplied rifles, ammunition, and equipment, given drill pay, and provided with rigorous, ongoing training by qualified military officers.

This was a first among Canadian universities. The federal government had previously declined military assistance from university administrators and refused to grant official sanction to student military groups. With government support, the 5th became a skilled and well-prepared company years before war erupted in Europe.

[1914 photo of members of 5th Field Company, one wearing a Queen's sweater, at a surveying field camp in Barriefield]
Members of 5th Field Company at Barriefield for a surveying field camp, spring 1914.
 Queen's University Archives V59-1.

On Aug. 6, 1914, two days after Britain declared war on Germany, then-Major MacPhail received a lettergram from the federal government’s Department of Militia and Defence inquiring about the company’s readiness. Less than two weeks later, some 160 members of the 5th were deployed to an empty, grassy field near a railway line at Valcartier, Quebec, with orders to build a camp large enough to accommodate, train, and equip 30,000 soldiers on their way to Europe. Water and sewerage, roadways, electric lighting, communications systems, storehouses, armouries and ammunition dumps, weapons ranges, command and administration facilities, transportation support, stables, and even entertainment venues had to be planned, built, and functional virtually overnight.

It was a very big task for a very few men, and the engineers of the 5th distinguished themselves and Queen’s immediately by somehow making it all work. As more volunteers and additional companies of engineers arrived at Valcartier, the 5th was diffused into other units. Fifty men, including MacPhail, joined the 1st Canadian Expeditionary Force when it crossed the Atlantic to England in the first days of October, barely two months after the declaration of war. The remaining members mostly stayed at Valcartier for a time before returning to Kingston to continue their training and studies, as well as aid recruiting efforts.Dozens more Queen’s engineers joined the 2nd Canadian Expeditionary Force when it left for Europe in 1915.

In all, some 1,500 Queen’s students and faculty served in the Great War; 187 of them didn’t come back. Contributions by members of the 5th are memorialized by 5th Field Company Lane. It’s the road off Union Street between Nicol and Miller halls that leads past Clark Hall. Those limestone gateposts at Union mark the original gates to campus and 5th Field Company Lane as the original main road around which Queen’s was built.

That lane is a fitting honour for an amazing early contribution to Canadian history by Queen’s engineers. But over the years signage became worn and torn, the gateposts had become weathered and taken their knocks, and modern concrete and steel buildings have overshadowed the area. So, in the spring of 2017, as part of Queen’s 175th anniversary celebrations, 5th Field Company Lane was rededicated with new signage and memorial accoutrements. And on Nov. 11, 2017, Kevin Deluzio, Dean of Engineering and Applied Science, and senior members of the Royal Canadian Engineers unveiled a commemorative plinth at the intersection of Union Street and 5th Field Company Lane. The plinth includes a weatherproof booklet with information on the company’s history for campus visitors.

This article originally ran in The Complete Engineer, the publication of Queen’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science.

The Queen’s University Archives has a permanent online exhibit, “Queen’s Remembers,” which has information on the 5th and other Queen’s units, as well as those from the Queen’s community who lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars.


[illustration of Queen's students in 1918 wearing army uniforms and Queen's students in 1968 at a peace rally