Canada's first troops are convoyed to war, October 1914, guarded by HMS PRINCESS ROYAL

Charles Dixon RI (1872-1934). Watercolour and gouache, signed and dated 1915.

Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry Goes to War, October 1914

44 x 23.5 inches (112 x 60 cms) approx

Price on Application

This original has been sold and is no longer available.

Prints of this may be available on: Maritime Prints.

This historic event - the convoying of some 30,000 Canadians and their equiqment across the North Atlantic in the early months of the Great War - received much publicity (once it had been safely accomplished) and was painted by at least two notable marine artists of the time, Norman Wilkinson ("Canada's Answer" an oil on canvas at 368 x 215 cms and now held by the Canadian War Museum); and this large watercolour by Charles Dixon. 

Pre-planning of such an event with Canada and the other Dominions had started in August but the number of Canadians who would have enlisted and would be ready to sail so soon after war had started was far from certain at that stage though it was known that a very sizeable convoy would be needed and that the Royal Navy would be required to provide a substantial escort.  The battle cruiser HMS PRINCESS ROYAL would be the most powerful warship of the escort although as her heavy armament allied with her high speed suggested that she would best be employed roaming  and racing around to meet trouble wherever it threatened, she would not carry the flag or be in overall charge of this precious cargo of troops, horses and all their ammunition and supporting equipment.  The convoy commander would be Rear Admiral Robert Phipps-Hornby CMG, Rear Admiral Commanding Cruiser Force H on the North America and West Indies Station and he would fly his flag in HMS GLORY (Captain Charles Corbett MVO RN), a pre-dreadnought battleship who would be accompanied by 5 other major warships.  Several flotillas of destroyers would join once the convoy was nearing the sea area of maximum U-boat threat south west of Ireland.

The remarkable story of the raising of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry and their subsequent achievements in the European war that followed are told at length in many other places but suffice it to say here that the safe conveyance, as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, of this most precious and generous present from Canada was taken with the greatest seriousness by Great Britain.  The Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, Admiral Jellicoe, had drawn up a comprehensive plan to protect this valuable convoy and starting on 3 October 1914 a large proportion of the Grand Fleet took up positions designed to prevent hostile forces from deploying westwards and towards the inbound convoy's path.  At a time when Jellicoe needed every dreadnough he could muster in home waters to oppose the German Fleet across the North Sea he nevertheless detached the new 13.5 inch battle cruiser HMS PRINCESS ROYAL (Captain Walter Cowan DSO MVO RN) to sail from Scapa Flow on 30th September to RV with the convoy.  But inevitably there were delays with the requisitioning of the convoy's ships, their conversion at Montreal for the forthcoming task and then their loading downriver at Quebec.   Numbers to be organised and embarked were vast: 1,547 officers, 29,070 men, 7,679 horses, 70 guns, 110 motor vehicles, 705 horsed vehicles and 82 bicycles and of course they all needed to be unloaded the other end in the correct sequence if the whole outfit was to achieve the necessary mobility a soon as it arrived in England.  Initially, the port of disembarkation was to be Southampton, midway along the south coast, but there was always a recognition that this might need to  be altered if intelligence suggested that U-boat or other enemy activity made this port a risk.

The final ship completed loading on 1st October (extra ships had been requistioned at the last minute as the amount of equipment to be transported grew and grew) and when PRINCESS ROYAL finally met her charges, some 31 merchantmen with 7 British battleships or cruisers in company, at 49 45N 27 30W (roughly midway between Iceland to the north and the Azores to the south) on 10th October, they were some two and half days astern of schedule - but at least they were at sea and well on their way!   The ships were formed into three columns, each headed by a battleship or cruiser and round the outer perimeter prowled and patrolled PRINCESS ROYAL her superior speed enabling her to beat the bounds around the slower merchantmen.  Once the convoy had settled down, ships' masters were confident with their station-keeping in close company and the embarked troops had found their sea legs, Captain Cowan decided that a bit of a morale raiser was required: he brought his battle cruiser up to 23 knots and with his Royal Marine band paraded on the quarterdeck he steamed down the lines whilst the band played such familiar tunes as "Oh Canada" and "The Maple Leaf Forever!"  Dixon's painting appears to show that moment as the battle cruiser, shown on the left and belching black smoke as she piles on speed, nips down the lines, Canada's national flag, the Red Ensign, fluttering proudly together with the Royal Navy's White Ensign, from her mainmast. We see, too, lines of khaki clad troops on the upper decks of the merchantmen, no doubt cheering and waving and enjoying the moment:  a huge impressive looking battle cruiser racing along, flying their national flag, the Royal Marines band belting out their national music, music to remind them of home.  It was a moment to feel a swelling pride, great patriotism.   Interestingly, Norman Wilkinson's oil painting in Canada's War Museum appears to show the same occasion but from a different angle: the great battle cruiser with rolls of  black smoke and roaring down between the lines of the convoy, Red Ensign streaming out in salute to the 30,000 embarked Canadians.           

There were indeed submarine scares as the vast convoy approached southern Ireland and the disembarkation port was duly shifted further west to Plymouth. Then the position of the German submarine was refined and the convoy's destination was altered back to Southampton  - only to be changed once more for Plymouth when a new risk threatened.  By October 14th disembarkation was well underway and within a few days all were safely landed and had started on their way for the Salisbury Plain Training Areas. 

Charles Dixon, recognised as one of England's most accomplished marine artists of the mid twentieth century, has painted a masterful great watercolour of this most historic of occasions.