Their day had finally come. The First Five Hundred marched out of the training camp at Pleasantville about 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 3, 1914. The Catholic Cadet Corps Band played and guided the first contingent through the city streets down to the harbour where the S.S. Florizel was waiting just east of Harbourside Park, known then as King’s Beach.
Newspaper accounts of the day record the “largest gathering of citizens ever seen here assembled ... to witness the embarking of the Newfoundland Regiment” - some estimated twenty-five thousand were at the pier alone. Hundreds marched along ... and [the] many people assembled all along the line of march, and cheered the soldiers....” Closing early that day, businesses and stores, along with many private residences, were decked with flags along the parade route and patriotic words of farewell and hearty cheers were shouted out to the passing men. Most thought they would be home again soon – the atmosphere jovial and patriotic. One can only imagine the anguish mothers, wives and girlfriends were feeling as they waved or hugged their loved ones farewell.
Having been hastily converted into a war ship the Florizel lay at anchor that night, waiting to meet the Canadian convey heading across, and sailed out of St. John’s harbour through the Narrows on October 4 – exactly two months after Britain declared war on Germany. That spring, the Florizel has participated in the seal hunt. She was the smallest vessel in the large convoy which had to slow its speed for the Florizel to keep in position. On the crossing, the troops were kept to a routine aboard the cramped vessel. They rose at 7 a.m., meals were at 8 a.m., 1 p.m. and 5 p.m, and all unnecessary lights were out by 6 p.m. as instructed by the flagship of the convoy. The Sunday during their crossing, religious services were held with members of the Regiment taking lead roles for the respective faiths. There was an onboard concert organized and held, much to the delight and entertainment of the men. When they disembarked in Devonport (near Plymouth), the local townspeople met them and gave them treats and gifts before they boarded the train to Salisbury Plain, where they would continue their army training.
The second contingent of almost 250 men left St. John’s on February 5, 1915 aboard the SS Dominion and soon more would follow in 20 other drafts (some sources say 27) sent over. The Newfoundlanders would train in England and Scotland for months before finally seeing action on the Front. They were not sent to France, as they expected, but to the eastern Mediterranean, first to Egypt and then Turkey and the Gallipoli Peninsula. This is where the reality and brutality of war really struck home and sank in on the soldiers. It was there they lost Hugh McWhirter, #902 – their first comrade “killed in action”. Those three words were both dreaded and held with pride by the folks on the homefront.