Taking French Leave
Royal Engineer Deserters in British Columbia

The problem of desertion was an ancient one in the British Army.  Though it plagued conscripted armies more than volunteer ones like the British Army, it still accounted for a steady loss of men with adversely effected the ability of a unit to perform its functions, be it advancing against the enemy or, as in the RE in BC, building a road.

The Detachment, in being a wholly Volunteer force, hoped not to have major difficulties with desertions.  To add to the desire to "stay with the Colours", the Men were allowed to bring their wives and children --without the restriction of 6 wives per 100 men; 31 wives and 34 children in fact traveled with the Detachment.  Thirdly, a financial incentive was added - namely the Colonial Pay equivalent to a  US dollar per day per ma over and above the regular Pay.  Sadly this Colonial Pay, to be paid by the Colonial Government of BC, was never paid.

Yet, as the following information shows, the desertions occurred with steady regularity in the Detachment.  In fact, they began deserting even before they landed in British Columbia. . .

The First Deserter in the Detachment

British Consulate
San Francisco
4th November 1858

My Lord,

I have the honour to acknowledge receipt of Mr. Fitzgerald's dispatch No. 8 of the 10th September aquainting me that Captain Grant of the Royal Engineers was about starting for British Columbia and directing me to afford that officer all the assistance in my power to enable him, with the men under his command to reach his destination speedily.

I have to inform your Lordship that Captain Grant arrived safely with his men on the evening of the 31st ultimo and left the following morning in the American steam-ship "Cortez" for Vancouver's Island. I regret to have to add that one man deserted at this port and I have traced him into the country.

Your Most Obedient Servant.
[illegible]

The above un-named Sapper was George Dobbs. He "deserted at San Francisco from Grant's detachment",  according to a memo from Sapper Bruce, R.E., who related this information to the BC historian Judge Howay when Bruce was an old man.

New Westminster Times
27th February, 1860

"...A sapper deserted today. He was under punishment. He was the tinsmith of the regiment.  His offence was being out after bugle call."

There were many reasons for a Man to desert the Detachment - the lure of the Gold-fields, class freedom in the United States only a few short miles away to the South or this reason...

New Westminster
13th April 1860

Sir,
I have the honour to aquaint your Excellency that, in consequence of the repeated acts of misconduct of Mrs. Mould, wife of Sapper Mould belonging to the Detachment under my command, I have been obliged at last, after many warnings, to order her to be struck off the Strength of the Detachment for Rations and Quarters from the 11th Instant inclusive.

I have the honour to be,

Sir,
Your most obedient,
humble Servant.

RC Moody
Col. Commanding

 

 

 

 

Sapper C. Mould
-- + - J. Gillies.

 

 

The governor of Washington Territory has no authority to act in cases of simple desertion or even where [xxxxx] with theft. He can only order the [rendition[?] of criminals -- coming within the meaning of the extradition Treaty.  The application recommended by Col. Moody would therefore be fruitless. -[jd?]

New Westminster
21 April 1860

Sir,

  I have the honor to report the desertion of the two men (named in the margin) belonging to the Detachment of Royal Engineers under my command from Captain Grant's party at the mouth of the Harrison River.--

  There is every reason to believe that the latter, Sapper James Gillies, took with him the sum of Thirty-six Pounds, belonging to a comrade.

  I would therefore request that immediate steps may be taken with a view to his being apprehended to which [s???l], as there is but little doubt that he has gone over into American Territory. I would suggest the advisability of an application being made to the Governor of Washington Territory, who might be moved to give orders for his detention.

  He absented on the morning of the 14th and I should have communicated with Your Excellency before, had I not been waiting for a Descriptive Return to forward at the same time. it is herewith enclosed in duplicate.--

I have the honor to be,
      Sir,
Your most obedient,
  humble Servant,

RCMoody
[commanding?]

 

REPORT OF A DESERTER from the Corps Regiment of Royal Engineers.
Dated at [camp?] Harrison River, BC this 14th day of April 18560

Number, Rank, and Name .......  4622, Sapper James Gillies
Age ............................................... 27 years and 6 months
Size............. {
 Feet.................. Five feet, nine inches
 Inches............... Nine inches
Colour of... {
 Complexion... Fresh
 Hair.................. Black
 Eyes................. Hazel
Date of Desertion........................ 14th day of April 1860
Place of Desertion...................... ???p , Harrision River, British Columbia
Date of Enlistment .................... 2nd of December 1856
At what Place Enlisted................ Glasgow
Parish and County in which Born .........................  }
[Muckaiou?], Town, [Bancou?], County "Argyle"
Marks ........................................ None small pox (particularly about the cheeks)
Trade  ......................................... Sawyer
Coat or Jacket  ............................ Black coat
Waistcoat  ................................... Black velvet waistcoat
Breeches or Trowsers   .............. Trowsers
REMARKS ................................... A quiet demeanor with sxxx voice and drawling accent

Signature of the Commanding Officer    RC Moody           
                                                                                [commanding?]

New Westminster
7th July 1860

To His Excellency James Douglas
Sir,
I have the honour to represent to you the benefit that would acrue in maintaining the discipline of the Detachment of Royal
Engineers serving in this Colony, if these men,

Sapper James Alexander, RE
Sapper Robert Robertson, RE
Sapper James Cooper, RE

who are now undergoing a sentence of Imprisonment in the Jail at Victoria for the crime of Desertion, be sent to England to the Head Quarters of the Corps at Chatham. 

If Your Excellency will sanction this step, I will communicate with the Naval Commander in Chief with a view to passage being provided for them in the first Man-of-War ordered home.

Captain Parsons RE, will deliver this letter to Your Excellency and is authorized by me to carry out the measure after he shall have received your approval of it.

I have the honour to be,
Sir,
Your most obedient,
humble Servant,
RCMoody
Col. Commanding

However, the above named three Sappers do not appear on Frances Woodward's following list of deserters:

Corporal Andrew Monroe
Sapper Daniel Alman
Sapper George Dobbs
Sapper Charles Durham
Sapper James Gillis
Sapper David Kennedy
Sapper Charles A. Mould
Sapper George Rodgers

This makes 11 know deserters from the Columbia Detachment, 7% of the 157 enlisted men, that we know of so far.

Interesting that these 3 men languish in a civilian jail in Victoria, though it might have been that it was thought bad for morale to have their former comrades guard them in the lock-up in the Camp.

Appendix VIII to Lillian Cope's thesis has the following listings for the deserters:

"Deserted":
Corporal Andrew Monroe
Sapper Daniel Alman
Sapper George Dobbs
Sapper Charles Durham
Sapper James Gillis
Sapper Charles A. Mould
Sapper George Rodgers

"Returned to England"
Sapper James Alexander
Sapper James Cooper

"Left the Colony"
Sapper Robert Robertson
Sapper David Kennedy

We could, perhaps, speculate that the RE listed as "deserted" were not caught, and the others were.  It would be as good a theory as any.

Frances Woodward's table of deserters is taken from Cope (with one addition: Kennedy.  See below).  In her Table of RE Remaining in BC, Woodward lists none of the 8 deserters she knew about.  As for the other three:

  • Alexander and Cooper: "appear to have died or left BC before Nov., 1907".
  • Robert Robertson is listed having taken a Crown grant in 1884, having been a farmer in Whonnock (east Maple Ridge) 1876-1887.  Val Patenaude at the Maple Ridge Museum confirms Robert Robertson is a well-known Whonnock settler, but an ex-HBC man and not a sapper, as does Fred Braches of Whonnock.  Presumably Woodward got them confused.

Woodward adds to Cope's list of deserters David Kennedy.  According to her footnote, she pegged him as a deserter on the basis of a memo from Sgt. Bonson, saying Kennedy ran from Parson's detachment at Sapperton.  The memo is said to be contained in a file on the RE in the papers of Judge Howay.

Woodward's footnotes referring to Howay's papers also add the following info:

  • Corporal Andrew Munroe "deserted from Camp Sapperton" (memo from Sgt. Bonson).'

Were the "Cope 7" uncaught?

Are there other details of the desertions which  Howay left out of his history of the Detachment?

The list, as we have it now, looks like this:

Name Charge & or fate Date
Sapper
James Alexander
Deserted, captured, jailed, and shipped back to England in disgrace, with Sapper James Cooper and Sapper Robert Robertson. 1860
Sapper
Daniel Alman
Deserted  
Sapper
James Cooper
Deserted, captured, jailed, and shipped back to England in disgrace, with Sapper James Alexander and Sapper Robert Robertson. 1860
Corporal
Andrew Monroe
deserted from Camp Sapperton (memo from Bonson)  
Sapper
George Dobbs
deserted at San Francisco from Grant's detachment  
Sapper
Charles Durham
Deserted  
Sapper
James Gillis
Deserted  
Sapper
David Kennedy
ran from Parson's detachment at Sapperton  
Sapper
Charles A. Mould
Deserted  
Sapper
Robert Robertson
Deserted, captured, jailed, and shipped back to England in disgrace, with Sapper James Alexander and Sapper James Cooper. 1860
Sapper
George Rodgers
Deserted  
[tin smith] possibly/probably  one of the above listed men  out after bugle call. 27 Feb 1860

 

If you can help answer any of these questions, please drop us a line.