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CanadaA 'stain on the fair name of our soldiers': Remembering a Canadian riot that turned deadly in England in 1919

19:50  17 june  2019
19:50  17 june  2019 Source:   cbc.ca

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A riot by Canadian soldiers in 1919 that left an English police officer dead has come to be regarded as a tragic consequence of the uncertainty and anxiety the Police officer Sgt. Thomas Green died after he was injured when Canadian soldiers rioted south of London, England , on June 17, 1919 .

soldiers ': Remembering a Canadian riot that turned deadly in England in 1919 . The Epsom Riot occurred when about 400 Canadian soldiers rioted and attacked the police station at Epsom, Surrey on 17 June 1919 , resulting in the death of ^ a b c CBC: A ' stain on the fair name of our .

A 'stain on the fair name of our soldiers': Remembering a Canadian riot that turned deadly in England in 1919 © Thomas Daigle/CBC A small plaque marks the spot where the Epsom police station once stood.

On a nondescript, white building in suburban Epsom, England, a round plaque serves as the only indicator of the wild and brutal scene witnessed on this street corner a century ago.

"Sgt. Thomas Green was killed by rioters whilst defending Epsom police station near this site," the blue and white plaque reads.

Left unsaid is that the rioters were Canadian soldiers — likely fuelled by booze and post-war stress — and that a royal intervention seemingly allowed them to avoid conviction for Green's death.

A 'stain on the fair name of our soldiers': Remembering a Canadian riot that turned deadly in England in 1919 © Thomas Daigle/CBC David Brooks, a local museum employee, shows a picture of a window broken in the Epsom riot during a walking tour to mark 100 years since the incident.

The Epsom riot on June 17, 1919, has come to be regarded as a tragic consequence of the uncertainty and anxiety the Canadians felt as they waited to be sent back home.

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A ' stain on the fair name of our soldiers ': Remembering a Canadian riot that turned deadly in England in 1919 . A riot by Canadian soldiers in 1919 that left an English police officer dead has come to be regarded as a tragic consequence of the uncertainty and anxiety the Canadians felt as

The Epsom riot occurred when about 400 Canadian soldiers rioted and attacked the police station at Epsom, Surrey on 17 June 1919 , resulting in the death of ^ a b c CBC: A ' stain on the fair name of our soldiers ': Remembering a Canadian riot that turned deadly in England in 1919 .

Seven months after the First World War armistice, the soldiers were still posted 20 kilometres south of London. Some were recovering at the Woodcote Park convalescent camp.

A 'stain on the fair name of our soldiers': Remembering a Canadian riot that turned deadly in England in 1919 © A. R. Coster/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images Crowds lined the streets of Epsom for Green's funeral procession.

Dealing with physical and mental battle scars, many had little to do but to "hit the bar and get drunk," said Green's great-grandson, David Kirkham.

A 'stain on the fair name of our soldiers': Remembering a Canadian riot that turned deadly in England in 1919 © Provided by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Kirkham has travelled to Epsom for the first time to mark 100 years since the killing. He's being taken on a tour retracing the steps of the Canadian soldiers that fateful night.

"It was just a series of events that led tragically to my great-grandfather's death," he told CBC.

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The Epsom Riot occurred when about 400 Canadian soldiers rioted and attacked the police station at Epsom, Surrey on 17 June 1919 , resulting in the death of ^ a b c CBC: A ' stain on the fair name of our soldiers ': Remembering a Canadian riot that turned deadly in England in 1919 .

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A buildup of tension

A 'stain on the fair name of our soldiers': Remembering a Canadian riot that turned deadly in England in 1919 © Thomas Daigle/CBC David Kirkham, great-grandson of Sgt. Thomas Green, speaks at a memorial service near Green's grave on Monday.

Before the chaos began to snowball, Canadian servicemen were having their pints at The Rifleman, an Epsom pub still in operation today.

A scuffle at the bar led to two soldiers being arrested and held at the nearby police station. Friction between Canadians and local men meant the foreign soldiers showed little patience for British law enforcement.

A 'stain on the fair name of our soldiers': Remembering a Canadian riot that turned deadly in England in 1919 © Thomas Daigle/CBC The Rifleman Pub, where a fight started the commotion that would lead to the 1919 Epsom riot, is still in operation today.

"There was a lot of bad feeling," said David Brooks, an assistant at Epsom's Bourne Hall Museum.

A 'stain on the fair name of our soldiers': Remembering a Canadian riot that turned deadly in England in 1919 © Provided by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Not only were the soldiers anxious to leave Britain, Brooks said, but British men were also fed up with seeing the Canadians charm local women.

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The Epsom riot occurred when about 400 Canadian soldiers rioted and attacked the police station at Epsom, Surrey on 17 June 1919 , resulting in the death of ^ a b c CBC: A ' stain on the fair name of our soldiers ': Remembering a Canadian riot that turned deadly in England in 1919 .

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A 'stain on the fair name of our soldiers': Remembering a Canadian riot that turned deadly in England in 1919 © Thomas Daigle/CBC Sgt. Green Bitter, on tap at the Rifleman Pub in Epsom, was specially created to mark 100 years since Green's death.

The tension came to a head that night in June 1919.

An estimated 400 Canadian soldiers stormed the police station to free their two comrades. They threw rocks, busted windows and attempted to set the building on fire.

The two Canadian inmates were freed, but at a heavy cost.

A 'stain on the fair name of our soldiers': Remembering a Canadian riot that turned deadly in England in 1919 © Provided by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Several police officers guarding the station were injured. Green, 51, was hit in the head with an iron prison cell bar and later died.

"It strictly was manslaughter," not premeditated murder, Kirkham said. "It was the heat of the moment."

Still, the attack came as an embarrassment for Canadian forces, who'd fought alongside British troops and become known for boldness on the battlefields of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.

An Ottawa Citizen headline in June 1919 called the riot a "stain on the fair name of our soldiers."

A royal intervention?

Eight rioters were charged with manslaughter in connection with Green's death but none was convicted. Four were sentenced to a year behind bars for rioting. They were all freed within weeks.

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In his 2010 book about the riot, We Are Not Manslaughterers, Epsom-based author Martin Knight concludes a forthcoming royal tour likely played a part in the lenient sentencing.

A 'stain on the fair name of our soldiers': Remembering a Canadian riot that turned deadly in England in 1919 © Provided by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Edward, Prince of Wales, was due to visit Canada a year after the war — only two months after the riot erupted.

"They couldn't contemplate the thought of him touring those places if some Canadian soldiers were possibly going to be hanged or sentenced to life in prison," Knight told CBC.

Winston Churchill, then Britain's secretary of state for war, hesitated to call the act a killing, choosing instead to say Green had "died as a result of his injuries."

'I have to confess'

In his book, Knight recounts a Cape Breton-born blacksmith-turned soldier, Allan McMaster, shouted "Let's go, boys!" as he led the Canadians to charge the police station.

Years later in Winnipeg, McMaster would confess to wielding the iron bar that killed Green.

"The reason I make this statement is because I feel a burden on my conscience and know I have to confess," McMaster told police in 1929.

A 'stain on the fair name of our soldiers': Remembering a Canadian riot that turned deadly in England in 1919 © Provided by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

He said he had been pardoned by the Prince of Wales.

Canadian authorities notified Scotland Yard of the confession, but were told the case was closed.

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McMaster's medical records, obtained through Library and Archives Canada, note he "wouldn't trust himself" and "has often done things unconsciously in [a] part-epileptic state."

His grandson and others blame post-traumatic stress disorder for McMaster's frantic actions that day.

A 'stain on the fair name of our soldiers': Remembering a Canadian riot that turned deadly in England in 1919 © Provided by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

"I have no doubt in my mind that he was back in the trenches" when fighting at the police station, Ric deMeulles said in a telephone interview from his home in Sudbury, Ont.

"The violence is abhorrent to me, but I have deep sympathy for a man who was grossly injured" during the war.

McMaster went on to take his own life in 1939.

100 years later

Commemorations are being held this week to remember Green, both at The Rifleman Pub and at the Epsom cemetery where he's buried near Canadian soldiers.

Green's family didn't hold a grudge against Canada — his two daughters married Canadians.

"They came over, they wanted a fresh start," said Green's great-grandson Kirkham, who was born in Toronto and lives in Victoria.

Last week in a small ceremony at the Epsom town hall, he donated Green's service medals so they can put on display at the local museum.

Kirkham also intends to sample the limited-edition beer on tap at The Rifleman, the Sgt. Green Bitter.

"I would hope that he'd be proud that people have kept the memory alive, that he wasn't forgotten."

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