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Canadian Baseball During World War I: Diamonds on Flanders Fields

A hundred years ago, Canadian troops competed in a sports tournament just behind the front lines.

Baseball diamond inside an oval track in Tincques, France on July 1, 1918
Canadian Great War Project

War is never pleasant but the First World War is well known for its particularly hellish trench warfare, poison gas attacks, disease, and vermin. But between duties on the front lines, those who served under the Canadian banner were able to rotate to safer areas behind the front lines to rest and recover.

Part of that included playing baseball—a sport that, before the War, was “played more often, by more classes of people than any other game,” according to historian Bruce Kidd.

Some rotations would take troops back to the United Kingdom where they would compete in baseball leagues in Folkestone and London, but most of the time, particularly toward the end of the War, soldiers would be stationed in rural France while not actively fighting.

One particularly notable game was played on July 1, 1918 in the small French village of Tincques, France under “fine weather, and rather hot” as described by an artillery officer in the first division. It was the final sporting event in the Canadian Corps Championships, a daylong tournament of both individual and team events to celebrate Dominion Day (later renamed Canada Day). That baseball was chosen as the main event for this day demonstrates the importance the of the sport in the minds of the troops and their commanders.

Under the supervision of Canadian Engineers, the Corps Cyclists and Infantry constructed a baseball diamond inside a quarter-mile oval complete with a 6,000-seat grandstand and a hand-operated scoreboard. The Canadian YMCA supplied the athletic equipment and catered the event. Some 70,000 soldiers signed up for the tournament but just 750 passed through qualifications (and survived battle) to actually compete that day.

Baseball diamond constructed in Tincques, France in 1918
Baseball diamond constructed in Tincques, France in 1918
Library and Archives Canada

The Championships were attended by an estimated 30,000 spectators, including townsfolk and dignitaries like Prince Arthur the Duke of Connaught, Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, Borden’s cabinet, and Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie.

The massed bands—60 representatives from each division—assembled to play O Canada at 3:55 pm ahead of the 4:15 first pitch of the baseball game. The game pitted the 7th Canadian Engineer Battalion, a cross-Canada group that had fought and won Vimy Ridge, against the 1st Divisional Ammunition Column, a regiment hailing mainly from Ontario.

Although there is no known box score for the game, it was a closely fought affair, with 7th winning over the 1st by a score of 3–2 in 11 innings. The tournament was held fairly close to the front lines so the attendees also witnessed airborne protection over the grounds.

Watching baseball is an opportunity for me to escape from everyday stresses and just enjoy the company of fellow fans. I was happy to learn that the sport helped to take the Canadian troops away from the trenches, if only for one day.

The municipal soccer field in Tincques, France.
Minor Leaguer

I visited Tincques this spring and found that a corner of site near the Canadian Corps Championships oval is now a municipal soccer field where teenagers were playing. (Surprisingly, no one seemed to question the random man walking around the field taking photos of minors.) And the rest of the site was a farmer’s field. (Moments after taking the photo below I was chased into my car by the farmer’s dogs.)

In very broken French, I spoke to a few people in Tincques about the historical event in their town in 1918 and most of the parents at the soccer game had no idea that it had happened. I didn’t see any plaques commemorating the event. However back on the main strip of the town I finally caught up with a woman in her 70s and she recalled her father telling her about the tournament happening in her home town.

Beyond the red farm equipment lies the site of the Canadian Corps Championship. The baseball diamond would’ve been at the right of this photo, approximately where the brown dirt can be seen in the midground.
Minor Leaguer

Thinking that the story may have been forgotten in the town, I was very happy to learn recently that the town and the historical association “Les Chroniqueurs” have planned a re-creation of the Canadian Corps Championships this July 1, to celebrate the 100-year mark of the tournament.