Attacked with potatoes – the French Navy visits Charlottetown between the wars

After the Great War the naval forces of the world were sharply reduced and the number of courtesy visits to Charlottetown dropped. The German fleet was reduced to a few patrol vessels which kept to coastal waters and there were sharp reductions to the Royal Navy following the war. Many of the duties of the latter fleet in Canadian waters were assumed by the Canadians but this capability was reduced as well by financial restraint. This meant that there were far fewer visits to the port of Charlottetown. The one exception was the French navy. There had been visits before the war but their character changed after the Armistice. The French still had their toehold in North America through St. Pierre and Miquelon and the islands boasted a significant fishing fleet which competed with other nations on the banks off Newfoundland.  In addition a thriving St. Pierre liquor trade was maintained as long as prohibition was in effect in the United States.  While the pre-war French presence had been large cruisers the post-war vessels were more likely to be patrol frigates or escort sloops.

The ships spent most of their time on patrol with the fishing fleet but they also paid courtesy visits, including stops to both Charlottetown and Souris. In 1920 the French warship Couchy visited the Island capital. The officers paid the usual calls on the Governor and mayor and the crew members were entertained at the Navy League Club Rooms where “cigarettes and light beer were provided and the card tables and chequer boards helped wile away the hours.”  In 1922 the cruiser Caspia spent several days in the port.


Ville d’Ys in a warm-water port with awnings in place. Sailors’ washing can be seen hanging from the sides.

However the most frequent visitor to the city was the aviso (escort sloop) Ville d’Ys which spent a few days in Charlottetown every year or two beginning in 1926 right up to 1939.  The vessel had been built on the Tyne by the British firm Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson and was launched in June 1917 as the Andromede but was re-named the Ville d’ Ys as soon as delivery was taken by the Government of France later the same year. The coal-fired ship was 255 long with a breadth of 35 feet and carried a crew of 90 with 6 officers. It was a designed as a “Q” ship with the appearance of a merchant ship in order to fool U-boats into making a surface attack. This gave it a somewhat more graceful appearance than many of the other naval vessels of the day. The Ville d’Ys appears to have had a very limited role in the war and by the early 1920s was being used as a fisheries protection vessel accompanying the French fishing fleet on the Grand Banks from April to September. She was fitted out with five small boats for making visits to fishing boats on the Banks.

Ville d'Ys showing her merchant ship profile.

Ville d’Ys showing her merchant ship profile.

Most of the Ville d’Ys visits to Charlottetown followed a similar pattern. Courtesy visits would be paid to the Governor and Mayor and the Island officials would pay a return visit to the ship. A salute of nineteen guns would be made to honour the Governor. Officers would be entertained at the Charlottetown Club or the Golf links and tennis courts. In some years a friendly game of soccer between the town and the ship would be held. In later years the appearance of the ship would provide the rationale for a ball at Government House.  It was all very civilized except the French must have wondered about the strange Island custom of prohibition which was then in effect.

Not all of the Ville d’Ys visits were without incident. In 1935 an 18 year old deserter from the ship was discovered digging potatoes on a farm in Rustico. He claimed to be worried about the increasing tensions in Europe and he jumped ship to avoid engaging in warfare. He appears to have been sent to re-join the ship in Sydney. Problems of a different nature showed up in June 1936 when Governor George DeBlois was making an official visit to the ship. A group of teenage boys attacked the vessel with discarded potatoes left lying on the railway wharf. Taking up a vantage point on the roof of a nearby-warehouse they showered the French sailors on the deck of the patrol vessel with a barrage of spuds. Rather than retaliate the ship’s officers contacted the city police but by the time they arrived the “hoodlums” had disappeared. The police took up guard duties and were later relieved by the R.C.M.P. but the vegetable carrying townies did not re-appear. The police chief was unable to provide an explanation for the unprovoked attack as the sailors had said or done nothing to cause trouble.

The last visit of the Ville d’ Ys to Charlottetown took place in 1939, prior to the outbreak of the Second War. At the beginning of the war the ship was on station at St. Pierre and Miquelon, then under the control of Vichy France, but just before the take-over of the Islands by the Free French late in 1940 she sailed to Fort de France, Martinique and was decommissioned there as the lightly-armed, coal-fired ship had little value to the war effort. She was scrapped in 1945.

Owing to its long connection with the region the Ville d’Ys was the subject of a postage stamp issued by St. Pierre and Miquelon  in 1941.


1 thought on “Attacked with potatoes – the French Navy visits Charlottetown between the wars

  1. Pingback: The most beautiful ship never to visit Charlottetown | Sailstrait

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