When you compare the age of Canada’s army to that of other nations, our military is relatively young. As a nation of just over 150 years old, we depended almost entirely on our defence from the home government, France first and then England. And while a bulk of the soldiers in what would become modern-day Canada were regular professional soldiers and sailors, several locally raised regiments came to the defence of the territory should the need arise. The Canadian militia and Provincial ‘feasible’ troops fought in the War of 1812 and again during the Upper Canada Rebellion and Patriot Wars with varying degrees of success. The militia model required all able-bodied men within a certain age range to show up to an annual muster often they would be required to bring their arms, and the government supplied the ammunition. By the middle of the 19th Century the old model, which had seen it’s last reform under the command of General Sir Isaac Brock needed an update, badly. With Canada facing modern threats, they needed a current militia system that provided better logistics, supplies, and training. It would fall on the Draper/Sherwood administration to present a modern Militia Act in response to the Oregon Crisis to better support the shrinking British garrison if the United States marched North once again. Oddly, the 1846 bill found broad support from the Legislative Assembly, and even reformer and critic of the Conservative government, Robert Baldwin, found the idea of a genuinely Canadian defence force a strong plan. Why shouldn’t Canadians be responsible for defending their homeland? The Act created a small force being called the Active Militia; these men would be a separate volunteer force that would be armed and trained by the government. Training would be conducted monthly, and every man paid for their training, and whenever they were called up. The Active Militia would fall under the purview of the Provincial Parliament who had the power to call them out. They would, however in the field fall under the command of the regular army and be commanded by the British officers in the field.
The greater Empire remained relatively peaceful for the first half of the 1850s, but two significant conflicts pulled at the British Army and navy. In 1854 a rebellion broke out in India, and in 1856 the Crimean War opened. Both these conflicts pulled at the garrison in British North America like never before. And since the relationship between England and the United States were at a stable spot, they felt the garrisons in Canada were easily reduced. In response, the Canadian Parliament passed an updated Militia act in 1855. Where the 1846 Act created the Active Militia, the new act would reorganise how the entire colony would be defended, and the military deployed and commanded in the event of an invasion. As a whole Canada saw division into military districts, a Lieutenant-Colonel from the militia officer corps would command each division when activated. Funds were set aside for a force of 5,000 men, each man trained for ten days a year and paid five shillings a day; Captains were paid ten shillings, sixpence. The one thing that was not provided were uniforms. Of course, that didn’t stop wealthy citizens from sponsoring militia units in exchange for command of those units. As the Regular Army diminished in Canada, the Active Militia grew to 10,000 men in 1856, and by 1859 a semblance of centralised command and structure created and coordinated by British Officers.
The trouble was that without a war to fight and glory to be had; many units went through their paces and training days turned into social events and the number of volunteers to fill out the ranks languished. Of course, that all changed in 1860 when a visit by Edward, Prince of Wales and future King Edward VIII provided the best recruiting campaign for the militia to date. Volunteers rushed forward to fill the ranks; businessmen clamoured for funding larger units. And with the site of war on the horizon in the United States, the Government was happy to open the funding to show that Canadians were loyal and brave warriors. In 1862 a new militia bill would face the assembly to open up financing for an Active Militia of 50,000 men and pay for 28 days of training a year. Leading and wealthy citizens began to band smaller units together, turning company-sized units into full battalion-sized groups. Some would even gain names and uniforms. And while I cannot go through the entire history and touch on every unit, I will focus on a handful that will be featured in future posts. In Toronto, Lieutenant-Colonel William Smith Durie, formed the 2nd Battalion, Volunteer Militia Rifles of Canada. The 1st Battalion was raised in Montreal. Colonel Durie, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and decided to form the Toronto battalion as a traditional rifle unit with green uniforms and black belting. Most the companies were armed with standard muzzleloading rifled muskets; the No. 5 company had the unique Spencer Repeating Rifle with an internal magazine. Their No. 9 Company was made up of faculty and students from the University of Toronto and took the name the University Rifles, and No. 10 was a proper highland company. In 1963 they took the name Queen’s Own Rifles.
Hamilton saw the creation of a pair of new militia units. Businessmen Alfred Booker formed an artillery unit while Isaac Buchannan formed an Infantry unit. Buchannan took great pride in his command, the XIIIth Battalion Volunteer Militia of Canada (Infantry) having his wife sew a set of colours and equipped them in red uniforms and white beltings like British regulars. But all was not well within the Battalion as some junior officers were not pleased with Buchannan and personalities clashed. The main source of trouble came from Major James Skinner, who often tried to position himself to be promoted above Buchannan. The two argued over numbers, drill, and eventually, Buchannan became fed up with the matter and resigned. But in one final insult to Major Skinner, Buchannan turned command over to the district commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Booker. While raising an infantry unit did not cost too much, raising a cavalry unit was only for the wealthiest in the province. The Dennison family was among those in the upper crust of society a long-serving military family had been the driving force behind the oldest militia cavalry unit’s in Canada; the York Dragoons first raised in 1822. The head of the Dennison family always commanded the troop, which throughout its history changed names many times. By 1855 the troop would be commanded by George T. Dennison III, the great-grandson of the troop’s founder. In 1855 the troop would be formally accepted onto the Militia lists as the 1st Troop, Volunteer Militia Cavalry of the County of York. And by 1866 carried the grandiose title 1st York Troop The Governor General’s Body Guard for Upper Canada.
But among the large grand troops that stood up to defend Canada should the need arise there were some speciality units explicitly designed to defend the principal channel of the Welland Canal. Unlike the Rideau Canal which stood heavily defended as a commercial waterway, there was little in the way of defence. The Welland Battery saw formation as a four-gun artillery unit that would be used to defend both Port Robinson and Port Colborne. Commanded by Captain Richard King, the unit had been issued four brass field guns. The trouble remained that in neither settlement was there a secure building to store them in. So the guns lived with Colonel Booker in Hamilton, and Captain King began to train his men to fight as infantry. Both Booker and King arranged that should the need arise the Hamilton militia would deploy the guns and manned by King’s troop. Another resident along the Canal would decide that Canada needed a fast-response marine force. The Dunnsville Naval Brigade was added to the militia list in 1863 under the command of Captain (Colonel) Lachlan McCallum. McCallum provided blue uniforms with silver buttons and even a fast tug boat to move the force to anywhere along the Canal or the shores of Lake Erie. The W.T. Robb was the fastest tug in the region, and while McCallum wished to arm the tug, the government refused to pay for such an upgrade.
This is but a small cross-section of Canada’s rich military history, and I tried to do it the justice it deserves. Three of the five units I mentioned are still an active part of the Canadian Army today. The one thing that has continued is the tradition that the Canadian Army, both the Regular and Reserve have remained a volunteer force. There was a single point where conscription was enforced, which caused a great deal of trouble in 1916 in Quebec. The Active Militia would serve in the Fenian Raids, Red River Rebellion, and North-West Rebellion. The first overseas action by Canadians would see them fight in South Africa in the Boer War. Members of the Active Militia would fill out the ranks of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in both World War One and World War Two. Canadian troops would earn a fearsome reputation in both those wars. And while the Active Militia would be officially dropped in 1950, the Primary Reserve continues its proud tradition. The Queen’s Own Rifles would take on their modern name of Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada in 1920. They still march out of Toronto and are based out of Moss Park Armoury. Their Regimental Museum is located on the 3rd Floor of Casa Loma. The XIIIth Battalion took on their modern name of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry in 1927. The RHLI remains in Hamilton and marches out of the John Weir Foote V.C. Armoury, they also maintain a Ceremonial Guard which dresses and drills as the XIIIth did in the 1860s. 1st York Troop The Governor General’s Body Guard for Upper Canada amalgamated with The Mississauga Horse in 1936 and took the name The Governor General’s Horse Guards. These men who continue to serve still serve in conflicts today from Korea to Afghanistan proudly adding to the rich traditions of the Regimental system in Canada. If you want to read more about these traditions, I highly recommend the book The Fighting Canadians by David J. Bercuson.