The Fighting Canadians – By David Bercuson – Published by Harper Collins
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
Among RMC graduates of the postwar era, service in the combat arms has never been an especially popular career choice. I vividly remember one senior cadet telling me that I must have been “ f****n’ insane” when, as a wide-eyed recruit back in 1976, I expressed interest in signing up for the infantry. Even so, there’s no denying that in every conflict in which Ex-Cadets have served , it has been the ordinary soldiers on the ground – the gunners, the sappers, the cavalry, the tankers, and above all, the infanteers – who have done the lion’s share of the heavy lifting and fought and won the gruesome battles that have paved the way to eventual victory.
The pillar of strength that has invariably sustained Canada’s combat soldiers through the arduous and at times horrific conditions they have frequently had to endure has been the regiment – that enigmatic institution that is known only to the select company who feel privileged to wear its badge, and who are ready to give their lives for it. In The Fighting Canadians, author and military historian David Bercuson takes readers on a guided tour of a unique and mysterious world whose inner workings are seldom glimpsed by those outside the profession of arms. The book documents the heroic doings of a number of this country’s storied regiments, and the same time, offers a compelling affirmation of the value of the regimental system itself as the bedrock upon which the Canadian Army was built.
As all Ex-Cadets will know, the customs and traditions of the Army’s modern-day regiments trace their roots back to the old Regiments of Foot that were first established in the British Army of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. But as Bercuson points out, regiments of one form or another defended over Canada long before the Union Jack ever flew over our shores. For example, Indian tribes such as the Iroquois were often organized along the lines of a warrior society. Sixty years after Champlain first came ashore, New France was saved from almost certain obliteration by the arrival during the summer of 1665 of the Régiment Carignan-Salières. Later, the colony was protected by soldiers of the Compagnies franches de la Marine, who were responsible for guarding all of France’s overseas possessions.
For over a hundred years after the Conquest of 1759, British regulars formed the bulwark of the colonies’ defences, augmented at times by members of locally-raised “fencible” regiments, and by volunteer militia. But after British troops were permanently withdrawn in 1871, the government of the new nation of Canada found itself faced with the continued threat of incursions by members of the Fenian brotherhood. The Fathers of Confederation soon came to the conclusion that reliance on militia units would not be enough, and this realization led to the decision to create small but permanent training establishments of artillery, cavalry, and infantry that were based in key garrisons such as Halifax, Fredericton, Quebec City, and Kingston. In time, these would evolve into the Royal Canadian Artillery, the Royal Canadian Dragoons, and the Royal Canadian Regiment.
The first real test of Canadian arms came when the Great War erupted in the late summer of 1914. Determined that the young Dominion would do her part, the government of Sir Robert Borden decided that Canada would contribute at least a full infantry division to the forces of the Empire. As Minister of Militia and Defence, the bombastic Sir Sam Hughes was the man charged with ensuring this commitment would be fulfilled. He hastily concocted a plan to mobilize 24,000 men, the overwhelming majority of whom were to be drawn from the 226 militia units scattered across the nation.
There was only one problem: under the terms of the Militia Act that was then in force, the Government of Canada did not have legal authority to send members of the non-permanent active militia out of the country. Hughes devised an ingenious solution by creating new numbered battalions designated specifically for overseas service; volunteers for these battalions would be recruited initially from members of existing militia units. The Great War is the only period in the history of the Canadian Army when such a system of numbered battalions was ever employed. Over 600,000 men signed up for service, and by the end of the war the men of the Canadian Corps were widely hailed as being the “shock troops of the British Empire.”
The Fighting Canadians details the exploits of Canadian regiments in actions that represent some of this country’s greatest battlefield triumphs as well as some of our most tragic military disasters. But in addition to the actual events that it describes, the book also stands out because of some of the more important larger messages it offers about key issues impacting defence policy.
One example in this regard is the importance of the role of military reserves. For much of our history up until the postwar era, Canadian defence policy was based in large part on the notion of maintaining an extensive network of militia units that could (at least in theory) be rapidly mobilized in time of crisis. In reality, Bercuson notes, individual militia regiments tended to vary dramatically in terms of their level of training and quality of equipment. Even so, in both World Wars the militia infrastructure provided a platform that enabled the country to mobilize large numbers of fighting men within an astonishingly short period of time.
And once they were brought up to a proper state of combat readiness, militia units could invariably be relied upon to prove their worth in battle. Formations such as the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, the Sherbooke Hussars, or the Royal Newfoundland Regiment may not ever have enjoyed Regular Force status, but that didn’t stop their members from fighting heroically when their turn came to go into the line. All of these units, as well as many others that rendered distinguished wartime service, continue on today as active components of the Army Reserves.
Undoubtedly the most important theme that emerges from The Fighting Canadians is the critical importance of the regimental institution itself as the cord that binds combat soldiers together. To staff officers and public servants whose careers were made at the sharp end of a pencil, a regiment may well seem like just another organizational model drawn out of an MBA textbook. But even though it is admittedly a time-honoured military formation, in real life, a regiment is actually something that is much more sublime. In its purest form, it is a brotherhood of warriors, a tightly-knit and often secretive clan whose members have committed themselves to fulfillment of a vocation that is unlike any other. To anyone who has actually served within its ranks, the regiment is home and family, their calling and their destiny, and for many if not most, the very essence of their soul.
Regiments are organized along structural lines that may be fundamentally generic, and to the casual observer, it would be easy to conclude that only things that differ from one unit to the next are the cap and collar badges. But invariably, it is the distinctiveness of their customs, traditions, cultures, and personalities that defines the uniqueness of individual regiments, and confers upon their members a sense of pride and belonging that they will never find anywhere else. For many thousands of Canadian boys, the regiment has been the institution which has provided them not only with a passage to manhood, but also with a set of unforgettable experiences that many consider to be the defining moments of their lives.
As an overall assessment, The Fighting Canadians is an excellent book that will be enjoyed and appreciated by all RMC Ex-Cadets, no matter what their service affiliation. In refreshing contrast to the tedious prose that characterizes so many other historical tomes, Bercuson does a masterful job of bringing to life the actual events he writes about, and at the same time, underlining the importance of the role of the regimental system itself. Once again, he is to be commended for an outstanding contribution to military history that vividly illustrates why we can take enormous pride in the accomplishments of Canadian fighting men in every war in which they have served.