From 12570 Mike Kennedy: RMC – Forty Years On (Part 1)

Above: Photo of #290 John Edwards Leckie taken sometime during his service with the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish), 1914 – 1918.

RMC – Forty Years On

By 290 J.E. Leckie

Originally written in 1933

Transcribed by 12570 Mike Kennedy 

Introduction by 12570 Mike Kennedy

I have always been a believer in the notion that you cannot understand who you are unless you know where it is that you have come from. Nearly twenty years ago, during a visit to Panet House, I was handed a photocopy of a sheaf of densely typewritten pages bearing the title “R.M.C. Forty Years On”. The author was simply identified as “290 J.E. Leckie” and no further information was provided about his background or life story. The words you are about to read were originally written nearly 90 years ago, and are a reflection of a man and his times. But much more importantly, they also serve as an illustration of the timelessness of the cadet experience, and of the significance of the impact that a unique institution has had on Canada’s evolution as a nation.

Judging from what follows, it would indeed appear that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

John Edwards Leckie was born in Acton Vale, Quebec, in February 1872. After early education at Bishop’s College School in Sherbrooke, he entered RMC in 1889 at the age of 17, one of seventeen new recruits to be enrolled that year. His older brother, 217 Robert Gilmour Edwards Leckie, had entered the College three years previously, and years later, by which time the two brothers were well into middle age, they would serve together in the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) during the Great War. The younger Leckie graduated in 1893, and the words that follow are his recollections of his time at the College, written four decades later.

At the time Leckie graduated, Canada was a rapidly expanding nation with a population of just under five million people. RMC itself was yet to reach its 20th anniversary, had assigned College Numbers to 379 recruits, and had produced 195 graduates. But even though it was still a very youthful institution, the years since RMC’s opening in 1876 had nonetheless been eventful, and at times, marked by controversy.

Though the need to provide trained officers for the defence of Canada was understood and acknowledged, Members of Parliament fretted over the cost of running the College, and senior militia officers questioned whether a course of four years in duration was really necessary. Attracting suitable candidates for positions on the senior staff had proven to be a challenge, and it was clear that certain appointments had been made as a result of political patronage, as opposed to on the basis of merit.

At times, RMC also struggled to secure sufficient numbers of qualified applicants. Prospective  recruits were selected based on their standing in a competitive examination, and over the years it proved necessary to progressively lower passing mark to try to make up for the shortfall. Even so, suitable candidates proved to be hard to find. Although the population of Canada had grown by nearly one million people between 1876 and the time of Leckie’s arrival, by 1891 the size of the intake had shrunk to just twelve new recruits, and remains to this day the smallest entry class in the College’s history.

Issues of internal strife had also raised their ugly head. During the first few years of RMC’s existence an increasingly tense relationship developed between the Commandant, Colonel Hewett, and the Staff Adjutant, Captain Ridout. The situation deteriorated to a point where the two men were no longer on speaking terms, and came to a head in 1881 when Ridout was dismissed. Ridout had been popular officer who had been respected and well-liked by the cadets, and his ouster became a source of bitter resentment. Hewett himself would weather the storm and stay on for several more years, eventually resigning in 1886 to return to England and take up a new post with the Royal Engineers.

Over time, other problems had also developed, notably with respect to the practice of “recruiting” that had become a tacitly condoned part of the College’s culture. Not long after Leckie’s graduation, a crisis developed when it came to light that several recruits had been “caned” with a T-Square. When the Commandant at the time, Colonel Oliver, confronted the alleged perpetrators,  they initially denied any culpability, but later confessed their guilt. As punishment, the entire third class was sentenced to28 days’ confinement to barracks. Meanwhile, the newspapers of the day had gotten hold of the story, and were quick to brand RMC cadets as  “cads, snobs, cowards, ruffians, bullies, thugs, tyrants, beasts, and brutes”.

But notwithstanding the castigation they were forced to endure in the pages of the nation’s  newspapers, by the time Leckie graduated the products of RMC were clearly starting to prove their worth. According to Richard Preston’s book “Canada’s RMC”, by 1893 just over 300 men had passed through the College and were therefore “Ex Cadets”. Of these, 84 had joined the British Army or the colonial forces, ten were with the Northwest Mounted Police, and ten others were serving in Canada’s fledgling Permanent Force. Of the remainder whose whereabouts were known, 72 were employed as engineers of various kinds, 19 were public servants, and the rest were engaged a variety of other professions.

Those who had entered military service were doing well in their careers, and beginning to distinguish themselves in various ways. One Ex-Cadet, 39 Huntley Brodie Mackay, who had entered in 1878, won the College’s first DSO for his service with the Royal Engineers in West Africa. Another, 62 William Henry Robinson, would die attempting to blow up the gate of a stockade in Sierra Leone, making him the first Ex-Cadet to be killed in action.

Still other cadets of the same vintage would be bound for future greatness. 25 William Throsby Bridges, would withdraw from the College after two years when his parents moved to Australia. He would go on a distinguished military career in his new country, rise to the rank of Major General, and found RMC Duntroon in 1911. Another who left RMC prematurely was 246 Henry Edward Burstall, who failed out in 1889. Through his father’s political connections Burstall managed to secure a commission in “C” Battery of the Royal Canadian Artillery. Over the years that followed he rose steadily through the ranks, served in South Africa, and eventually commanded the Second Canadian Division at Vimy Ridge. He retired in 1925 as a Major General, having earned seven Mentions in Dispatches and a Knighthood for his wartime service, and died in England in 1945.

As for Leckie himself, his own life and career would vividly attest to the transformative impact of his time at RMC. As a cadet, he marched through the streets of Kingston in the summer of 1891 as part of the guard of honour for Sir John A. MacDonald’s funeral procession. As a soldier, he served first in South Africa as a subaltern with the Lord Strathcona’s Horse and the Canadian Mounted Rifles. Following the outbreak of the Great War, September 1914, at the age of 42, Leckie volunteered for service with the 16th Battalion of the CEF, where he became deputy commander to his elder brother. He eventually rose to become the Battalion’s CO, and emerged from the war having won a DSO. In the summer of 1918 Leckie was sent to Murmansk to command the Canadian “Malamute Force” that had been dispatched as part of the Allied effort to intervene in the Russian Civil War, and he finally returned to Canada in September 1919, where he made his home in Vancouver.

In civilian life, Leckie’s career was equally colourful. He worked mainly as a mining engineer, focusing on exploration and development projects all over the world. During the late 1920’s he helped organize an exploratory expedition into Hudson’s Bay Territory, and a few years later, he spearheaded an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to discover $90 million in Spanish treasure that had reportedly been buried somewhere in Costa Rica. Leckie was a lifelong bachelor until his mid-70’s, when he married for the first and only time in 1946. He died four years later in Port Hope, Ontario, at the age of 78.

Here, in his own words, are the recollections of 290 John Edwards Leckie’s time at RMC, told 40 years after the fact. When you read this, you may see part of yourself within his story.

Part I

It was in the autumn of ‘89. On the train as we were on our way to Kingston I looked about to see any men who might be likely cadets. Spotted the two Armstrongs whom I had known before, and who took their exams at the same place as I did. We got together and looked for others. Spotted a couple. One was rather diffident. He had evidently never shaved in his life and had a nice soft down on his cheeks. He was in for a rude awakening as he declared he never intended to shave.

We arrived at the town and drove to the Barracks. Got settled in our rooms. I was in top flat with Henry Neville Brock-Hollingshead from Coburg, Ontario. We quarreled a lot that first year but after that we were very close friends. He was a clever cadet, went to the Gunners but I never ran across him afterwards.

We were busy the first few days getting outfitted with packs, rifles, and all the other impediments of a soldier, getting measured for boots, uniforms, etc. We were getting quite cocky and figured we rather ran the place when two senior cadets arrived to look after us until the three upper classes arrived. Dobell (221 C.M. Dobell) and one other came. They looked at us in contempt. Blankety blank recruits. When we got our blue uniforms we were allowed to wear them to town. In fact that was all we were allowed to wear as we had to stow our civvies. You could see that the girls had spotted us as recruits and gave us pitying looks but sizing us up for future use and reference.

We were quite happy until the fatal day when the other cadets arrived. The first thing we heard as the cabs drove up to the door was “recruit, recruit, recrooot”. Down we tumbled and were told to get the trunks to different rooms. It was a busy time. When possible we would get together and converse in whispers.

The next morning while dressing I heard the voice of Drum Campbell (212 H.B.D. Campbell), with whom I had been at school, talking to other cadets outside my door, drying themselves after their bath. Drum was then a First Class man, and as it turned out, my CSM. I rushed out and stuck out my hand, “hello, Drum”. I met with a very cold reception and strange looks from the other cadets, who wondered at this hardihood of a recruit to talk to a First Class man without being spoken to first.

We soon learned our place. We could gather in Zac Burnham’s room and talk things over. Zac played the banjo very well and with a cigar tilted in one corner of his mouth he would strum away while we talked in whispers. Out talks were broken in time by the cry “recrooot” and we had to go at the double. Some fatigue or other. A recruit could not go on another floor in the barracks without permission of the senior cadet living on that floor. If he was caught one heard that long drawn out yell of “Shifting squad” and the poor recruit was then given the “bum’s rush” up and down the flat and then thrown out of the door.

A recruit was fined pots of jam if he drew his bayonet on parade, he was fined if he dared to slide down the bannister of the main staircase, if he did not keep the bread plate at table supplied with bread, if he had the slices thicker than the handle of the knife, and several other interesting penalties. If there were two recruits at a table they could talk to one another but if only one he had nobody to whom he could talk. We started our recruit drill under the tutelage of Sergeant Major Morgan (Muggins), late to the Scots Guards and the champion fencing and bayonet fighting man in Canada.

Of course we were all dreading the Initiation of which we had heard so much, and we wished they would hurry up with it and not have it hanging over us. At last the night came. We had hints of it and wondered and shivered. That night, we were told to gather, the whole class, in Musgrave’s room, I think it was, on the top flat. We did, there was not a sound in the barracks, but the gym was all lighted up. The gym then was an old stone building in the middle of the parade ground, it had been the blacksmith shop when the Navy was here.

Then we heard groans and moans and howls coming from the bottom floor of the barracks and getting nearer and nearer. Not a word was spoken by us and then down the corridor came stealthy footsteps and more moans and groans. The door opened and here were half a dozen figures in tights and tight fitting clothing, all in black. They carried long stuffed clubs, wet, peering into your face they groaned and thumped you, heaven help you if you smiled, “stop smiling, that man smiled” and the whole pack of “Bulldogs” would turn on the luckless individual.

These men were Third Class men from whom the  “Bulldogs” were chosen. It was their duty to take you one by one to the gym where the Initiation took place. “Whooo is the senior” was asked and poor Hollingshead stepped out “take him away” and with a farewell thumping of us he was led to his doom.

One by one, at intervals, we were taken out of it. When it came to my turn, I was led to the gym, to the right all the senior cadets were seated. I was escorted in to the left to stand before a tall figure who I later ascertained was Gentleman Cadet George Rose (233 G.G. Rose), of the First Class. Standing before him I was asked many questions and many things were done, such as suddenly pulling the strip of carpet on which you were standing, from under you, and over you went. I was told to sing, and sang in a faltering tone an old school song, “I’m in love with Rosalie”. It was all very well but when I came to the chorus and was singing very seriously “Pretty Rose, charming Rose” I did not understand why a yell of laughter went up from the cadets or why my Interlocutor smirked and bowed and thanked me. I had not known his name was Rose.

After this first part each recruit was shoved into a sort of wooden pen the walls of which did not come to the ceiling. Huddled in there we were from time to time doused with buckets of water thrown on us by the indefatigable “Bulldogs”. They had just served a year as recruits and enjoyed their change.

When all was through the first part we were brought out. I, as my brother (217 R.E. Leckie) was BSM, was invested with a great sabre and had to march the recruits about, knowing nothing of drill. We were then lined up and given the lecture and what a lecture. One would think there was not a lower creature on the face of the earth than a recruit. He was the vilest and lowest creature on earth and by his conduct he must show that he realized this. Meekness and humility and fear of God and the First Class were all rubbed into him. He must by his deportment show that at all times he was inferior to other cadets, must show no signs of a joyous free man, he was nothing but a blank blank blank recruit

Well THAT was over. But there were “re-unions” to come. Every fortnight or so, after supper the recruits were called upon to amuse the seniors and in the Reading Room they would have to get up and spar, sing, sing advertisements from a newspaper, do all sorts of stunts generally. This was kept up for a whole year just as a reminder that we were still recruits and must not forget it.