UBIQUE: Canada’s Gunners Celebrate 150 Years of Excellence

Article by 12570 Mike Kennedy

This article is respectfully dedicated to the memory of all members of The Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery who have given their lives in the service of Canada.

October 20 of this year represents an auspicious date in the annals of Canadian military history. It was on that date in 1871 that “A” and “B”  batteries of garrison artillery and schools of gunnery were established respectively in Kingston and Quebec City. At the time, the young Dominion was not yet five years old, but in the wake of the British Army’s withdrawal from Canada, the two newly formed artillery batteries were the first permanent standing military units in the country. As such, they would form the nucleus of what would eventually become the nation’s Army, and set the standard for what it meant to be a Canadian soldier – in the words of 2759 Sir Charles Forbes, RMWO,  “the best soldier in the world”.

Today, 150 years later, the members of The Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery can look back on a proud heritage of exceptional service to Canada. They recently celebrated this momentous occasion in grand style, when they were granted the honour of serving as the Queen’s Guard, in which capacity they were responsible for watching over Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, St. James’s Palace, and the Tower of London. Accompanied by their Colonel Commandant 11958 Brigadier General (ret) Jim Selbie, some 128 soldiers of The Regiment had the opportunity to travel to the United Kingdom and take part in this this important duty. Her Majesty has long had a close connection to The Royal Regiment, having served as its Captain General ever she ascended to the throne in February 1952.  A highlight of the recent festivities came at Windsor Castle when she presented The Regiment with the Captain General’s Sword, which will be used to recognize outstanding leadership by officers in the rank of Captain.

Jim himself has had a long and distinguished career as a Gunner that spans an association of nearly 50 years with The Regiment. A native of Brandon, Manitoba, he first enrolled in the Forces in 1973 as a Gunner with 26th Field Regiment, RCA headquartered in his hometown. Accepted into the ROTP program one year later, he spent two years at Royal Roads before completing his degree in politics at RMC. After graduation and commissioning in 1978, he served in a variety of progressively responsible positions with The Regiment at locations in Canada and Germany, and during 1996-97 he commanded the RCA’s Home Station in Shilo, Manitoba.

Jim’s career also included operational tours in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cyprus, and Afghanistan, as well as various staff appointments at both Army headquarters and NDHQ. Along the way, he earned a Master’s degree in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College, was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Military Merit in 2002, and in 2005 was awarded the NATO Meritorious Service Medal. He retired from active service in 2010, and has served as Colonel Commandant RCA since 2014. His tenure in that role will end on October 23 as The Regiment prepares to conclude the festivities surrounding its 150th anniversary.

As he reflects back on The Regiment’s many accomplishments since the original batteries were first established, Jim characterizes the RCA as an institution which has played a prominent role in contributing to Canada’s evolution as a nation. As one early example of this, he points to the contributions that members of The Regiment made to the North West Mounted Police, the forerunner of today’s RCMP. “When the NWMP was originally created in 1873 to bring law and order to Canada’s rapidly expanding west, many of the officers and NCO’s who served in the Force were former gunners” he observes. “The first Commissioner of the NWMP was George French, a former Royal Artillery officer who had been the first Commandant of “A” Battery in Kingston. Another former member of the Battery was Sam Steele, who was the third officer to be sworn into the NWMP, and who served essentially as its first Sergeant Major.”

Elements of The Regiment participated in operations during the North West Rebellion of 1885 and the South African War of 1899 to 1902, but its first big test in combat would come with the outbreak of the Great War in the autumn of 1914. When the initial contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force set sail from Quebec City in October 1914, the senior Canadian gunner was 246 Henry Burstall, who had left RMC in 1889 after two years of study and had accepted a commission with “C” Battery in Victoria. Over the years Burstall had risen steadily through the ranks of the Permanent Militia, serving in South Africa as a Captain, and eventually gaining command of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery in 1911. By 1916 he was General Officer Commanding of the 2nd Canadian Division, and a year later he would lead his unit to glory in the assault at Vimy Ridge. After the war Burstall would continue to serve in uniform until his retirement as a Major General in 1925, and he died in England twenty years later at the age of 75.

It was over the course of the four years of the Great War that Canadian gunners repeatedly and vividly demonstrated their courage and ingenuity. In the process of so doing, their contributions to the war effort reflected tremendous credit upon their regiment. One leading example in this regard was the work of Andrew MacNaughton, a militia officer who before the war had studied physics at McGill under the future Nobel Laureate Ernest Ruthorford. MacNaughton was a pioneer in developing counter-battery tactics, and the innovations he perfected would later help the Canadians to knock out over 80% of the German guns at Vimy Ridge. His methods proved to be a true game changer which helped make that magnificent moment of triumph possible, and after the war he would continue his distinguished career of public service, holding the positions of Chief of the General Staff in the 1930’s, and later serving as Minister of National Defence in government of Mackenzie King.

Canada’s gunners have continued to be front-and-centre since that time, and have repeatedly shown themselves to be capable of rising to any challenge that is put in front of them. In the process, the generations of soldiers who have served the guns over the past 100 years have proven themselves to be eminently worthy successors to their heroic forebears of the Great War. It is worth noting that many of RMC’s most distinguished Ex-Cadets – among them, luminaries such as 749 Harry Crerar, 1596 Guy Simonds, 2265 William Anderson, and 7860 Romeo Dallaire – rose through the ranks of the RCA. Another Ex-Cadet of note who wore The Regiment’s badge was 22458 Nichola Goddard, who sadly in 2006 became the first female Canadian soldier to die in combat.

The Regiment undeniably has a proud and distinguished past, but Jim believes that an equally exciting future lies ahead. “The Artillery has always been a place where dedicated and resourceful people have been able to thrive, and make important contributions.” he says. “Gunners have consistently shown themselves to be willing to take prudent risks, to be capable of adapting to changing circumstances and embracing new technologies, and to being committed to finding innovative and effective solutions to problems. Our watchwords are “On time, on target”. We’re looking to attract the best and the brightest of those who aspire to a career in the profession of arms, and provide them with an environment where they will have the leadership and the mentoring they’ll need to realize their true potential.”

In his immortal 1903 poem Ubique Rudyard Kipling penned the phrase “The Guns ! Thank Gawd, The Guns !”, and indeed, it is with good reason that since time immemorial many generations of soldiers have come to know and respect the Artillery as being the utterly reliable bedrock of the Army; the troopers who can always be counted upon when danger looms and the going gets rough. As they march ahead into the next 150 years of their history, the members of The Royal Regiment will be practicing their trade with new types of weapons that would have seemed unimaginable to their ancestors. But their moral compass will continue to remain the core values that have always guided Canada’s Gunners ever since the beginning: a relentless focus on the highest standards of professionalism and excellence; a passionate commitment to selfless service to their country and their fellow Canadians; and perhaps more important than anything else, an unwavering sense of loyalty and devotion to their Sovereign, their Regiment, and their comrades in arms.

Best in the field. Sharpest on parade. The kind of people who make us proud to be Ex-Cadets, and proud to be Canadians. Those are the qualities that define all those past and present who have worn the badge of The Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery, and who would stand willing to give their lives to defend what it stands for. God bless them all – and thank God for the guns, and for all the Canadians who have served them with such great skill, commitment, and honour.

Happy Birthday, Gunners, and may your Regiment live on forever. UBIQUE !

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