Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

History of the York Rangers
Chapter XIII

Stepping out in 1885

THE Second Rebellion of Louis Riel is a sermon on the words “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour,” and illustrates the frightful rapidity with which peace ends and war begins. In an opposition paper {The Globe) of March 20th, appeared this small item:—

“Prince Albert, March 19th. Louis Riel, the hero of the ‘Red River Rebellion,’ recently exiled from Manitoba, has created dissension among the half-breeds and an outbreak is imminent. The situation is considered critical.’’

The administration of the day went placidly on attending to other matters and seeking to keep the public of eastern Canada from troubling about the North West. Some of the government press rebuked the Globe, others ignored it. The Canadian public was more interested in Afghanistan than Saskatchewan.

Suddenly on Saturday, March 28th, the government organ itself The Mail—-sounded the alarm and proclaimed a call to arms giving the narrative of the defeat of Crozier, and saying in its editorial: “Up to last evening the government had reasonable grounds for believing that the disturbances fomented by Louis Riel in the Saskatchewan region were of a comparatively insignificant character. That view must now be abandoned."

On the morning of the same day eighty men of the infantry at the barracks known as “C School," and two hundred and fifty each of the Queen’s Own and Royal Grenadiers were called out, and at 10 a.m. on Monday 30th marched out from the armoury and entrained for the North West. General Middleton had already started for Qu’Appelle with the 90th Battalion, the W nnipeg Battens mid some cavalry.

The militia authorities of that time seemed of a mind not to do too much in one day and kept calling out the battalions picce-mcal instead of mobilizing a strong force and at once forwarding it to General Middleton. That the men he had to hand in the combats at Fish Creek and Batoche proved sufficient for the work was part of the good fortune of that rugged old fighter. But there was no margin of safety and not even complete success can justify the principle of campaigning by driblets.

The turn of the 12th came on March 30th, when Col. Denison, the D.A.G., having just got word from Ottawa, issued an after dinner order at 8 p.m., calling out four companies of the Rangers along with four of the Simcoe Foresters. The machinery for selecting this force is embodied in a regimental order which we give in full:—

Toronto, March 30th. J88S.

Regimental orders by Lieut.-Col Wyndham, commanding 12th Battalion.

No 1. Four companies of the battalion being ordered for active service the officers commanding companies will at once-assemble their companies at then-respective company headquarters for inspection.

No. 2. Each company will furnish twenty men and one Sergeant. Companies 1, 3, 5 and 7 will furnish two Sergeants: the men must be inspected by the Surgeon or Assistant Surgeon and the Adjutant.

No. 3. Surgeon Hillary will be in attendance at the headquarters of the Newmarket Company, on the 31st, for the purpose of inspecting the men belonging to the Newmarket and Sharon Companies, between the hours of 9 and 12, and at the headquarters of the Aurora Company, between the hours of one land four.

No. 4. Assistant Surgeon Machell will inspect the Riverside, Parkdale, Yorkville and Seaton Village Companies, during the evening of the 31st, at their respective, company headquarters.

No. 5. The Adjutant will attend at Newmarket, Aurora, Parkdale, Seaton Village, Yorkville and Riverside on the;£ame day, and at the same time as the Surgeon and Assistant Surgeon for the purpose of selecting suitable men.

No. 6. The 12th Battalion will furnish Quarter-Master Sergeant, and Paymaster's Clerk.

No. 7. The following officers are detailed for active service in the North West.

Major Wayling, in command of Newmarket and Sharon.

Capt. Smith, in command of Aurora and Sutton.

Capt. Brooke, in command of Yorkville and Seaton Village.

Capt. Thompson, in command of Parkdale and Riverside.

Lieut. J. K. Leslie, of No. 3 Company.

Lieut. C. Venn elf, of No. 5 Company.

Lieut. J. T. Symons, of No. 5 Company.

Lieut. T. W Booth, of No. 5 Company.

Lieut. Fleury, of No. 7 Company.

Lieut. J. A. W. Allan, of No. 8 Company.

Lieut. Geo. Sutherland, of No. 7 Company.

Quarter-master Smith.

By order

John T. Thompson, Captain and Adjutant.

So much for the formal order. The real message was by bugle. A copy from a contemporary paper.

Rousing the Rangers

A Midnight Assembly on the Bugle Call.

The Call Responded to Promptly.

“The resonant tones of a bugle sounding the assembly on Monday night, roused many a slumbering citizen in the northern, western, and eastern parts of the city, between midnight and dawn and large numbers of those acquainted with the meaning of the call and who belonged to military organizations, hastily dressed themselves and rushed out under the impression that was intended to summon the remaining portions of the Queen’s Own and Grenadiers together for sendee. Such, however, was not the case, the summons being intended only for members of the 12th Battalion of York Rangers, companies of which regiment have their headquarters in Parkdale, St. Paul’s Ward, Seaton Village and Riverside. Col. Wyndham, who commands the Rangers received orders to draft four companies out of his command to form one wing of a battalion for active service, the other half of which will be drawn from the 35th or Simcoe Foresters.”

As an example of how the Rangers responded to the call we give the follow pen sketch:—

“The Parkdale Platoon assembled at the company armoury, at eight o’clock yesterday morning and having been provided with their outfit fell into line and were addressed by Lieut. Booth, who thanked them for their prompt response to the call of duty. No. 1, or the Parkdale Company have a brass band and headed by it matched out through the village and afterwards returning to the armoury were dismissed for the day.”

The companies being paraded and the selections or rather rejections being made, for all were pressing to go, the understanding was that the companies were to be drilled daily at their headquarters until Saturday, April 4th. On this date it was expected the whole York-Simcoe Battalion would be assembled at the New Fort and dressed up and down prior to its departure for the scene of war.

Here, however, this bi-county contingent received one of those spasmodic impulses to the front that characterized the campaign. On Thursday, April 2nd, the newly provisional battalion found itself aboard of two trains bound for the North West. This new order caught the men before they had time to affect that trimness of appearance which in the eyes of many is the essence of soldierliness. An eyewitness reported, “It is much to be feared that the departure of this battalion has been much too hurried. Of the Toronto contingent at least it may be positively said that they were not in a fit state to take the field. The clothing in many instances is old and rotten, the knapsacks ill fitted and so badly packed that a day’s march in them would be sufficient to break down a Hercules. We shall see that nevertheless the regiment could march and did.

Now if it had been designed to specially inure troops to the extremes of comfort and hardship and accustom them to sudden transitions from the easiest to the hardest modes of travel, a more appropriate route and season could not have been selected than the then line of the Canadian Pacific RaihvaA7, in the early days of April. The railway itself the men found comfortable and its officials considerate and energetic. But the section north of Lake Superior, one of the bleakest regions in the world, had formidable gaps where the railway ceased—the “End of Iron” they called it in those days.

The surmounting of these gaps by the first regiment to be sent,—the Queen’s Own Rifles,—was the subject of much highly strained writing on the part of certain correspondents who appeared to prefer a picturesque luridosity of style to the reputation of their regiment for manliness and endurance. The tender-souled public of Toronto were tortured with pictures of the most frightful weather conditions and by representations of their sons, frostbitten, sun-blistered, snow-blind and delirious. In reality the Queen's Own Rifles and the next comers, the 10th, stood their marches and as the saying is “stuck it out.”

The effect of all this “scare writing” on the men of the York-Simcoe Battalion was that they made up their minds that, when they came to the gaps that had to be marched, they would crush through in quicker time than their predecessors, and they did.

The first gap, which began at Dog Lake, was crossed with sleighs carrying twelve men apiece. At the end of this ride our contingent found no train waiting and took their first experience of a bivouac. One of them writes: “We had to lie out on a cold night without tents or any cohering except a blanket on eighteen inches or two feet of snow and recommence our journey next morning without breakfast on open construction cars.” Another more fortunate got “a little bread and coffee.”

Then came luxury and as the ancient histories would say, “the delights of Capua”. They got a good supper at Fort Monroe. One who was billetted with Mr. Samuel Allison slept (for the first time after leaving Toronto) with some seventy others on the bare boards "with the whole of that number in a room about 12 feet by 16 feet.”

Having thus reposed in close order, the troops were next day permitted to extend themselves in a series of marches alternated with rides on sleighs and flat cars. One of the 12th fortunately wrote down to his “chum” in Toronto, while the impressions were fresh. We quote his words;

“On the morning of the 7th we had breakfast and proceeded to march on the Lake (Superior) from Fort Munro to MacKellar’s Harbour distant 25 miles. It rained all the time and we were up to our ankles in ice water, but in spite of the strong wind which also prevailed not a man fell out and we made the distance seven and a half hours. I can assure you I felt very tired and cold, being drenched through. Here we had to cut wood and build fires in the open air and each man was served with a biscuit.

“We remained for about six hours trying to dry our clothes, but it stopped raining and commenced to freeze and while one’s back was freezing he would be burning in front. We left by flat cars about twelve o’clock to go fifteen miles further to Jackfish Bay. Had supper about two a.m., hard tack and pork.”

Treading on the heels of the 65th

“At Jackfish Bay we overtook the 65th, a Montreal Regiment, and as a consequence had a day to dry up and recruit ourselves.” This deliberation of the 65th caused some controversy as to whether that regiment “had balked at the gaps.” Whether that fine regiment was not a little influenced by racial reluctance to take part against the Metis, is one of the historic questions of the campaign that are not now worth solving. That the 65th could march and endure was abundantly proved later on.

Having crossed the third gap partly on foot and partly with the sleighs that had returned from conveying the 65th, the York-Simcoes were huddled together on flat cars and rode some sixty-five dismal miles to Nipegon, Where they arrived at 10 p.m. of April 9th, to commence the march across the last, the shortest and the weariest of the gaps. The exquisite nature of the fatigue incurred was carefully set down bv one who seems to have ached with the very recollection. he says:

“And this though the shortest was the most trying march of the whole. We started about ten o’clock at night and in the dark tramped about fifteen miles over the lake on the ice. You may realize what these marches on the ice mean when I tell you that there was from twelve to eighteen inches of snow covering it and the track we had to walk in was simply gutters made by the runners of the transport sleighs. In daylight when you could see to place your feet there was a tendency in them to slide together all the time from the sloping sides of the gutter and at night this tendency was increased ten fold. To add to the discomfort the track in the first and last marches was partly filled with water from the melted snow. In the first march during the prevailing rain it was from six to eight inches deep.”

The appearance of the regiment after it came through and arrived at Winnipeg on the morning of April 11th, was noted in the Winnipeg Times:

“The experiences of the men have been similar to the other troops who came by the Lake Superior division, but despite the discomforts attendant upon the several fatiguing marches the battalion impresses one very creditably. The men are a robust class and their demeanour and deportment are irreproachable. They have been on the road nine days, having left Toronto a week ago Thursday last. At Jackfish Bay, they overtook the 65th Battalion, but were delayed there by the limited transport accommodation. The weather for many days was wet and cold, and the roads almost impassable. Although sinking deep in the mud, one march of twenty-six miles was made in eight hours, and not one of the men faltered, a record which the battalion points to with pride. No sickness or accidents of any kind occurred, and the entire body are in splendid spirits. Upon arrival here the men were furnished breakfast at the C.P.R. dining hall. In the battalion are a number of the old Mounted Police Force, who are to form a detachment for service as scouts. The battalion, in accordance with orders from Ottawa, are to go into barracks here for several days, and at noon orders were issued for them to go into camp on the west side of Main Street, just beyond the railway track.”

Any expectation that was forming in the men’s minds of being allowed to relax themselves in Winnipeg was rudely dispelled by the battalion being entrained <m the night of Sunday the 12th, and carried westerly over three hundred miles to Qu’Appellls Station or Troy, where they arrived on Tuesday the 14th. Here the 12th pitched camp and remained until Friday the 17th, when they were marched to Fort Qu’Appelle, a distance of some eighteen miles, through the mud.

This march, mud and all, seemed so light compared to the gaps that the boys found food for merriment in many trifling episodes on the way. For example, Private Theobald in the military phrase “Look on scarlet,” or in other words left off his overcoat. It is a rule among the military that this should be done on a set day by order formally issued. This unauthorized action of Private, Theobald making himself conspicuous by his red coat among all the dark overcoats, incensed one of the transport oxen, “and it caught Private Theobald in the bosom of his pants with its horns and landed him in a pond of water yelling at the top of his voice". On April 21st, the 35th rejoined the 12th at Fort Qu’Appelle, “and the 12th gave them a hearty cheer and one of the boys had a fiddle and came in playing it at the head of the battalion. The York Rangers pitched their tents for them.” From this time until the 13th day of May, “the Direction'' kept the York-Simcoes eating their hearts out at Fort Qu’Appelle.

During this enforced stay at Fort Qu’Appelle the officers were not idle and provided a sufficiency of drill and tactical work for those under their command. Sergt. Bert Smith of the 12th, in a letter written April 27th, gives an idea of what was going on. “We have had the Toronto Body Guards also the Winnipeg and Quebec Body Guards with us for four or five days, but most of them have gone on to the front. About 3 a.m. Saturday last, I heard Capt. Thompson trying to wake me up. When I got awake he said he wanted four of the best men in my tent to go on a march that we thought had been postponed. We sent ninety good men and twenty cavalry, but the boys were back since Sunday noon, for they failed to capture anything. It was some of Riel’s supplies they were after. Everything is quiet around here.”

On May 6th the camp had an experience which is a necessary part of military training. We may give it in the words of Capt. Campbell, of the Simcoe Foresters.

“Last night (Wednesday) our camp had a genuine rouse. We had a picket posted at a ford down the river about 800 yards from the camp, there being a sergeant’s guard at the place. About 11 o’clock the sentry thought he saw four men with some horses at a little distance from him. He gave the challenge, but there was no answer and the parties attempted apparently to get under cover. The sentry at once fired and called out the guard. This of course was heard in camp and immediately the bugle sounded the Assembly and then there was a rushing to arms and mounting in hot haste. In about two minutes every available man in the regiment was under arms and ready to fight. The companies were rapidly placed in fighting order round our camp, some being sent out to assist the picket and others to defend the bridge."

“This was all done without noise or confusion. After the first shot some of the other pickets and sentries answered and for a short time the firing was pretty lively and everything had the sound and appearance of a genuine attack.”

On May 18th, acting under urgent orders, Lieut.-Colonel O’Brien set his battalion to a forced march to Humboldt.

The distances given in the line of march for troops as arranged by Capt. Bedson in charge of the transport were as follows:

This distance the York-Simcoes devoured in seven days. When we figure that this makes practically an average daily march of 19 miles and compare it with the normal 13½ miles of European infantry it is borne in on us that these volunteers were in haste to get to the front.

The first day’s march is described in the diary of a Simcoe Forester:

"May 13th, we left Fort Qu’Appelle at six a.m. under command of Col. O’Brien, M.P. On climbing the hill at Fort York, we halted and the troops were photographed. We marched about 18 miles when we halted for dinner, and took up a company that was stationed here under command of Major Wayling. Here was erected a very nice fort which we christened Fort Wayling. We arrived at Howden, at seven p.m., distant from Qu’Appelle about 28 miles.”

This strenuous stepping out was also a test of discipline and enabled the battalion to rid itself of one or two weak characters with a taste for malingering. On the second day, one Private Fontaine incurred courtmartial by a difference with Col. O’Brien, as to the magnitude and importance of the blisters on Fontaine’s legs. The colonel was a tall grim man who might have sat for a portrait of one of Wellington’s generals. He could and generally did walk all day; and inaccessible to fatigue himself wasted no pity on others and was the very man to make a young battalion kick the miles out behind it. In addition he was a fluent and convincing public speaker with great powers of expression. The diarist records that “he spoke to the officers in a very harsh manner while on the march.” His manner to the privates may, therefore, have appeared to lack sympathy. When Fontaine appealed to the colonel to allow him to ride he said that if Fontaine asked him again he would flog him. The upshot was that Fontaine was sentenced for insubordination and deserted during the night along with another malingering rascal.

Next morning Col. O'Brien addressed the whole battalion on the subject of desertion and his listeners vouch that if his words were not exactly a privilege to hear they were at least not difficult to remember.

Twice during the seven days the battalion was overtaken by terrific thunder storms accompanied by hail-stones of a size unknown in Ontario. As their great coats and oil sheets were on the wagons behind, the men were soaked to the skin, but seem to have taken no hurt. On the 19th-they made Humboldt, and met an escort of the Body Guard with White Cap and his band of prisoners, Mrs. White Cap riding astride of Lieut. Fleming’s horse.

The appearance of the battalion when it struck Humboldt was described by a newspaper correspondent.

“The 35th and 12th have just reached camp, Col. O’Brien in command. They marched- actually marched—from Fort Qu’Appelle, doing the 127 miles since Wednesday morning last,—seven days in all. The men came in as lively as crickets and are now resting half a mile along the trail south of the Body Guard. Col. Tyrwhitt, senior Major in command, marched the entire distance permitting his servant to ride his horse.”

Among the members of the 12th, there was none on (and more often off) the strength who saw more than Staff-Sergt. Brown. Originally picked to go with the contingent he was deemed medically unfit and on his way to the station was ordered by Capt. Thompson to fall to the rear. He obeyed, but smuggled aboard the train and after various vicissitudes and making himself useful in various capacities he reached Winnipeg. Here he got himself attached to the Brigade Staff, from April 13th to the 30th, when he rejoined the battalion at Fort Qu’Appelle, Here for a time his presence was ignored, but on May 11th, he was made sergeant of a guard of twelve men, one corporal and one mounted soldier. This guard was kept on duty for forty-eight hours without relief and then without sleep compelled to undergo the march that began on May 13th, with the result that three men of the guard collapsed. On May 20th, Brown was again taken off the strength and attached to the Supply Officer in Humboldt, a quaint inebriate familiarly known as “Micky Free". In this capacity he remained at Humboldt, enjoying the festivities that celebrated the Queen’s birthday, and making the highest score in the battalion rifle match, until hearing on June 30th that a telegram had arrived to hold the troops in readiness for home he applied for leave of absence. Under leave, Brown proceeded as far as Regina, where by the favor of an acquaintance in the North West Mounted Police, he was permitted to see Louis Riel marching up and down taking exercise in the jail paddock and carrying a ball and chain in his arms. His picture of Riel, jotted down at the time is not that of the shifty and loquacious demagogue he was sometimes painted:

“Riel is a big burly fellow and stands about five feet ten inches high; very broad shouldered; 190 pounds; dark complexion, black long hair and beard; high cheek bones and very large nose. With a down and sullen look; very polite to guards, and looked like a farm labourer returning from work without a coat on.”

Having accomplished what no other of the 12th for all their marching succeeded in doing, namely, having a look at the Rebel Leader, Brown got back to Qu’Appelle in time to see the York-Simcoes march in, which they did, having adhered throughout the distance from Humboldt to Qu’Appelle to the Body Guard and earned from Col. Derision the name of his “Foot Cavalry.”

The journey home of the regiments from the North West was a series of receptions. At Port Arthur the troops embarked for Collingwood and entrained for Toronto. At Barrie the good feeling that prevailed between the 35th and the 12th was evidenced by the presentation of a sword and belts to Lieut.-Col. Trywhltt of the 35th, on behalf of the 12th officers. The celebrations held in Toronto on July 22nd and 23rd will long be remembered and the York-Simcoe Battalion received its official order to “Dismiss ” on July 24th, 1885. It had not got into action; like Wellington’s Sixth Division which was nicknamed “the Marching Division,” because of its continuous marching up and down without the fortune of a battle. But for the Sixth Division, there came at last the opportunity of Salamanca, and who knows what the future holds.

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.