A Proud History of the Old 13th aka the Rileys

Finished Semper Paratus: The History of The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (Wentworth Regiment) 1862-1977 Kinsley Brown Sr, Kinsley Brown Jr & Brereton Greenhous. It was an official history so it glossed over the failures and enhanced some of the successes. I found this at the Attic Bookshop in down town London. However I first read a chapter of a later edition of it when in basic training. I was sick that weekend and received a blue chit for showing up anyways. I was sat down to read the chapter on Verrier’s Ridge as that was the training platoon’s name.

The book starts with the volunteer companies of militia that defended Upper Canada. To show how patriotic Hamilton was to the British Empire the celebrations after hearing of Sevastopol’s fall during the Crimean War are described. Fires in barrels were lit above the town on the Mountain and through the streets. Toronto thought the whole town was burning. During the United States Civil War the various companies were organized into the 13th Battalion of militia in 1862. The first commanding officer, Isaac Buchanan used his directorship of the railroad to move them to training camps and events.

1863 saw the first formal education of officers begin in the Canadian militia but units were still social clubs. Many recommended reforms and the reformers were pushed aside until British Colonel Garnet Wolseley was put in charge, to instill reforms. Wolseley would become a Field Marshal and have the Canadian Infantry School barracks named for him in London. Tensions with the Union allowed for more resources and training. Confederate spies caught in Canada helped raise the tension and lead to volunteer companies deployed on the Niagara fronteer to stop a Union invasion. Lee’s surrender relaxed things and the post war depression cut the budget.

The first deployment of the entire battalion was in the Fenian Raids that spread panic through the province. Hamilton’s last line of defence was apparently women with stones knotted in the toe’s of their stockings to use as a club. The battalion was sent to the frontier to help stop an Irish Republican Army invasion of Canada. Initial success at the battle of Ridgeway was reversed because someone shouted cavalry which caused panic in all the militia units. Both sides retreated with the IRA never sending such a large force into Canada again.

After Ridgeway the militia was reorganized, better trained and received logistical support not available before. Militia units were called out from time to time in the 1870s-1890s to deal with labour disputes. At the same time budgets were unreliable and political interference was a destructive force. Training improvements, logistics improvements, leadership improvements continued leading to higher morale with volunteers. Some of the best officers from Canadian training schools were sent by the British to the Sudan along with Voyageurs to run the Nile boats.

The battalion suffered a fire in the drill shed on May 23 1886, continued the tradition of being some of the top shots in Canada and was the first militia unit to receive Maxim machine guns. Some members volunteered for the Royal Canadian Regiment under Colonel Otter for South Africa in 1899. Conditions, equipment and training made the Boer War terrible for Commonwealth troops. Canadians were issued with glass water bottles, some were smashed against a stone house during the march to the front. Buying from friends was part of the equipment problem.

After Black Week, British disasters, adaptation and retraining occurred. While the battalion was raising funds to support families of those serving Colonel Otter and others were leaving tents and luxury behind to make the British forces more mobile. The first battle honour for the battalion was granted for the South Africa volunteers supplied. The book oddly mentions the first khaki uniforms in the British army was a Canadian militia unit in 1862. The battalion became a regiment and the Highland company became the Argyle and Sutherlands Infantry of Canada. William Otter was now in charge of the militia and making reforms based on South African experiences. Sir Fredrick Borden, Laurier’s defence minister also helped with reforming the defence of Canada.

World War One mobilization was a confused mess of patronage and incompetence. Sir Sam Hughes ignored the plan written by British professionals, existing units and people of merit. General Otter was pushed aside in favour of cronies. The 13th Regiment was assigned to guard local facilities from saboteurs, recruit and do initial training. Regiments would recruit in each other’s areas and in the United States to make quotas. The 13th sent 5420 of its recruits to the Canadian Expeditionary Force and a few to the Siberian Expeditionary Force. After the war the 13th would share 4th Battalion CEF battle honours. The 13th CEF became the Black Watch, Royal Highlanders of Canada.

1920 would see the name change to the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry with eventual merger with the Wentworth Regiment for the current name. The Department of National Defence was founded in 1922 by merging the militia, naval and air departments as one. Training cuts in the 20s and 30s lead to recruitment problems, a lottery was held to raise funds for training. 1936 saw a second Colonel Labatt take command the first was during World War One.

World War Two started with a plan of mobilization that worked. the RHLI became active and a second battalion was created for recruiting and domestic defence. In 1940 the 1st Battalion sailed for England with the Second Canadian Division. They watched the Battle of Britain in Aldershot and trained. King George VI was the Colonel in Chief and would spend time with them when able. At times they would be assigned to guard the coast or go on exercises including amphibious assaulting the Isle of Wight. A tradition of morning cod liver pills and losing the Christmas pudding began.

Operation Jubilee was launched August 19th 1942. The RHLI captured the Dieppe Casino but like all landed units were very quickly made combat ineffective by World War I tactics and people trying to tend wounded exposed to enemy fire. It would take two years to get Second Division back to fighting strength and quality. Everyone in Hamilton knew someone lost at Dieppe. A Major once told us Hamilton had 10% casualties in World War II in all services.

After D-Day landings Second Division would be landed to reinforce the initial bridgehead and help exploit it. When First Canadian Army was set up in Normandy Canadians were the minority to Brits and Poles. I learnt some new things about the battles then such as robot tanks were first used in the west vs Canadians and a stonk is a sudden concentration of fire. After holding an objective after repeated counter attacks the RAF attacked them doing laundry.

The bulk of the book is World War II and is full of stories, anecdotes and examples of Rileys never failing to take or hold their objective. Colonel Whiteker was a Ti-Cat quarter back and would use football plays to attack German positions. Many times the leading or cut off companies would call artillery down around their holes to clear off a German attack. By the end of ten months in Europe 1464 casualties, 3x the strength, had been suffered by the RHLI.

The end of the book includes volunteers for Tiger Force, Korea and the normal SNAFUs found in Canada’s peacetime Defence Department. I enjoyed this book and now would like to read more regimental histories and Canadian military history.


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