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5th (Western Cavalry) Battalion

5th (Western Cavalry) Battalion soldiers, 1918.
Saskatoon Public Library Local History Room

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, cavalry units from western Canada sent contingents to Camp Valcartier, Quebec, to form the 5th (Western Cavalry) Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force. Lieutenant-Colonel (later Brigadier-General) George Stuart Tuxford became the battalion’s first commanding officer. The 5th Battalion, later known as the “Red Saskatchewans” because of its red divisional shoulder patch and the high percentage of Saskatchewan men in its ranks, served with 2nd Brigade, 1st Canadian Division, on the Western Front in France and Flanders, from February 14, 1915, until the Armistice on November 11, 1918. On April 22, 1915, the 5th Battalion was one of twelve Canadian infantry battalions assigned to the front line at the Second Battle of Ypres. On April 24, the allies came under chlorine gas attack; this affected about 10,000 troops, half of whom died of asphyxiation almost immediately. Of those who lived, 2,000 were captured as prisoners of war. Despite having to use urine- soaked handkerchiefs in place of proper respirators, the 5th Battalion held the line while other allies retreated. By May 10, almost half of the Battalion’s officers were dead and one-third of its men had either been wounded or killed.

During the battle of Festubert (May 15–25), Tuxford was evacuated from the battle because of serious illness. Every other officer as well as and the majority of the senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs) were either killed or wounded, leaving the junior NCOs of the Battalion to fill the vacant leadership positions. Despite these heavy losses, the 5th Battalion was able to capture a German strongpoint and 130 yards of enemy trench. The Battalion held its position until it was relieved on May 25, becoming the only unit of the brigade to achieve its mission during the battle. At the Battle of Mount Sorrel (June 2–13, 1916), the 5th protected the flank of the 1st Division and supported the 3rd Division, enabling the Canadians to retake and hold Mount Sorrel. The Battles of the Somme resulted in the loss of 58,000 British troops, one-third of them killed, on the first day of the battle, July 1, 1916. The 5th Battalion, however, was one of the few units to make appreciable gains during the battle when the Canadian Corps succeeded in taking the Flers-Courcelette defensive position and the Thiepval Ridge.

In April 1917, the 5th Battalion was part of the assault on the Pimple, the highest point on Vimy Ridge, during which the Canadian Corps successfully captured that position. Following the victory at Vimy Ridge, the 5th Battalion formed the left flank of the 1st Division’s attack on the town of Arleux-en-Gohelle. The Battle at Arleux-en-Gohelle was the only allied success during the advance on Hill 70, a critical position needed to defend the Canadian line. In August 1917 the Battalion, as part of the 2nd Canadian Brigade, was successful in taking the hill and holding it despite suffering heavy casualties. During the Second Battle of Passchendaele, officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, the 5th Battalion fought the enemy in close combat over a 17-day period. On November 12, 1917, after three months of fighting, Passchendaele was finally taken. In late August 1918, a member of the 5th Battalion, Sgt. Raphael L. Zengel, won the Victoria Cross for his actions during the Battle of Amiens. The Battalion was present at Mons when the armistice was declared. The present-day North Saskatchewan Regiment perpetuates the 5th (Western Cavalry) Battalion.

Daria Coneghan

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