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Military History of Saskatchewan

By: Stewart Mein

Introduction

The military history of Saskatchewan had its beginnings in the days before European contact when the warrior societies of the Aboriginal peoples formed the first military organizations in the region. The Plains Cree, Assiniboine, Plains Ojibwa and the Wood Cree were all allied in a great confederacy; their enemies were the nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy to the west. As warfare was considered a highly prestigious occupation, most military operations took the form of lightning raids on enemy camps, the primary purpose of which was to obtain horses. These war parties were led by skilled warriors who, having taken part in many military expeditions in which they had shown great personal bravery, had established their places as leaders. The martial spirit of Saskatchewan’s First Nations has continuously expressed itself to this day through those who served in the armed forces of Canada in two world wars and in the Korean conflict. That their courage and fighting ability remain is evidenced in those Aboriginal people of the plains and woodlands who continue to join the ranks of the Canadian Forces today. 

Early Military History

The Europeans who first penetrated into the West came as Explorers and fur traders. The French came from Canada and the English from Hudson Bay. In 1670, under its charter, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was given the exclusive right to trade in all lands drained by rivers emptying into Hudson Bay. This vast uncharted region was given the name Rupert’s Land, after Prince Rupert, the first governor of the Company. In 1690, the Hudson’s Bay Company sent one of its employees, Henry Kelsey, into the western interior to open trade with the native inhabitants of the region. Cumberland House, the first inland trading post of the Hudson’s Bay Company, was built in 1774 on the Saskatchewan River, just inside the present eastern boundary of the province of Saskatchewan.

The intermingling of French, Scottish and English traders with the First Nations of the plains and woodlands sired a new nation of people, the Métis, who soon became important intermediaries in the Fur Trade, between their European and First Nations relatives. Equipped with rifles and horses, they became efficient buffalo hunters, often becoming the main suppliers of meat and other bison products to the forts and trading posts in the region. To facilitate the annual quest for buffalo on the plains, the Métis established hunting parties that evolved into an impressive military organization, based on a ten-man unit with a captain at its head. With the westward expansion of trading companies, conflict over the control of the fur trade intensified until 1821, when the North West Company was absorbed into the Hudson’s Bay Company. As a result of the merger the new company, which retained the name of the old HBC, consolidated its posts along the North Saskatchewan River, keeping Cumberland House, Fort Edmonton and Fort Carlton, as well as other posts on the southern plains. The HBC enjoyed a lucrative monopoly of the fur trade until Rupert’s Land was sold to the newly formed nation of Canada (see Rupert’s Land Purchase).

In 1868, Canada had entered into negotiations with the HBC to acquire Rupert’s Land. The Canadian government looked to the sparsely populated lands of the West as territory into which the new country could expand. In 1870 Rupert’s Land was formally annexed into the Dominion of Canada and became the North-West Territories. When the region became part of Canada, one of the first acts of the new nation was to establish its sovereignty over the vast sprawling land it had acquired. Unfortunately, the 15,000 or so native inhabitants of the North-West Territories had not been consulted about the transfer of the land to Canada. The first attempt to provide law and order in the newly acquired Territories occurred when the government of Sir John A. Macdonald created the North-West Mounted Police in 1873. The establishment of posts throughout the Territories occurred in 1874 after the Great March West. The first military activity in what is now Saskatchewan happened as an extension of Military District 10, which had been established in Winnipeg in 1870. A series of units, most notably the Battleford Rifles and a Prince Albert Infantry company, were initially set up in 1874. They existed fitfully until they came into their own at the outbreak of the North-West Resistance of 1885.

1885 North West Resistance

The 1885 Resistance consisted of two phases: the Métis Resistance around Batoche in the centre of the District of Saskatchewan, and the uprising of the Plains and Wood Cree of the Treaty 6 area which occurred in the western part of the District. The first incident of active resistance occurred when Métis forces under Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont decisively defeated a force of NWMP and Prince Albert Volunteers at Duck Lake. There followed a mobilization of Canadian Militia led by Major General Frederick Middleton; they set out from eastern Canada with the purpose of putting down the armed resistance in the West. Middleton’s forces left Fort Qu’Appelle in the District of Assiniboia in March of 1885, and proceeded northward towards Riel’s provisional capital at Batoche. The column was checked in its first engagement with the Métis at Fish Creek, but after linking with the steamer Northcote, Middleton continued his advance. In a four-day battle, from May 9 to 12, he put down all armed resistance by the Métis. Gabriel Dumont escaped to the United States; Riel was captured, taken to Regina, tried, and hanged.

The Cree uprising began in April of 1885 when a band of Plains Cree led by Big Bear and his war chiefs killed a number of people in the small community of Frog Lake on the morning of April 2, 1885. The Cree had been goaded into this action as a response to government inaction and indifference to their plight. The uprising spread southward, forcing the abandonment by the NWMP of Fort Pitt and spreading panic among the inhabitants of Battleford. Other columns of Canadian militia were dispatched to Swift Current and Calgary to deal with this rapidly developing threat. The Cree under their chief Poundmaker soundly defeated the column, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William Otter, sent to relieve Battleford. The defeat of the Canadians force was prevented from being a rout by the intervention of Poundmaker. The third column of Canadian militia, the Alberta Field force, led by Major General Thomas Bland Strange, pursued Big Bear’s Cree warriors northward, fighting indecisive engagements at Frenchman’s Butte and Steele Narrows. When eventually the uprising was put down, Big Bear and Poundmaker were captured and sentenced to imprisonment. Eight Aboriginals who had been identified as having taken part in the killings were tried and hanged at Battleford. With the Resistance defeated and the region pacified, settlers from all over the world flooded into the West, brought there by the newly completed Canadian Pacific Railway. Land was opened to Farming, and the First Nations were forced into a long period of obscurity.

Little remained of military organization in the West after the 1885 Resistance. The next time soldiers from Saskatchewan were called upon to fight for Canada was when another rebellion broke out thousands of miles away in South Africa. It was there that western units such as the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles and the Lord Strathcona Horse were sent to provide cavalry for the British forces. Women also played their part in the conflict as nurses. It was in South Africa that three of Saskatchewan’s soldiers were to win the Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest award for bravery. As Saskatchewan approached its entrance into the Canadian Confederation in 1905, a separate military district was created for the new province. Militia cavalry units such as the 20th Mounted Rifles, the 16th Canadian light Horse and the 27th Light Horse were then formed in the District. Infantry units such as the 95th Rifles of Regina, the 60th Rifles from Moose Jaw, the 105th Fusiliers of Saskatoon and the 52nd Regiment from Prince Albert were also formed. These units all provided men for the Canadian army in World War I.

World War I

Saskatchewan’s 27th Light Horse Regiment, 1914.
Regina Leader-Post

On the outbreak of World War I in August of 1914, the Canadian government began recruiting units to go overseas to fight alongside the armies of Great Britain and the other members of its Empire. The first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force was assembled at Camp Valcartier in September of that year. Saskatchewan’s soldiers were found in many units including the 5th (Western Cavalry) Battalion., which was raised from the cavalry units of the province and fought as infantry in the 1st Canadian Division. The 28th (Northwest) Battalion of the 2nd Canadian Division, initially recruited throughout Saskatchewan and the West, became primarily a Regina infantry regiment. The 46th Battalion was recruited from southern Saskatchewan. These units all saw service in the Canadian Corps and took part in its famous battles. Soldiers from the province were present at Vimy Ridge and at the breaking of the German lines by the Canadians in the final hundred days of the war. Saskatchewan suffered many casualties in the Great War: in proportion, western Canada endured more losses than any other region of the country. One of its units, the 46th Battalion, became known as the “Suicide Battalion” because of its extraordinarily high numbers of dead and wounded. It was in response to the sacrifice of its citizens that the Canadian and provincial governments set up a system of benefits, which included land grants, for their returned servicemen. Veterans’ organizations were also formed to aid in the process of rehabilitation and reintegration into civilian life. Again, in this war, Saskatchewan soldiers showed their bravery by winning eleven Victoria Crosses.

Major Pyman from the 5th Canadian Battalion interrogates a prisoner. Members of the Red Saskatchewans look on. Date and location unknown.
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-B7117

After the “war to end all wars,” military activity around the world stagnated as most people tried to put behind them the horrors of that bloodiest of conflicts. The Canadian militia was reorganized, and in Military District 12 the infantry formed two units: the North Saskatchewan Regiment and the South Saskatchewan Regiment. In later reorganizations, the Saskatoon Light Infantry, the Prince Albert Volunteers, the Regina Rifles (see Royal Regina Rifles), and the King’s Own Rifles of Canada in Moose Jaw would come into being. It was at this time that the Navy came to Saskatchewan in the form of two Naval Reserve half companies: one in Regina, which was to become HMCS Queen; and the other in Saskatoon, which was to become HMCS Unicorn. Canada’s fledgling air force also was represented in Saskatoon.

The militia in Saskatchewan was given a new camp at Dundurn for its summer training. In October of 1929, the world suffered the Great Depression; the stock market came crashing down, and on the Prairies the bottom fell out of the wheat market. The new camp at Dundurn was used to house hundreds of the now unemployed single men desperate for work. Work would come for them soon enough. Throughout Europe the aftermath of World War I and the onset of the Great Depression were to bring upheavals in the social structure; with the rise of ideologies such as fascism and communism, social unrest led to warfare. In Spain in 1936, volunteers from all over the world, including Saskatchewan, arrived to fight in the civil war involving Franco’s fascists and their opponents. Germany, smarting from her humiliation after the Great War, found a new leader in Adolf Hitler; his Nazi party rearmed and began its expansion into the Rhineland and the surrounding countries of Europe. In the Pacific, Japan had also become a rising power, expanding into Manchuria and China. Meanwhile in Canada, the political changes brought about by the Statute of Westminster in 1933 meant a new relationship with Great Britain: Canada was now an autonomous dominion and the master of her own national policies.

World War II

In Saskatchewan, in the summer of 1939 people turned out in the thousands to welcome the new monarch, King George VI, and his wife Queen Elizabeth. This show of unity with the people of Great Britain was to express itself in a more tangible way when World War II broke out in September of that fateful year. Canada was to declare war on Germany ten days after Britain did so. The coming of war meant the mobilization of the naval, air, and militia units of the province. A number of Saskatchewan units including the Saskatoon Light Infantry went overseas with the First Canadian Division to begin the task of defending Britain from invasion. The prairies were also to provide for the war effort a service made possible by their unique geography: the open skies and vast prairie lands were an ideal place to train the air forces of the Commonwealth. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan saw thousands of airmen from Canada, Great Britain, Australia, South Africa, and other Allied countries training to become the air forces that would have such a major part to play in winning the war. The Royal Canadian Air Force provided many squadrons of bombers and fighter aircraft that served in many theatres around the world, from the defense of Canada and Great Britain to campaigns in North Africa and the Far East.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth review the Regina Rifle Regiment, 1940s.
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-B12672

It was in the Far East that the Canadian army was to suffer its first great tragedy of the war, in the British colony of Hong Kong. Although the colony was indefensible, two battalions of Canadian infantry had been sent there to reinforce its British garrison. One of the battalions, the Winnipeg Grenadiers, had many men from Saskatchewan serving in its ranks. When Japanese forces invaded Hong Kong in December 1941, the garrison, after a fierce resistance, was overwhelmed and many of the Canadians were killed in the action; one of the defenders, Sergeant Major John Osborn of Wapella, was awarded the Victoria Cross. The Japanese held many other Saskatchewan men as prisoners of war, including a future Lieutenant Governor of the province, George Porteous. Meanwhile in Britain, the Canadian Army had not yet been committed to battle. Other Canadian divisions had been formed for service overseas, which contained many Saskatchewan units. The South Saskatchewan Regiment was mobilized into the Second Canadian Division, and the Regina Rifles into the Third Canadian Division. The Royal Canadian Air Force was providing squadrons for the defense of Britain and for bombing raids over Germany, while ships of the Royal Canadian Navy patrolled the English Channel and carried out escort duties for the convoys of merchant ships that crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

The Battle of the Atlantic against the U-boat menace lasted until the surrender of Germany in May of 1945. The small corvettes of the Royal Canadian Navy and the larger fighting ships, including those of the 10th Destroyer Flotilla such as the “Tribal Class” Destroyers, HMCS Athabaska and HMCS Haida, were manned by a high percentage of “prairie sailors,” many of whom were from Saskatchewan. Many ships of the Royal Canadian Navy proudly carried the names of Saskatchewan communities; some, such as HMCS Regina and HMCS Weyburn, paid the ultimate price. In August 1942, Canada suffered another tragedy when some 6,000 Allied troops carried out an assault on the town of Dieppe on the west coast of France. The Second Canadian Division, which included the South Saskatchewan Regiment, made up the largest part of the assault force. In the battle, almost 4,000 were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Among them were the men of the South Saskatchewan, including their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Cecil Merritt, who was taken prisoner and later awarded the Victoria Cross. (See also Dieppe Raid.)

Canadian Military Organization and Terminology
Canadian Plains Research Center

In July of 1943, the First Canadian Division, which included the Saskatoon Light Infantry (SLI), had moved from guarding the coast of Britain to join the British 8th Army for the invasion of Sicily. As it was a machine-gun battalion, sub-units of the SLI were distributed throughout the Division to provide firepower for other infantry units. Fighting through Sicily and on to the mainland of Italy, the SLI fought in all the battles of the Italian Campaign until they were moved to northwest Europe in 1945. When the Allied armies finally opened the second front on the mainland of Europe on D-Day (June 6, 1944), the Regina Rifles were chosen to lead the Third Division’s assault on Juno Beach. The Regina Rifles fought their way through Normandy, taking part in operations to capture Caen and Falaise, and up the western coast of France in the battles for the channel ports. They fought through Holland and into Germany until the latter’s surrender in May of 1945. Major David Currie, fighting with the South Alberta Regiment, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions during the Falaise operation in capturing the town of St. Lambert, thereby slowing down the withdrawal of German forces in their retreat to safer defensive positions. Currie was the only Saskatchewan-born recipient of the Victoria Cross. During the last months of the war, Canadian units in Italy were reunited with those in northwest Europe for the final assault on Germany.

Canadian Military - Comparative Ranks
Canadian Plains Research Center

While Saskatchewan’s soldiers were fighting overseas, the war had operated great changes to the province itself. Supporting the war effort had brought a return of prosperity. Many of Saskatchewan’s citizens had been enrolled in the reserve army to train for home defense. A number of training centres had been set up in the province at Regina, Maple Creek, and Prince Albert for the army, and a number of others for the RCAF. By far the largest military establishment in Saskatchewan was Camp Dundurn. After its role housing homeless men in the Depression, it had been turned back to the army to be used to train troops for overseas. The camp facilities had been expanded to include a large hospital facility and a Canadian Womens’ Army Corps barracks. Because of its largely sandy terrain, Camp Dundurn became a major armoured corps training centre. It was also where the men of the reserve army took their compulsory military training; one of these men was Lieutenant T.C. Douglas of the South Saskatchewan Regiment, who was also Premier of the province at the time. Other Saskatchewan units, such as the King’s Own Rifles from Moose Jaw and the Prince Albert Volunteers, served as part of the defense force on the west coast of Canada. Many other citizens of Saskatchewan worked in the civilian war effort, making guns and munitions in Regina as well as harvesting the bumper crops that now grew in the fields. The servicemen who returned to Saskatchewan after the war came home to a province much different from the one they had left five years earlier. In the post-war years land was set aside for returned veterans under the Returned Veteran’s Act, and servicemen took advantage of educational and retraining schemes, filling classrooms at the University of Saskatchewan and other provincial educational institutions. As housing was at a premium, new subdivisions sprang up in the cities in an attempt to cope with the increased demands.

The Cold War

While the world was turning its thoughts to peace, a new threat was looming on the horizon. The Soviet Union, which had been an ally through World War II, was now involved in spreading communism throughout the world; Saskatchewan would play a role in the fight for its containment. The Canadian Army had been reduced after World War II, and special units had to be raised to fight a new war in Korea from 1950 to 1953. Troops were also raised to become part of the newly formed North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Europe. At home, the militia took on the new role of national survival. To meet the threat of an attack on North America from Soviet long-range bombers carrying nuclear weapons, the RCAF was given the role of maintaining a series of radar lines across the country. A series of radar stations were set up across the province at Yorkton, Dana and Alsask as part of the Pinetree Radar Line (see Air Defence Stations). As in World War II, the prairies were again chosen to provide an air training plan for pilots of NATO countries: RCAF Station Moose Jaw was reactivated as a NATO flying training school, as was the RCAF station at Saskatoon.

Present Day

Snowbirds.
Regina Leader-Post

Saskatchewan continues to make a significant contribution to the Canadian armed forces of today. The distinctive services of Canada’s navy, army, and air force were lost in 1967 when they were replaced by a single unified service, the Canadian Armed Forces. In Saskatchewan, the only remaining component of the regular force is Canadian Forces Base Moose Jaw. The reserve force, however, maintains its presence through the army reserve units of 38 Brigade Group and the naval reserve units of HMCS Queen and HMCS Unicorn. Canadian Forces Base Moose Jaw, now designated at 15 Wing, is the home of a new NATO flying training program and of the famous air demonstration squadron, the Snowbirds. Prairie sailors from Saskatchewan can now serve aboard ships of the Canadian navy that carry the names of the province’s cities, HMCS Regina and HMCS Saskatoon. Although the South Saskatchewan Regiment was lost in one of the many reorganizations of the reserve force, the army reserve still carries on the proud traditions of Saskatchewan’s regiments. 10th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, the now Royal Regina Rifles, the North Saskatchewan Regiment, and the Saskatchewan Dragoons maintain their presence in the cities of Regina, Yorkton, Saskatoon, Prince Albert and Moose Jaw. These units of 38 Brigade Group are supported by 16 Service Battalion, 16 Medical Company, and 734 (Regina) and 737 (Saskatoon) Squadrons of the Communications Reserve. A number of cadet corps for all three elements of the Canadian Armed forces also exist in the province. Veterans from Saskatchewan who have served Canada are represented by various organizations including the Saskatchewan branch of the Royal Canadian Legion and the Army, Navy, and Air Force Veterans’ Association.

Conclusion

Throughout the province’s history, those from Saskatchewan who have served in the armed forces have made many sacrifices: the numerous memorials and cemeteries across the province bear testament to this, as do the many lakes and geographic features of northern Saskatchewan that have been named for those who gave their lives in the service of their country. As we have honoured the citizens of Saskatchewan who have served this province in the past, their tradition of service is continued by those who serve in the armed forces of Canada today and who will continue this tradition of service in the future.

Further reading:

Beal, B., and R. Macleod. 1984. Prairie Fire: The 1885 North-West Rebellion. Edmonton: Hurtig.

Brown, G., and T. Copp. 2001. Look to Your Front, Regina Rifles: A Regiment at War 1944-45. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University, Laurier Centre for Military Strategic & Disarmament Studies.

Brown, W.F. 2001. Steele’s Scouts: Samuel Benfield Steele and the North-West Rebellion. Surrey, BC: Heritage House.

Buchanan, G.B. 1958. The March of the Prairie Men: A Story of the South Saskatchewan Regiment. Weyburn, SK: South Saskatchewan Regiment Association.

Dunn, J. 1994. The Alberta Field Force of 1885. Winnipeg: Hignell.

Flanagan, T. 1999. Riel and the Rebellion: 1885 Reconsidered. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Hildebrandt, W. 1985. The Battle of Batoche: British Small Arms Fire and the Entrenched Métis. Ottawa: Parks Canada.

Klancher, D.J. 1999. The North-West Mounted Police and the North-West Rebellion. Kamloops, BC: Goss Publications.

Light, D.W. 1987. Footprints in the Dust. North Battleford, SK: Turner-Warwick Publications.

McWilliams, J.L., and R.J. Steel. 1978. The Suicide Battalion. Edmonton: Hurtig.

Mein, S.A.G. 1992. Up the Johns! The Story of the Royal Regina Rifles. North Battleford: Senate of the RRR.

Morton, D. 1972. The Last War Drum: The North West Campaign of 1885. Toronto: Hakkert.

Stanley, G. 1992. The Birth of Western Canada: A History of the Riel Rebellions. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Stonechild, B., and B. Waiser. 1997. Loyal Till Death: Indians and the North West Rebellion. Calgary: Fifth House.

Winton, M.V. 1980. Saskatchewan’s Prairie Soldiers 1885-1980: A Pictorial History of Saskatchewan’s Military Badges and Medals. Regina: the author.

Stewart Mein

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