Canada’s first overseas military adventure was not, as many believe, the South African War which broke out in 1899. Rather, the year 1858 saw Canadian troops fitted out in relic uniforms from the Napoleonic Wars sent to “avenge” the massacre of British women and children by rebels in India. And though the men of the 100th Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Royal Canadians) did not, in the end, reach the battlefields of India, they did provide fodder for the myth-makers of later generations.
The raising of the 100th Regiment was an experiment that proved so controversial that no further attempt was made to raise a Canadian unit for Imperial service for over forty years. Throughout its three decades of existence, members of the 100th clung tenaciously and eccentrically to their Canadian roots -- even after they were officially designated as an Irish regiment.
The 100th regiment was formed as a result of a surge of repugnance throughout the British Empire in 1857 at the news of the Bibighar massacre of white women and children during the Siege of Cawnpore in the opening stages of the Indian Mutiny (also called “Kanpur” by some Indian historians who refer to these events as the First War of Independence). Canadians joined in the outrage at “the Massacre of the Ladies” and rallied to the flag. But Canada’s offer of help came with strings attached and did not quite deliver what the British had been led to expect.
Controversially, as far as the British Government was concerned, Canadian volunteers responding to the Bibighar massacre were not required to purchase their commissions. At a time when British officers bought and sold their ranks, often regarding the final sale as their pension fund, the Canadian officers in the 100th were awarded their commissions based not on the size of their pocket books, nor on merit alone, but on how many recruits they secured.
The British Treasury presumably chafed at missing out on the income from the sale of commissions in the new regiment. Still, even when India, the jewel in the crown of Empire, was threatened, the British accepted that Canadians would not pay for the honour of coming to the rescue: “I do not know whether you have been in America, but you must be quite aware that you would never have got Canadians to pay the full price of the commissions,” Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Yorke told a parliamentary committee in 1859. The feeling at Horse Guards, British Army headquarters, was that few Canadians would, for example, pay £1,800 (almost $8,750 in 1858 terms) to become a captain.
British doubts about Canadians’ commitment to the Empire had been triggered when Canadian authorities blocked an earlier attempt by militia officers in 1854 to raise a regiment to fight the Russians in the Crimea in spite of public interest. The government of the Province of Canada claimed that the potential menace of the United States made it unwise to send men willing and capable of bearing arms out of the country. But some cynics suggested that the real reason for refusing military aid was that, with a shortage of unskilled labourers, removing 1,000 men from the workforce to send a token force to the Crimea would drive up wages.
Three years later, the news of hundreds of women and children being murdered on the north-east plains of India by rebels prompted Canadian militia officers to revive the attempt to fight abroad in Queen Victoria’s name. The treacherous slaughter of 200 women and children in the Bibighar at Cawnpore in 1857 shocked newspaper readers across the English-speaking world.
The Province of Canada was already flexing its nationalist muscles. With Canada’s eager eyes cast to the West, Confederation was only ten years away, and many in the Province relished the chance to play a role in saving the Mother Country. But even then, elections took priority over rescuing the Empire. It was only after the votes had been tallied that the Governor General, Sir Edmund Head, began to raise the battalion that would continue to carry the maple leaf on its insignia until it was disbanded in 1922.
The rank-and-file element proved to be controversial. In 1899, when Canadians were raising units to fight in the Second Boer War, the soldiers of the old 100th were eulogized as the cream of Canadian manhood. That was certainly what the British believed they were getting in 1858. But most of the volunteer recruits turned out to be British-born and the 307 Irishmen among them formed the biggest single group. Only 268 of the first 866 were born in Canada. The British could be forgiven for feeling that it would have been cheaper to recruit a regiment in Ireland than pay to ship one across the Atlantic.
They were a mixed bunch. James Dickie had already deserted from the British Army twice. Shoemaker John Mackay deserted the 100th before he had even been issued a uniform. Other recruits made headlines when they went on a rampage in Quebec City and attacked civilians and homes at random. Order was restored by troops from the British 17th Foot, garrisoned at the Citadel at the time.
Recruiting stations were set up in Toronto, Niagara, Kingston, London, Montreal and Quebec City. The office set up in the Globe Hotel on Yonge Street in Toronto signed up 40 recruits in short order. There was a ban on recruiting men from the United States. Only British subjects were to be accepted. The £3 bounty paid to each recruit came from the British Treasury, which also met the cost of shipping the regiment across the Atlantic. Military storehouses across Canada were ransacked to provide uniforms and equipment. But all that could be found were musty leftovers from the War of 1812.
A young officer in the 100th regiment reported that when the regiment arrived in England many people believed they were seeing a ghost army of soldiers from the Duke of Wellington’s time.
“It only lacked ‘pigtails and powder’ to make it appear as if one of the Duke’s veteran battalions of the Peninsula had come to life,” Ensign Charles Boulton remembered. “Especially curious to the people of England was the motley uniform of the 100th, for the old coatee had long been forgotten; and on our arrival in England we marched to Shorncliffe Camp in this picturesque obsolete uniform.” Boulton knew a thing or two about old uniforms. The 16-year-old had borrowed an ancient one belonging to a family friend before setting out, with a bagpiper in tow, to raise forty recruits in Peterborough, Lindsay, and Campbellford.
Not all the officers in the regiment were as lacking in life and military experience as Boulton. A guiding force behind the regiment was Canada’s first winner of the coveted Victoria Cross for extreme valour. The 100th's Major Alexander Dunn had won the VC in 1854 in the fabled Charge of the Light Brigade. In that famous noble folly he had twice gone to the rescue of dismounted British troopers who were about to be cut down by pursuing Russian cavalry. But his career with the 11th Hussars had come to a premature end when he eloped with a brother officer’s wife. To save face Dunn returned to civilian life in Canada -- but rejoined when the 100th was formed. (A product of Upper Canada College and Harrow school in England, Dunn stood at the opposite end of the social spectrum from the second Canadian to be awarded a Victoria Cross, Seaman William Hall, the Nova Scotia-born son of escaped American slaves.)*
The British had insisted on posting more than a dozen experienced officers, several of whom had already seen action against the Indian rebels, to the 100th in an effort to make it fit for combat. But by the time the regiment arrived in England in the summer of 1858, the worst of the fighting in India was over. New uniforms were issued, without buttons at first, and the regiment was drilled by sergeants from the elite Brigade of Guards. But instead of India, the Canadians were sent to garrison the British fortress at Gibraltar at the western mouth of the Mediterranean. This posting to a relatively tranquil outpost of Empire could not, in all truth, be regarded as a vote of confidence.
However, in 1862 the 100th did enjoy grandstand seats for an episode in the American Civil War when the Confederate commerce raider C.S.S. Sumter intercepted and burned two US merchant ships, the Neapolitan and the Investigator, within sight of Gibraltar. The Sumter then took refuge at the British outpost and Boulton would later claim that the regiment’s officers played host during these events to officers from both the Confederate vessel and the seven United States warships sent to prevent it from leaving Gibraltar.
The following year saw the 100th sent to Malta. Victoria Cross winner Major Dunn had bought command of the regiment in 1861.# It was on the island -- another quiet British outstation of Empire -- that 21 members of the regiment were lost to cholera. It was also where the regiment finally first drew blood – if the riot in Quebec is excluded from the record. A massive shark was spotted basking at one of the regiment’s favourite swimming places on the coast. Sergeant Charles Seymour, later a detective with the Toronto Police, armed himself with a large knife and dived into the water. The shark’s head was mounted and kept as a regimental souvenir.
Closer to home, the threat of invasion in British North America by members of the Fenian Brotherhood, many of them veterans of the American Civil War, bent on pressuring the British to set free their native Ireland -- brought the 100th back across the Atlantic in 1866. Many of the original Canadian members still serving took the opportunity to go home and to leave army life behind. Although the Canadian character of the regiment had begun to dilute almost from the moment it had set sail from Quebec City in 1858, it remained stubbornly proud of its roots. The regiment paraded in Ottawa on 1st July 1867 with its headgear adorned in maple leaves to celebrate Confederation. And for years afterwards a consignment of maple leaves was sent from Canada to wherever the regiment was serving for the men to wear on July 1.
The Canadian connection had been briefly strengthened during the regiment’s two-year stay in the country but after it sailed back to Britain in 1868 Canadian recruits again became rare. Despite this, the regiment’s cap badge, belt buckle, and colours (the regimental flag) continued to include maple leaf motifs. The regiment also decorated its drums with paintings of beavers and maple leaves.
There were also attempts to encourage nicknames for the regiment such as “the Beavers,” “the Maple Leaves,” or “the Colonials.” In 1875 the officers succeeded in having the War of 1812 battle honour “Niagara” added to the regimental colours. The honour had actually been earned by a previous, long-disbanded, regiment which bore the number 100th Foot, the Prince Regent’s County of Dublin Regiment, which the 100th could claim to have perpetuated. The colours, complete with their “unearned” battle honour, was donated to the Canadian government in 1887 when new colours were presented to the unit in India.
When the British Army was restructured in 1881, the 100th became the 1st Battalion of the Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians). Its training depot and headquarters were in Ireland. But the battalion continued to cling to its now very tenuous Canadian connections. When the 1st Leinsters arrived in Halifax in 1898, one of the officers asked a Nova Scotia journalist to call the unit the 100th Canadians. The journalist was told, as evidence of the unit’s association with his country, that the regimental band always played “The Maple Leaf” before “God Save the Queen” and the dinner plates used by the officers were not only made in Canada but were decorated with maple leaf and beaver motifs.
It was perhaps fitting that when the 1st Leinsters sailed from Halifax in 1900 they were the last British soldiers to serve as garrison troops in Canada. The battalion, which had now been in existence for forty-two years, was finally going to war. The 1st Leinsters served with distinction in the Boer War and the First World War, carrying their old title “the Royal Canadians” into the trenches in France.
A more final end came in 1922 when the Leinsters were amongst the regiments disbanded following the creation of the Irish Free State. In a last homage to its Canadian roots, the 1st Leinsters’ regimental silver was donated to the Royal Military College in Kingston. The assorted silverware included a miniature canoe and a model of a sled -- fitting tokens of their Canadian origins in a vain, if noble, attempt to come to the defence of the Raj.
*Hall was awarded the Victoria Cross in February 1859 for his bravery in keeping his cannon in action at the Relief of Lucknow in November 1857, while on attachment to the army from HMS Shannon. Canada’s Surgeon Herbert Reade was not awarded his VC until February 1861, though it was for acts of bravery performed two months before Hall’s actions at Lucknow.
# Dunn was to die in a mysterious shooting incident in Ethiopia in 1868 after becoming commanding officer of the 33rd Duke of Wellington’s Regiment in 1864. The official version at the time was that he shot himself accidentally while hunting. But some suggested it was a suicide. Others went even further, suggesting a cuckolded husband might be responsible, or pointing out that Dunn's only companion on the hunting trip, his manservant, was also the main beneficiary in his will.
This article first appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2013 edition of the Dorchester Review