Read an Excerpt
The day was hot with the glare of sun on water and heavy with the stench of a million silvered fish, dull-eyed, decaying on the sandy beach. Replete beyond repletion, gulls squatted fatly amongst the schools of dying shad and gazed with bloated incuriosity towards the rolling dunes inland. Sounds came to them, unruly sounds, the faint refrain of singing men.
One gull, less bloated than his fellows, lifted idle wings and rose above the dunes to hang suspended on the air.
Below him in the shimmering heat two platoons of soldiers marched in fours along an old cart track, their puttees flapping at their ankles, their forage caps sliding wetly over sweating brows. Slung at their shoulders, Lee-Enfield rifles winked sharply as the sun struck metal that had long since been polished from metallic blue to gleaming silver. The platoons marched on and the sound of their voices faded and the beach grew quiet and nothing remained upon its yellow face except the gulls and the decaying shad.
The year was 1933; the place, a sandy strip of wasteland on the southwestern shores of Prince Edward County in the
Province of Ontario. The Outlet, it was called, and here in the sweltering days of July the Hastings and Prince Edward
Regiment was holding summer camp. One hundred and thirteen private soldiers, N.C.O.s, and officers were there they were the Regiment. Two weeks earlier they had taken off their civilian clothes, put on motley remnants of uniforms from the war of 1914 and, aboard a collection of hired trucks, they had gone off to play at war.
That, at least, was what the country of Canada at large thought at the time. And the civilians spoke of the soldier games in scornful tones as if to imply that the whole matter of the Militia was a disgrace to a God-fearing and hard-working democracy. The people in the little towns of the two counties said it some of them, but they were only echoing the words of the politicians at Ottawa who had long since taken their stubborn stand. They knew there would be no more wars.
There would be no further need for soldiers; no further need to perpetuate the mechanism for a nation’s self-defence. It was the time when Canada stood slack-bellied and would not look across an ocean at the apocalyptic birth.
The mechanism rusted. The army dwindled away until it became hardly more than a pile of dusty papers dusty names.
In the whole of a country that bordered on three oceans, there were three infantry battalions under arms. For a nation five thousand miles across, there were a few dozen antiquated aircraft that the few serving pilots hardly dared to taxi on the ground. And for those three oceans, there was a pitiful handful of little ships a navy that the Swiss could very nearly have outmatched.
This was the sum total of the visible arsenal of defence. Yet there was one hidden weapon; one ignored by most of those who calculated military strength, ignored by the very government itself and yet a weapon infinitely more powerful, and more ready than any in the official armoury.
It was called the Militia.
Now there are not many men who love war. Few welcome it unless they have their early youth to shield them from a knowledge of its nature. Peace is the good thing; and yet it is a bitter truth that peace does not live long in our times. During the decades after the Armistice of 1918 there were a few men in
Canada who recognized this truth. Hating war with a depth of understanding born of a bloody experience, these men alone were not deluded into the soft complacency that filled the country in the years between. Knowing war for what it was, these men the few foresaw the day when they, and their sons and grandsons too perhaps, must needs go out again to battle that the unborn generations might survive.
These were the men of the Militia; to which the “playtime soldiers” of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment belonged.
The twin counties of Hastings and of Prince Edward lie on the south central boundaries of Ontario. Prince Edward has a coastline along the wide waters of Lake Ontario itself, while
Hastings stands at Prince Edward’s back, stretching northward into a world of rock and stunted trees. The counties are new enough, for they were first settled in the last years of the 18th century. English and Scots regiments, that had fought in the war with the Thirteen Colonies, gave freely of their men and officers to the new lands of Upper Canada and it was from these expatriates that the early settlers in the two counties were drawn.
Those were unsettled times, as threatening as the times we know, and the soldier-settlers, reinforced by families of United
Empire Loyalists (voluntary exiles from the rebellious southern colonies), were quick to see the need for strength. Thus it was that in 1800 Col. Archibald Macdonnel organized one of the earliest native units to be formed in the new country; and he called it the First Regiment of Prince Edward Militia. To the north,
Col. John Ferguson was not far behind, and in 1804 he fathered the First Regiment of Hastings Militia.
These two units were an army of the people, and were therefore true militia. Their organization was quite independent of the uncertain government of Upper Canada. Their outward shape and nature was what could be made by the banding together of men who had a clear eye for the future, and who trusted in no protectors save themselves. In those two early units there was no thirsting for military glory and the armoured way of life no yearning for distant fields of battle where medals and promotions could be won. The two regiments existed for one purpose, and one only to defend themselves and what was theirs.
During the Mackenzie Rebellion, and the Riel Rebellion in the West, both regiments again contributed detachments of volunteers, but again there was little action, and even less glory
except in long retrospect.
That there were no great battles upon which regimental spirit and tradition could nurture themselves, mattered less than nothing to the militia men. Their spirit was a prosaic one, devoid of the need of trumpet blasts and martial splendour. Yet it was the manifestation of a strength incalculable.