Perpetuation and the Centenary of the Great War

By: Capt Michael M. O'Leary, The RCR (June 2006)

"Amalgamation", a word whispered in dark corners as if referring to the meanest curse of a nefarious bureaucracy, senior Infantry personages shy away from the term ... many openly define it as analogous to the death of regiments, and even the Regimental System itself. "Form, square!," you'll hear resounding through Armouries and short hallways from sea to sea, "call out the Honoraries! Execute the emergency action plan: OPERATION NOT US."

They watch us from the past, and they expect us to uphold their memory, to represent them to all Canadians, to ensure that we have not forgotten them, or buried them under a simplified sense of regimental history.

These too are the stories of our regiments.

And yet, the Canadian Army has seen rounds of reorganization and amalgamation before, and has survived each of them. Perhaps the most significant factor to be considered is that is has been so long since that last big reshuffle in the Infantry Corps that we have forgotten that the status quo is always only a temporary affair. Consider if there had not been changes to the ORBAT of the past century, how many hollow Militia Companies would now be parading in the vicinity of an empty cross-roads, the small farms and villages that once provided nearly every able-bodied man to the Company now long ago ploughed under by large farms, or built over by new suburbs full of disinterested citizens.

But fear not, the premise of this brief paper is not to discuss the dangers of Army reorganizations, nor the benefits of amalgamations when done for the right reasons. There are enough who will argue either side of those cases, point by point if they feel the need. Rather, I'd like to address another aspect of past organizational changes within the Infantry Corps ..... Perpetuation, and our responsibilities to remember.

As stated, we tend to get comfortable with the status quo. That feeling of comfort and stability grows ever stronger when it hasn't been shaken up for a generation. Once first-hand memories of multiple origins within a Regiment fade away, the understanding of those origins becomes hazy .... "Yes, we might have come from the Crossroads Rifles and the Caber Highlanders, and we recruited for the 'Umpteenth' Battalion of the CEF; but now we're just the Caber Rifles. Now, let me tell you about the Cabers in the last war. ..."

Over time our collective and familiar understanding of Regimental history becomes streamlined, often focussing on the most recent cap badge or unit name, following the most direct route backwards. Tales of the other contributing units get interwoven, adopted; and the distinctions, obvious or subtle though they may be, slowly get lost in the crevices (or chasms) between Regimental history and Regimental lore. Eventually, no such distinction is known by the soldier, NCO or officer who has not made a concerted effort to study their Regiment's history, to separate fact ... from adopted fact ... from legend.

Perpetuation. My point, you ask?

Well, it is that we must ensure that those many branches into the past are not forgotten. Each conjoining of Regiments and Battalions, whether it be formal amalgamations, informal agreements between Colonels supported by regimental councils (perhaps when one Regiment is reduced to nil strength and another absorbs the remaining soldiers), or the designation of perpetuated Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) battalions by the Otter Commission, these also impart a responsibility. That responsibility is a moral one, which reaches far deeper than simple agreements to protect Regimental silver, uniform accoutrements, or a band. That responsibility reaches back in time, for it is to remember, and to honour, the past generations of soldiers of each included Regiment.

Most can identify the Victoria Crosses awarded to soldiers, NCOs and officers of their regiment. Not surprisingly, regiments also readily count those VCs awarded to members of perpetuated units, even to the extent that many within the regiment do not even fully understand that little nuance, though it is seldom the individual's fault. And that, I suppose, bring us back to one significant facet of the main point.

What about the Military Cross, or the Military Medal, among others? VCs aside, how many can readily produce a list of the award recipients, or of the honoured dead, of each perpetuated regiment, to lay alongside the lists of those who wore the cap badge still found on the parade square today? Not many, I suspect. And this is not how it should be.

In a similar vein, every regiment proudly counts their battle honours. But few regiments have a list of battle honours that is limited to only those won by soldiers under the current cap badge and unit title. In fact, the vast majority of Battle Honours from the First World War are held by virtue of perpetuation as established by the Otter Commission. Even the names and badges worn by the CEF that resembled existing Militia units were done so without encompassing regimental organizations at the time to tie them together. It was a means of bolstering recruitment through local association. The subsequent decisions that saw those Battle Honours returned to the units in Canada only came after the fact, when the impending dissolution of the CEF could have meant very few active regiments of the Permanent Force or the Militia would have held any honours from the Great War. Perpetuation not only protected the honours won by Canadians in the field of battle under the CEF but it also imparted an unspoken expectation that those soldiers and those feats of arms would also be remembered.

A unit which accepts the responsibility to perpetuate another, or the resultant regiment of an amalgamation, also accepts the responsibility to remember all who have gone before. First and foremost, that responsibility is to those soldiers, who may be long dead, but it is also to all Canadians, past and present, for if we are not prepared to commemorate each battle honour and award for valour or service, and to remember each soldier's commitment to duty in peace and in war, and each sacrifice, then who will do so?

Very shortly, we will begin counting down to the centennial of the First World War. Then, over five long years, from the late summer of 2014 to the early months of 2019, we will be commemorating the formation and deployment of CEF units, the battles large and small in which they fought, the many individual acts of heroism, the loss of so many of a generation buried in graves known and unknown, and finally, the redeployment of units. Each event of the Great War will (or should) have someone in the Army marking its centennial in large or small ways.

It has been said many times that Canada became a nation on Vimy Ridge, but also on the shell shattered rise the Infantry Corps found a new maturity. An institutional maturity that saw a strong infantry-based Corps of troops, fighting in cooperation with other Arms, taking an objective that had defeated others. In a glorious feat of arms demonstrating Canadian determination and skills born of arduous years of trench warfare, our soldiers avenged the many that had fallen developing the tactics applied that morning. In doing so they confirmed a growing sense of individualistic nationality and established their nation as not just one more piece of British red on the global map.

Those soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force deserve better than to be buried under a blended history, centric on the current names of regiments in the order of battle. We need to be clear as we retell our stories to our soldiers, and to all Canadians, ensuring that the tales of our most indirect predecessors have an equal weight and representation to that given our most direct lineages. In many cases, this may require revisiting the history of our perpetuated units, not only of the CEF, but also of the Canadian Militia, to learn for ourselves what stories we have forgotten. Not only have those stories been left behind, but so also has our responsibility to preserve and continue to share them with our soldiers and all Canadians.

In The RCR they say "Once a Royal Canadian, always a Royal Canadian." The Princess Louise Fusiliers say "Once a Fusilier, always a Fusilier." How many other regiments have a similar phrase, which recognizes the soldier's sense of belonging, but also infers a belief in that soldier's continued loyalty to the regiment. Looking at this from an alternate perspective, there is also an inference of a degree of responsibility by the regiment to those soldiers of years gone by. Each soldier that has marched before us belongs to the regiment as surely as we do ourselves. It is important to realize that for the diverse lineages of many of our Infantry regiments, that includes those who marched under the colours and cap badges of each and every amalgamated and perpetuated regiment and battalion in our respective lineages. They watch us from the past, and they expect us to uphold their memory, to represent them to all Canadians, to ensure that we have not forgotten them, or buried them under a simplified sense of regimental history.

These too are the stories of our regiments.

Lest we forget.