Almost everything that has been written on the history of the Canadian militia during the Great Depression focuses either on the drastic cutbacks to spending that were instituted or on the relief camps that were established. The relief camps, which the Department of National Defence ran as a means to house single, unemployed men, were well intentioned but ultimately resulted in heightened tensions. In 1935, violence erupted in Regina when the RCMP stopped strikers from the camps who were marching to Ottawa to protest conditions.
Looking at the history of the 1st Battalion, The Edmonton Regiment in the 1930s reveals a much more interesting story. The battalion was in no sense a welfare organization, but it provided several kinds of support for many men who were victims of the Great Depression. The seven days of the annual summer camp were the only time militia soldiers were actually paid for the time they spent in uniform, and that was a mere pittance. A private received $1.25 a day (horses in the cavalry units were allotted $1.50 for expenses). In 1934, the regiment spent 10 days at Sarcee, but the troops contributed the extra 3 days voluntarily. (10) They received no pay for this part of the training. During the rest of the year, officers and NCOs could sometimes take courses for pay, although officers donated any money they received to help keep the regiment going. Weekly drill was unpaid, but the men were at least provided sandwiches and coffee in a warm room, perquisites not to be despised in the 1930s. Most importantly for men who were unemployed, partially employed, or forced to take large pay cuts (and that meant almost everybody in the 1930s), the opportunity to wear the uniform gave them back a measure of their self-respect.
For those with enforced leisure time, few recreational opportunities were available. Here, too, the regiment emerged as an important resource for the community. The bands frequently gave free Sunday concerts and provided music at many public occasions. In 1931, the regiment began sponsoring sports teams. Starting with one hockey team in 1931, the sports program grew within a couple of years to four hockey and two basketball teams. All the city militia units had been using the Winterburn Rifle Range (located just west of Edmonton) since well before the First World War. In 1933, in what was undoubtedly a cost-cutting measure, the Department of National Defence transferred control of the property to the Edmonton Regiment. For an organization with the vigorous leadership of the 1st Battalion, this represented an opportunity. Relying on its own resources, the battalion could improve the property and make it useful. Colonel Ramsey donated money that allowed the purchase of an adjoining property; the Provincial Nursery contributed 300 trees; and construction began on the first building, a cookhouse. The buildings were quite rudimentary, but they made possible weekend training camps (unpaid, of course) for those interested in improving their qualifications.
In the early 1930s, changes were taking place in Canada's military organization that would affect the future of the Edmonton Regiment. In 1932, the number of militia infantry regiments was reduced from 135 to 91, while the cavalry was cut from 35 regiments to 20. (11) Many of these units scarcely existed except on paper, but their elimination was a clear warning that those regiments that failed to show signs of activity were in danger of disappearing. The same year, the General Staff began preparing "Defence Scheme No. 3," which was the plan for Canadian participation in a major European war. The plan envisaged sending two divisions across the Atlantic to co-operate with British and other Commonwealth units. The three permanent force battalions would certainly form part of the 1st Division, but half a dozen militia regiments would be needed to make up the rest. (The Canadian army had now adopted the British divisional structure of three brigades rather than four.) The 2nd Division would necessarily consist entirely of militia units. The militia regiments had to be chosen from across the country, but, apart from that consideration, priority would go to those rated as most efficient. (12)
Although commanding officers of battalions were not told where their unit stood in this invisible hierarchy and the possibility of war seemed remote, the competitive juices clearly flowed in the Edmonton Regiment. Calgary units must have seemed to have many advantages in the contest to be chosen as part of the first team. Calgary was the headquarters of Military District No. 13 (Alberta), and its general officer commanding ranked the units in his area. Calgary had a permanent force unit, Lord Strathcona's Horse, stationed there, so courses were easily available. Sarcee Camp was just west of the city. Nevertheless, by 1932, when the Edmonton Regiment was having "one of the most successful years in its history," the Calgary Highlanders were reporting a total enlistment of just 173 men. (13) In 1933, when summer camp training for enlisted men resumed, the Edmonton Regiment was at full strength. The following year, the regiment was short of a few officers, but the ranks were full, a reversal of the situation in the 1920s.
The improved Winterburn Range allowed extra practice with the Lewis and Vickers machine guns. At Sarcee Camp, in 1935, the battalion competed against all the militia regiments across the country and won the Canadian Machine Gun Corps Association Trophy. The 1937 report on the camp mentions the existence of a motor transport company as part of the battalion. The incorporation of mechanical transport for an infantry battalion - at a time when Canadian armoured units had none - was remarkably forward-looking. It could only have come from the initiative of the officers of the battalion who must have arranged for the loan of private vehicles for the purpose. The success of the 1st Battalion, The Edmonton Regiment in the interwar period owes much to the wisdom of its leadership. Eight different officers commanded the regiment in the period of 20 years, (14) and all were competent and forceful leaders. Two, however, were particularly responsible for making the battalion one of the best in the country. Lieutenant-Colonel R.H. Palmer, the last wartime commander of the 49th, was the first peacetime CO of the Edmonton Regiment and oversaw the transition until his retirement in 1923. Lieutenant-Colonel L.C. Harris commanded the battalion between 1930 and 1935, and he must be given much of the credit for the manner in which it responded to the dire conditions of the Great Depression. Harris was an unusual commanding officer in that he had been the medical officer of the 49th through the war.
Colonel Harris did not neglect the less tangible elements that contribute to the life of an organization. He began negotiations in 1933 that led to the affiliation with the Loyal (North Lancashire) Regiment. This regiment, raised in 1740, had a long history of association with Canada, having participated in the capture of Louisbourg in 1758 and the battle of the Plains of Abraham the following year. Harris also cultivated relations between the battalion and the 49th Association, now with branches in Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver. He also made sure that General Griesbach and other prominent Forty-Niners were invited to observe the annual training and attend the formal occasions throughout the year.
- 10. The Forty-Niner, no. 19 (July 1934): 15.
- 11. Reginald H. Roy, For Most Conspicuous Bravery: A Biography of Major-General George R. Pearkes, V.C., Through Two World Wars (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1977), 122.
- 12. Stanley, Canada's Soldiers, 338.
- 13. The quote is from The Forty-Niner, no. 16 (January 1933): 15; the Calgary Highlanders numbers are from David J. Bercuson, Battalion of Heroes: The Calgary Highlanders in World War II (Calgary: Calgary Highlanders Regimental Funds Foundation, 1994), 8.
- 14. Stevens, A City Goes to War, lists only six, but The Forty-Niner, no. 29 (July 1939): 28, lists seven: Lieutenant-Colonel R.H. Palmer, Lieutenant-Colonel A.H. Elliott, Colonel Louis Scott, Colonel G. Howland, Colonel G. MacLeod, Colonel L.C. Harris, Lieutenant-Colonel P.L. Debney, and Major G.W. Stillman.