Lewis Gun, n.d.
City of Edmonton Archives, Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection.

Lewis Gun, n.d.

On the eve of war, Canadian troops were hardly ready to fight a modern war. As an example, they were still training with antiquated weapons. The Bren gun was in only in the planning stages and not yet available so soldiers had to use the obsolete Lewis gun.

By the end of 1938, only the most confirmed pacifist could reasonably expect peace to continue, and public opinion, except perhaps in Quebec, began to change. Newspapers that had decried defence spending for years were suddenly indignant that the militia lacked equipment. Defence spending had started to increase after 1935, but most of the new money went to the navy and air force. The artillery was the only branch of the militia to get a significant share, and most of that went to coastal defence guns (none of which would ever be fired in anger). When money began to trickle in, it went not for sophisticated new weapons but for much more basic necessities. In 1939, the Edmonton Regiment, one of the best units in the country and earmarked to go overseas with the 1st Division on the outbreak of war, received an issue of 40 boots for every 100 men. Up to that time, the soldiers either provided their own or relied on money donated by the officers.

In addition to the boots, enough money was made available to hold drill twice a week instead of just once. When the soldiers of the Edmonton Regiment went off to camp in July 1939, barely two months before Hitler's invasion of Poland and the subsequent declaration of war, they carried no item of equipment that was not left over from 1918. Their sturdy Lee-Enfields would serve them well enough in the coming conflict, but the Lewis guns they trained with were long since obsolete. The Canadian government had signed a contract to produce the excellent new Bren light machine gun, but it was not even close to production. No mortars were available, although the headquarters company was, in theory, responsible for them. The 1939 camp included some rudimentary anti-aircraft tactics using the Lewis gun, but no anti-tank training was provided. Indeed, the Canadians did not receive training in the use of any anti-tank weapons, even the ludicrous Boys anti-tank rifle that was the standard British infantry anti-tank weapon of the period.

French General Maurice Gamelin Meets Officers of the Royal 22e Regiment, 1940.
Canada's Weekly, 20 Dec. 20, 1940. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

French General Maurice Gamelin Meets Officers of the Royal 22e Regiment, 1940.

Canadian troops were woefully ill-prepared for the Second World War. Cut-backs and a general lack of preparedness or training left the Canadian military in a gravely weakened state. Only the collapse of France prevented Canadian forces from devastating losses on the battlefields.

The Canadian soldiers of 1939 might be perceived as no worse off in terms of equipment than their counterparts of 1914 with their Ross rifles and inadequate number of machine guns. The difference was that all armies at the beginning of the First World War had serious deficiencies in equipment, and none of them fully understood how to use the arms they did have. At the beginning of the Second World War, the Canadian army was hopelessly outclassed in all respects. Only the rapid collapse of Britain and France in the spring of 1940 prevented the Canadians from suffering massive casualties.

As the international crisis deepened in August of 1939, the rusty Canadian military machine began to stir. On 25 August, militia units were called up for home service. When Canada declared war on Germany on 10 September, a week after Britain, the Canadian government promised two divisions immediately. Well before that, on 1 September, the day Germany invaded Poland, Colonel Stillman, the commanding officer of the Edmonton Regiment, was ordered to begin recruiting a war-substantive battalion. This time, at least, the existing regimental structure would not be discarded, and the battalion did not have to fear losing its roots in the community. On 22 September, word came from the Department of National Defence that the Edmonton Regiment would be part of the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division, along with the permanent force PPCLI and the Seaforth Highlanders of Vancouver. A week later, the battalion was up to strength and starting its preparations to return to war.

Recruitment Poster, 1939.
City of Edmonton Archives, Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection.

Recruitment Poster, 1939.

On 1 September 1939, Colonel W.G. Stillman, CO of The Edmonton Regiment, ordered that a recruitment program be established to raise a war-ready battalion.
 

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