Lieutenant-Colonel W.A. Griesbach, Edmonton, AB, 1915.
City of Edmonton Archives (Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection, A96-215, Box 53, 27991, 49th Battalion Scrapbook).

Lieutenant-Colonel W.A. Griesbach, Edmonton, AB, 1915.

Griesbach was a very influential figure in Edmonton's military history. A lawyer by training, Griesbach was instrumental in raising and establishing an Edmonton regiment -- the 49th Battalion -- during the First World War. His natural leadership abilities and military skills allowed him to rise quickly through the ranks of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Griesbach came to the Edmonton area in 1883 at age five when his father, Inspector A.H. Griesbach of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP), was transferred to Fort Saskatchewan. Although he would go off to study at St. John's School in Winnipeg, to fight in South Africa and on the Western Front during the First World War, and to serve as member of Parliament and senator in Ottawa, Edmonton always remained Griesbach's home. Griesbach was a man of strong opinions, and his 1946 autobiography, I Remember, can be jarring to the sensibilities of the twenty-first century. (4) Indeed, Griesbach might easily be dismissed as a relic of the nineteenth century, a Colonel Blimp who lived in the imagined glories of the past, but this assessment would be a serious mistake. In addition to being a successful lawyer and politician, he was unquestionably one of the most talented soldiers Canada produced in the first half of the twentieth century. Griesbach was a natural leader who inspired devotion in those who served under him. He was also one of the small group of amateur soldiers who rose rapidly in the Canadian Corps during the First World War and made it into the most formidable force, man for man, on the Allied side by 1918. (5) As a senator in the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of the few Canadian politicians with an informed and realistic understanding of the unstable character of international politics, an instability that would lead to the Second World War.

All of Griesbach's early military service and experience was with cavalry rather than infantry. When war began in South Africa in 1899, the British military authorities quickly realized that mounted troops were more useful than infantry to pursue the highly mobile Boer commandos. The Prairies were pre-eminently horse country at the beginning of the twentieth century, so the fact that only mounted units were raised there for South Africa was not surprising. Griesbach joined the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles, a unit that was made up mostly of members of the NWMP. He served with distinction in South Africa and discovered in military life his true vocation. He was, however, critical of what he saw, claiming that the experience taught him mainly, "how not to do things." (6) He turned down the offer of a commission and the possibility of a career in the permanent force, rightly judging that such a path was a dead end under the conditions that prevailed in Canada at the beginning of the twentieth century. Returning to Edmonton in January of 1901, he practiced law and engaged successfully in city politics and unsuccessfully in provincial politics. He ran for the Conservatives in Alberta's first provincial election in 1905 but failed to crack the formidable Liberal machine presided over by Frank Oliver.

Griesbach and Other Members of the Canadian Mounted Rifles, 1900.
City of Edmonton Archives (Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection, A98-96, Box 4, Griesbach's Red Scrapbook).

Griesbach and Other Members of the Canadian Mounted Rifles, 1900.

Griesbach gained his first military experience as a soldier with the Canadian Mounted Rifles during the Boer War (1899-1902). He was so keen to enlist, in fact, that he affixed a piece of coal to his clothes to make the requisite weight -- 145 pounds
Major W.A. Griesbach of the Alberta Dragoons, Edmonton, AB, August 1914.
City of Edmonton Archives (Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection, A98-96, Box 4, Griesbach's Red Scrapbook).

Major W.A. Griesbach of the Alberta Dragoons, Edmonton, AB, August 1914.

Griesbach (pictured here in a stetson, facing the camera) was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 19th Alberta Mounted Rifles, which was renamed the 19th Alberta Dragoons in 1911. He served with that regiment until 1915 when he was charged with raising a new Edmonton regiment, the 49th Battalion.

Although busy in other arenas, Griesbach was still very active in military affairs. He and other leading Edmontonians wrote letters to Ottawa requesting the establishment of militia units in their city. City council offered land near the exhibition grounds for an armoury. Their efforts were rewarded in February of 1908 when the Militia Council authorized the creation of the 19th Alberta Mounted Rifles with Headquarters, "A," and "D" squadrons based in Edmonton, "B" Squadron in Strathcona (then a separate city), and "C" Squadron in Fort Saskatchewan. Griesbach was commissioned as a lieutenant and remained a stalwart in the new regiment, which was renamed the 19th Alberta Dragoons in 1911, until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. By that time, he had risen to the rank of major.

The horse soldiers of the 19th Dragoons attracted more public attention in pre-war Edmonton than Alberta's first militia infantry regiment, the 101st. (The 101st was established in April of 1908, two months after the formation of the 19th). The 19th was fully organized within weeks of its creation and went off to participate in the annual militia training camp in Calgary at the end of June 1908. (7) The 101st, by contrast, developed much more slowly. Although 500 citizens had signed a petition calling on the government to establish it in 1907, the 101st did not get organized until almost the end of 1908, when Lieutenant-Colonel E.B. Edwards was appointed its first commanding officer. (8) In January of 1909, the regiment held its first instructional course for officers and prospective non-commissioned officers (NCOs) at McKay Avenue School. In the years before 1914, the 101st normally spent one week at the annual summer training camp while the Dragoons were there for two. The cavalry never found it necessary to advertise for recruits, but the Edmonton Fusiliers, as the infantry regiment had become known, occasionally did so.

Edmonton's militiamen were generally popular with their fellow citizens. In 1912, a review of the Dragoons and the Fusiliers by Lieutenant-Governor George Bulyea in honour of the birthday of King George V drew a crowd of more than 3,000 to the Market Square. (9) The following year, the two regiments sponsored a military sports meet that drew a crowd of 2,000 on the May long weekend. Some citizens were less than adulatory, however. This attitude surfaced in a bizarre incident that occurred in July of 1912 as the 101st was returning from militia camp in Calgary. The regiment was marching from the train station down Jasper Avenue when a streetcar attempted to drive through the gap between the band and the leading company. The commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel "Freddy" Carstairs, ordered the driver, unsuccessfully, to stop. The car apparently brushed the Colonel's horse and heated words were exchanged with the street railway employees referring to the militia as "tin soldiers." The insulted militiamen dragged the conductor and motorman from the streetcar and smashed its windows. (10)

The conductor and motorman were charged with obstructing a militia officer in the performance of his duty, and a trial ensued that kept Edmontonians entertained throughout the month of July. Ultimately the two men were convicted but, at the request of Lieutenant-Colonel Carstairs, were fined a nominal sum of one dollar. Street railways were the leading edge of urban technology in 1912, and their employees enjoyed a minor celebrity status. Clearly the street railwaymen resented sharing the public spotlight with the militia, and, just as clearly, they overestimated their status. (11) The courts unhesitatingly backed the militia and, strangely to modern eyes, no one suggested that the soldiers should be charged or even disciplined for damage to property.

Success in the battle for respect with the street railway seems to have resulted in hubris on the part of Colonel Carstairs. In the spring of 1913, during a performance at the Pantages Theatre, Carstairs jumped to his feet with loud protests when he felt a comedian on stage had denigrated the militia. This outburst was too much for his officers, all except one of whom submitted their resignations in protest. (12) Lieutenant-Colonel E.A. Cruikshank, the Commanding Officer of Military District 13, came up from Calgary to investigate, and Carstairs quietly disappeared from the scene. When the Fusiliers went off to camp in June, they had a new CO, Major F.A. Osborne. The officers of the regiment clearly recognized the boundaries of their relationship with the community.

  • 4. W.A. Griesbach, I Remember (Toronto: Ryerson, 1946).
  • 5. Shayne B. Schreiber, Shock Army of the British Empire: The Canadian Corps in the Last 100 Days of the Great War (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997), p. 143.
  • 6. Griesbach, I Remember, p. 281.
  • 7. Edmonton Bulletin, 6 June 1908.
  • 8. Ibid., 31 November 1908.
  • 9. Ibid., 4 June 1912.
  • 10. Ibid., 1 July 1912.
  • 11. Elsewhere in Canada, the militia had been called out to maintain order during street railway strikes. Some of the resentment may have been due to labour solidarity.
  • 12. Ibid., 21 May 1913.

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