The Northwest Rebellion, 1885
( Originally Published 1924 )
IN THE reorganization of the 10th Royals and the appointment of Lieut.-Col. II. J. Grassett as commanding officer in the fall of 1880, I applied for a commission and was gazetted assistant surgeon of the battalion, now renamed "The Royal Grenadiers, " on January 13th, 1881. After a year's service in this rank and finding that I had no active duties, I transferred to the combatant ranks as lieutenant, but reverted to assistant surgeon when I organized a stretcher-bearer section, or ambulance corps, as it was then called. To the best of my knowledge this was the first stretcher section organized in Canada. The cost of equipment was borne by myself and friends.
I drilled it regularly with the assistance of Robert Hazelton, who had been appointed hospital sergeant. It was fortunate that I had organized this little corps, for it proved of great service during the North-west Rebellion and was highly commended by those in authority.
Early in March we were startled by the news of outrages by Indians in the North-west. They had suddenly turned on the whites and had murdered a number of persons, including a priest who had lived among them for many years, at Duck Lake, N.W.T. It was thought that the Northwest Mounted Police could deal with the matter and little more was thought of it.
About eleven o'clock in the evening of March 27th, 1885, just as I was preparing to retire, the telephone rang. I answered it. The speaker was Lieut.-Col. H. J. Grassett, commanding the Royal Grenadiers. Imagine my surprise when I was ordered to be on parade the next morning at 8 o'clock and to prepare to go to the North-west, to aid in the suppression of a rebellion. My first duty was to inform my wife, who had a little baby (who was afterwards killed at St. Julien). She was a brave woman and told me to do my duty.
I spent most of that night warning the men of my ambulance corps. Next morning not a man was missing.
I may remark, in passing, the curious fact that during the Great War I met the son of one of my men, wounded and in hospital at Wimereux, France. He had a German name and was looked upon with suspicion by his comrades, but when I told them who his father was and what he had done in 1885 his reputation was greatly enhanced.
Our departure was postponed for two days to enable arrangements for transport and equipment to be made. On the morning of the 30th we left Toronto for the front. On April 1st we reached Biscotasing, on the north shore of Lake Huron. then the end of the C. P. R. tracks. A long gap of forty-two miles had then to be crossed in open sleighs with a temperature of twenty below zero. The snow lay from four to five feet deep on the narrow track, or "tote road," through the dense forest and any deviation from the beaten path meant an upset in the snow and a struggle to right the sleigh. After an ail-night drive, we arrived, nearly perished with cold, at Camp Desolation.
We camped in the snow at this place until April 3rd, without huts, tents or cover of any kind save our blankets, of which we had a liberal supply.
One man went stark mad, removed all his clothing, and would have leaped into the fire had he not been restrained by his comrades. We embarked on this date in open flat cars running on rails laid on the snow, forming an uneven track which gave a serpentine movement to the train. We ran 150 miles in this way and arrived at Port Munro late in the evening. On Easter Sunday, April 5th, we marched twenty miles across the ice to McKellar's Bay and then took the "palace" flat cars to Jack Fish Bay, where the night was passed. Next day we marched twenty-two miles to Winston, through snow and slush, and again took "palace " cars to Nipigon. There still intervened fourteen miles between the ends of the railway track. It was intensely dark and raining. All around was the gloomy forest. Between us and comparative comfort lay a stretch of ice covered to the depth of a foot or more with slush and water.
Plunging, struggling along arm in arm, the regiment advanced. Hour after hour the weary struggle proceeded and day was breaking when the head of the column debouched on terra firma again. Thoroughly exhausted the men threw themselves on the seats of the cars and fell asleep instantly.
The details of this march have never been published fully until now and I think my readers will agree that it was a wonderful performance, especially when it is remembered that the men were fresh from the counting house and shop and factory and without a single day's preliminary training for the field. I doubt if our men in the Great War did any better.
You may ask what were the physical effects of such a trial of endurance. They were less serious than one might expect. Three men broke down from old rheumatic affections, one man lost his toes from frost bite. He recovered and took part in the Battle of Batoche. One became acutely insane, but eventually recovered, and a dozen or more were snow-blind from the terrible glare on the march across the ice in daylight It was a small casualty list considering the circumstances.
I ascribe our successful march partly to the food, which consisted of fat pork, bread, butter and biscuits, enabling the men to withstand the cold. No rum ration was issued. Alcohol spells death to men benumbed with cold. My experience leads me to believe that total abstinence on active service under hardship is a factor for good, in very cold or in very hot climates at any rate, for I have had South African as well as Canadian winter experience.
After a hospitable reception in Winnipeg, where we arrived on April 8th, we travelled by train to Qu'Appelle station, 2,150 miles from Toronto, where our march of 250 miles across the prairie began. When the alkali plains were reached, the men who could not be prevented from drinking the alkaline water suffered severely from diarrhoea, which was controlled with difficulty.
After having left one man ill with pneumonia at the Hudson's Bay Fort at the Touchwood Hills, we joined General Middleton at Clarke's Crossing on the 18th. The officers and men had marched the whole of this 250 miles, but their equipment was carried in wagons. The general having decided to divide his force, which now amounted to 800 men of all ranks, the Grenadiers, Winnipeg Field Battery, French's Scouts and some armed teamsters were ordered to cross the North Saskatchewan River. The object of this division was to catch the Hndians in a trap. Lord Melgund and Lt.-Col. Montizambert were in command. We moved off on the 21st and on the 24th we heard firing on the east bank and knew that the General's force was engaged with the enemy. About noon a messenger arrived ordering the Grenadiers to cross the river, which was done in a scow which had been following us down the river. Captain Mason's company and my ambulance men and I went over in the first boat load. We found a large tent full of wounded men and a row of dead lying beside it. The Indians were in rifle pits at the edge of a ravine from which they were dislodged. They had a large number of ponies, of which forty-five were shot to prevent: rapid movement: by the enemy. Some of them were very beautiful little creatures. Our loss was eight killed and forty wounded in this action at Fish Creek.
Firing having ceased we were ordered at: dusk to retire, and as we did so had to pass through "sloughs" where the water was up to our knees, and as I was in the rear of the battalion I continued in this position during the retirement. We had not moved more than 200 yards when we heard the most blood-curdling war whoops in the woods behind us. Being in the rear, I was nearest to the enemy, with my hack to them. It sent chills down my spine, but I plodded on through the melted snow, for it would not do for the " Doc." to show the white feather; but I longed for home and mother. H may say that any one who says that he does not feel fear under fire, although he may not show it, is a liar. That night it rained and snowed and we laughed when we thought of the grandmotherly advice given us to keep our feet dry and change our socks at. night. Our officers and men were most hospitably entertained by the 90th, for our tents and other belongings were still on the other side of the river.
The sentries and outposts had a had night of it and there were numerous alarms. I had found a blanket and overcoat; wrapped in them I slept in a transport man's tent, for he had a tent stove was roused in the night by a stranger who wanted a drink. I was rather cross, but when fully awake I discovered that the intruder was Lord Melgund, Military Secretary to the Governor-General anti afterwards Earl of Minto and Governor-General of Canada.
We remained at Fish Creek for two weeks to enable supplies to come up and to give the wounded time to be removed, which was done in country wagons across the bodies of which the hides of freshly killed steers were stretched. They rode very comfortably.*
Very early in the morning of May the 9th we moved on. The night before Colonel Grassett had called the officers to his tent and explained the situation and we all knew that we had serious fighting ahead of us. There was a feeling of anxiety among the men for they had seen blood shed and knew that we were. not out for a picnic. About 9 o'clock shots were heard in front and we were halted. Presently a battery came up at a canter. We raised a cheer as the guns passed to the front. Very soon the reports of the guns were heard and we were ordered to advance. The battalion was extended in skirmishing order and I and my ambulance were directed to occupy the church and prepare a dressing station. The church stood on the brow of a ravine, which was heavily wooded.
In front was an open space which dominated the river and the village of Batoche. On it was placed a Gatling gun under Major "Gat" Howard, which had the disadvantage that it drew fire from the enemy on the dressing station. There was a sharpshooter across the river who every little while threw a bullet at the gun. Howard was slightly wounded and a man sitting on the steps of the church was shot through the knee, on account of which he had subsequently to have his leg amputated. In the meantime the Midland battalion, under Colonel Williams, had deployed to the left as far as the river bank, the Grenadiers were in the centre and the 90th Winnipeg Rifles were on the right, all hidden in dense bush. The battery on our right shelled the village and the bush. During a lull Colonel Straubenzie rode up and ordered a company of the Midlands to discard their equipment and fix bayonets as he desired to clear the bush with the bayonet. The men were standing in line when a shower of bullets arrived, which caused the Colonel and the men to fall flat so quickly that we thought they were annihilated. When we had recovered our surprise everybody began to laugh, for it was found nobody had been hit, but the bayonet attack was abandoned, because of the dense bush. The wounded in the meantime were brought into the church and by night we had nine patients. Two men had been killed.
At nightfall we were ordered to withdraw from the church, the wounded being carried about five hundred yards to the rear and placed in a large tent which had been erected for their reception in an entrenchment which had been thrown up, and which was occupied by tile infantry. The artillery was farther to the rear, also entrenched. When the Grenadiers were retiring it was discovered that a wounded man had been left behind in the vestry of the church. I with an ambulance man named Sam Fearn volunteered to go and get him, which we did, passing through the lines of the Grenadiers. On our return we had the experience of being fired on by a group of men who suddenly rose from the edge of the bush. They were so close that one could see their faces quite plainly. They aimed too high and we escaped unhurt. That night I trephined a man who had been hit a glancing blow by a round ball and who had a depressed fracture of the skull. We had no operating table; he lay on a stretcher on the ground. Our light was a candle stuck in the neck of a bottle. I mention this to show how poor was our medical equipment. Captain Mason had been wounded in the groin. Lie had one wound of entry and two of exit. This was caused by being hit by two round bullets. One side of each had been flattened so that they fitted one another. Dr. Gordon, of Winnipeg, Chaplain of the 90th (afterwards Principal of Queen's University), and I slept that night behind the hospital tent, lying alongside of the graves of the men killed that day. On the 10th little was done beyond skirmishing. On the 11th the guns of "A" Battery, R.C.A., and the Winnipeg battery shelled the cemetery, which held rifle pits, and some skirmishing took place. I was occupied with the wounded.
Of the events of May 12th, General Middleton said in his report: "The two companies of the Midlands, sixty men in all, under Lieut.-Col. Williams, were extended on the left and moved up to the cemetery, and the Grenadiers, 200 strong, under Lieut.-Col. Grassett prolonged the line to the right beyond the church, the 90th being in support. The Midlands and Grenadiers, led by Lieut.-Cols. Williams and Grassett, the whole being led by Lieut.-Col. Straubenzie, in command of the brigade, dashed forward with a cheer and drove the enemy out of the pits in front of the cemetery and the ravine to the right of it, thus clearing the angle at the turn of the river. During all this time a heavy fire was kept up from the other side of the river, which annoyed our advance. This was kept down as best they could by a few of the Midlands in pits on the bank of the river, and one company of the 90th was sent to support Colonel Williams on the extreme left. The Midlands and the Grenadiers kept pushing on gallantly until they held the edge of the bluffs surrounding the left part of the plain where the houses were. just before this a most promising young officer, Lieutenant William Fitch, was killed (I was in rear of the line, a few feet behind Fitch, who fell almost into my arms. He was shot straight through the heart and made no sound as he fell. G. S. R.) It was at this period that the late lamented Captain French was killed by a shot from a ravine while looking out of Batoche's house. This officer's loss was keenly felt and mourned by the whole force. He had been with the force from the commencement and he was always ready for the front, and his cheerfulness and good humor were proverbial and had a cheering effect on the whole camp. ( I was called to Batoche's house shortly after French's death. lie was lying on the floor, a magnificent figure of a man. I dressed a couple of wounded men behind the stove as firing was still going on from across the river and balls were striking the house. G. S. R.) A company of Grenadiers was sent along the river to our left up to the house of the rebel, Champagne, and a company of the 90th was sent well forward on the right as a few desultory shots were fired from a ravine there.
"By evening all firing had ceased and I went to the camp for the men's blankets and food. We bivouacked for the night around the buildings. (I spent the night in the house which had been occupied by Louis Rid and got an Indian blanket which was said to have been his. G. S. R.) "
E. J. C., writing in the Montreal Star, said : "The rebels stuck to their rifle pits with great tenacity and several were run through with the bayonet while taking aim. One Indian, whose face presented a horrible picture from the hideous war paint, discharged his rifle without success against a captain, and although the bayonets were close upon him, opened the breech block to insert another cartridge, when he received his quietus at the hands of a stalwart Grenadier, who ran his bayonet through the Indian with such force that the savage was lifted from his feet and carried over the edge of the pit at the point of the rifle.
"The men were as steady as rocks. The rebels scattered in all directions, the puffs of smoke from the bush and the whizz of bullets overhead, showed that they had retired, not retreated, and were bound on contesting every bluff."
We had twenty-one wounded during the three days' work besides two who hurt themselves badly by falling into enemy rifle pits during the charge. We had now lost the services of forty-one men by sickness, wounds and death. We had started with 271 of all ranks and we now had 230 left, fit for duty. Major Dawson, Captains Mason and Manley, had been wounded and Lieutenant Fitch killed.
In passing I may say that the regimental colors accompanied us to the front, but they were never unfurled and stood, in their cases, with the officers' swords, in a barrel, during the battle of Batoche.
Infantry officers' swords have become, under modern war conditions, simply emblems of rank and are used only at drill and ceremonial parades. Cavalry officers may still be able to use the " arme blanche" on rare occasions.
The colors were formerly carried by the two junior officers of a battalion and were always a target for enemy fire and led to the unnecessary deaths of many fine and promising young men.
The old colors of the Grenadiers were presented to the regiment in 1862 and were deposited with impressive ceremony in St. James Cathedral in 1898, where they now are.
I was now relieved of my duties in connection with the wounded as the 1st Field Ambulance, under Surgeon-Major Casgrain, had arrived in camp on the 8th. One of the officers was Dr. E. E. King, who afterwards became assistant surgeon of the Grenadiers and who is still the esteemed medical officer of that regiment, with the rank of Lieut.-Colonel. It should be understood that under the old regimental system a medical officer was only responsible for the sick and wounded of his own battalion.
I had a spring wagon drawn by two horses in which we carried the stretchers and other medical equipment. To distinguish it from ordinary transport I made a flag of factory cotton and sewed on it a Geneva Red Cross made from pieces of Turkey red which I got from the ammunition column. This was the first Red Cross flown in Canada and is now in the j. Ross Robertson historical collection in the Central Public Library in Toronto. The driver was named Webb, a brave man, who helped us withdraw the wounded from the church, although he was not in duty bound to do so. I may be permitted to say in passing that the rifle pits used by the Indians were intended for one or two men only, not a trench, and were carefully concealed in the edge of the bush or elsewhere.
The next day was a holiday, except for the pickets and sentries, and on the 14th we marched for Guardapuys Crossing, a distance of fourteen miles. A good many Indians surrendered during the day. The same day Riel and Lepine were brought in by the scouts. We remained here in camp until the 17th, when we crossed the river and next day started to march to Prince Albert, where we arrived on the 20th. I was asked to see Riel in my professional capacity. He spoke fairly good English and explained that he was suffering from indigestion. I prescribed for him suitable remedies. He was a man of medium height, brown hair and beard, thin and wiry. He had brown eyes which had a dreamy expression.
We started for Battleford on the Queen's birthday, in wagons, and reached Fort Carlton two days later. While here I learned how tenacious of life was that small insect, the pediculus corporis. We had camped on a lovely sward which had been occupied by Indians at some time, for the grass bore the marks of old tent rings. Next day everybody was turning his shirt inside out on a still hunt. The insects get into the ground and come up when they smell or feel the warmth of the human body. Mercurial ointment was in great demand. We here boarded the steamer Marquis and two days later reached Battleford.
Here we met our friends the Queen's Own, who had much to say about the engagement at Cut Knife Creek. I saw and talked with a number of the wounded, among them Private Acheson, now Bishop of Connecticut. I attended a pow wow between General Middleton and the Indian chiefs who came in as prisoners. Poundmaker was the principal chief, a fine, noble looking Hndian, but much cast down. It was said that he was opposed to the rebellion of the Indians. On the last day in May we again embarked in the Marquis for Fort Pitt, where we arrived two days later. It was a typical palisaded Hudson's Bay fort, with bastions and a large gateway.
We were in camp here for a time while the General and the mounted men and one company of Grenadiers chased Big Bear. While in camp we had a hunger strike. Some of the men objected to the food, which was good, but monotonous. Some fifty men attended the sick parade. I told them they were overfed and gave each man two pills, and the ringleaders an emetic as well. We heard no more complaints about the grub. During this month (June) there were several cases of mild scurvy. I ordered a weed called lamb's-quarters to be boiled like spinach and found it answered very well. The Government supplied limejuice in casks, but by the time it reached the front they were either empty or filled with water. In the meanwhile Big Bear's band had been scattered and he had been taken prisoner. The Misses McLean and Mrs. Gowinlock had been brought in in a miserable state. They had been obliged to walk long distances by their captors, who had stripped them of their belongings, including most of their clothing. At the end of June we had a grand sports day and general hilarity, for the Rebellion was crushed and the little war was over.
While at Fort Pitt Colonel Williams had died, to the great regret of the whole force. He was a brave soldier, a patriotic Canadian and a gentleman.
We embarked on the Marquis with our old friends the 90th and one company of the 92nd, on July 3rd, on our way home. On these rivers it is only possible to travel by daylight because of the numerous twists and turns and sandbars, on which we frequently stuck and had to be helped off by the steamer North West. We were eleven days reaching Winnipeg by river and lake, and were given a fine reception. As prohibition was not then in existence many of the boys got rather wet. After a few days we boarded a train for Port Arthur; but somewhere between Winnipeg and Port Arthur I had quite a shoek. A special car was attached to the rear of the train for the accommodation of the wounded. It became detached in a deep rock cutting during the night and we were left behind. I sent an ambulance man with a lantern to try and signal the rest of the train, but while they were away a train coming behind almost ran into us. The engine stopping only a few feet from our car. On reaching Port Arthur we were transferred to a steamer for Owen Sound, where we received a hearty welcome from a deputation of citizens of Toronto, where we finally arrived on the 23rd and were given the heartiest of welcomes. The streets were decorated and we were almost buried in flowers. It was good to be home for we had been travelling twenty days and had covered 3,500 miles by boat and by rail, and were in need of a rest.
The North-west Rebellion was the first occasion in which Canada had dealt with armed rebellion or aggression entirely with her own troops. In 1812, 1837, 1866 and 1870 she had had the assistance and co-operation of Imperial troops. In the North-west Field Force there were no Imperial soldiers except General Middleton and Captain Haig, R.E. Canada's national pride took a step upwards for we felt that we were growing out of long clothes and were able, within certain limits, to take care of ourselves.
It was remarkable how little illness there was in our battalion, notwithstanding the fact that our officers and men were taken from the office, factory and shop without any previous physical training. Ill provided with clothing and shoes they marched over hundreds of miles in snow, ice and slush, exposed to rain and sun, with very little ill effects. It goes to show that Canadians are a hardy people, which has since been demonstrated in the South African, and in the Great War, and that they are not lacking in the attributes of the virile race from which they are sprung.