The RCMP has a proud military heritage. This page discusses the RCMP’s participation in the North-West Rebellion (1885), the South African War (1899-1902), the First World War (1914-1918), the Second World War (1939-1945) and United Nations missions (1989 to present).
North-West Rebellion, 1885
The railway’s arrival brought more and more settlers into the country. The Métis and native peoples along the North Saskatchewan River became concerned about the loss of their land and way of life. Government surveyors were re-mapping the land and threatening the Métis with eviction. The Métis hoped to obtain title to their traditional river front lots. However, when they petitioned Ottawa, their grievances went unheeded by an apparently indifferent government. Consequently, they decided to take the law into their own hands. At the invitation of Métis leader Gabriel Dumont, Louis Riel returned from his self-imposed exile in Montana to take up the Métis’ land fight with the federal government.
Early in 1885, a provisional Métis government was set up, headed by Riel, with Dumont Commander-in-Chief of the Métis force. Big Bear’s Crees supported the Métis cause. The Blackfoot, however, remained aloof from the conspiracy. Crowfoot, their chief, believed that the cause would fail, and in any case, he and his people were reluctant to side with their traditional enemies, the Cree.
On March 13, 1885, a report from Battleford stated that a rebellion was likely to break out at any moment and the Cree would join the Métis. The northern detachments had to be reinforced. Commissioner Irvine received orders to proceed northward from Regina with all available men. Accompanied by four officers, 86 non-commissioned officers and men, and 66 horses, he made a forced march in bitter weather. Adroitly slipping past the insurgent outposts, the column reached Prince Albert, where they learned that looting had already begun and attacks on Prince Albert and Fort Carlton were imminent. Hostilities broke out before they reached Fort Carlton. On March 26, a severe clash took place near Duck Lake between 56 Mounted Policemen, 43 Prince Albert Volunteers, and a large body of Métis and Indians. Outnumbered by more than three to one, the Police-Volunteer force managed to retreat. Twelve of the 99 man force were killed in the action.
Duck Lake was an important psychological victory for the rebels, but one skirmish does not win the war. Hundreds of militia were on their way from Eastern Canada over the newly completed railway and within a few days, an army had been assembled under Major-General F.D. Middleton’s command. It moved forward to crush the rebels. In the military campaign which followed, the North-West Mounted Police played an important role. On May 12, 1885, after a series of indecisive engagements, the rebels were finally defeated at Batoche.
South African War (Boer War), 1899-1902
The South African War, also known as the Boer War, marked the first time that Canadian troops were officially dispatched for service overseas. War between Britain and two small republics in South Africa, Transvaal and the Orange Free State, erupted in 1899. Tensions had been mounting in the area for decades and were met with imperialist fervour throughout the British Empire.
The North-West Mounted Police was able to raise more trained mounted men than the regular army. Many Members and ex-Members of the Force were recruited at NWMP posts and made up approximately 40% of the newly raised Canadian Mounted Rifles. This unit was highly effective overseas and earned a reputation for aggressive scouting.
Also, in 1900 Lord Strathcona, the Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, raised a regiment at his own expense called Strathcona’s Horse. This regiment, even though it was technically a part of the British Army, was raised in Western Canada and its commanding officer was Supt. Sam Steele. Due to the fact that this unit was raised in Western Canada many of its members were ex-Members of the NWMP. One member of the Strathconas was Sgt. Arthur Richardson, who served with the before and after the Boer War. Sgt. Richardson was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at Wolve Spruit on July 5, 1900.
In all, 256 officers and men were granted leave from the NWMP in order to serve in South Africa during the war. The majority of them had returned to active police duty in Canada by 1901 but some, including Sam Steele, stayed behind in South Africa to assist the newly formed South African Constabulary. Created in August 1900 and lead by Major-General Robert Baden-Powell, famous leader of the besieged garrison at Mafeking, the South African Constabulary was a para-military force which was created to police the conquered Boer republics.
First World War, 1914-1918
Canada entered the First World War on August 4th, 1914 when Great Britain declared war on Germany. At the time, many Canadians could not even locate Sarajevo on a map but they were still eager to do their part for their country. Members of the Royal North-West Mounted Police were no exception. Some members had previous military service with the British Army and were eager to return to their units before they were deployed for service on continental Europe. Commissioner A.B. Perry was also keen to have the Royal North-West Mounted Police participate in the conflict the same way that the North-West Mounted Police had served with distinction during the North West Rebellion (1885) and the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). Unfortunately, the government wanted the RNWMP to stay in Canada and to provide essential wartime duties for homeland security including the registration of enemy aliens, border and railway protection. This was not something that was embraced by the members of the Force, many of which joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force once their time expired. One example is Michael O’Leary (RegNo. 5685) who left the RNWMP on September 22, 1914 after thirteen months of service to rejoin the 1st Battalion, Irish Guards as an Imperial Reservist. He would be awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award for valour in the Commonwealth, for his actions at Cuinchy, France on February 1, 1915. Due to this attrition of trained Members to the Canadian Expeditionary Force and British Units as well as to complete tasks on the home front Commissioner Perry was ordered to hire an additional 500 Members after the outbreak of war in August.
By 1911 there were over half a million people in Canada who were of either German or Austro-Hungarian origin. This represents 14% of the Canadian population of 7 million people taken from the 1911 census, a substantial part of the population. To make matters more worrying, after the outbreak of war the Austro-Hungarian Consul in Montréal warned German and Austrian residents in Canada that their former nations did not recognize Canadian naturalization and that they still had a responsibility to serve the countries of their birth. Over 173,000 people of German or Austrian origin lived in the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Policing these provinces would require a large increase of personnel in order to maintain law and order, register enemy aliens and prevent any sabotage of supplies being sent east to help with the war effort. The RNWMP would also be helping out the fledgling Alberta Provincial Police (established in 1912) and Saskatchewan Provincial Police (established in 1911) with their detachment duties in cities and small towns across the two provinces.
On April 6, 1918, after Commissioner Perry threatened to resign from the RNWMP, the government relented and permitted members of the Force to volunteer for overseas service to reinforce the Canadian Cavalry Brigade which was serving on the Western Front. This was enabled by many factors including the good conduct of enemy aliens living in Western Canada and the fact that the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917 thus bringing their own homeland security legislation into action south of the border. A cavalry draft was held between April 18th and May 13th with 495 recruits being brought into the Force for the purpose of serving overseas with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. On May 15, 1918 the RNWMP transferred 12 officers and 726 N.C.O.’s and constables to the Canadian Expeditionary Force as “A” Squadron RNWMP under the command of Supt. George Leslie Jennings (O.147). “A” Squadron RNWMP saw action in France and Belgium serving as dispatch riders on the front lines, performing with distinction at the battle of Mons in 1918. A second squadron was raised between August 17th and September 9th for service in Siberia as a result of the Russian Revolution and the fact that the Bolshevik Soviet signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany in March 1918. This squadron would be part of the allied support for those who opposed the Bolsheviks. On October 1, 1918 190 men were transferred to the Canadian Expeditionary Force as “B” Squadron RNWMP under Major George Stanley Worsley (O.123) which was sent to Vladivostok in order to provide guard duties on the Trans-Siberian railway. Two Members received awards for gallantry while serving in Siberia: James Edward Margetts (RegNo. 7373) and Philip Sheridan Bossard (RegNo. 7398).
Four members died during their service with the two RNWMP Squadrons during the First World War: Everett Kirkpatrick (RegNo. 6886), Vernon Ward (RegNo. 7171), William Alexander Pearson (RegNo. 7273) and William John Henderson (RegNo. 7501).
Second World War, 1939-1945
When Canada declared war on Nazi Germany on 10 September 1939, the Commissioner of the RCMP, Stuart Taylor Wood, had already offered men to form a Provost Company. In August, when war appeared inevitable, he contacted the Department of National Defence with his plan for a Mounted Police contribution to the war effort. His offer was accepted.
Commissioner Wood felt strongly that the RCMP should be represented in Canada’s armed forces. He was familiar with Mounted Police history and the contributions made to previous conflicts. He was also cognizant of the fact that a large number of serving members would be anxious to serve their country in military uniform; this was his dilemma.
Commissioner Wood was well aware that the government was reluctant to release the Mounted Police from their regular and wartime duties, much like the situation during the First World War. In his mind, it was important that the RCMP, as Canada’s national police service, maintain its critical role on the home front as well as contributing to the country’s fighting forces.
Action was swift. By mid-September, No. 1 Provost Company was at full strength (about 115 men all ranks) and in training at “N” Division, Rockcliffe. It was a logical decision to offer a Provost Company, policemen doing police work. However, the RCMP contributed to the war effort in other ways. In September 1939, the Marine Services Section of the RCMP consisted of some 200 experienced seamen and 30 vessels. These were placed at the disposal of the Department of National Defence. In a similar fashion, the RCMP Aviation Section, with 10 members and three de Haviland aircraft, were transferred to the Royal Canadian Air Force. It was a signal contribution to the war effort. The members who transferred to the RCN and RCAF served as members of those forces and not as Mounted Policemen. It was the men of the Provost Company who carried the traditions and insignia of the RCMP to the war in Europe.
In December 1939, No. 1 Provost Company departed from Ottawa for Halifax, Nova Scotia and from there to Greenock, Scotland and finally, to Aldershot, England. Just like other units of the First Canadian Division, members of the Provost Company remained in Britain for the next three and a half years, tediously waiting to face the enemy, although some members took part in the ill-fated Dieppe raid in August 1942.
The Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943 and mainland Italy six weeks later marked the beginning of a vicious struggle against German forces. No. 1 Provost Company, as part of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, took part in this historic Allied effort to knock Italy out of the war and to drive the Germans from the country. A number of policing duties were assumed by Provost Company members, including accepting and detaining prisoners of war, serving as military police and investigators when called upon to do so, but their most important task during operations was traffic control. The fighting effectiveness of the Army depended on the ability to move and re-locate men and materiel as required. Provost Company personnel were responsible for ensuring that men, vehicles and equipment moved efficiently along well-marked routes, and that convoys were directed to their proper destination, especially critical in large movements. Roads in Italy – narrow, poorly maintained and often destroyed – were particularly challenging, but No. 1 Provost Company proved equal to the task and in doing their work, made a major contribution to Allied success.
No. 1 Provost Company was not spared. The RCMP Honour Roll of members who have been killed in the line of duty since the inception of the Mounted Police in 1873 includes the names of fifteen who gave their lives in the Second World War. The Provost Corps lost eleven members, including three who died on 28 December 1943 as German forces pulled out of Ortona.
About mid-morning an enemy air attack took the life of Lance Corporal Gordon Bondurant. Later that same day, at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Lieutenant Cecil Ray, a member of the RCMP, with Sgt. Terence Watts, and 9 other ranks, were sent into Ortona to establish anti-looting and traffic patrols. Enemy shell fire killed Watts and Lance Corporal Edison Cameron and severely wounded Lance Corporals David Moon and Reginald Rance; Moon succumbed to his wounds, Rance recovered and survived the war to resume service with the RCMP in 1945. It was a sad day for No. 1 Provost Company and the RCMP. Members Bondurant, Watts, Cameron and Moon are buried at the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery near Ortona.
In May 1944, the war claimed three more RCMP members of the Provost Corps in Italy. On the 15th, Lance Corporal Kenneth d’Albenas was killed when his jeep was destroyed by a mine. One week later, Corporal John Nelson was killed by shellfire and on the 31st, Corporal Donald Stackhouse was killed by a mine while on motorcycle duty. These three members are buried at Cassino War Cemetery.
With the end of hostilities in the spring of 1945, members of the RCMP could look back at a significant contribution to the war effort. Two hundred and thirteen members volunteered to serve in the Provost Corps, sixty attained commissioned rank and served as officers in other Provost Companies. Of the 209 members of the Marine Services in September 1939, 155 volunteered to serve with the RCN, 1 with the Army and 26 with the RCAF. The remainder, 27, were not accepted on account of age. Likewise, nine of ten members of the Aviation Section joined the RCAF.
On the Home Front, the work of the RCMP increased significantly. In addition to the enforcement of existing federal statutes, new wartime duties were extensive and included the following: civil security and intelligence; prevention of sabotage; and protection of public utilities and safeguarding transportation, lines of communication and industries of vital importance to the war effort. RCMP members were also responsible for the safety of public persons and government buildings, the organization of air raid precautions and the enforcement of wartime legislation such as the Defence of Canada Regulations. Enemy aliens were investigated and registered, prisoners of war documented, and war industry workers fingerprinted for security reasons. It was an enormous undertaking and to meet these new war demands, approximately 1600 ex-members were re-engaged to serve as Special Constables.
Yet, it was the men of Provost Corps who carried RCMP traditions and insignia into battle and following the war, their contribution was recognized with permission to add “Europe, 1939-1945” to the Force Guidon. This is, however, a reflection on all those who volunteered to serve their country from the ranks of the RCMP and to those who gave their lives, their names will forever be inscribed on the RCMP Honour Roll.
United Nations Missions, 1989 to present
In 1989 Commissioner Norman Inkster agreed to provide civil police monitors to ensure law & order during the first democratic elections in Namibia (South-West Africa). A 100 Member contingent led by C/Supt. Larry R. Proke was in Namibia from October 19, 1989 until April 11, 1990 in order to monitor the South West African Police and to attend to polling stations. This was the first time that the RCMP participated in a UN mission (UNTAG). The RCMP has been involved in many international peace operations since.