The Argylls

The Regiment (1903 - 2009)

At the end of his long life, one of the Regiment's most distinguished sons turned increasingly to his days as an Argyll and thought little of anything else. Some years earlier, Claude Bissell, a long-time president of the University of Toronto and distinguished scholar, wrote: "… of the regiment as a pattern of memories and as an association of human beings." "Infantry regiments," he thought, "invite this kind of consideration; for an infantry regiment consists of little except human beings ... There are particular ties that bind together human beings in an infantry regiment. People have a natural disposition to be suspicious of higher authority, of the boys in superior echelons who push around papers and hand THE REGIMENT 1903 – 2009 down impossible directives. The infantry regiment is the queen of battle; it is also the working man with an eternal chip on his shoulder and an indestructible core of cynicism and self-satisfaction."

The Regiment had an enduring hold over its own because "Each of us has a common set of memories," Bissell wrote, "each of us also clings to incidents and vignettes that belong to us alone." This abiding ability to forge anew, in generation after generation, is part of the Regiment's particular genius. And, during the Second World War, it made the Regiment, or so Bissell thought "a self-confident, unified unit, well along to acquiring the air of suave bumptiousness that is the mark of the Argyll."

One hundred years is a long time in the life of an institution, especially in a relatively young country, and one which calls for celebration, retrospection, and renewed commitment. The Regiment has its origins in the heady years before the First World War. Two volunteer contingents of Canadians had served in the South African War; militarism was in the air and Scottish- Canadians asserted their cultural identity with calls for the creation of Highland regiments. From the 1880s on, communities across Canada pushed reluctant governments to establish such units.

The effort was replicated in Hamilton when a number of local clan and Scottish societies led by the St. Andrew's Society and the Sons of Scotland "took hold of the matter." The idea was greeted with skepticism in some quarters. None the less, led by two prominent local lawyers and members of the Liberal Party, James Chisholm and William Alexander Logie, the group quickly exceeded its quota for recruitment and raised the funds to provide Highland dress. A draft letter written by either Chisholm or Logie in 1902 to local MPs noted that the proposed "officers are a fine lot of fellows and of good standing and large influence in the community." As for the troops, the "men are a particularly fine class drawn chiefly from the better class of Scotchmen who own their own homes and have a stake in the community." With broad based community support, solid political backing, astute lobbying, and sufficient financial resources, the initiative won the day in spite of the considerable reluctance of the Minister of Militia and Defense.

The Regiment was gazetted in 16 September 1903 as the 91st Canadian Highlanders: its establishment was fixed at four companies. The choice of name was almost certainly deliberate. Despite the new Regiment's obvious symbolic roots within the Scottish military tradition and the Highland clan, and beyond the Scottish-Canadian communities' deliberate efforts to foster a distinctive Scottish tradition within Canadian society, the name said it all --- Canadian Highlanders.

And one supposes that the name provided an equally deliberate juxtaposition with the Gaelic Motto – Albainn Gu Brath (Scotland Forever). The number -- 91st – provided an association with the British army's 91st Argyllshire Highlanders. At the outset, the Regiment's great symbols were kilts and bagpipes. Although it had a military band, one much lauded over the years, the Pipes and Drums were preeminent. In the two great conflicts of the 20th century, the Argylls' Pipes and Drums represented not only the Regiment but also the country itself. The piper symbolizes a Highland regiment. It is not just the distinctive dress that sets the piper apart. It is the music itself – powerful, wild, somber – capable of evoking every human emotion without a touch of sentimentality. There are few cultures in which one instrument is so deeply intertwined with a people. And the individual piper so cherished by Highland society achieved even higher prominence and greater symbolism with the emergence of Highland regiments and their pipe bands. They achieved a lofty prominence built upon personal character, superior musicianship, bandsmanship, and soldierly attributes. Major Bob Paterson, OC of C Company during the Second War, wrote: "These sounds we heard and when we think of them we are back in the Regiment ..." And "these sounds" stir the Regimental spirit, now as then. Yet, there is more to a Regiment than its symbols. At the core of 100 years of service is sacrifice. As Winston Churchill once observed, the soldier is twice the citizen. Since 1903, thousands and thousands of men and women from the Hamilton area have devoted several nights weekly and one weekend or so monthly to train as the primary reserves of the nation's armed forces. The lure of the profession of arms, a sense of duty, the intense camaraderie, and the need for extra income explain, in part or in combination, the attraction to the Regiment. But the militia soldier's lot has never been an easy one. It requires a sacrifice of personal time far beyond most extra-curricular pursuits and a sustained commitment. The challenge is enormous. The contours of the battalion's weekly and seasonal existence is marked mainly by a routine, in varying combinations over the years, of ceremony, drilling, lectures, training exercises, administration, and recruiting, to say nothing of the rigours (and considerable attractions) of mess life and an always full Regimental social calendar.

Service has always been at the core of this Regiment's existence. Peace rather than war has, fortunately, been the norm for most of the Regiment's history. For a 100 years, scores of dedicated officers and NCOs have provided the critical cadres so essential to continuity of effort and maintenance of excellence as the Regiment suffered or prospered according to the dictates of fluctuating, sometimes wildly so, government policies. Their dedication has provided the framework for Argyll service in two world wars, civil emergencies, and the augmentation by Argylls of UN and NATO deployments overseas. In the years after the Second World War, there were few opportunities for overseas service by the militia. There was a small change in the 1980s when 5 Argylls served in Cyprus and another 3 in Germany. The end of the Cold War and the beginning of problems in the former Yugoslavia meant new challenges for the Regiment; during the 1990s, 26 Argylls had tours of duty there while 2 others served elsewhere in the world. Since 2003, 42 Argylls have served in Afghanistan and, at this moment, another 37 are being considered for a tour of duty in 2010.

At times the price has been high. Capt Sam Chapman, an Argyll company commander in the Second War, said of the Regiment that "its history is written in blood." And this statement is undeniably true. During the First World War, the Regiment provided 145 Officers and 5,207 other ranks for service in the C.E.F., especially the 19th Battalion and the 173rd Highlanders. The Argylls perpetuate both units. While the latter was broken up for reinforcements, the former provides the most intimate connection with the Great War. In the Second World War, the unit lived up to, and expanded, these traditions. Its first major action in Normandy, Hill 195, would epitomize its record. A brilliant and unorthodox success, it is described as "the single most impressive action of Operation TOTALIZE." Innovation over orthodoxy, superb leadership and humanity, great spirit and style, excellent administration; these were the benchmarks of Argyll success and the unit's legacy. The Argylls have earned 34 battle honours in two World Wars. In the First, 1,174 Argylls gave their lives; in the Second, 285 Argylls made the highest sacrifice. Almost four times these numbers were wounded. Most of the local institutions so instrumental in the Regiment's birth are no longer. The Regiment remains, its great symbols are Highland still.

Our forebears' sense in 1902 of a battalion whose members were almost exclusively of Scottish lineage was, even at the time, an exaggeration. Through two wars, the time in between, and the time after, the Regiment has been Canadian without qualification or hyphenation. And, now as then, it represents the face of Canada. Kilted Canadians have represented the Regiment and Canada in the victory celebrations of the two wars – piping the Canadian Corps across the Rhine River in late 1918 and leading the Canadian Berlin Battalion (a composite battalion commanded by the Argylls) in the victory celebrations in Berlin in July 1945. Kilted Canadian Highlanders paraded their colours for the first time in 1904 and most recently in 2002 proud of their Regiment, conscious of what it had done, mindful of what it represents, and determined to carry those traditions and that style forward into another century of service.

The regiment draws its strength from what it is and what it gives to its sons and daughters. Pte James Farrell, a Second War veteran observed; "… in the army … it's hard to explain; - you're automatically a friend, you're one of them. And no matter who you are or what you are – colour, creed or anything – you are one of them and that's it …" Tom Kedney, another private and fellow veteran, described a ‘Fantastic bunch of fellows'. And when you talk, ‘One for all and all for one' … I can honestly say that means for everything they have, for their mind, for their possessions, for everything. And the esprit de corps type of thing … I'm certainly glad that I went though it and I'll never experience that type of thing again…" The Regiment derives its sustaining power from this quality, an experience rare within human society.

Major Pete Mackenzie, wartime company commander, put it this way, "Later as you look back, you realize that the cumulative effect of that process has resulted for each generation in pride of Regiment, a life long loyalty and the knowledge that you have lived up to and passed on the traditions you inherited." Herein lies the challenge of each new generation of Argylls. His friend and fellow company commander, Major Hugh MacLean, put it best as he remembered "… something of the regiment's character as I felt its subtle power in those war years (even, dimly, began to understand the roots of that power) – some things that were central to the regiment's character loomed again through the mists of failing memory. I thought first of the regiment's cheerful humanity. Then, of the regiment's extraordinary morale. And at length (and most piercingly) of its inimitable style, with which the regiment adorned all its occasions, in and out of battle. And if my remarks…necessarily look to my years with the First Battalion, let me emphasize that the battalion's humanity, morale, style continuously of course, in a larger sense, reflected the traditions and quality of the regiment itself, over the years since 1903; its Scottish tenacity and verve, its Canadian common sense and taste for irony, its soldierly bearing and pride – still ready at hand to confront threats of every sort…" Why did Claude Bissell after his illustrious career turn his mind back to the battalion and his cherished Argyll comrades–in-arms? MacLean's eloquent words provide the answer to those who need one.

The Argyll tradition is best defined by its greatest leader, Lt. Col. J. David Stewart, DSO, ED, the victor at Hill 195. "I figured my battalion was there to save lives, get a job done." This terse and quintessentially Canadian epithet characterizes Argyll leadership and style. And over 100 years they have done that.

Robert L. Fraser
Regimental Historian


© 2009 – 20011

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