7 June 1872
For more than fifty years, a highlight of every summer visitor’s trip to Ottawa has been the “Changing of the Guard” ceremony conducted daily on Parliament Hill from June to August by young reservists drawn largely from the Governor General Foot Guards. Starting at 10am sharp, rain or shine, the “new” guard marches from the Cartier Square Drill Hall to Parliament Hill to relieve the “old” guard drawn up on the east lawn in front of the Parliament buildings. Dressed in scarlet uniforms and bearskin hats and accompanied by the regimental band with bagpipers and drummers, the Changing of the Guard presents a colourful spectacle of military pomp and ceremony.
The Foot Guards have a long and impressive pedigree, dating back to the early days of Confederation. During the 1860s, there wasn’t in truth much of a regular military presence in British North America. As early as 1855, Britain began withdrawing its forces, keeping only naval bases at Halifax and Esquimalt on the east and west coasts, respectively. This left the defence of Canada and the other British colonies in North America to local militia consisting of ill-equipped, civilian volunteers who trained for only a few weeks each year.
This was not a good time for Canada to be largely defenceless. Many in the United States viewed the eventual takeover of all of North America as that country’s “manifest destiny.” With British sympathies laying mostly with the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War (1861-65), many north of the border feared that the U.S. government might try to annex British North America once the war with the South was won. Canadian authorities also had to deal with the Fenians who raided across the Canadian-American border between 1866 and 1871 in a bizarre attempt to force Britain to leave Ireland. Many of these Fenian raiders were battle-hardened, former U.S. soldiers who learned their trade in the Civil War. Against this backdrop, in 1866, the year prior to Confederation, the government of John A. Macdonald and Narcisse-Fortunat Belleau called for 10,000 volunteers to serve for three weeks each year for a period of three years to help defend Canada.
Here in Ottawa, the Civic Service Rifle Corps, made up of volunteer bureaucrats, was already embodied. The Corps had originally been founded in 1861 in Quebec City but had moved to Ottawa when government workers were transferred to the new Canadian capital when the Parliament buildings were completed. The Corps was renamed the Civil Service Regiment in 1866. It was reconstituted as the Civil Service Rifles in 1870. The two companies that made up the Rifles were to become the nucleus of the Governor General’s Foot Guards.
The father of the Foot Guards was Major Thomas Ross. Ross was the senior civil servant in the Department of Finance working under Sir Francis Hincks, the Minister of Finance. He had started his civil service career in 1839 as a clerk in the Secretary’s Office of Lower Canada. Following the Act of Union in 1841, he became a clerk in the Secretary’s Office of the new Province of Canada. He later become the chief clerk in the Department of the Dominion Secretary of State after Confederation, before moving to the Department of Finance. Ross came from a military family; his grandfather had been one of General Wolfe’s officers in the war with the French one hundred years earlier. He also had considerable personal military experience. He joined the Civil Service Rifle Corps as a private when it was founded in 1861. He later became an officer in the Ottawa Brigade Garrison Artillery, a provisional brigade established in 1861 composed of four, later seven, artillery batteries in the region. He subsequently commanded the brigade as its Major. Fond of military music, Ross was also President of the brigade’s band committee. He saw active service during the Fenian raids.
In early June 1872, Major Ross sent a memorandum to Sir Georges-Étienne Cartier, the Minister of Militia and Defence, proposing the establishment of an Ottawa-based volunteer force to be called The Governor General’s Foot Guards. Ross suggested that the Guard would be placed at the disposal of the government for state occasions. Ross stressed that the new formation would provide military music at Government House and elsewhere, filling a void left by the absence of Imperial troops. He also recommended that the uniform of the Foot Guards be similar to that worn by Queen Victoria’s Household troops.
Cartier’s response was swift. On 7 June 1872, only two days after he had received Ross’s memorandum, he authorised the Major to raise a battalion of foot guards with its headquarters in Ottawa to be designated “1st Battalion Governor General’s Foot Guards (General Order 16). Cartier also ordered the guards to have the same precedence and status in Canada’s active militia as Queen Victoria’s Foot Guards had in the Imperial army. Ross was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and placed in command of the new battalion.
Within days of the creation of the battalion, which incorporated the former 1st and 2nd companies of the Civil Service Rifles, the Guards consisted of 80 men and three officers in addition to Colonel Ross—Major White, Lieutenant Walsh, and Lieutenant G. Patrick. The battalion also has a 35-member band under the direction of John C. Bonner. Their first official function was the provision of a guard of honour for the Earl of Dufferin who arrived in Ottawa on 25 June 1872 to take up his position as Canada’s governor general. With their scarlet guards’ uniforms still on order, the men paraded in their old Rifles’ uniforms.
By September 1872, the battalion consisted of six companies with supporting staff. Under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Ross, the unit was divided into two half battalions, each commanded by a major, with the senior major in charge of the right half, and the junior major in charge of the left. The half battalions were subdivided into companies, each with their own captain, lieutenant, and ensign; the lieutenant commanded the right half of a company, and the ensign, the left.
Initially without an official home, the battalion practised on the lawn in front of the Parliament buildings in the evenings starting at 6pm. Band practice took place in the East Block, one evening every week. Officer meetings were held in Colonel Ross’s office in the Department of Finance in the East Block. Later, the Guards began to drill in an old wooden warehouse located on the east side of the Rideau Canal close to Rideau Street. Subsequently, the unit moved to another warehouse on what today is called Besserer Street.
In November 1879, the Foot Guards settled into the Cartier Square Drill Hall, built to house the battalion and which remains the Guards’ home today. In 1881, the 43rd Ottawa and Carleton Battalion of Rifles, now known as the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (Duke of Edinburgh’s Own), joined them. The Drill Hall, located on the west side of the Rideau Canal at Laurier Avenue (originally Maria Street), was constructed for $18, 879, a considerable sum in those days. Its architect was Thomas Seaton, the Chief Architect of the Department of Public Works. The original, one-story building initially had an earthen floor. Wooden flooring was installed in 1881, and a second floor added during the 1890s. The Guards and the Highlanders drilled both inside this building as well as in the field outside, now partially occupied by the Ottawa City Hall.
The uniform of the Governor General’s Foot Guards was modelled on that of the Coldstream Guards, one of the regiments that make up the Household Division—the personal force of the British monarch. There are some minor differences, in particular the badge. The regimental badge of the Coldstream Guards is a star with the red-cross emblem and motto — Honi soit qui mal y pense — of the Order of the Garter at its centre. The badge of the Governor General’s Foot Guards is a six-pointed star representing the six provinces of Canada in 1872. In its centre is a blue cross, surrounded by the Guards’ Latin motto Civitas et princeps cura nostra, loosely translated as “Our country and ruler are our concern.” The other minor difference is that the Governor General’s Foot Guards wear a scarlet plume on the left side of their bearskin hats instead of on the right side as done by the Coldstream Guards. During the early years of the Battalion, the Guards’ uniform was, however, not completely standardized. Their “bearskins” were in reality Fusiliers’ busbies made of racoon, though apparently few outsiders could tell the difference. Slight differences in dress also emerged owing to officers using their own tailors to make their uniforms. In addition, as soldiers had to provide their own boots, there were footwear differences. Uniformity of uniform was finally achieved in 1889 following a dress review.
If Major Ross can be considered the “father” of the Governor General’s Foot Guards, Lord Dufferin has been called the battalion’s “godfather.” After his arrival in Ottawa, he took an active interest in the unit. On the Queen’s birthday on 24 May 1874, Dufferin presented the Foot Guards with their first Colours, or regimental flag.
Since its creation in 1872, the Foot Guards have seen action on numerous occasions, earning 34 battle honours, of which 22 are displayed on the Colours. Three guardsmen have won the Victoria Cross, Canada’s highest military honour. The Guard was represented on Canada’s first international mission, when Captain Telmont Aumond and four men participated in the Nile Campaign (1884-5), the failed British attempt to rescue General Gordon who was besieged by Islamist forces at Khartoum, Sudan. The Regiment took its first casualties at the Battle of Cut Hill in 1885 during the North-West Rebellion in Manitoba when privates John Rogers and William Osgoode lost their lives. A statue honouring them currently stands outside of the Cartier Square Drill Hall. Six officers and 85 other ranks participated in the Boer War (1899-1900). Two guardsmen died and two were injured.
During World War I, 242 officers and 5,084 other ranks saw active service the famous “Iron Second” (2nd Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force) and the 77th Battalion. Present in many of the great battles of the war including Passchendaele, Amiens, and the Somme, the Governor General’s Foot Guards were awarded twenty-one battle honours. Of those that served, 1,279 were injured or lost their lives. The Guards were mobilized again in May 1940 for duty at home and abroad during World War II. In 1942, the unit was converted into an armoured regiment called the 21st Canadian Armoured Regiment (G.G.F.G.). Fighting in France and Germany, the Guards were awarded another eleven battle honours, seeing action in such places as Falaise, the Rhineland and the Scheldt. Of the 2,339 men and 165 officers who saw action, 515 were killed and 178 wounded.
After World War II, the regiment resumed its role as a part-time, infantry reserve unit based in Ottawa with special ceremonial duties on Parliament Hill and at Rideau Hall, the home of the Governor General. But the men and women of the Guards are not toy soldiers just putting on a show for tourists. They are ready for duty both home and abroad should they received the call. Living up to their motto, the Guards were mobilized after the devastating ice storm in Eastern Canada in 1998 to support Operation Recuperation. In recent years, members of the Guards have also serviced in Cyprus, Somalia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sierra Leone, Haiti, Sudan, and Afghanistan.
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