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Thursday, 15 August 2013

The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada

The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada traces its roots to the formation of the 5th Regiment, Volunteer Militia Rifles of Canada in Montreal on January 31, 1862.  At that time, British North American colonial governments, alarmed by the dramatic increase in the United States' military strength during the American Civil War (1861-65) and concerned over a possible attack as a result of deteriorating British - American relations following the Trent Affair (November 1861), took measures to protect themselves.  The Montreal unit was formed "to protect the fundamental rights" of British North Americans.  Six local Scottish chieftains responded to its call for volunteers, organizing a total of eight companies.  As a result of their efforts, the 5th Regiment is officially recognized as Canada's senior Scottish regiment.

13th Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada) First World War cap badge.  Source: 'SpaƱiard'
The regiment was called to duty on two occasions after the American Civil War, when a series of raids by the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish nationalist organization based in the United States, threatened Canada's security.  From March 8 to 31, 1866 and again from May 24 to 31, 1870, the Volunteer Militia Rifles were placed on active service along Quebec's southern-eastern border with the United States.

The regiment's Scottish character took shape during its first decades of operation, when it adopted Scotland's "Black Watch" as its model.  The famous Scottish regiment was formed in 1739 to "guarantee peace in the highlands of Scotland" and later served with the British Army in conflicts around the world.  The Voluntary Militia Rifles adopted its dress, clothing its soldiers in Black Watch tartan while its pipers wore Royal Stewart kilts. 

The Montreal militia unit changed its name to the 5th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers on February 27, 1880, at which time it was officially designated a Scottish regiment.  In 1905, a formal agreement with Scotland's Black Watch led to exchanges of officers and 'other ranks' as well as military liaison between the two units.  This connection was formally acknowledged on October 1, 1906, when the Canadian regiment was renamed the 5th Regiment, Royal Highlanders of Canada.  While First World War documents used its Scottish counterpart's famous moniker in references to its Canadian affiliate, the battalion did not formally adopt the title "The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada" until January 1, 1930.

Black Watch Recruitment Poster.
With the outbreak of war in Europe, the 5th Regiment was placed on "local protective duty" on August 6, 1914 and immediately set about recruiting volunteers for overseas service.  The 13th Battalion CEF (Royal Highlanders of Canada), authorized on September 1, 1914, was the first of three fighting units organized by the 5th Regiment.  The 13th departed for England on September 26 - one month prior to the sailing of Canada's 'First Contingent' - and landed in France on February 15, 1915 as part of the 3rd Infantry Brigade, 1st Canadian Division.  The battalion served in Flanders and France for the duration of the war.

A second battalion - the 42nd CEF (Royal Highlanders of Canada) - was authorized on November 7, 1914 and sailed for England on June 10, 1915 with a complement of 40 officers and 978 'other ranks'.  Its personnel landed in France on October 9, 1915 as part of the 7th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Canadian Division and also served in Flanders and France for the duration of the conflict.  As combat depleted its numbers, the unit drew reinforcements from the 20th Reserve Battalion.  The 42nd returned to England on February 8, 1919 and departed for Canada on March 9, 1919.  Its personnel were demobilized two days after returning home.

A third Royal Highlanders battalion - the 73rd CEF - was officially authorized on July 10, 1915 and embarked for England on March 31, 1916.  The unit arrived in France on August 13, 1916 as part of the 12th Infantry Brigade, 4th Canadian Division.  The 73rd was deployed in the front trenches throughout the autumn and winter of 1916-17.  While it participated in the Canadian Division's April 9, 1917 assault on Vimy Ridge, the battalion was officially disbanded ten days later and its personnel were dispersed as reinforcements to other units.

Regimental cap badge and Red Hackle.
Scotland's Black Watch formal dress traditionally includes the 'Red Hackle', a feather worn by its soldiers during their service in the American War of Independence (1775 - 1783).  The decoration became exclusive to the battalion after 1822.  Members of the Canadian unit reportedly wore it in their dress headgear as early as 1863, but were not officially granted the right to do so until 1895.  The CEF battalions that arrived in France refused to wear the Red Hackle until they had proven themselves in battle.  Members of the 13th Battalion displayed the feather after November 16, 1916, while the 42nd included it in their head-dress after November 30, 1917.  Today's Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada continues to wear the distinctive symbol on formal occasions.

The 13th and 42nd Battalions - along with all other CEF fighting units - were officially disbanded by General Order on September 15, 1920.  Altogether, 11,954 men served in the Black Watch's three CEF battalions during the war.  A total of 2,163 men were killed, 6,014 wounded and 821 decorated for bravery during service.  Six Victoria Crosses were awarded to Canadian Black Watch soldiers in recognition of acts of outstanding bravery.

The Montreal militia unit continued to operate after the war ended and once again provided volunteers for combat during the Second World War.  Members of The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada participated in the disastrous August 1942 raid on Dieppe, France and landed at Normandy shortly after the successful June 1944 D-Day invasion.  The unit once again reverted to its role as a one-battalion militia unit after the war.  The Black Watch continues to operate as a militia regiment in Canada's Armed Forces, training soldiers who support regular units in military assignments as well as civilian authorities in times of emergency.

World War I Black Watch Veterans.


42nd Battalion.  Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group - "The Matrix Project".  Available online.

42nd Battalion in the Great War.  The Black Watch of Canada Living History Association.  Available online.

The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada.  National Defence and the Canadian Forces.  Department of National Defence, Canada.  Available online.

The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada.   Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  Available online.

The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada - A Brief History.  Available online.

The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada Lineage.  Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group discussion thread.  Available online.

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