By David Wencer, originally published August 25, 2010
150 years of service to our country
In the first half of the Nineteenth Century, the military presence in Toronto was a varying combination of British forces and local militia, with the first Upper Canada militia legislation passed in 1793 (Chambers, 12). While various militia companies existed in and around Toronto in the 1850s, they lacked sufficient numbers and organizational structure to form a full regiment.
Toronto’s interest in military affairs was growing, as patriotism increased throughout the Empire due to Great Britain’s involvement in the Crimean War. In 1859 a new militia act was passed which allowed for the formation of battalions of infantry and rifles units wherever possible (Chambers, 38). Nine volunteer companies in Montreal were soon assembled into the First Battalion Volunteer Militia Rifles of Canada. Lieutenant Colonel George Taylor Denison, commander of the Toronto district, saw the advantage in forming a similar battalion in Toronto (Chambers, 39) and initiated the process to have the regiment organized.
The legislation required that a battalion consist of between six and ten companies, but Toronto, being considerably smaller than Montreal at this time, had only four. To make up the numbers, units based at Brampton and Barrie were included in the original proposal, although Brampton was soon substituted with Whitby. Thus on April 26, 1860, the first Toronto-based regiment was created, initially styled the Second Battalion, Volunteer Militia Rifles of Canada, later the Queen’s Own Rifles of Toronto, and now known as the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada.
In this first year, the Regiment lacked a drill hall large enough to accommodate its full strength. Indeed, prior to the construction of a purpose-built drill shed on Simcoe Street in 1864 the unit used several different facilities, including St. Lawrence Hall. When the new Simcoe Street drill shed opened in June of 1864, the QOR was fully accommodated in the south end of the facility (Chambers, 50).
One perspective of the military in these years can be gleaned from an article in The Globe on September 19, 1860, when many of Ontario’s military ranks, including representatives from the new regiment, travelled by steamer to Hamilton to rendezvous with the Prince of Wales at Queenston Heights, where the future King Edward VII dedicated an obelisk marking the site of Isaac Brock’s death forty-eight years previous. The anonymous writer, in describing the party aboard the Peerless, is especially critical of the sedentary militia, noting “…the thing looked wrong. There were a great many men wearing officers’ uniforms upon the boat, who by careful training might in time learn the difference between ‘right-shoulders forward’ and ‘stand at ease.’ But as at present they do not know it, they will scarcely care to have their names published. Attention, therefore, had better be confined to the Active Force, and those in command of it.” The author then proceeds to mention some of the officers present including Lt. Col. Denison and the commander of the Rifles, Col. William S. Durie (Globe 1860).
The first decade of the battalion’s existence was a time of great military uncertainty in North America. In 1860 the U.S. Civil War was on the horizon and incidents such as the Trent Affair suggested that the British Empire could get involved; Upper Canada continued to increase its military strength, bracing for a possible invasion. Several new companies were duly created in Toronto, allowing for a re-organization of the regiment so that all of its constituent companies were in fact based out of the city. In 1863, the unit was officially renamed “The Queen’s Own Rifles of Toronto,” with royal assent.
As it transpired, things remained fairly quiet within the Toronto limits. Many of the press references to the QOR at this time involve the regiment on parade or being inspected by various dignitaries. Writing in 1894, Captain E.F. Gunther notes an incident in 1862 when “the lady friends of the officers of the Battalion presented to Lieut.-Col. Durie, for the use of the band, a handsome silver mace ‘in testimony of their warm interest in the battalion (Gunther, 11).'”
The battalion’s first military action came not in the Civil War but in the Fenian Raids shortly thereafter. In the spring of 1866 the Queen’s Own Rifles of Toronto joined with the 13th Battalion of Hamilton and, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Booker, engaged an invading Fenian army in what is known today as Battle of Ridgeway (sometimes “Lime Ridge”).
The engagement was chaotic and marred by confusion. The Fenians were themselves a disorganized and unpredictable army, populated by many veterans of the U.S. Civil War. According to a Captain William D. Otter, who served with the QOR at the battle, an order to re-align was misinterpreted by some of the Canadian force as a retreat, and this confusion over orders eventually lead to a genuine retreat (Chambers, 62). Despite capturing the town, the Fenians soon returned to Fort Erie, expecting a counterattack. The Battle of Ridgeway retains extreme historical significance as the first time an all-Canadian army, without British help, engaged an enemy. E.F. Gunther notes its significance thus:
“While freely admitting the unfortunate result of the engagement at Limeridge, a fight to which the corps engaged can look back with little satisfaction, and which has left a deep feeling of mortification in the minds of those who took part in it, a feeling in no matter ameliorated by the consideration that better troops have time and again behaved worse in similar situations, but intensified by the reflection that, but for the occurrences presently mentioned, a small force of Canadian militia, for the first time under fire, and wholly unaided by [Her Majesty’s] regular troops, after an obstinate resistance for two hours on the part of the enemy, would have undoubtedly inflicted a defeat, which would have resulted in the destruction or capture of the invaders, it is only fair to give the troops the credit they deserve, for if they did not defeat the Fenians, they, at least gave such proof of the material of which they were made, as to cause the enemy to retrace its steps, rather than risk a second encounter with the Canadian Militia (Gunther, 15-16).”
Following this inauspicious beginning the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada has distinguished itself many times, including action during the North-West Rebellion, the Boer War, and in the lead wave at Normandy in World War II. Many members of the Queen’s Own Rifles also served with distinction in World War I.
Despite the very real threat of invasion at the time of its formation, the Queen’s Own Rifles has rarely been called upon to engage an enemy within Toronto boundaries. In 1875, Toronto was host to a series of anti-Catholic demonstrations known as the “Pilgrimage Riots,” in which Protestants violently disrupted Irish Catholic processions in the city streets. The Queen’s Own Rifles were summoned to help maintain order (Gunther, 23), but they were not required to employ force as the police were able to dispel the rioters (Globe 1875).
In nearby Belleville, the QOR was summoned in 1877 to quell a riot of striking Grand Trunk workers. According to Gunther, a detachment of 160 was pelted with “ice-balls, bricks, and iron nuts, frequently hitting and injuring men. This was borne patiently for more than two hours, but eventually the bayonet was resorted to and the crowd beaten off (Gunther, 22-22).”
The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada recently celebrated their 150th anniversary, and are Canada’s longest continuously-serving regiment.