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Canada’s Battle Honours

by John Boileau

Top: Wounded soldiers rest outside a dusty field hospital at Paardeberg, South Africa, in February 1900; Officers stand on the battlefield following the Fenian Raids in 1870; Canadian soldiers–some wearing German helmets–return victorious from the Battle of Courcelette, France, in September 1916; HMS Niobe during her early days of service with the Royal Navy. From 1910 to 1915, she served with the Royal Canadian Navy; From left: Master Seaman Jimmy Parsons, Master Corporal Dan Menard and Corporal Murray Gauthier receive the South West Asia Service Medal for service in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism; HMCS Vancouver heads to sea during the international campaign against terrorism.

Battle honours awarded to units of the Canadian Forces and its forebears–the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Army and the Royal Canadian Air Force–are an army custom that was inherited from the British Forces. They publicly recognize the presence of a navy ship, an army cavalry, armoured or infantry regiment or an air force squadron in a particular battle or campaign and their contribution to it.

The first British Army battle honour was Tangier 1662-80. Although it is the first battle honour chronologically, it was not awarded until 1768 when the Sovereign decided to pay tribute in some way to the battles of the army’s regiments. It also provided an opportunity for units to display their past achievements in war, usually on their standards, guidons or colours.

For more than 300 years the British Army has continued this tradition, down to the most recent battle honours awarded for the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91. In due course, battle honours should also be awarded for the latest war on Iraq. As various British colonies fielded their own armies over the years, they adopted the British system of battle honours, several of them continuing it even after achieving independence.

Gradually, the system of naming and awarding of battle honours has become more structured. An honour is usually the name of a battle, with the word “battle” being used in its widest sense as a fight or hostilities between opposing forces or some element of them. Eventually, honours were extended beyond individual actions to include entire campaigns fought in various theatres of war. Year dates were sometimes added to battle honours on an inconsistent basis, but finally evolved in the army into a system of using them only when a battle covered more than one calendar year or to distinguish from another battle of the same name that took place in a different year.

Originally, battle honours were only awarded to mark a victory, but over the years this has changed so that even a battle that might be considered a defeat could be recognized. After all, were not the soldiers who stormed ashore at Dieppe just as brave as those who followed in their footsteps at Normandy two years later? As well, a particular battle that was a defeat or at best a draw could still have a positive influence on the overall course of the war.

Canada figured in some of the early British battle honours, not as a country receiving them, but as a place in which battles occurred. The British Army was the recipient of these honours awarded for various actions in Canada. The first was Louisbourg, while the next year saw Quebec 1759. A few years later, the campaign honour North America 1763-64 was granted for Pontiac’s Conspiracy. Often, some battles–and even entire campaigns or wars–were not honoured. For example, not one honour was granted for any American Revolutionary War battle, including Quebec in 1775.

The next battle honours to be awarded for engagements in Canada were during the War of 1812. In spite of numerous battles in Upper Canada and one in Lower Canada, only two were recognized by an honour, Queenstown (properly Queenston) and Niagara. None of the famous battles of Stoney Creek, Chateauguay, Crysler’s Farm, Lundy’s Lane and others were honoured, although it is presumed Niagara covers all operations in the Niagara Peninsula.

Units of the Canadian Militia fought in most of these actions. One of them, the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles, was awarded Niagara, the first ever for a Canadian unit. Unfortunately, as no existing unit traces its lineage to the Glengarrys, no serving regiment carries this honour.

The next time battle honours were granted in Canada also marked a significant milestone. The Fenian Raids of 1870 saw two honours, Eccles Hill and Trout River. The first was won by two militia infantry battalions and the second by one.

Not only were these honours the first awarded to units of the new Dominion of Canada, they were awarded under the local authority of the Governor General and not the British government. The British, upset over the lack of standards that saw honours issued for essentially bloodless skirmishes, quickly re-established control and no further honours were given for the Fenian Raids.

The three units that received the Fenian Raids honours kept them. Although two of them no longer exist, the Victoria Rifles of Canada still does, at least on paper. It was reduced to nil strength and moved to the Supplementary Order of Battle in 1965.

The North West Rebellion of 1885 was a different matter; it was not bloodless. Although only Canadian units were involved, three battle honours–Saskatchewan, Fish Creek and Batoche–and a campaign honour–North West Canada 1885–were eventually approved. These honours were shared by the 15 cavalry and infantry units that contributed troops. The majority exist today, either as regular or militia regiments, although several have since undergone amalgamation.

The next time battle honours were awarded to Canadian units marked another milestone; the first time Canada deployed troops outside its boundaries, heralding a trend that continued throughout the 20th century. The South African or Boer War, 1899-1902, saw more than 7,350 Canadian soldiers sent to South Africa by a reluctant government. While some politicians were decidedly lukewarm about the issue, the general public was not, and four contingents of varying sizes were sent. This war also marked the first time Canada deployed women to a war zone when the newly formed Army Medical Corps sent a number of nursing sisters.

Although there were about 35 separate battles against the Boers, only six battle honours were granted, plus one campaign honour, South Africa with appropriate year dates. One battle honour, Paardeberg, was won by the first Canadian unit sent overseas, the 2nd Special Service Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment. Twenty-nine cavalry and infantry units received the campaign honour, with year dates adjusted to their period of service. As for the North West Rebellion battle honours, most of the units awarded this honour exist today.

With World War I, the whole system of battle honours became more formalized. Attesting to the war’s global nature, the British War Office prepared a list of the many battles involving units from throughout the Empire, with those qualified being eligible for the appropriate honour. To decide which Canadian regiments would receive them, a Battle Honours Committee was established in Ottawa.

The committee, thanks to the interference of Sam Hughes, the minister of militia and defence when war broke out, had a monumental problem to resolve. Hughes set aside the department’s two prewar mobilization plans and the chain of command by appealing directly to unit commanding officers for recruitment. The result was 260 numbered Canadian Expeditionary Force, CEF, infantry battalions and several other units bearing no relationship to existing units or the Non-Permanent Active Militia, NPAM.

Fortunately, the Battle Honours Committee quite rightly decided the prewar regimental system would be used as the basis for granting battle honours, linking the disbanded CEF battalions with NPAM regiments based on recruitment, geography and other factors. If this had not been done, the vast majority of WW I honours would have disappeared, except for those won by the few units of the Permanent Force.

There were nearly 175 battle honours granted for WW I, the Canadian ones largely limited to engagements in France and Belgium. Of the approximately 100 different Western Front honours, Canadian units earned more than half of them. These ranged from such massive battles as Somme 1916 and Ypres 1917, each one by more than 130 units, to Pilckem and Epehy, each awarded to only one unit.

There were two notable, and rather exotic exceptions to the France and Belgium battle honours. The first was Siberia 1918-19, awarded to the 259th and 260th Batallions., CEF, for the campaign against the Bolsheviks. Sadly, no existing regiment perpetuates either of these units. The other exception was honours won by the Royal Newfoundland Regt., not then a Canadian unit, and are carried by today’s perpetuated unit of the same name. These honours are Gallipoli 1915-16 and Egypt 1915-16.

Fortunately, on the outbreak of WW II, existing mobilization plans were followed. Permanent Force and NPAM units mobilized and were dispatched overseas. Nearly 1,000 different army battle and campaign honours were awarded for WW II, reflecting its wider global reach, greater mobility and longer length. Of the many campaigns, the Canadian Army figured prominently in three and was represented in a fourth.

In Northwest Europe, Canadian units won 40 per cent of the more than 150 battle honours established for that campaign. In Sicily and Italy, about a third of more than 250 battle honours were awarded to Canadian regiments. In many cases, honours were granted to Canadian units only. The one other campaign with Canadian participation was South East Asia 1941-42, where two infantry battalions were awarded this campaign honour as well as Hong Kong.

Some WW II battle honours have disappeared as the units awarded them were raised only for the war and ceased to exist at its end. Notable among these are 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, First Special Service Force and 1st Cdn. Armoured Carrier Regt. These three units won 26 honours between them, 10 of them awarded to no other Canadian units. The Canadian Airborne Regt. was permitted to carry 11 of the 13 honours gained by the Paras and the FSSF, but with the disbandment of the regiment by the minister of National Defence in 1995, these have now disappeared.

Fortunately, virtually all of the remaining WW II honours are still carried today, many through amalgamations, although Hong Kong and South East Asia 1941-42 are represented only by units on the Supplementary Order of Battle.

For the 1950-53 Korean War, 21 honours were approved. Four Canadian regiments were awarded the campaign honour Korea–with appropriate year dates­but only one unit received a battle honour. This was Kapyong, awarded to the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, whose 2nd battalion received the United States Distinguished Unit Citation for its stand at Kapyong. These Korean honours were the last awarded to the army.

Although the Royal Navy has battle honours predating the army, they were not awarded until after WW II. Prior to then, the selection of “unofficial battle honours” was left to each ship’s captains. When the RN decided to officially award battle honours in 1954, a list was drawn up by the British Admiralty of appropriate naval engagements to be honoured, going back for hundreds of years. The objective for coming up with such a list was to foster naval traditions and esprit de corps among ship’s companies.

The oldest honour, from the time of Queen Elizabeth I, is Armada 1588. The Royal Canadian Navy list was
not promulgated until 1957.

The British Admiralty considered there was only one imperial navy, and all ships and sailors of the Empire belonged to it. Honours, all with appropriate year dates, were awarded not to ships’ hulls, but to ships’ names. If a vessel’s name were changed, she lost any honours associated with the old name. Similarly, if a former ship’s name were revived, its honours were also restored. And so, naval battle honours are perpetuated by succeeding ships of the same name.

The Royal Canadian Navy’s first ships merely kept their RN names, such as Niobe and Rainbow. Before WW II, Canadian names began to be used, a practice that grew during the war. Because of the large numbers involved, class names were soon used, including towns and cities for corvettes and minesweepers, and rivers and Indian tribes for destroyers.

Reserve divisions were named differently. These units were commissioned in 1941, bearing the names of former naval and commercial vessels associated with the area in which the Reserve Division was located. As some have names of British ships that existed years ago, the somewhat strange situation exists whereby some of these units display battle honours won before Canada became a country with its own navy.

For example, reserve divisions carry such battle honours as Armada 1588, Kentish Knock 1652, Quebec 1759 and Jutland 1916. In spite of the recommendations of the Mainguy Report in 1949 to Canadianize the RCN, these honours remained unchanged.

The first “true” Canadian battle honours for the navy were awarded for WW II. Of the 59 honours granted, the RCN gained 12, ranging from the ubiquitous Atlantic, awarded to 260 ships, to more limited ones won by a few. Among these are North Africa, Norway, South France, Aegean and Okinawa. The ships that won these, with the exception of the Norway honour, are no longer in commission. These honours are “lost” and will not be displayed again unless the names are recommissioned.

HMCS Oriole, the navy’s sail training yacht, is the oldest commissioned vessel and longest serving ship in the Canadian navy. She carries another unique WW II battle honour–Dunkirk 1940–won by the RN ship of that name. Oriole is the only Canadian ship to have this honour and, like those carried by Reserve Division, it has nothing to do with the Canadian navy.

Two additional WW II battle honours are uniquely Canadian and were not awarded until long after the war. In 1992, the Governor General approved Gulf of St. Lawrence. With a subsequent revision in 1999, 83 Canadian ships gained this honour for convoy escort and patrol operations against enemy submarines. Previously, Atlantic covered all actions in vast stretches of the Atlantic north of the equator, including Gulf of St. Lawrence, eastern seaboard of the United States, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea.

At the same time, the British, who created the original list, divided the waters around the United Kingdom into several different areas for battle honour purposes, such as North Sea, English Channel and Biscay. Perhaps a review similar to that conducted for the Gulf of St. Lawrence is required for other areas of the Atlantic to give Canadian ships their proper recognition.

Such a review was done for the Pacific Ocean, with another unique Canadian battle honour created, Aleutians. Five ships gained this honour for their role in that campaign, although only one, HMCS Vancouver, is currently commissioned.

Like the army, the RCN participated in the Korean War. The battle honour Korea was awarded to HMCS Crusader and seven Canadian tribal-class destroyers for operations in Korean waters.

The Royal Air Force, the youngest of the services, only began to study the question of battle honours during WW II and did not promulgate its first list until 1947. Honours were awarded on a numbered squadron basis, even with a break in service. If a squadron were renumbered, its honours would be retained only if a break in service did not occur.

The RCAF adopted the Royal Air Force rules and list with minor name changes, adding three Canadian home defence honours: North West Atlantic, Pacific Coast and Aleutians. The postwar retention of the wartime 400 series of squadron numbers meant overseas honours were perpetuated, but those of the low-numbered home defence squadrons, North West Atlantic and Pacific Coast (won by bomber reconnaissance squadrons of Eastern and Western Air Command), were lost. Aleutians was retained as the squadrons granted it (111 and 14) were renumbered to 440 and 442 without a break in service.

The Royal air Force list consisted of 56 battle and campaign honours, of which Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons won 32. Of the 30 honours covering Western Europe, the RCAF gained 23, reflecting its major effort. Among the honours awarded to RCAF units outside of Europe were Ceylon, Eastern Waters and Burma.

Sadly, currently inactive squadrons won two of the unique battle honours of the war. This includes arguably the most famous air force honour of the war, Battle of Britain, won by 401 Fighter Squadron and Arctic, gained by 422 General Reconnaissance Sqdn. Should 417 Sqdn., which alone won Egypt and Libya, North Africa, Anzio and Nettuno, Gustav Line and Gothic Line ever be disbanded or become inactive, it would be a great loss to the air force’s heritage. These and other squadrons also shared in other battle honours.

Although 426 Transport Squadron flew trooping and supply flights to Japan, no RCAF units were involved in the fighting in Korea. Instead, 22 fighter pilots flew Sabres with the United States Fifth Air Force, accounting for 21 MiG-15s destroyed or damaged. As the pilots were not flying as part of formed Canadian units, there was no entitlement to any Korean battle honour, similar to the situation of Canadians flying in British squadrons during WW I and WW II.

After the Korean War, there was a long break before battle honours were awarded again. Additionally, during those years the separate services were unified and the Canadian Forces created. The Canadian Army has not been granted any battle honours since Korea. Although there was limited army participation in the Gulf War in 1991, it was at a strength far below that needed for a unit to receive an honour.

The last battle honour to be awarded to ships of the Canadian navy was Gulf and Kuwait/Golfe et Kuwait for the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. This honour is uniquely Canadian and is the first battle honour for the Canadian Forces since its unification in 1968. HMCS Athabaskan, HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Terra Nova won this honour for their part in the conflict. As Terra Nova has since been paid off, only the first two ships display this honour on their battle boards.

This honour is also the first bilingual award, and the first naval honour not to have a year date, both a break with tradition. Although no army units were awarded this honour, if any had been they would display either the English or French version of the battle honour, depending on the unit’s language designation, while ships display the bilingual version.

Like the navy, the Canadian Air Force also participated in the 1991 Gulf War. Two of its units, 423 Maritime Helicopter Squadron and 439 Tactical Fighter Squadron, won the honour Gulf and Kuwait, to be displayed in its bilingual format. For their roles in significantly reinforcing the deployed forces in theatre during the war, 416 Tactical Fighter Squadron and 437 Transport Squadron were granted an honorary distinction.

Recently, the army applied for a battle honour for its biggest firefight since Korea. In September 1993, 2 PPCLI fought for 24 hours in the Medak Pocket in the Balkans, killing or wounding as many as 50 of the Croatian soldiers who were attacking them. National Defence Headquarters turned down the request, but the French commander of the United Nations’ forces, awarded them a battalion citation, the first for the Yugoslavian mission.

Although a battle honour has not been granted for operations in the former Yugoslavia, the first recipients of a newly instituted Canadian Forces award have been given it for their actions in that war-torn country. In July 2002, the Governor General approved the Commander-in-Chief Unit Commendation to recognize outstanding unit service in times of conflict under direct enemy fire in war or warlike conditions in an active theatre of operations.

The first two units to receive the commendation are the 1st. Batallion, Royal 22nd Regt. Battle Group (including N Company, 3 RCR) for opening the airport in Sarajevo in July 1992 and the 2 PPCLI Battle Group for its defence of the Medak Pocket.

With the deployment of Canadian Forces units to Afghanistan as part of the war on terrorism, the question must be asked if a battle honour will be approved for this operation. The South-West Asia Service Medal has already been approved and issued, and the chances are quite good that a battle honour will also be authorized as it was for the 1991 Gulf War. Based on past conflicts, any battle honour issued for Afghanistan will not be approved until after the fighting stops and could take some years.

In almost two centuries, Canadian fighting units have won 270 different battle honours. Such honours are invaluable for inculcating in our servicemen and women a sense of the traditions and esprit de corps they have inherited from their forebears. They are a significant part of the history of our ships, regiments and squadrons; daily reminders of the sacrifices made by those who played their part in our nation’s wars. Canada’s battle honours are a source of pride forever.

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