Guardians of the West- The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada
By Colin Murray
In 1266, when King Alexander II of Scotland was hunting in a Scottish forest, he was attacked by an infuriated stag which chased him, knocked him from his horse and began to savage him on the ground.
The king’s cries for help were answered by one Colin Fitzgerald, who rushed at the stag and severed its head immediately behind the antlers with a single blow. In gratitude to his rescuer the king granted Fitzgerald a stag’s head for his badge with the motto “Cuidich’n Righ.”
In 1623 one of Colin Fitzgerald’s descendants became the first Earl of Seaforth. A later Earl of Seaforth raised the 72nd Foot, later the 1st Battalion Seaforth Highlanders, in 1777. Since then the Imperial battalions of the Seaforth Highlanders have carried proudly the staghead badge and its Gaelic motto, which means “Help the King.”
Last December a company of Highland infantry sailed from the port of Quebec wearing the same staghead badge on its balmoral. Men of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada from their Vancouver depot were on their way to Europe as part of the 1st Canadian Highland Battalion, to join Canada’s NATO force – the 27th Brigade–in Germany.
The Seaforth company was carrying with it the traditions of a younger regiment than the Old Country Seaforth Highlanders (Ross-shire Buffs, the Duke of Albany’s), but one that had demonstrated ably in two world wars that it was as determined as its “parent” to “Help the King”.
ORGANIZED IN 1910
The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada was organized in November, 1910, as “The 72nd Highlanders of Canada.” The plan to raise a Highland regiment in the city of Vancouver sprang from the Gaelic Society there. The St. Andrew’s and Caledonian Societies took up the task and by November, 1910, the 72nd Highlanders of Canada had been organized. The number 72 had been specially requested for it was the battalion number of the Imperial Seaforth.
With the approval of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Seaforth, then serving in India, the Canadian regiment became “The 72nd Seaforth Highlanders of Canada” in 1912, and later the same year “The 72nd Regiment, Seaforth Highlanders of Canada.” A Regimental Sergeant-Major was sent by the Imperial Seaforth to help the new regiment in its early organization.
With the affiliation the Canadian Seaforth took the staghead badge of the older regiment, with the cypher L and crown which had been added later. In 1881 Queen Victoria had granted the title Duke of Albany to her youngest son Leopold. The Seaforth, as the Duke of Albany’s Regiment, added the cypher L (for Leopold) and the crown to its badge. The Canadian regiment also took the same uniform as the British regiment and work the kilt of the Mackenzie tartan.
FIRST WORLD WAR
At the outbreak of the First World War the colonel of the Seaforth immediately telegraphed an offer of service on behalf of the whole battalion. The offer was not accepted but a draft of 25 officers and 514 men was sent to Valcartier to serve with the 16th Battalion, C.E.F., on its formation. As new Canadian battalions were created, the Seaforth sent officers and men to the 29th, 47th 231st Battalions and to the 11th Canadian Mounted Rifles.
In July, 1915, the offer of overseas service from the battalion was accepted and the 72nd Overseas Battalion, C.E.F., Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, went into training at Vancouver’s Hastings Park. First recruits were received on Sept. 4 and by Sept. 16, 660 men were on parade. In April, 1916, the 72nd sailed from Halifax on board H.M. Transport Empress of Britain to see service under its own colours in France.
Brigaded with the 12th Brigade, 4th Canadian Division, the 72nd served in France and Flanders until the Armistice. Together, the 72nd and 231st Battalions, which the present Seaforth perpetuates, won the battle honours Ypres 1915, 1917; Festubert, 1915; Somme 1916; Ancre Heights; Ancre, 1916; Arras, 1917, 1918; Vimy, 1917; Passchendaele; Amiens; Scarpe, 1918; Drocourt-Quent; Hindenburg Line; Canal du Nord; Valenciennes; Sambrea; and France and Flanders, 1915-18.
The battalion won 322 decorations for valour and suffered 2,452 casualties of which 668 were fatal.
The battalion also made another contribution to the First World War effort when Pte. A. E. McCubbin produced the homemade “McCubbin’s Original Tommy Cooker.” Made from a pork and beans tin cut down, the cooker came into extensive use along the Somme. Filled with sacking and fat, the cooker produced “considerable soot” but performed its heating role satisfactorily.
When the war ended, the regiment returned to Canada to become a unit of the Non-permanent Active Militia (N.P.A.M.) and in September, 1920, it adopted the name The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada.
SECOND WORLD WAR
In 1939, as war clouds gathered in Europe, the Seaforth were mobilized on Sept. 1, before the outbreak of war. As a unit of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade, 1st Division, it sailed on December 22 for Britain.
Nearly four full years of exhaustive and often tedious training for a fighting war were carried on by the regiment in the United Kingdom until the Seaforth saw action. Early hopes for combat on the Continent faded with the French collapse in June, 1940. The battalion trained and hoped that it would go into battle soon to the skirl of its pipes playing the regimental marches, Pibroch o’ Donald Dhu and Blue Bonnets Over The Border. Instead it battled tedium in the cold war.
The fighting war came to the Seaforth on July 10, 1943, as they plunged ashore on the rocky Sicilian shore at Pachino in company with the Loyal Edmontons and the Princess Patricias to begin that attack on the Fortress Europe.
Operation Husky – the conquest of Sicily – saw the “Cowdichs,” as they were called in the 2nd Brigade from their motto “Cuidich’n Righ,” hammering their way to Agira and on to Operation Hardgate against Adrano.
On August 5 the Seaforth, with tanks of the Three Rivers Regiment, crossed the Troina to attack German paratroops holding the high ground between Troina and the Simeto. The operation, a brilliant example of infantry tank cooperation, caused heavy losses to German paratroops and helped crack the Adrano defences.
On Sept. 3, allied assault boats slipped across the Straits of Messina to begin Operation Baytown as the first round in the Italian assault. Following the Reggio landing, the Seaforth slugged through the tough mountainous terrain, hampered by the September rains, the poor mountain roads chilled by the frosty nights – a sudden change from the stifling heat and dust of Sicily – and dogged by German rearguards.
The Germans fell back slowly hoping to hold the Sangro as a winter line. On October 6, the Seaforth had to fight a fierce, costly battle for the crossroads at Decorata and before pushing on to capture Vinchiaturo.
In the Moro line battle, which would open the port of Ortona, the Seaforth engaged in three weeks of hard, bitter, costly fighting with its brigade. Attacking astride the inland road to San Leonardo, the Seaforth met violent opposition immediately after crossing the Moro below San Leonardo. On December 6 the battalion got three companies across the river and held a narrow beachhead against an enemy entrenched in the heights. German armour drove them back across the river, but two days later they battled against desperate enemy resistance and at a high cost in men, into San Leonardo.
In the struggle for the town of Ortona, which began December 20, the Seaforth fought over steep ground in face of fierce enemy resistance. By nightfall they were on the outskirts of the town and battled enemy paratroopers for Ortona street by street. The technique used by the Brigade became the model for town clearing.
Sharing Ortona with the Jerry, the Seaforth stopped for Christmas dinner. The “Cowdichs” used a captured church for Christmas observances and then settled down for dinner from tables draped with white cloths. The pipe major played during dinner and the highlanders sang carols to the church organ.
The latter part of the winter passed in static warfare and patrol activities.
In Liri Valley operations the Seaforth shared the main burden of the attack on the Hitler Line. A heavy enemy barrage pounded the 2nd Brigade on the right flank. In the mid-morning attack of May 23 the Seaforth led on the left brigade front and pierced the enemy line at the cost of very heavy casualties. In the afternoon, forward companies of the Seaforth, unsupported and out of Piat bombs, were badly lacerated by German tanks.
THEIR GRIMMEST BATTLE
As the enemy were flushed out on May 24, the Seaforth reported the battle as the grimmest they had known. This from veterans of Ortona!
The battalions of 2nd Brigade had been cut to an average strength of 150 men.
In August, the battalion helped breach the Gothic Line, then pushed on to San Martino and San Fortunato before being pulled out for rest.
Next committed to battle, the Seaforth faced the formidable obstacle of the Savio. Soft banks hampered bridging by engineer companies. The Germans had mined the steep slopes to the water’s edge. On the night of October 21-22 the Seaforth crossed the river but were quickly cut off from support when a sudden flood swelled the river behind them.
The “Cowdichs” were attacked by Panther tanks and German infantry. In this action, Pte. Ernest Alvia (“Smokey”) Smith won the Victoria Cross. From the midst of the embattled Seaforth, Pte. Smith lashed out with his Piat, crippling a Panther from the range of 30 feet. Ten German infantrymen closed in with Schmeissers and grenades, but “Smokey” killed four of them and drove the others back.
The Seaforth were next in action at Naviglio in the clearing of the Senio Line. The regiment spent a quieter Christmas Day than they had the year before at Ortona. Germans serenaded the Seaforth with carols on Christmas Eve and one Jerry put his head over the river dyke to wish them a guttural “Merry Christmas.” Later German attempts at propaganda brought down upon them the counter-proposal of an artillery pounding.
At the beginning of 1945 the Seaforth and the rest of the 2nd Brigade jumped off from Naviglio to clear the town of Granarola. The 1st Division continued to hold the Senio line as Canadians began the move for Northwest Europe in February.
IN NORTHWEST EUROPE
In Operation Goldflake the Seaforth moved to Leghorn for the trip to Marseilles, then through France by road to the Low Countries. On April 1 they arrived in the Reichwald Forest to begin their part of the campaign in Northwest Europe. By mid-April the regiment took part in Operation Cannonshot aimed across the Ijssel towards Apeldoorn, which was taken on the 17th. At the end of April active fighting ceased and by the first week in May the war was over for the Seaforth.
The written history of the Seaforth in the First Great War ended with the words: “A sharp command, and the curtain fell for the last time upon the 72nd Canadian Infantry Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders of Canada.”
Thirty-three years and a second great war in which the Seaforth again added to their glory by their valour have passed since then. It is expected that as long as the shrill skirl of the pipes and the sway of the kilt makes a soldier’s heart beat faster, new Seaforth men will join the old to “Cuidich’n Righ.”