This article was published 14/4/2018 (1047 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
They fight with a cap badge emblazoned with a naked devil carrying a trident in one hand and a chalice in the other.
Underneath the devil’s feet are the Latin words, "Hosti acie nominati," which means "named by the enemy in battle."
And they’ve been around for almost as long as Manitoba has been a province.
The Royal Winnipeg Rifles is a reserve infantry unit based at the Minto Armoury, which is part of 38 Canadian Brigade Group. And the people who serve with it, have served with it or are affiliated in some way with it, are proud that it is a reserve, and not a regular full-time military unit.
"We’re the oldest infantry regiment in Western Canada," said John Robins, a retired lieutenant-colonel who is now secretary of the RWR’s Regimental Senate.
"We’re not full-time professional soldiers. We’re part-time, who can be mobilized as the need arises. A reserve army works well. We can provide it with a reasonable amount of training, so when called upon— like for Afghanistan — you can move faster to get there."
From Afghanistan to every other conflict Canadian soldiers have been called into service, the Rifles have a remarkable history.
"The story of the Rifles is almost the story of Western Canada," Robins said.
"We go back to almost the beginning. We were there at Fish Creek and Batoche. And before that we tried to rescue Gordon in Khartoum under Gen. Wolseley in Sudan... and we’ve been at both the world wars."
Formed in November 1883, the unit turns 135 later this year.
As part of its 135th anniversary, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles launched its most recent campaign and did it without firing a shot.
The Legacy Stone Project fundraiser will help commemorate the long history of the Rifles. The stones will be set in concrete and will help serve as the base of the monument dedicated to the unit in the northwest corner of Vimy Park.
Retired Lt.-Gen. Ray Crabbe who, during his 35-year military career was Deputy Chief of Defence Staff responsible for Canadian Forces operations and intelligence around the world, and who is now a member of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles Senate, led the fundraiser that sold its final stone earlier this month, just days before the 101st anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which the Rifles were part of.
"We have sold all 290 legacy stones," said Crabbe, who was born in Neepawa.
"Our campaign went extremely well and we’re pleased with the mix of serving people, veterans, military families and business associates."
Crabbe said the fundraiser raised about $100,000 and, after the stones are purchased and inscribed, the remainder will go to help with the reconstruction of the Rifles monument corner of the park. He said money to renovate the park has also been received from other sources, including Veterans Affairs Canada, Mayor Brian Bowman and Winnipeg’s city councillors.
Crabbe said 2018 is a significant year for two reasons.
"We’re celebrating 135 years of service in Manitoba and it will be 100 years since the end of World War I. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles were involved in all the major battles of World War I."
Jason Bell, the city’s parks capital projects manager, said workers will soon begin digging up Vimy Park’s northwest corner to restore the entrance to the park, including installing new wrought-iron style fencing, benches, flower gardens, lighting, banners and a processional plaza.
Bell said the cost is estimated to be about $330,000, and the work will be completed in time for Remembrance Day ceremonies in the fall.
The Rifles’ first action began with a lie.
Long before the unit was granted the Royal moniker, and even before the Rifles fought against Louis Riel during the North-West Rebellion, 100 of its members were on their way to Egypt to support the British Army in the Nile Expedition shortly after the 90th Winnipeg Battalion of Rifles was organized.
Robins said members of the Rifles who went were under the command of the battalion’s first commander and Winnipeg’s second mayor, William Nassau Kennedy, who was later honoured with the naming of both Kennedy and Nassau streets.
But Robins said they went to Egypt because of a lie.
The Nile Expedition, also known as the Gordon Relief Expedition, was devised by the British to rescue Maj.-Gen. Charles George Gordon and his forces, who had been helping to evacuate Egyptian soldiers and their families from Sudan to Egypt, but were now trapped in a siege in Khartoum by a rebellion led by Mahommed Ahmed. The British commanders decided the quickest way to help was by small boat on the Nile.
"They needed boatmen to row up the Nile River," Robins said.
"The call came here to Kennedy because they were thinking there were oarsmen here. But the way of transporting furs had changed, so we really didn’t have many people who knew how to do boats. But that didn’t deter Kennedy. He told them, ‘we’ll be there.’"
Kennedy and 100 volunteer soldiers headed for Egypt, joined by other volunteers from Canada, but by the time the forces got to Khartoum they discovered the city had fallen two days earlier and the entire garrison, including Gordon, had been slaughtered.
Sixteen Canadians died during the campaign. And Kennedy didn’t make it back to Winnipeg. On the way back from Sudan, he contracted smallpox and died in London, England, on May 3, 1885. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery, near Karl Marx’s grave.
But the next action was no lie, and it gave the Rifles their name.
Two years after they were formed, the then-90th Battalion was ordered to serve in the North-West Rebellion and they fought at both Fish Creek and Batoche. As riflemen, they wore dark green coats which, in the distance, looked black.
It was at Fish Creek, as history records, that a captured Métis fighter said, "The red coats we know, but who are those little black devils?"
Ron Burch, manager of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles museum and archives, located at the Minto Armoury, said, "That’s why, to this day, we have a little black devil on our cap badge."
Other memorable missions included taking Rebellion leader Louis Riel to trial in Regina.
Members of the Rifles fought in the Boer War, the first time Canadian troops fought overseas, from 1899 to 1902. While the unit didn’t officially go to fight there, 500 members were "re-patched" to join the Royal Canadian Regiment, and were followed by another 250. Because so many went, the Rifles later were officially bestowed a Battle Honour.
Sometime during those early years the Rifles came up with their "Yell":
"F Company, F Company,
Rah! Rah! Rah!
F Company, F Company,
Rah! Rah! Rah!
When we meet the enemy
We’ll turn ‘em all about;
We’ll show ‘em what we’re made of;
We’ll turn ‘em inside out;
We’ll stick ‘em up
We’ll kick ‘em up
We’ll lick ‘em up
We’ll sic ‘em up
And when we’re through
We’ll pick ‘em up
Rah! Rah! Rah!
The next action the RWR fought in was the First World War. Robins said the Canadian government did away with the earlier numbered battalions, so the RWR’s 90th Battalion became the 8th Battalion.
The Rifles distinguished themselves, but at great cost. Of the 6,000 soldiers who were part of the Rifles during the war, about 1,500 were killed, Burch said.
"When you figure what the population of Winnipeg in 1914 was (about 200,000) and we ended up with 25 per cent dead, that’s a lot," he said.
"We recently spent 500 hours creating and confirming our list of the fallen. We never had a comprehensive list before. There will be 2,122 names up. It goes from 1883 to Cpl. Caribou."
Cpl. Nolan Caribou, an infantryman, was killed during a training exercise with the RWR last November at CFB Shilo.
Three members of the Rifles were awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War, including Company Sgt.-Major Frederick William Hall, who was one of three Canadian soldiers who received the medal; Winnipeg’s Valour Road was named in their honour. Hall, whose medal was awarded posthumously, was honoured for his actions during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915.
The other two who received the Victoria Cross were Cpl. Alexander Picton Brereton and Cpl. Frederick George Coppins. They both were honoured for their actions at the Battle of Amiens in August 1918.
The story behind Hall’s VC was similar to the final part of the regiment’s Yell, except it was his comrades, and not the enemy, he was picking up.
Hall was in the trenches during the night of April 23, 1915, when he noticed several of his comrades were missing. He heard their moaning and followed it to the top of a ridge; he was able to rescue two of the injured while it was dark, but when he went out a third time — in daylight — to recover a wounded soldier, he was shot in the head.
Hall’s body was never recovered, and his mother received the VC a few months later in Winnipeg .
According to National Defence, Brereton was born in Oak River and joined the Winnipeg Rifles in 1916. He was an acting corporal when six enemy machine guns began firing on his exposed platoon and he realized "that his platoon would be annihilated."
Brereton’s Victoria Cross citation read, "On his own initiative, without a moment’s delay, and alone, he sprang forward and reached one of the hostile machine-gun posts, where he shot the man operating the machine gun and bayoneted the next one who attempted to operate it, whereupon nine others surrendered to him."
Similarly to what happened to Brereton, Coppins’ platoon was suddenly pinned down by enemy machine guns when he realized "the platoon would be annihilated unless the enemy machine guns were silenced immediately.
"Cpl. Coppins, without hesitation, and on his own initiative, called on four men to follow him and leapt forward in the face of intense machine-gun fire," the VC citation said. "With his comrades he rushed straight for the machine guns. The four men with him were killed and Cpl. Coppins wounded. Despite his wounds he reached the hostile machine guns alone, killed the operator of the first gun and three of the crew, and made prisoners of four others, who surrendered."
And, even though he was wounded, Coppins stayed with his platoon until it reached its objective, seeking medical treatment only when he was ordered to after the line was secured.
During King George V’s silver jubilee in 1935, the Royal moniker was added to the Winnipeg Rifles.
The Rifles were one of the forces that was hit by heavy fire as it stormed a beach on D-Day during the Second World War. And the next day, when fighting German tanks with only infantry weapons until the Allies could send in tanks, a few of the Rifles were captured by the enemy and executed.
The regiment then liberated the Port of Calais before advancing across the Netherlands to Germany and to the Rhine River. Just before launching an attack on the German town of Aurich, the war ended in Europe.
Burch said the Rifles didn’t lose as many soldiers in the Second World War as they did in the First.
"You have to remember that the First World War was four years long while the Second World War was basically an 11-month-long war," he said, noting that for the Rifles it began on D-Day — June 6, 1944— and ended May 8, 1945.
Burch said that during the Korean War, the Rifles were again called up for duty, with some helping to replace the Princess Patricia soldiers normally stationed in Germany who were in Korea. Some other members served with a brigade that joined the United Nations forces in Korea.
Since then, the RWR were called to help out in the Balkans and Afghanistan, as well as during spring flooding closer to home in 1997 and 2011.
Queen Elizabeth II honoured the Rifles in 1978, by making Prince Charles its Colonel-in-Chief. A few years later, in 1983, the Prince selected battalion members to provide a contingent on the processional route during his wedding to Lady Diana Spencer in 1983, along with a detachment inside St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Burch and other volunteers are in the midst of celebrating the long history of the Rifles by transforming the RWR’s museum from its earlier version displaying a few mementoes in glass cases into a modern facility that tells the unit’s story through the decades.
Burch said the official reopening is set for Nov. 10, but there will likely be a soft opening before that. New exhibits are already being set up, featuring firearms used and uniforms worn through the Rifles’ history.
Children will have the chance to wear First World War replica uniforms and get an idea of what it was like to man a machine gun position during the war.
There is space for temporary exhibits; plans are underway for one dedicated to Cpl. John Wolpe, described in newspaper accounts at the time "as a stateless German Jew who joined the Royal Winnipeg Rifles as an ‘unofficial’ soldier and who arrived in Winnipeg... as a full-fledged member of the Canadian army and Canadian citizen."
Burch said Wolpe, who was able to join the RWR in France after somehow making his way through enemy lines at Calais, is credited with killing 28 German soldiers and capturing hundreds of others.
The museum’s final stop will be a room for reflection where the names of fallen Rifles soldiers will be displayed, along with items including a wooden marker that originally stood marking a mass grave at Vimy Ridge.
Robins said a reserve force such as the RWR is a valuable asset when residents need help.
"Like with the flood here, the first called would be the reserves and they would be augmented by the army," he said. "But the army doesn’t know the local area like the reservists."
Robins said it’s also not just the history of the RWR measured in age that makes it notable.
"It’s all of these guys who were killed fighting for what they believed in. We can say it is for Queen and country, and to some extent it is, but when you’re in a trench under attack, you’re doing it for your mates around you."
Burch said it is the RWR’s position as a volunteer reserve force that is one of its strengths.
"We’re the link to the grassroots," he said. "If we want a relevant military, these are some of the best and brightest in the country. You see these people locally.
"And we have a proud heritage. It wasn’t the regiment’s decision to go to Batoche — the regiment does what it is told.
"In the end, the Rifles are one of Winnipeg’s achievements. We should be proud."
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.