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Welcome history of Royal Winnipeg Rifles

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Named by the Enemy

A History of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles

By Brian A. Reid

Robin Brass Studio, 284 pages, $70

Cincinnatus is our neighbour. The ancient Roman citizen who left his ploughing to serve his country, and then returned to his daily round, is recognizable in the Winnipeggers who served, and are serving, in the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. Historian Brian Reid emphasizes this in his detailed, military buff style of writing.

This is an updated official history to celebrate the regiment's 125th anniversary. Beginning with the 1885 Northwest Rebellion, where the regiment was given its nickname Little Black Devils by its Métis opponents (thus the book's title), this well-illustrated volume concludes with current service in Afghanistan.

The Rifles are a Winnipeg-founded institution with a long and vivid past and deep roots in our community, and Reid, who served four decades as a Canadian soldier himself in the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery, has written two previous books on Canadians at war as well as being the designated historian of the Afghanistan War for his own regiment.

What seems like ancient history, Reid brings to life through his use of diaries and reminiscences. Hugh John Macdonald, who fought the Rebellion at Batoche (and is remembered today for his residence Dalnavert), recounts: "There was no shelter of any kind and a bitter wind was blowing from the North; By jove it was cold at night. The mercury fell to 100 below zero, and the beastly tents were hardly any protection."

In the First World War the regiment suffered more than most. Along with the stench and rot of trench warfare, they faced a gas attack at the Second Battle of Ypres.

In the face of a new choking weapon, they held their ground, earning a special thanks from British Prime Minister David Lloyd George for rescuing Britain from the threat of invasion.

Reid describes the failures and snafus that go with most military campaigns -- the Ross rifle that jammed under battlefield conditions, the British grenades that detonated prematurely. No wonder servicemen's songs are full of black humour.

Of the three Victoria Cross winners who lived on Pine Street (now Valour Road) in Winnipeg, we learn that two of them had served in the Rifles.

The loss of life in the war is brought home by page after page of names at the back of the book. "It had been a bloody war for the Rifles -- only 90 remained of the 1,026 Little Black Devils who had entered the line in 1915. The casualty roll carried more than 5,000 names, 1,356 of them had died.

The horrors of the First World War didn't prevent volunteers from signing up for the Second. As is our custom, in 1939, the Canadian military and government were more than ready to fight the previous war.

Fortunately, the frustrating years of training and waiting in Britain from 1941-1944 saw the weeding out of unfit soldiers, and the improvement in weapons and tactics.

Reid describes the difficulties in training a force of volunteer citizens. His description of the Rifles' D-Day landing at Juno Beach on June 6, 1944, is augmented by personal memories. And something is added to the strength of the recounting when the names are familiar to Winnipeggers.

This section of the history gets the lion's share of attention. As with the First War, the losses were high.

For example, at the last parade of the overseas battalion, "of the 513 Little Black Devils who marched into the Civic Auditorium that day," Reid writes, "only 12 including the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel 'Lockie' Fulton, had been with the battalion on D-Day."

Reid's history is for both the general reader and the military buff. The vividness of the descriptions of the fighting is balanced by the descriptions of the military groupings involved and their tactics.

The accompanying maps are excellent. Reid gives context to the times and the politics of the day. He's prepared to name the "scallywags" and the errors in tactics that cost lives, from regimental blunders to friendly fire.

An explanation of the numbers of men in each grouping would have added clarity to a civilian reading this regimental history. Occasionally the prose is either flat-footed (grounds for military rejection) or purple.

And its expensive price tag (a history of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry by David Bercuson is half the price) means it's headed for libraries. And there are plans to put it in school ones.

Still, it's good to have this recounting of service to Canada by our fellow Winnipeggers. The recent obituary in the Winnipeg Free Press for John Rasmussen, who served with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles overseas during the Second World War, simply says, "like most men and women of that generation, John never spoke of service and duty."

This welcome history adds colour to the stone statue of the Little Black Devil who stands on guard beside the Centennial Concert Hall, and proves Kipling wrong.

It isn't "thin red line of heroes when the guns begin to shoot" -- it's dark green.

Ron Robinson is a Winnipeg broadcaster whose air cadet squadron included Fred Penner and Al Simmons.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2010 H10

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