The Windsor Star
August 17, 2012.
Chris Vander Doelen
When an individual soldier does something heroic, you give them a medal. When an entire military unit achieves heroism, they get a battle honour.
Two hundred years after achieving the impossible by seizing Detroit from a superior military force at the beginning of the War of 1812, the people who pulled off that feat were finally honoured this week.
It was a pretty big oversight and it had gone on for far too long. Had a military-friendly government like Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s not been in power for the 200th anniversary, the snub may have continued forever.
Fortunately, the small band of citizen volunteers, displaced American Indians and British regular soldiers who fought first for us have been given posthumous battle honours for winning a fight that led directly to the creation of a place called Upper Canada.
The winners are all long gone, of course. There’s barely even a trace left of the families of the Shawnee warriors, professional soldiers and the rag-tag bunch of farmers and merchants who took up arms to fight back against the American invaders.
But it was touching to see one Aboriginal Canadian soldier wearing a traditional native braid at the ceremony in Windsor on Wednesday, even if it is unlikely he is a direct descendent of Chief Tecumseh’s people.
To honour the victory, the federal government decided to award the regiment of citizen-soldiers who are the direct descendants, in a military sense, of the soldiers who seized Detroit: the Essex and Kent Scottish infantry.
“This is unique,” said Col. Mark Campbell, the London-based brigade commander who has 1,800 reservists under his command across southern Ontario, including the Essex and Kent. “It is a very rare event to be awarded a battle honour and it is not to be taken lightly.”
And it wasn’t. There were many smiles at the ceremony attended by MP Chris Alexander, parliamentary secretary to the minister of national defence, and Essex MP Jeff Watson. But technically it was not a light-hearted event.
Any battle honour typically comes at the cost of hundreds of casualties, which means hundreds of families in mourning back home for lost sons and daughters. The Essex and Kent have earned their previous 34 battle honours in some terrible fights from France to Korea: Dieppe, Dunkerque, Calouet, Hill 151, Antwerp, Assen and a dozen Dutch towns liberated from Nazi slavery by Canada in 1945.
The names of 20 of the unit’s battle honours are woven into the unit’s “colour,” the heavily embroidered flag it parades proudly at all public events.
The lineup of battle honours on the colour changes every 10 or 15 years when the colour becomes too faded and tattered to be seen in public, and is replaced by a new one.
But even then the old colour isn’t disposed of: it is laid to rest in a protected vault in the unit’s chapel, a permanent reminder of the many lives given by its members. The old colours aren’t disposed of until they are dust, like their fallen comrades.
There’s been a lot of sneering and disdain from the opposition parties and the media this month at the Harper government’s “obsession” with the War of 1812 and at their alleged “celebration” of death and warfare.
They don’t get it, clearly. You have to honour the soldiers who die to protect you. If you don’t, the people who carry those old battle honours in parades a generation from now may not come to your defence next time. And history proves there is always a next time.
“We know there are a few people in the opposition and the media who are anti-military, and anti-history,” says Alexander, who was Canadian ambassador in war-torn Afghanistan for six years before being elected MP in Ajax-Pickering.
But the reaction from ordinary Canadians to the dozens of commemoration ceremonies of the War of 1812 this summer has been “overwhelmingly positive,” Alexander said in an interview, proving to the Harper government they did the right thing by deciding to make a big deal out of the 200th anniversary.
“It’s not taught as much as it should be in our schools. But that doesn’t make it any less important.” And the Battle of Detroit was “one of the most significant” encounters of the first war fought by a group of people who would soon form a nation.
If citizen volunteers hadn’t stepped forward 200 years ago to back up the badly outnumbered British soldiers and the Shawnee warriors defending them, “we wouldn’t have an Ontario, we wouldn’t have a Canada.”