The Magazine

O Canada

Robert Messenger, militarist.

Apr 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 30 • By ROBERT MESSENGER
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Last weekend, I happened on a recording of the Scottish traditional "The Bonnie Lass of Fyvie" played by the Pipes and Drums of the 48th Highland regiment. It's a catchy tune and, though I couldn't recall the last time I'd heard it, the words of the chorus popped into my head--thanks undoubtedly to my repeatedly playing a copy of the Black Watch's bestselling Scotch on the Rocks album back in the 1970s.

I had a sudden curiosity about the 48th Highlanders, a Canadian regiment. For many years, the best Canadian pipe band was the 78th Fraser Highlanders (the first non-Scottish band to win the World Pipe Band Championships, in 1987). But the name is merely honorary. The 78th was disbanded in 1763 after the Seven Years' War. It was revived in 1967, not as a military unit but as a bit of costume history for the Montreal tourist trade during the Expo. I wondered if the 48th Highlanders still bore arms.

I remembered notes of their valor at the lovely memorial park for the Canadian dead of World War I at Vimy Ridge in northern France. It's hokey looking in pictures, with the maudlin sculpture of a hooded and cloaked woman representing "Canada Mourning" and the large symbolic pylons representing France and Canada. Yet the whole is deeply moving. At the bottom of each pylon is an inscription, in English and French:

TO THE VALOUR OF THEIR COUNTRYMEN IN THE GREAT WAR AND IN MEMORY OF THEIR SIXTY THOUSAND DEAD THIS MONUMENT IS RAISED BY THE PEOPLE OF CANADA.

Canadians think of Vimy the way we think of Yorktown. The 1917 battle was the first time that Canadians ever fought as a national army--rather than as scattered units in a British one. It was a defining moment in the formation of the Canadian identity. After the war, a grateful French government gifted the ridge to Canada, and if you visit Vimy you stand on Canadian soil, not French.

Thanks to the Internet, I had but to wonder about the 48th to be able to satisfy my interest. They are still a fighting force and have their own website--www.army.dnd.ca/48highlanders/main.html. It's a fancy government one, aimed at recruitment, with lots of attention to the unit's weaponry and equipment. I clicked on the "history" button expecting tales of valor past and got something that makes the regiment sound like the Toronto chapter of the Kiwanis rather than warriors who left comrades on some of most hallowed ground of the 20th century:

The 48th Highlanders formed in 1891 and have had a long standing tradition of participation in the life of its parent city, Toronto. The Regiment has participated in all aspects of community functions for well over 100 years, in addition to fulfilling its operational duties around the world. Since its inception, the men and women of the regiment have been among the first Canadians to step forward and answer their nation's call. The Regiment's service includes Operation Recuperation, the Golan Heights, Korea, South Africa, Cambodia, Cyprus, Bosnia, both the World Wars and the Boer War to name a few.

The regiment carries 49 battle honors--something I learned on websites not created by the Canadian government. These include the Boer War--termed the "South African War" in the citation--a roll call of the Great War's legendary places--Ypres, Festubert, the Somme, Pozières, Thiepval, Arras, Vimy, Passchendaele--and more than two-dozen from the Second World War. And the 48th fought at Ortona, the brutal eight-day battle in December 1943 between Canadian troops and German paratroopers for possession of a tiny town on the Adriatic Coast. Ortona is called the "Little Stalingrad" for the ferocity of its house-to-house fighting. Thanks to news reports, the battle became an international symbol of Canadian valor. (In another miracle of the Internet, I found the original Canadian army newsreel of the battle on YouTube.)

Vimy and Ortona are representative of something important. Something symbolized by the 48th's motto: "Dileas Gu Brath" ("Faithful Forever"). I'd have thought that mentioning those hard-won victories would be the way to encourage young men to join up. But apparently the Canadian government thinks that young boys dream of playing policeman in the Balkans rather than of winning the Victoria Cross.

In 1940, after the fall of France, Canadian wrath was stirred up by a story that the Germans had bombed the Vimy Memorial. I wonder if such a story would stir outrage today.

ROBERT MESSENGER