The Brother Keepers


Sable's Ghost
The Road of No Return


The Great War, the first of the “total wars,” was arguably the most significant event in Canadian history. Through the valiant efforts and accomplishments of Great War, Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) volunteers, and to a small extent draftees, Canada transcended from a country that was a vassal of Great Britain to an independent, self-confident nation of the world. There was honour in those days and a strong sense of national unity that became stronger and stronger as the war progressed, with notable exceptions arising in Quebec. And Nova Scotians played an important part, not only in the dialectical process leading to nationhood through the efforts of such astute politicians as Sir Charles Tupper and Robert Borden, but also through the efforts of those who fought in the ranks of that superb, World War I fighting machine, the Canadian Corps.

When people think about wars in which Canadians have fought throughout the country’s relatively short history, most think of the Second World War. They tend to dismiss the WWI as the “Forgotten War,” or they regard it as merely the first phase of the World War II (WWII), which was more of a “world war” and the worst conflict with respect to total military casualties, civilian casualties and the threat to worldwide German dominance. But when one examines the statistics according to Col. G.W.L Nicholson’s Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, fatal Canadian casualties in WWI totaled 9.28 per cent of those who enlisted (60,661), whereas the figure for WWII totaled 3.86 per cent (41,992). On this basis, Canada’s sacrifice was greater in WWI. Unfortunately, British and American historians have lumped the exploits of the Canadian Corps in WWI in with those of the much greater British Army, obfuscating Canada’s role in that war. Yet, what our Canadian volunteers from Nova Scotia and the other provinces accomplished in WWI, evolving from a rag tag group of citizen soldiers into a core of disciplined shock troops second to none on the Western Front, is a story that resides only in a few history books. War diaries as such often convey little comprehension of war as they involve day to day house keeping and little or no description of the personal and strategic background of the conflict. The historical facts regarding the Canadian Corps have been told most recently in history book format in several excellent books including— Shane Schreiber’s Shock Army of the British Empire – The Canadian Corps in the Last 100 Days of the Great War, Angus Brown’s and Richard Gimblett’s In the Footsteps of the Canadian Corps – Canada’s First World War 1914-1918, J.L. Granatstein’s Hell’s Corner An Illustrated History of Canada’s Great War 1914-1918 and Bill Freeman and Richard Nielsen’s Far From Home, Canadians in The First World War. But the story has never before been told comprehensively through the combination of humanistic, emotional, semi-fictional narrative of high caliber with an accurate, intimate record of Canadian infantry in the field, and a detailed historical background on Canada’s role in the Great War in a “living history.” The Brother Keepers is such a book; it follows the experiences of a family of Nova Scotians who lived those times and includes the involvement of Nova Scotia’s 25th Battalion and Alberta’s 31st Calgary Battalion and constitutes an especially good read for veterans and those who had ancestors in the Great War.

In the WWI there were three Nova Scotia battalions that fought in the front lines as part of the Canadian Corps. These were the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR), 7th Infantry Brigade of the 3rd Canadian Division — one of Canada’s existing, oldest regular force, military units and based in Halifax at the time; the 85th Battalion, Nova Scotia Highlanders, 12th Infantry Brigade, 4th Canadian Division, the most decorated, Canadian battalion in the Great War with 259 awards; and the 25th Battalion, Nova Scotia Rifles. In addition, the 193rd, 246th, 185th and the 85th feeder reserve battalions constituted Nova Scotia’s Highland Brigade, as did other Nova Scotia feeder battalions like the 106th raised in Truro. The first two battalions (regiments) continue to exist and their distinguished history of valor, courage and accomplishments in WWI and subsequent conflicts are documented on their Internet websites. The 25th, however, was mustered out in Halifax on May 16th, 1919. It passed into history, as did most of the CEF battalions that were raised for WWI; raised by patriotism and killed by politics, a manifestation of Canada’s disarmament initiative. Lest we forget, it is the 25th Battalion, about which only two books have ever been written, that has undeservedly all but slipped into oblivion. This Nova Scotia battalion needs to be remembered along with the other disbanded Canadian battalions of WWI.

The 25th was not a Highland Battalion in the true sense of the term because it was not kilted — except for the pipe band members — and not originally designated as such. But for all intents and purposes it was a Highland Battalion. F.B. MacDonald and John J. Gardiner in their book The Twenty-Fifth Battalion. Canadian Expeditionary Force. Nova Scotia’s Famous Regiment in World War One emphasized that the aura of the Highland Regiment was strong among the men of the 25th and the drafting of the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade left them with a lasting resentment, probably against the politicians who dictated that the men of the 25th were not to wear the kilt. In fact, in May 1919, just before the 25th was mustered out, it officially became the 25th Canadian Highland Battalion (Nova Scotia) with permission to wear Highland attire. It had always been known as the MacKenzie Highlanders among the men and one reference indicated that they once called themselves the Acadian Highlanders, although this was not otherwise documented. The official tartan of the 25th became the MacKenzie of Seaforth tartan, which had always been worn by the pipe band members. It was based on the Black Watch or Government tartan with two white stripes and one red stripe added to the sett. MacKenzie Highlanders was their regimental march and assembly tune all along, and their mascot was a goat named Robert the Bruce, who wore a special cloak of MacKenzie tartan trimmed in green with a special silver shield on his forehead. Robert the Bruce was repeatedly sold to Belgian farmers and then stolen back by battalion members in the dark. The affiliation of the 25th was with the parent battalion, the Seaforth Highlanders — the Ross Shire Buffs of the British Army, which had been originally recruited by the chiefs of Clan MacKenzie. Their battalion motto was Praestans! Pereunt sed fama fulget, a distinguished cohort, but what is more, a shining family of crusaders. Its pipe band, led by Pipe Major Jock Carson, who received a set of silver-mounted bagpipes presented by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales on behalf of the battalion for its gallantry after the Battle of Courcelette (the Somme), was among the best. MacDonald and Gardiner stated that, “Who can say whether the élan of the 25th was not due to the fact that by some gracious act of fate it was provided from the start with a pipe band? Nothing else has the strange ability of the pipes to cut through competing noise, even the confusion of battle … Sad, stern and exciting, deliberate and magnetic, the music of the pipes has a peculiar power to inspire heroism and banish fatigue, as any soldier will vouch for.”

Have you ever stood amid the members of a pipe band waiting to take the field? Pipers and drummers in their swinging kilts, swirl around you in blurs of color when they are forming up to take the field at the shouted command of their pipey. I have, as a photographer and a Celt, and it made my blood race. To witness such an event amid the reverberating, rallying “roll off” of the big, base drum, the hollow sound of the snare drums and the muffled beats of the tenor drums with their blur of twirling, flashing white between beats and to hear the shrill defiant sounds of twenty or more pipers swirling around you playing Caber Feidh, or Hielan’ Laddie to the constant thundering beat of the bass drum is an atavistic experience like no other. If you have witnessed this spectacle, then you have probably experienced what is known as, “The call to the blood.” You have probably experienced an inkling of what can lead to Mir Cath or “battle frenzy” among men fighting not only for their country but also for their own preservation and for their brothers in battle.

The pipes inspire pride of heritage in a race whose achievements in this world have been second to none. The men of a Highland regiment depended on the skirl of the pipes to entertain them on parade, at dances and in the mess halls, to mourn with them in times of sorrow, to wake them up in the morning with reveille, to summon them to duties and events during the day and to play them to bed at night for “lights out”. They even depended on the pipes to pipe out defaulters. No Highland regiment ever marched without a piper and drummer. Furthermore, in times of battle many battalion commanders asked for volunteers to play the men “over the top” and forward against the enemy and to play them off those fields of honor and back to reserves. The Germans came to hate, respect and fear the Highland regiments, both Scottish and Canadian, calling them the “Ladies from Hell”. Prisoners said the Germans braced themselves for the cold steel of bayonets and prepared for the worst when they were deployed against Canadian troops, or when they heard the sound of the pipes.

Since the 17th century and before, pipers have accompanied the kilted regiments of the line into battle, imparting courage, stiffening backbones, rallying them when they were in disarray and inspiring them to victory. The 25th was no stranger to this tradition. Over the years the results have been dramatic. The first tune played when pipers led the men forward was the “regimental onset” for that particular battalion. For the 25th it was MacKenzie Highlanders. After the regimental onset came the “ceremonial onset” Cabar Feidh (Stag’s Antlers) was played by many regiments as was Hielan’ Laddie, All the Blue Bonnets Over the Border, The High Road to Gairloch, (commonly called The Muckin O’ Geordie’s Byre,) We’ll Tak the Guid Old Way and Codagh no Sith otherwise known as War or Peace, a Highland challenge that clans have played for centuries when going into battle. At the beginning of the Great War there were only12 pipe bands among the battalions of the CEF. By the end of the war there were well over 100 pipe bands in the British Empire forces. Over 500 pipers were killed in the line of battle out of a total casualty count of 1409 in the Great War. When Highland regiments went “over the top,” bounding out of the trenches to face the enemy, they were frequently led by pipers who played them forward; their mere, unarmed, brave presence blocked out by the din of battle or not, greatly inspired the men, often to Mir Cath, for these men volunteered to lay their life on the line for their comrades and their comrades knew it.

Despite the sacrifices of Canuck soldiers in the past, the majority of Canadians appear to be disinterested in their military history. They see themselves as a nation of peacekeepers, oblivious of the fact that Canada’s history has been a bloody one. This lack of interest is amply illustrated by a recent letter to the editor to the National Post in which Father R.J. de Souza of Australia (June 30th, 2007) commented that the recent commemoration of the 90th anniversary of Vimy Ridge revealed that many educated Canadians remain ignorant not only of that epic, but also of Canadian Military history in general. People who harbor the impression that freedom is indeed free for those in Canada and America who do not serve in the military to protect our way of life or support the military morally and financially, are laboring under delusions. In the last 3000 years of the history of human beings there have been over 1,500 major wars. War appears to be inevitable because man is a violent creature by nature. To remain free in the present global environment, a country has to develop military strength or form strong alliances just as a weak child has to do in a bullying neighborhood in order to survive. Hence two Latin idioms pertain, the second predicated on the first. Both should be taken in the preventive sense and not abused in the aggressive sense. They are: Si vis pacem para bellum (If you want peace prepare for war) and Nemo me impune lacessit  (No one attacks me with impunity — the motto of many Highland regiments dealing from strength). If countries are strong, aggressors are less likely to attack them or bully them. In the past, the sons of Nova Scotia have rallied around the flag and have done more than their bit as was the case with Nova Scotia’s sons who fought with the 25th and with other battalions. Lest we forget, it is sacrilegious, even foolhardy, to forget those sacrifices.

John E. (Ted) MacNintch.
Originally published in Celtic Heritage Magazine,
November/December 2007

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