Monuments on the Hills: World War I Emblems in Calgary

By Dempsey, L. James | Alberta History, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Monuments on the Hills: World War I Emblems in Calgary


Dempsey, L. James, Alberta History


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In June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungry was assassinated, Europe was plunged into war. A month later, when Belgium was invaded, Britain declared war on Germany, and Canada, as part of the Empire, was automatically included. In October, 1914, 33,000 Canadian troops were on their way to England and an active campaign was launched to enlist volunteers at home for the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).

Military volunteerism was not new to Alberta. In 1901, three squadrons of militia cavalry were formed in Fort Macleod, Medicine Hat, and Calgary. Summer camps for all of southern Alberta were held on the Col. James Walker estate, east of the Calgary city limits in the present Inglewood district. Then, in June of 1911, the largest military camp ever held in the province got underway at a place called Reservoir Park near the Sarcee Reserve on the south-west outskirts of the city. The park remained a military training area until late in 1914, (1) and during those years, summer training activities for the militia were carried out there. (2) From this modest beginning, Calgary would later become the headquarters for Military District 13. (3)

When World War I broke out a new site for a training area was selected north of the Elbow River and named Sarcee Camp. It was the only camp in Alberta, originally designed to accommodate about 6,000 troops, but during the war it often held almost double that number. Work was started on the camp in April of 1915 and by summer, the area was suitable for the housing and training of the troops. A tented city with several wooden buildings had been erected for administrative staff and supply services. Roads were constructed and the camp was serviced with running water, electricity, and a street car service. Rifle ranges were constructed at the west end of the camp. (4)

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Pre-war militia units were used as recruiting depots for the units of the CEF. These provided the nucleus upon which many of the overseas battalions were built, later supplying recruits for the reinforcement drafts. Alberta recruits provided four mounted regiments, three artillery batteries, twenty-two infantry battalions, and a field ambulance for overseas service. In addition, men enlisted in the Canadian Engineers, Army Service Corps, Corps of Guides, the Medical Services, and the service units. (5)

Recruiting began immediately after the outbreak of war. The level of patriotism was high and many believed the conflict would be over in a matter of months. Accordingly, there was a rush to join up so that they would not miss the fighting. But more were needed so recruitment officers were sent to every large and small community in Alberta, appealing for men. Often they attended fairs, rodeos, or other events where crowds gathered. For example, recruiting officers descended upon the Lethbridge fair and, speaking from the balcony of the Dallas Hotel, an officer "made a ringing appeal to the young men to come forward and do their duty in this hour of the nation's trial." (6)

The first units stationed at Sarcee Camp when it opened in 1915 were three battalions of infantry--the 50th, 51st, and 175th; two regiments of mounted rifles--the 12th and 13th Canadian Mounted Rifles; and the 20th Battery of Artillery. Within a few weeks a visitor commented that "animated scenes prevail. Martial music is heard on all sides. Soldiers are marching everywhere and as far as the eye can see, everything is military." (7)

In the camp, each battalion had its companies arranged in avenues that were bordered by rows of tents. Large whitewashed stones were used to outline the various sections of the camp, battalion areas, and thoroughfares. Stones also were used by most individual battalions to create their unit badges which were placed in front of their assigned areas in the camp. The use of these unit badges probably arose from a sense of camaraderie that is found in all military units with British traditions. …

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