The year was 1916, a whole century ago, and the Allied Forces were reeling from the loss of upwards of half a million men during the battles of the Somme and Ypres.
That’s when Central Alberta stepped in to help.
On June 16 of that year, “huge numbers of people turned out,” to see former Red Deer mayor turned MLA Edward Michener donate the regimental colours to what would be known as the 187th Central Alberta Battalion.
City Historian Michael Dawe says 250 men enlisted initially, but that grew to 600 by the end of the summer. The ranks included men not only from Red Deer, but Innisfail, Lacombe, Stettler and Coronation as well.
"People were saying well, this is going to be very, very difficult, you’ve pretty much cleaned out the able-bodied people from the community already, but they had tremendous success,” Dawe said.
At the time, Red Deer’s population was around 2,800 and Innisfail sat around 1,000. So, 600 men predominantly from those two communities, and with so many already gone to war, was quite a staggering number.
“There was both real support for the people as they were recruited and got ready to go, but also lots of worry because by this time, people knew the war wasn’t going to be over in a few weeks,” says Dawe.
“They knew the losses of life were very high and that as these young guys or older family men were enlisting to go overseas, there was genuine concern, and a well-founded one, that they might never see them again.”
In fact, between 30 and 40 did not return home, while another 90 to 150 were wounded.
Dawe says once recruiting wrapped up, the Battalion trained at the old Red Deer Fairgrounds, located where the Red Deer Arena later stood for many years. The facilities there were ripe with sanitary issues and it wasn’t long before an outbreak of Typhoid Fever hit the camp. Two men died from the outbreak.
“There was a concern that if the Military authorities decided that the training camp was not up to standards, they would shut it down and there wouldn’t be any training in Red Deer anymore,” Dawe explained, noting the camp was thrown together in a hurry with old livestock barns converted into barracks. This left the men in cramped conditions in a place normally reserved for cows, pigs and horses.
Led by Lt.-Col. Charles Wilson Robinson of Munson, Alberta, the Battalion would finally depart in the late autumn, first for Amherst, Nova Scotia and then aboard the RMS Olympic to France. While in Nova Scotia, the group dealt with illness once more as the mumps made the rounds.
Once overseas, the Battalion parted ways, never fighting as a complete unit. After all, they were brought together to fill the holes left in different units from prior battles which had resulted in mass casualties.
Some served with the 50th Battalion out of Calgary which fought at Vimy Ridge, soon to transpire in April 1917. Others wound up fighting at Passchendaele (1917) and at Amiens (1918).
“A man by the name of John Richards from Penhold, he was only 16, just a kid, and when he came home and said to his dad he was going to enlist, his dad thought he was going as the regimental mascot,” says Dawe. “He wasn’t, he was in the active lines and he was at the battle of Vimy Ridge, but he was missing in action for a time. He was later found, though wounded, and saved.”
Dawe says years later, Richards returned to the Vimy Ridge monument and located his name on it. At the time of engraving, records showed he remained missing in action with no known grave.
Dawe, who has visited Vimy, says it was a shock for Richards all those years later.
Though the Battalion never served as a unit, Dawe says one thing is certain.
“They did serve their country and they did serve it heroically.”
The restored 187th Battalion regimental colours are now laid up at St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Innisfail.
RDNewsNOW would like to thank Michael Dawe, Valerie Miller with the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery, the Red Deer and District Archives, and the City of Red Deer for their contributions to this story.
A list of Remembrance Day ceremonies taking place in Central Alberta can be found at our Community News page.
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