In 1885 Western Canada erupted in rebellion. Troops from Eastern Canada were rushed through Port Arthur (now part of Thunder Bay) on their way to suppress the uprising. They created quite a patriotic stir in the small community and incited a local banker, Samuel Wellington Ray, with the idea of forming a local company of riflemen. Authorization arrived on 24 April 1885 in the form of a telegram from the Minister of Militia which read: “I am disposed to authorize full company for the time the disturbance will last. They would have to procure their own equipment and arms as we could not supply them until navigation opens.” An Independent Company of Rifles was quickly formed with Ray, now a Captain, at their head and interest remained high even after the western rebellion has been crushed. By December 1886, the Port Arthur Company was part of a provisional battalion with neighbouring companies in Fort William, Rat Portage (now Kenora) and Gore Bay. Not long after, the battalion was numbered and named the 96th District of Algoma Battalion of Rifles.
The men of the battalion conducted drills and practiced musketry – they were even known far and wide for their marksmanship – but they received little support from national headquarters. By the mid-1890s, interest was waning and the ranks dwindling; in 1896 the Battalion was struck from the strength of the Canadian Militia.
The New 96th, 1905-1914
Permission was given once again to reactivate the battalion in July 1905 under the name The 96th Battalion, The Lake Superior Regiment. Headquarters were, once again, in Port Arthur with companies in neighbouring Fort William, Fort Frances and Kenora. The Canadian government treated this new effort with greater seriousness, issuing full uniforms, rifles and equipment, and providing better training; training that was to come to good use with the approach of war in 1914.
The 52nd Battalion, 1915-1919
No sooner had Canada entered the war against Germany and its allies in 1914 than it was decided to raise an expeditionary force for battle overseas. The local militia, which mustered the day after war was declared, immediately began a recruiting drive to bring itself up to strength, and there was no shortage of men willing to fight. By March 1915 the 52nd battalion was formed as the first complete overseas battalion from this region of Ontario and, in short order, the 52nd had recruited 47 officers and 1,898 other ranks many of whom came from the old 96th. Before the war ended, more than 4,000 troops were to pass through the battalion.
Within days of arriving in France in February 1916 aboard a cattle boat, the 52nd moved to the front, and was thrust into battle at the Kemmel Sector in early March of that year. Over the next three years 140 officers and 2,819 other ranks were casualties in battles such as Mount Sorrel, Flers-Courcelette, Ancre Heights, Vimy Ridge, Avion, Hill 70, Passchendaele, Amiens, Damery, Scarpe, Drocourt-Queant, Canal du Nord, Cambrai, and Valenciennes. The survivors told stories of rat infested trenches, full of mud, of sleepless nights on ground sheets under single army blankets, and of ineffective rifles. One even recalled walking to the front without a helmet or gas mask, having been told to pick them up along the way from the casualties.
The Lake Sup’s as they were affectionately known, had a reputation for independence and audacity; they would take a back seat for no one. Private W.C. Millar wrote of their encounter with the Imperial Grenadier Guards on a narrow road in the Ypres sector:
When seeing a bunch of trench-mud stained, unwashed Canadians coming along, the sergeant-major in charge of the Guards shouted out, in a voice which only an Imperial sergeant-major can assume, “Make way for the Guards, Make way for the Guards!!!”. Our lieutenant who, I have no doubt was seeing visions of a talk and possibly a bottle of champagne when we reached our billets, refused to be impressed, and made this characteristic reply: “To H–l with the Guards! Carry on, Fifty-second”. Needless to state the 52nd “carried on” and for once in their lives, the Guards took the side of the road for the Canadians.
Captain Christopher John Patrick O’Kelly of the 52nd Battalion received the Victoria Cross for bravery in action at Passchendaele, 26 October 1917. He was only 20 years old. The regiment’s Honours and Awards book details this account of his action:
“Captain O’Kelly led his company with extraordinary skill and determination while advancing over 1,000 yards against the enemy under heavy fire without any artillery barrage. He took the enemy positions on a hill by storm and then personally organized and led a series of attacks against machine gun pill boxes. His company alone captured 10 machine guns and more than 100 prisoners. Later under the leadership of this gallant officer, his company repelled a strong counter attack, taking more prisoners. That night his company captured a hostile raiding party consisting of one officer and 10 men and a machine gun.”
O’Kelly returned to Canada after the war and took up prospecting near Ear Falls, Ontario. In 1922, he drowned in a sudden squall on a lake about 40 miles south of Red Lake, Ontario.
Its battle honours were subsequently carried by Port Arthur’s Militia unit, the First Battalion, the Lake Superior Regiment
A major reorganization of the Canadian militia forces took place immediately following the Great War. The old 96th was reconstituted as the “Lake Superior Regiment” (LSR); its four companies filled mostly with veterans of the war. Training continued but often with out-of-date equipment, and the uniforms were left over from 1915-1919. Since summer exercises took place at Shilo in Manitoba, the men of the regiment, being “outsiders”, were most often placed in the role of “the enemy” during mock battles against Manitoba units.
The LSR (M), World War II
Though other local units, such as the 4th Field Ambulance, were mobilized immediately war was declared in 1939, the Lake Superior Regiment had to wait until June 1940. Typically, the Canadian military was unprepared for war, and the LSR recruits trained initially with donated binoculars and target pistols; even the unit’s running shoes and sports gear had to be furnished by people in the city. Nevertheless, they marched with pride down Arthur Street to the railway station on 10 October 1940 to embark for Camp Borden and more training.
Perpetuating their reputation for impertinence won during the First World War, the LSR became the first regiment at Camp Borden to go on strike. While lining up for grilled cheese sandwiches on Thanksgiving Day, 1940, the men saw turkey for the officers being wheeled by. The men promptly declared themselves on strike and went back to their barracks, refusing to leave their bunks. The protest only ended when the commanding officer, Lt. Col. Cook, authorized the kitchen to make turkey sandwiches for all, paying for the food out of his own pocket.
The regiment also had the distinction of being the first unit ever to mount a ceremonial guard on Parliament Hill; they had been called upon to mount a guard of honour for a visit by President Roosevelt. The President, however, did not visit and, in April 1941, the regiment paraded for the Mayor of Ottawa, the Governor General and Prime Minister MacKenzie-King.
For a time the LSR secured the defence of St. John, New Brunswick, and a special group of LSRs, called “Q Force”, even trained for an attack on the French Islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. (General DeGaulle opposed Canadians occupying the tiny islands off the eastern shores of Canada, and ordered his Free French troops to take the islands).
In January 1942 the Regiment was converted to a motor battalion and given a fleet of Universal Carriers. Subsequent training delayed even longer their arrival in Europe, but when they did land in Britain in August of that year, the LSR (Motorized) had “more fighting vehicles and a greater assembly of hard-hitting weapons than any other Canadian infantry unit in history.” (Barry Wilson, 100 Years of Service.)
The Regiment landed in Normandy on 20 July 1944 and immediately assisted in the difficult task of pushing back and surrounding the German armies in France. For the next ten months, the LSR (M) fought through France, Belgium, Holland and into Germany engaging in such battles as Soliers, Four, Ifs, Bretteville-le-Rabet, Falaise, Bernay, Elbeuf, Bergues, Bruges, Leopold Canal, Maldegem Antwerp, Wousche Plantage, Hertogenbosch, Gewande, Empel, Crevecoeur, Bukhoven, Hochwald, Balbergerwald, Winnenthal, Twenthe Canal, Almelo, Coevorden, Meppen, Kusten Canal, Friesoythe, and Hemgelo. In total the Regiment suffered 775 casualties with 199 dead. For their bravery, the men of the LSR (M) were awarded 71 decorations.
The Lake Superior Regiment wrote a unique page in Canadian military history when, in Holland in 1944, it became the first contingent in the Canadian Army ever to engage and sink enemy ships. The action occurred in the region of St. Phillipsland on the Rhine when the LSR (M) encountered enemy naval vessels in the harbour at Zipje. With anti-tank guns, six-pounders, and 3-inch mortars (and with help from the tanks of the British Columbia Regiment) they bombarded the ships. After 15 minutes the Germans ceased fire. An LSR (M) boarding party later found a corvette burning and three other vessels sinking; 20 enemy had been killed and 80 wounded.
The Lake Superior Scottish Regiment, 1949-Present
The LSR (M) was reorganized after the war as a militia battalion under the command of Lt. Col. Murrell. To maintain interest in the unit, Murrell suggested it transform itself into a Scottish regiment, complete with highland dress. The city’s historic connection with the Scottish fur traders of the North West Company made the adoption of the Macgillivray tartan a logical choice; the LSSR was born.
In April 1959, the Regiment dropped its association with the armoured brigade and became, once again, an infantry unit.. This is a role it continues to fulfill to this day.
This work was compiled by Thorold Tronrud based on George F. Stanley’s book In the Face of Danger (Port Arthur: 1960), and especially Barry Wilson’s 100 Years of Service (Thunder Bay: Lakehead Living, 1985).
The Records of the Lake Superior Regiment are maintained by the Thunder Bay Museum.
Photographs are from the archives of the Thunder Bay Museum.