GUARDING NIAGARA: by LCol (ret) Bill Smy

GUARDING NIAGARA:  by LCol (ret) Bill Smy …….. Lincoln and Welland Regiment


1914 – 1918

Declaration of War

Prior to World War I the Canadian Militia was, by virtue of its size, the Canadian Army. From about 1902, the general mission of the Army had been:

“to provide the skeleton of an army, a skeleton of highly trained units, whose personnel should in times of peace consist of officers and non-commissioned officers, and a certain number of privates; in times of war to be filled up from a large reserve of partly trained citizens, who had learned to drill and shoot with a minimum of detriment to the routine of their daily vocations.”1

On paper in 1914, the Canadian Army was an impressive force. The Militia Act mandated that all males 18 to 60 years of age were to be available for military service, which amounted to some 1,000,000 men out of population of almost 8,000,000. The actual strength of the army, though, totalled only about 63,500 men, of whom 3,500 were Permanent and 60,000 Active Militia. In 1913 British General Sir Ian Hamilton, Inspector General of the Overseas Forces, had found serious shortfalls in the organization, strength, equipment, and training of the Canadian Army. He made a number of recommendations to the Canadian government, some of which had been implemented by the following year, but many not, mainly due to the immense logistical burdens they placed on the army.2

Niagara lay in the heart of Military District No 2 which consisted of 13 counties and 4 political districts. The eastern boundary of the District was the eastern limit of Ontario County, the District of Muskoka, the District of Parry Sound, and the District of Nipissing. The western and northern boundary lay at the west limits of Norfolk, Brant, Wentworth, Halton, Dufferin and Grey, and Peel counties, and the District of Algoma.3

At the outbreak of war, the Militia in Niagara consisted of:

  • 7th Field Battery, Canadian Field Artillery – St Catharines
  • 2nd Dragoons – Lincoln and Welland Counties
  • 19th “Lincoln” Regiment – St Catharines
  • 44th “Lincoln and Welland” Regiment – Welland County

The 7th Field Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, located in St Catharines, traced its history to the Port Colborne Field Battery, formed in 1863, and although it recruited throughout the Niagara Peninsula, it was basically a St Catharines unit.4

Guarding Niagara: The Welland Canal Force, 1914-1918 2

The 2nd Dragoons, a cavalry regiment, had its headquarters and a squadron in St Catharines and squadrons located in Welland, St Ann?, and at times in Hamilton.

The 19th “Lincoln” Regiment, an infantry unit, was a “city regiment” with its headquarters and all eight of its rifle companies located at Lake Street Armoury in St Catharines. From 1898 to 1911, with a few exceptions, all of its training had been done at the armoury. From 1912 to 1914, five days a year were spent in camp at Niagara-on-the-Lake, and eleven days were spent at the armoury. The nature of the facilities at the armoury dictated that the training conducted there had little application to the field.5

The 44th “Lincoln and Welland” Regiment, also an infantry unit, was a “county regiment” with its headquarters, A, F, and G Companies located at Victoria Avenue Armoury in Niagara Falls; B and D Companies in Bridgeburg (now part of Fort Erie); C Company in Thorold; E Company in Welland; and H Company in Grimsby. Although the armoury on Victoria Avenue in Niagara Falls was new, and the regiment had drill sheds in the other communities, each year it did all of its training at Niagara Camp, usually in the second week of June for twelve days.6

None of the units had seen active service since the Fenian scare of 1870 when they had been called out for a week to provide protective guards along the Welland Canal.7

The Call-Up and Mission

On 6 August 1914, two days after Canada declared war on Germany, the Governor General called out selected units, and “details” of units, of the Active Militia across the country and placed them on Active Duty. In general, they took up vital point duties which included guarding public buildings, electrical generation plants, munitions industries, canals, and telephone and telegraph centres.8

In Niagara, the 19th “Lincoln” Regiment and the 44th “Lincoln and Welland” Regiment were placed on Active Duty and detailed to provide the core of the Welland Canal Force, the mission of which was to guard the locks and shipping facilities along the Welland Canal. Local newspapers reported that it was thought the duty would be temporary, and that a special police force would be formed that would take over the policing of the canal. This assumption was supported when Lieutenant Colonel Percy Sherwood, Commissioner of the Dominion Police, arrived in St Catharines and announced he was organizing “a force of police to protect the Welland Canal.”9

The canal that was to be guarded was the Third Welland Canal which had been built between 1872 and 1888. Its terminus on Lake Ontario was Port Dalhousie where

Guarding Niagara: The Welland Canal Force, 1914-1918 3

Lock 1 was located. From there it ran diagonally across the peninsula to the Niagara Escarpment at Thorold and then south to Port Colborne on Lake Erie. There were 25 stone lift locks, one guard lock, an aqueduct at Welland to carry the canal over the Welland River, and a railway tunnel. A typical lock was 270 feet long and 45 feet wide, with a depth of water over the sills of 14 feet. A typical vessel was 255 feet long with a cargo capacity of 2,700 tons, and was lifted in a single lock up to 16 feet.10

Colonel James Edward Cohoe, Commander 5th Infantry Brigade and a former Commanding Officer of the 44th Regiment, commanded the Force on its formation, but this was a temporary appointment. As time passed, there would be a succession of Commanding Officers:

  • Colonel James Edward Cohoe, 5th Infantry Brigade, 6 August 1914
  • Lieutenant Colonel William Ptolmey, 77th Regiment, 24 August 1914
  • Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Blythe Ross, 13th Regiment, 1 February 1915
  • Lieutenant Colonel John Samuel Campbell, 19th Regiment, 9 February 1915
  • Lieutenant Colonel William Wellington Burleigh, 19th Regiment, 9 January 1916
  • Lieutenant Colonel William Robert Turnbull, 91st Regiment, 7 February 1917
  • Lieutenant Colonel Rybert Kent Baker, 2nd Battalion, Canadian Garrison Regiment

All of the 44th “Lincoln and Welland” Regiment of 14 Officers and 241 Other Ranks were called out.

In the case of the 19th Regiment, the orders received from 5 Infantry Brigade directed that about “one-half peace strength” were to be called out, but a much larger number of Officers, Non-commissioned Officers and Men answered the call, so that practically the whole regiment was on duty. This condition continued until 20 August when the strength of the 19th was set as: Staff – 2 Officers and 4 Other Ranks, and on duty from Locks 1 to 18 inclusive – 14 Officers and 252 Other Ranks. Four days later the establishment of the 19th was adjusted to 9 Officers and 258 Other Ranks. However, the pay records of the 19th indicate that by the end of September, the strength of the 19th Regiment far exceeded that – 7 Officers and 322 Other Ranks.11

As well, a detachment of 4 Officers and 81 Other Ranks from the 77th “Wentworth” Regiment from Hamilton was to do vital point duties with the WCF at the power houses in Niagara Falls. Nine men from the 2nd Dragoons provided mounted patrols along the canal. This would eventually be increased. Later in the war, men from other units as far away as Toronto did duty with the Force.12

Sir Sam Hughes inspected the WCF at Welland and Port Colborne in November 1914, at the conclusion of which he stated that he would double the size of the Force. There is no evidence that orders of this nature ever took place.13

This was a fragmented command: while there was a Force commander, the Commanding Officer of the 19th Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel William Wellington

Guarding Niagara: The Welland Canal Force, 1914-1918 4

Burleigh) commanded the northern division of the canal and the Commanding Officer of the 44th Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Alexander Rose) commanded the southern division. The 19th guarded the canal from Lake Ontario to Lock 18 just below the escarpment at Merritton, and the 44th did duty from Lock 19 to Port Colborne on Lake Erie. Small detachments were established at all locks, bridges, railway bridges, and to prevent saboteurs scuttling a ship in the canal, all ships entering the canal were boarded and searched. 14