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Book Reviews

Century of service: The history of the south alberta light horse

by Donald E. Graves
Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2005. 488 pages, $69.95

Reviewed by John Marteinson

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Book cover Regimental histories, because of the inherent nature of the genre, tend to focus somewhat narrowly on the activities and events most directly affecting that single unit, along with the deeds of members of the regimental family who feature prominently in those important happenings. However, the term ‘narrowly focused’ does not apply at all to Donald Graves’s latest book. That is, at least in part, because throughout the book Graves very ably weaves in a Centennial history of the Province of Alberta. But it is also in part because of the convoluted lineage of the South Alberta Light Horse (SALH). Among the many units – cavalry, infantry, artillery and armour – perpetuated or having some direct ancestral link to the SALH are: the Rocky Mountain Rangers from the North-West Rebellion in 1885; the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles from the Boer War; the 15th Light Horse formed in 1904; the 19th Alberta Dragoons; the 31st Battalion Canadian Expeditionary Force; and the 22nd Field Battery of the Royal Canadian Artillery. These are all part of the famed Canadian Corps in the First World War. Then there is the renowned South Alberta Regiment, along with the 41st Anti-Tank Regiment, RCA, and the 68th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment from the Second World War. And there are still other units with somewhat less direct connections – the Canadian Mounted Rifles, the 21st Alberta Hussars and the 23rd Alberta Rangers – but they are all still part of the regimental family. The sheer number of units that have contributed to the ‘Sally Horse’s’ long history has made it very difficult to produce a coherent, linear story. While sometimes the key people do overlap from one unit to another, oftentimes they do not. Sometimes, as in both world wars, the SALH history must tell the story of several different types of units, performing different roles at different locations all at the same time. And yet, Graves, the consummate battlefield historian, has indeed pulled it off!

Don Graves had already produced a series of superb books. He is perhaps best known for those covering the War of 1812, including Fields of Glory: The Battle of Crysler’s Farm and The Battle of Lundy’s Lane. But among his other works are the widely acclaimed South Albertas: A Canadian Regiment at War and two edited volumes of Fighting for Canada. This latest, Century of Service, is another book of the same high calibre.

This is a very substantial volume, with 488 large format pages. It is introduced by a rare foreword by Her Majesty The Queen, and is sub-divided into eighteen chapters and nine appendices. It is profusely illustrated with excellent photos, many of which have never before been seen in print. There is also a 16-page colour section depicting several unit colours, the badges of virtually all of the many units encompassed in the SALH history, and a series of drawings of period regimental uniforms by Ron Volstad. The work features 30 maps drawn by the highly regarded cartographer Chris Johnson. And, as with all illustrated books produced by Robin Brass, the layout reflects professional excellence.

The first two chapters focus on the cavalry antecedents of the SALH during the period of settlement in Western Canada prior to the First World War, and there is a particularly interesting bit on the Alberta Field Force during the North-West Rebellion in 1885. Chapters 3 through 7 chronicle the First World War experiences of the Canadian Light Horse (the only cavalry unit of the Canadian Corps, one squadron of which was provided by the 19th Alberta Dragoons). Also featured in these chapters is the 31st Battalion that served with distinction in France and Flanders with 6th Brigade in the 2nd Canadian Division. Chapter 8 deals with the frustrations of serving in the Militia during the inter-war period.

The Second World War is covered in Chapters 9 through 15, and this section is perhaps the best and most important part of the book. This is also one of the most difficult periods for the author to deal with, as he has to contend with the wartime training and operations of several units. First there was the South Alberta Regiment that began the war as an infantry battalion but later, in 1942, was converted to an armoured regiment, part of 4th Canadian Armoured Division. Another was the 13th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery (to which the perpetuated 22nd Battery belonged), which served in 3rd Canadian Division. While both of these units fought throughout the campaign in North-West Europe, only rarely were they engaged in the same operations. Even then their roles were so different that the author has had to switch back and forth in generally the same time periods to explain the actions of each unit individually. Complicating matters for the author is the brief existence of the 31st Alberta Reconnaissance Regiment, raised as the reconnaissance unit of 6th Division for service in the Pacific theatre from men of the 15th Light Horse and the 19th Alberta Dragoons. Graves is at his best when telling about the South Albertas, whose history he wrote in 1998.

The final three chapters cover the post-Second World War period and the Militia service of the 19th Alberta Dragoons (under a variety of official names), the 68th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, and the re-created 15th Light Horse, re-named the South Alberta Light Horse in 1954. It is clear that the author had some difficulty with this period, as Militia regiments tend to do the same sorts of things year in and year out. He has in fact done a stellar job in making sense of the very confusing politics affecting the Militia over these 60 years. And he brings out example after example of the astounding dedication of members of the Militia.

Donald Graves once again has given tangible evidence that he is a master craftsman when dealing with military history. This book is written in the same lively style for which he has become known – it really is a good read – and here and there we find totally apt insertions of barrack room humour and reminders that peacetime soldiering (at least) is generally great fun. But underlying all this is meticulous research, serious study and a professional historian’s insistence on evidence to justify his analyses.

This book doesn’t quite come up to the standard achieved in his superb history of the South Albertas – not many regimental histories could – but this is an excellent work, and it belongs on the shelf of everyone who has an interest in Canadian military history.

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John Marteinson, a former editor of Canadian Military Journal, teaches military history and defence policy at Royal Military College.