North West Campaign 1885

1RWiconweb_25.gifTHE NORTH-WEST CAMPAIGN, 1885

The North-West Campaign of 1885 was a minor affair as campaigns go, but has some importance in the Military history of Canada. It was the first occasion when the Canadian forces conducted a campaign without British assistance. It gave the units of the New Canadian Permanent Force their baptism of fire. And small as the operations were, there is still something to be learned from them.

With the causes of this unfortunate little civil war we had nothing to do. It is important to note the rudimentary nature of the military organization Canada had available to deal with the crisis in the North-West in 1885. The Active Militia was deficient in both training and equipment.

No unit was allowed more than twelve days annual training, and rural units trained only every second year, and equipment was not new. Fortunately, the Dominion's tiny regular force, which from 1871 to 1883 consisted of artillery only, had now been expanded by the addition of small units of cavalry and infantry. Nevertheless, an adequate staff did not yet exist, nor did the administrative services essential to maintaining an army in the field.


In the North-West Territories, no regular troops were stationed there when the uprising began. The only effective militia units in the still largely unpopulated prairie country were one troop of cavalry, one infantry battalion and one battery of artillery, all at the small city of Winnipeg. The North-West Mounted Police were only 550 strong and not in particularly good shape for compaigning. Communications with the East were still imperfect. The Canadian Pacific Railway was under construction but was incomplete. Therefore, organizing a force for action in the North- West and concentrating it in the theatre of operations, were very considerable tasks.

The prospective enemy was not without formidable aspects. The Saskatchewan halfbreeds who acknowledged the leadership of Louis Riel were good shots and good horsemen, and would be fighting on ground with which they were familiar. There were over 25,000 Indians on the plains, and if they all joined the movement it would have been very serious. Fortunately, not more than perhaps 1000 half breeds and Indians actually rose in arms. Under these conditions, the worst problems the military commanders had to encounter were the result of logistical difficulties and inexperience of the troops.

On March 23, the situation in the North-West had become so serious that the Government instructed the General Officer Commanding Canadian Militia, Major - General Fred Middleton, to go to Winnipeg at once. Travelling by rail through the United States he arrived there on the 27th. Bloodshed had already taken place; a party of Mounted Police and local volunteers had been repulsed by Riel's adherents at Duck Lake the previous day. The General decided to take the field immediately with the Winnipeg militia units. Before moving by rail to Qu'Appelle, from which a practicable trail led to-ward Batoche (Riels headquarters) he telegraphed to the minister of Militia and Defense, Mr. (later Sir) Adolphe Caron, "Matter getting serious, better send all Regular and good City Regiments."

At Ottawa, Caron was working energetically to get reinforcements into the North-West. The two regular artillery batteries had been placed under orders to move. On March 24, Mr. Harry Abbott who was in charge of building the C.P.R. was telegraphed to make arrangements for transport and subsistance of 400 men to Winnipeg over the line. The C.P.R.'s General Manager, (Sir) Wm. Van Horn proceeded to organize the movement. Feeding the troops en route was arranged by the C.P.R. The Militia Department would scarcely have been equal to the task at that date.

There were still four gaps in the railway north of Lake Superior, one of 42 miles, then 93 miles of track, a gap of 17 miles, 15 miles of track, a 29 mile gap, 52 miles of rail, then the final gap of about seven miles, then the line was complete to Winnipeg.

To move a force with guns and horses over this line in 22 degrees below zero weather was no small task, but it was successfully done. On the rail stretches the men were in cars boarded up about six feet and a half, and filled with hay. The first and third gaps were traversed in contractors' sleighs taken off work of construction, the other on foot over the ice of Lake Superior, there being only enough sleighs for the baggage. The movement was rapid. Caron telegraphed instructions on 31 March "Wish you to travel night and day. I want to show what the Militia can do!" Several books say that the first two regular batteries made the journey from the east in four days, but actually it took one week. It was a good performance and there is little doubt that the speedy arrival of the eastern troops at Winnipeg, reinforcing the effect of the promptitude with which Middleton had acted, did much to keep the Indians quiet.

All told, 3,323 ranks were moved from the east during the campaign, and 789 units were raised on the prairies west of Manitoba, Mounted Police were not included in this number.

Supply, transport and medical services were improvised on the spur of the moment. The first real Canadian medical service was temporarily organized for this campaign. Transport was the great limiting factor, and nearly 1,800 civilian drivers were employed at a very large expense.

Middleton has often been criticized for the manner in which he used his mounted troops. As suggested to him by the Prime Minister, Sir John A. McDonald, he employed, actively, only the new units improvised in the west, while the trained cavalry from the east were kept on the line of communications. The idea being that the men from the prairies were more familiar with Western conditions than the city troops from the east.

After he had learned from experience, Middleton telegraphed to Caron, "If more troops are necessary, then good infantry is best, for, even Mounted Infantry, unless mounted on Indian ponies, require so much forage that it cannot be carried."

Middleton made surprisingly little use of the Mounted Police. He left the main body of the force sitting static in Prince Albert. He apparently lacked confidence in some of their officers, and in this he was not entirely alone. An observer wrote, "They are not the force they were; they have been demoralized by making simply whiskey detectives of them; they should be soldiers." Nevertheless, N.W.M.P. detachments did excellent work for Major - General Strange and Lt. - Col. Otter, and won golden opinions from these officers.

By 11th of April Middleton had developed his plan of action. He himself, with about 800 men, advanced up the Touchwood Trail toward Batoche. A body of about 550 men had been concentrated under Lt. - Col. Otter at Swift Current. Middleton's plan was to have it co-operate with him in the advance on Batoche. However it was ordered, by the Prime Minister to "relieve" Battleford as it was calling for help. Farther west, Major General Strange, a retired regular officer, who had been commander of "B" Battery and is sometimes called "the father of Canadian Artillery," had been placed in command in the District of Edmonton. Thus three columns were moving north from the C.P.R. into the disaffected area along the North Saskatchewan.

Most of Middleton's troops were extraordinarily green, some had never pulled a trigger before the campaign began and he was doubtful of their reaction should a set back occur. A civilian, who knew the region well, warned the Minister of the Militia that the country Middleton was approaching was well adapted to ambushes was very favorable to the Indian and half breed style of fighting. "Even a momentary check would cause thousands of Indians who are quiet at present to rise. The great danger is haste. A little delay will strengthen the General and weaken the rebels," and would he warn the General. Caron passed the warning on to Middleton. "Beware of surprise" he telegraphed.

On 16th of April Middleton's column reached the South Saskatchewan at Clarke's Crossing. Hearing that Riel had men on both sides of the river at Batoche, and that his force was not large, the General took the doubtful course of dividing his own force between the two banks. On the 23rd the column advanced towards Batoche. The following day the troops on the right bank met Riels people, who had taken up a well covered position barring the way to Fish Creek. There was a stiff engagement which cost the troops ten fatal casualities. The result was not better than a draw, though the enemy ultimately withdrew.

Evidently shaken by the experience, Middleton changed his plan, and, instead of pushing on to Batoche, moved to Prince Albert to wait for Otter to join him before attaching. However after a few days rest at Fish Creek, during which he evacuated his wounded and some reinforcements arrived, he moved directly against Batoche. This time he kept his whole force on the right banks of the river, on which Batoche stood. On 9th of May they met the rebels. They were well dug in, in concealed rifle pits, and Middleton, desiring to avoid heavy casualties and perhaps a reverse, used caution. For three days he skirmished in front of Batoche. He had plenty of ammunition and the enemy had not. He telegraphed Caron for more troops and Caron called out more regiments but the serious fighting was over before reinforcements arrived. Batoche was taken, at a cost of five killed and 25 wounded. This success broke the back of the uprising and Riel surrendered a few days later.

In the meantime Otter had relieved Battleford successfully, but then decided, without consulting Middleton, to make a reconnaisance in force against chief Poundmaker, whose Indians had been threatening the settlement. The result was an engagement at Cut Knife Hill on 2 May which cost Otter 8 killed and 14 wounded and ended in his withdrawing to Battleford. Both of Otter's guns, N.W.M.P. Pounders, served by "B" Battery, had broken under the strain of firing.

General Strange's column reached Edmonton and pushed on down the North Saskatchewan. On 28 May, Strange had a brush with Chief Big Bear at Frenchman's Butte, and retired to more open ground after suffering slight casualties. On 24 May Middleton's forces reached Battleford and joined with Otter's, on the 26th Poundmaker came in and surrendered. Middleton column then moved up the North Saskatchewan and made contact with Strange near Fort Pitt. Big Bear's band broke up when pursued and the chief finally surrendered on 2 July.

The records of the campaign reflect an ignorance of normal Military procedure which was not surprising. General Middleton was no genius and lacked the happy faculty of getting on with Canadian soldiers, which some of the British Generals were blessed with, but his conducting of the campaign was more competent than his critics admitted. His difficulties were formidable. Many of the commanders chose to communicate directly with the Minister of the Militia, rather than with Middleton, perhaps, because five units in the west were commanded by Members of Parliament.

There was an absence of good will among the commanders, and a good deal of back biting. When General Strange wrote privately to his wife complaining of Middletons treatment of him, Mrs. Strange, an acquaintance of Mr. Caron, promptly sent the letter on to the Minister. She took the precaution of warning him not to let her husband know what she had done.

In the campaign as a whole, the Government forces amounted to 38 killed and 115 wounded. The insurgents' losses cannot be precisely stated but were probably somewhat higher.