Predominantly Calgarian regiment participated in many major First World War encounters.
The 50th Infantry Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) — later known, starting in 1946, as the King’s Own Calgary Regiment —originated when the 103rd Calgary Rifles were formed in 1910, four years prior to the outbreak of the First World War.
Questions were raised about why a militia such as the 103rd Rifles needed to be raised, considering there really wasn’t any real threat of invasion of another country. However, the unit was created because of fears of an invasion — an invasion of a different kind.
“The current elite in the city were worried of a cultural invasion with a large number of American immigrants coming to Alberta from the Southern United States and Eastern European states,” says Al Judson, archivist for the King’s Own Calgary Regiment. “So people feared that British culture would be lost. So what better way to maintain British tradition then to have an infantry regiment to rally the folks around the empire?”
Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives. The unit was raised under Lt.-Col. W. C. Armstrong, who campaigned for the unit many times before it was eventually raised.
Four years later, when the reality of war hit Calgary on Aug. 4, 1914, British-born citizens living in Calgary, including members of the Calgary Rifles, immediately felt compelled to return home to fight for their King and country.
For the Canadians, there were multiple reasons why they wanted to be a part of this war. Many of them wanted a sense of adventure, while others felt like they were doing the right thing by fighting a nation they deemed to be evil. Peer pressure ultimately guided some Canadians to sign up for this bloody conflict as they saw their friends, brothers, uncles and fathers enlisting.
As a result of this passion, the Calgary Rifles quickly organized the 10th Battalion on Sept. 22, 1914, which eventually went overseas with the first contingent of Canadian soldiers.
The 50th Battalion commenced organization on Nov. 17, 1914, under the command of Col. E. G. Mason.
Many of the men recruited for this unit were from Calgary and surrounding Alberta towns. It would be close to another 10 months until the unit actually departed for England on Oct. 27, 1915, from Halifax. In the meantime, this unit of 1,000 men trained at Victoria Park until July 15, 1915, and then moved to the newly opened Sarcee Camp.
The 50th Battalion was able to send 200 men to support the war effort in 1915 before the full unit was sent over. This company of 200 men fought in Ypres and Festubert.
When the battalion did reach England, it received further training near Bramshott Camp from professional soldiers — in their minds at least — belonging to the British Army.
The 50th Battalion was raised to be a part of the 4th Canadian Division in August 1916 and finally hit the frontlines in September to participate in the final battles of the Somme.
Heroism at Vimy
From the point the 50th Battalion finally hit the frontlines it took part in almost all of the major battles that followed.
Just as the Battle of Vimy Ridge was a shinning moment for many Canadian regiments, it also became a prominent moment for the 50th Battalion.
The 50th Battalion and the rest of the Canadian corps were not expected to accomplish anything at Vimy considering the British and French armies failed on many occasions to take the seven-mile ridge.
The Canadians had a different view of the upcoming battle in early April 1917.
“They had an awful lot of training,” says Judson. “They used their artillery well, they did observation well and they were fully prepared for the attack.”
The 50th Battalion was on the far left flank. However, because of the failure to take Hill 145, the tallest point on the ridge, the Canadians marched across the battlefield to take a position below the hill in order to capture this crucial part of the ridge. On the afternoon of the April 10, they charged up the hill and took it for the allied forces.
It was part of this siege where the actions of George Pattison earned him a Victoria Cross — the only Calgarian to receive the highest military decoration awarded for valour in the face of the enemy.
“In the initial attack going up the hill, Pattison’s company was held up by enemy machine gun nests,” says Judson. “His officers and non-commissioned officers were put out of action. He took it upon himself to attack the enemy position. He jumped over shell holes through the mud, tossed some grenades at the enemy position (a machine gun nest) and consequently the company was able to advance beyond that point.
“Without him taking initiative to knock the strong points out the attack would have faltered at that point in time.”
Judson believes the way the Canadians trained Pattison encouraged him to take matters into his own hands.
“The Canadians treated their men differently,” says Judson. “They realized initiative must be shown by all members, and in order to do so you have to know where you’re going and what you’re doing.
“The Canadian soldiers were trained over a position marked like they were attacking. They knew very strong point was, where every machine gun nest was, and where they would have difficulties.”
Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives. The Battle of Hill 145 resulted in many casualties for the 50th Battalion. According to Judson, the regiment had 55 per cent of its casualties in this battle. Two days later, the 50th Battalion attacked the Pimple, the second highest point on the ridge. Once the Pimple was taken, the Vimy victory was complete.
Canada’s glory at Vimy opened the eyes of the British and French armies to the fact that these young men knew how to fight.
The 50th Battalion, as part of the Canadian corps, spearheaded many major attacks for the rest of the First World War. The last battle for this Alberta regiment was the Battle of Valenciennes, when Mons, Belgium, was captured.
After the war, the 50th Battalion was ordered to fight in the allied intervention of Russia. The unit finally returned home in 1919 and never fought in a major conflict again.
The 50th Battalion Perpetuated
The legacy of the 50th Battalion lives on today as the King’s Own Calgary Regiment. The military decorations and the 14 battle honours are housed at the King’s Own Calgary Regiment exhibit at the Calgary Military Museum.
Judson says the King’s Own serves as a volunteer reserve force that will augment primary forces when the United Nations and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) calls upon them.
“Since 1950, we have served in Korea, in Germany as NATO forces, in Cyprus, Egypt, Bosnia and South Africa. Our regiment has given up lives in Afghanistan.
“People in Calgary should realize that the person who may drive your bus may also drive an ambulance (as part of this regiment) as citizen soldiers.”
It’s safe to say that the King’s Own Calgary regiment is perpetuating the values of bravery, hard work and sacrifice that the 50th Battalion demonstrated in the First World War, in addition to housing this one-time battalion’s battle honours.