The Ontario Regiment Museum has long been a part of Oshawa’s history, as the regiment itself goes back all the way to the 19th century.
The origins of the Ontario Regiment date back to March 31, 1858, when the Volunteer Highland Rifle Company of Whitby was formed.
As an independent company in the active militia of Canada, they were one of the first to make waves, as others began appearing between late 1862 and 1863. Other militias were founded in the communities of Oshawa, Whitby, Prince Albert, Brooklin, Columbus, Greenwood and Uxbridge.
According to Jeremy Blowers, executive director of the Ontario Regiment RCAC Museum, the regiment itself was then founded in 1866.
“With the Fenian threat, the Fenian Brotherhood, who wanted to capture Canada and hold it hostage so that Great Britain would release the Republic of Ireland, that threat led to the Militia Act of 1866,” explains Blowers. “All these independent companies across Canada at that time were organized for the first time into regiments.”
The regiments were organized by the Canadian government for protection of its land, Blowers explains.
“So this is a time where the Canadians for the first time, had to be responsible for their own defense,” Blowers says. “It wasn’t like the War of 1812, where it was mostly redcoats or British allies like the Indigenous tribes and some Canadian militia.”
According to Blowers, this was basically the government saying they have to look after their own defenses now.
“The Militia Act of 1866 amalgamated all of those independent companies and here in Ontario County that led to the creation of the 34th battalion of infantry,” Blowers says.
“It’s quite a long history,” he adds. “It’s one of the older regiments in the history of the country.”
After the amalgamation, the battalion contributed volunteers to the 1870 Red River Expedition, the 1885 Northwest force, as well as to the Canadian contingent during the Boer War, or the South African War of 1899 to 1901, which was Canada’s first international engagement, according to Blowers.
“It was the first time wearing a maple leaf badge going as a Canadian contingent and not just serving in the British Army,” says Blowers.
After the Boer War finished, World War I was the next stop for Canada’s armed forces as the conflict in Europe broke out in 1914.
“[At the outbreak of] the First World War, Sir Sam Hughes wanted to create a modern army,” says Blowers. “So he wanted numbered battalions. So the traditional regiments didn’t go over and fight as regiments, instead they raised battalions.”
Blowers says the Ontario Regiment raised two battalions, the most famous of which was the 116th battalion.
The 116th maintained its headquarters in Uxbridge at the time, and “it’s most famous because of Lt.-Col. Sam Sharpe… he just got his bust and a statue put in the House of Parliament.”
Sharpe is known for not only serving as a MP for the Conservative Party between 1909 and 1918, but also for his accomplishments on the battlefield.
Sharpe participated in famous battles such Passchendaele, and also maybe Canada’s most famous accomplishment during World War I, the retaking of Vimy Ridge.
Ultimately, Sharpe suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and took his own life when he jumped out of a hospital window in 1918 at the age of 45.
“He suffered from PTSD at a time when that wasn’t recognized,” explains Blowers. “That’s why it took 100 years [for his accomplishments to be honoured].”
“When we see this condition in soldiers today we recognize that he wasn’t a coward, he’d actually suffered through a lot as he’d seen a lot of his men killed – men that he had helped train and raise right here from Ontario County.”
Durham MP Erin O’Toole and Senator Romeo Dallaire recognized Sharpe in 2014 when they held the inaugural Lt.-Col. Sam Sharpe Veterans Mental Health breakfast to help bring awareness to those who suffer with PTSD.
The 182nd battalion was also raised by the Ontario regiment, but did not stay together once it got to Britain as it was broken up into reinforcements.
“Per capita, the region really sent a lot of its sons overseas,” says Blowers.
After the war came to an end, both battalions were disbanded, and according to Blowers, many of those in the battalions went back to regular civilian life, while some remained with the regiment.
“The very interesting thing, and a special thing, for this regiment is that in the 1930s, Canada decided it needed to have an armoured force,” says Blowers. “Looking at what was going on around the world, looking at the Spanish Civil War and what Germany was doing at that time, Major Worthington, the father of Canadian armour, decided to take some of the regiments that already existed and turn them into armoured regiments.”
The Ontario Regiment was one of the original six that went from infantry to armoured just before the Second World War.
“Another unique thing about the Ontario Regiment’s service in the Second World War, was it served in one of Canada’s most forgotten conflicts in the war, which was the Italian campaign,” says Blowers.
The regiment was mobilized for active service on Sept. 1, 1939, and had recruited to full strength by the end of the month.
They then spent time in northern Ontario in 1940, where they guarded German prisoners-of-war.
However, in 1941 they moved on to England where they trained for two years, while also having a period of time where they provided coastal defense.
In July 1943, they then moved on to Italy, where they landed in Sicily with the 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade. They were a part of Operation Husky.
Eventually, the Ontario Regiment and its allies fought their way to mainland Italy in September, and then moved north through battles such as Cassino, Liri Valley, Aquino, the advance to Florence and many others.
“[The Italy campaign] is often overshadowed by the Normandy landings and that campaign,” says Blowers.
“Another unique thing about the Ontario Regiment’s history in the Second World War is that it often fought with international troops, not with Canadian troops,” Blowers explains. “It was sort of used as kind of like a fire brigade, wherever there was a problem.”
“It wasn’t until northwest Europe and the invasion of Germany that the Ontario Regiment really got to fight with Canadian infantry and artillery.”
After the end of the Second World War, and the Axis powers were all defeated, the Cold War and peace keeping missions with the United Nations began for the regiment.
“Once it went to a reserve status after the Second World War, the Ontario’s continued to supply personnel to all sorts of peacekeeping missions – almost every mission that Canada has been involved in,” says Blowers.
Blowers says the regiment has even been involved in missions as late as the war in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force, when 56 members went overseas.
“Today we have many of our soldiers out on our deployments in some of the hot spots of the world,” says Blowers.
The Ontario Regiment has participated in peacekeeping missions alongside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the United Nations. Some of these operations have taken members to Germany, Bosnia, Cyprus, Cambodia, Sudan, the Golan Heights, and many others.
BEHIND THE WRITING
By Chris Jones/The Oshawa Express
When I was in Grade 7, my teacher, Miss de Mayo, first introduced me to the topic of World War II, and I was absolutely fascinated.
Ever since I was 13 years old, I’ve gone out of my way to learn about it. I even spent time learning about it during my tenure at Trent University in Peterborough, where I got my Bachelor’s in history.
In studying World War II, I learned about all of the big names. Adolph Hitler, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Joseph Goebels, and many others.
I even wrote several long essays on why dropping the atomic bombs in Japan was wrong.
But I always wanted to learn more about the soldiers who participated. I wanted to know some of their names as well.
So when we were discussing where to go with the Fourth Estate, I felt enthusiastic about dusting off the old history nerd in me.
When I got to the museum and sat down with Jeremy Blowers, we were both pleased to realize we’d both gotten history degrees from Trent. It’s a small world after all.
While we sat and he told me about the Ontario Regiment and its history, I was pleased to see someone who shared my enthusiasm for history.
Not only that, but I looked at the book shelf in the office we were speaking, and noticed a copy of the infamous Mein Kampf, which Hitler wrote from prison before taking power in Germany.
I’d attempted to read it myself, but had trouble dealing with the way it was written, but more importantly the content itself bothered me too much.
Jeremy simply said that it was a part of history, he didn’t like it either, but he didn’t want to ignore it.
After we finished our interview, Jeremy took me for a quick tour of the museum. It was truly fascinating to see uniforms that were worn by real soldiers, to see medals that dated back all the way to the Fenian conflict, and to see a jeep that had actually participated in battle during the Second World War.
Previously I’ve mentioned how I’ve enjoyed learning about those charities who help those in need around Oshawa, but now I’ve dug even deeper and got to learn a bit of not only Canadian history, but Oshawa’s history as well.