16 August 2012

A distinction that makes a difference #nlpoli

As part of the commemoration events for the War of 1812, the part of the Department of National Defence responsible for ceremony has decided to give seven Canadian Army units including the Royal Newfoundland Regiment the right to carry the battle honour DETROIT.

A battle honour marks a significant event in the regiment’s history. Infantry regiments display their battle honours on the regimental colours.

The picture at right is of the regimental colours of the 1st battalion, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.  Its honours until now all dated from the First World War.

This is an important announcement and the members of the regiment should be very proud.
However, the news release on the announcement uses a distinction between six of the army units and the seventh, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.

Six of the units are described as ones that “perpetuate the War of 1812 units that fought at the battle of Detroit.”

The seventh doesn’t.  The Newfoundland battle honour is “in memory of the Newfoundlanders who, as members of the British Royal Newfoundland Fencible Infantry, were present at the Battle of Detroit.”

There is a distinction that makes an unnecessary distinction among the units.  It is all about an unsustainable interpretation of history.

The Royal Canadian Regiment starts its own history  - officially - from 1883. The regiment has amalgamated over the years with other regiments and some argue that the current regiment inherited the history of some of these other units back to 1812. This battle honour tips the argument in favour of those who believe the regimental history dates back that far. 

The other units, all reserve regiments incidentally, can trace their history rather easily to other units raised in the same area as the present regiment.  The Lincoln and Welland Regiment certainly can. So too can the Newfoundlanders.  With the exception of a few decades at the end of the 19th century,  Newfoundland had a local defence unit.  They arguably all carried on the same tradition of local defence.

Notice what the release says about the Newfoundlanders, though.  First of all, the release refers to the unit as a “British” one, as if the others were not at the time also part of the British Army. 

Second, the release gets the regiment name wrong.  The unit was the Royal Newfoundland Regiment of Fencible Infantry, the same in name and type as dozens of other similar units raised between the 1790s and the early 1800s throughout the British empire.   One suspects that the mis-naming is a deliberate effort to make it appear that there is less of a connection between the current regiment and its predecessors than there is.

Separating the Newfoundlanders in this way creates a false impression that there are two histories – one Canadian and the other Newfoundland – and that the former is somehow different in substance to the latter. Neither is true,  The history of British North Americans is intertwined in so many ways that one cannot easily distinguish one part of it from the other in some areas.  Where one can distinguish, it is important that we all develop a better understanding of local history.  Without knowing where we have been, we will have a harder time than usual knowing where we are going.

The approach taken by this news release also masks the role that the Newfoundland regiment played during the war.  The Newfoundlanders did not serve as a single regiment. They were used as marines on board Royal Navy ships and in other small detachments. They fought with distinction not just at Detroit but at other battles throughout the war.  To make another distinction 200 years latter, one that we can generously describe as petty, does them a grave injustice.

There was no legitimate reason for the distinction in the news release. It merely perpetuates some rather odd thinking that still lives, apparently, inside the bowls of National Defence Headquarters.

Canadians ought to know their entire history. Unfortunately, this announcement, as good as it is, winds up doing a disservice to them whether they live in Botwood or Brockville or Burnaby.