The battles of Cut Knife and Batoche, as seen by Toronto soldiers.
As their train pulled in on July 23, 1885, the troops were greeted at the station by the mayor and an enormous crowd of well-wishers. Not since Caesar led his legionnaires, the Toronto News hyperbolized, “has there been a more genuine, hearty, overflowing, enthusiastic, heartfelt, grand, glorious and uproarious exposition of the feelings of a grateful people” than that which greeted the soldiers’ homecoming after four months of active service on the Prairies, suppressing the Northwest Rebellion. It was, the Toronto World proclaimed, “the greatest day Toronto ever witnessed.”
The Queen’s Own Rifles and the Royal Grenadiers—the main Toronto-based militia units mobilized for the conflict—paraded along King Street to the New Fort before a teary-eyed mass of 100,000 men, women, and children. The insurrection had been a comparatively minor conflict, with about 110 fatalities and 300 wounded on all sides. But Torontonians had been fed a steady diet of patriotic sentiment as local papers carried constant coverage of the troops’ hardships, failures, and exploits.
The diaries of two soldiers with Toronto connections—Lieutenant Richard S. Cassels of the Queen’s Own Rifles, and Staff Sergeant Walter F. Stewart of the Midland Battalion—offer a front line view of the campaign, demonstrating how soldiers’ thirst for adventure evolved into the fear and thrill of battle, and waned into exhaustion and disillusionment with command.
There was no single, coordinated Northwest Rebellion. Rather, in the early 1880s the First Nations, Métis, and white settlers inhabiting present-day Saskatchewan and Alberta each had grievances with an unresponsive federal government. Faced with starvation and the near-extinction of the buffalo, some Native leaders like Cree chiefs Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa) and Poundmaker (Pitikwahanapiwiyin) sought peaceful redress from a government that consistently failed to fulfill its treaty obligations, but were drawn into the conflict by the actions of some dissident members of their bands.
At the same time, the Métis found that their settled lots on the South Saskatchewan River were being re-surveyed by the government, threatening not only their traditional economy, but their survival as a distinct people. In mid-March 1885 Louis Riel and others declared themselves a provisional government, and skirmished with a modest North West Mounted Police (NWMP) force at the nearby community of Duck Lake.
When the federal government responded by mobilizing the country’s small permanent military and volunteer militia, white homesteaders—who had also agitated against federal policies that exacerbated the economic hardships of the Prairies—quickly returned to the government fold as discontent culminated in armed insurrection.
The Road to Cut Knife
Cheered by thousands as they marched through the muddy Toronto streets, the Queen’s Own Rifles crowded aboard CPR passenger cars and steamed out of Union Station just past noon on March 30. Among them was Lieutenant Richard S. Cassels, a fair-haired young lawyer establishing himself as a member of the Toronto elite. Although sad to be leaving friends and family, an adventuresome Cassels expressed “cheerfulness at the thought that work lies before us.” The journey proved arduous, requiring the soldiers to march through harsh wintry conditions across gaps in the unfinished railway in northern Ontario, and caused impatient officers to worry the rebellion would be over before they reached the Prairies.
“Very soon we see before us the often heard of prairie,” Cassels recorded in his diary from the train leaving Winnipeg, “and peculiar is the effect the first sight of it has: miles and miles as far as the eye can reach of dreary yellow flatness—no bush—no tree—no house to break the monotonous dead level.”
At Qu’Appelle, the troops were divided. Some units marched north to join General Frederick Middleton’s column on its advance on the Métis headquarters at Batoche. A second-column composed mainly of the Queen’s Own Rifles, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel W.D. Otter, was to proceed by rail to Swift Current, then march north to break the Cree siege of Battleford.
In the early days of the campaign, the casual tone of Cassels’ diary entries betray a degree of immaturity. Of the force’s new rapid-fire Gatling guns, he wrote: “A few rounds are fired at some duck on a distant pond—no execution is done apparently, but the rapidity of fire shows us how very deadly a weapon of this kind might be on proper occasions. We want now to see one tried on the Indians; from what we hear they seem to have definitely risen and we shall probably have some hard work before they are quieted again.”
Partway to Battleford, news reached Otter’s column of a clash between some Cree under Big Bear and the NWMP at Fort Pitt, resulting in the death of one policeman and the destruction of the fort. Tension heightened among the troops as the realization of being “in an enemy’s country” sunk in, as Cassels put it. The men now slept with their arms beside them, and skittish sentries fired at shadows in the dark with relative frequency.
When Otter’s column arrived at Battleford on April 24 the townspeople were still holed up in the small NWMP fort, but the Cree were nowhere to be found. Six weeks earlier, settlers had grown increasingly fearful in the wake of violence at Duck Lake and Frog Lake, and sought refuge within Fort Battleford when they heard that local Cree under the leadership of Chief Poundmaker were en route to the village. With a reputation as a peacemaker, Poundmaker was motivated not by aggressive intent—nor coordination with Riel’s Métis—but rather desperation caused by a shortage of buffalo and other food. When he was unable to procure overdue rations from the local agent hiding in the fort, Poundmaker couldn’t prevent some of his young men from looting shops and houses for provisions and supplies, and burning several buildings before departing. Until Otter’s column arrived, the anxious inhabitants of the fort expected Poundmaker to return and attack at any moment.
(Above: Portrait of Lieutenant-Colonel William Dillon Otter from Charles Pelham Mulvaney’s The History of the North-West Rebellion of 1885 (A.H. Hovey, 1885).)
“I was quite overcome when I visited the fort and saw the miseries the poor people there have been enduring,” Cassels recorded in his diary on April 25 after observing ransacked and burned-out buildings, and the cramped quarters the residents, many of them women and children, had to occupy in the small fort. “Dozens and dozens had to huddle together in one tent. In the commandant’s house, a two-storey frame cottage, seventy-two persons were quartered. Food was scarce and water to be produced only at the risk of death [at the unprotected riverbank]. No wonder these poor creatures were glad to see us.”
Although ordered to remain at Battleford by Middleton, Otter sought and received permission from the lieutenant governor of the North-West Territories to “punish” the Indians. Pressured to seek retribution by locals and his officers, as well as his own ambition to achieve a historical battlefield victory, Otter set off in pursuit of Poundmaker with 325 men, two cannons, and a Gatling gun.
The troops found the Cree and their Assiniboine allies—numbering roughly 1,500 men, women, and children—encamped near Cut Knife Hill, about 40 miles west of Battleford. Hoping to prompt a quick surrender by catching the camp by surprise, Otter opened fire upon them with the cannons and Gatling gun just after dawn on May 2. Despite some initial chaos, the Cree were able to fire from cover in ravines that nearly surrounded Otter’s force.
“Horrible-looking fellows these Indians are and they fought in a way that surprised the police, who have been accustomed to look upon them as arrant cowards,” Cassels wrote. “They are the beau ideal of skirmishers, expose themselves but little, and move with marvellous quickness.” Although impressed by their guerrilla tactics, Cassels referred to his adversaries as “most ferocious-looking wretches.”
“I do not quite understand as yet what my sensations really were when I first came under fire,” Cassels recalled of his first experience of battle. “I did not feel afraid exactly but I certainly did feel that it would be much nicer to be somewhere else. After a time when other fellows were struck and I continued to escape I felt as if I should get through all right and did not think about the danger.”
Once that morning, a bullet struck the earth just a few inches from Cassels’ head. “Another ball came whistling by me,” he added, “and buried itself with a sickening thud in, as I thought, the man next to me about a foot away. I turned expecting to see him knocked over, but his helmet only had suffered.” Back at Battleford by day’s end, in safety away from the gunfire, such narrow escapes earned soldiers bragging rights.
Eventually, after six hours of fighting, and eight soldiers and six Cree killed, Otter ordered his men to retreat. Putting the best possible face on their failed attack—which Otter rationalized as a “reconnaissance in force”—the soldiers did not at first realize how much worse it could have been. “It is too bad to think that we had to retire, but though we have retreated I think we have given a good deal more than we got,” Cassels recorded. “The Indians have evidently been pretty well punished or they would certainly not have allowed us to return undisturbed.”
In fact, only Poundmaker’s intervention, imploring his men not to chase the retreating soldiers, had prevented a massacre. This reality only sunk in when Cassels later returned to the battlefield and observed that, in addition to the deep ravine, “the position taken by the Indians was immensely strong [with] coulee behind coulee, and all fortified by rifle-pits.” He rightly concluded that, for all his earlier bravado, “a charge could have led to nothing but disaster.”
The Road to Batoche
“[Otter] is as inexperienced as his troops,” Middleton complained when he heard reports of Cut Knife, though he’d had similar difficulties en route to Batoche. At Fish Creek on April 24, Middleton’s column of 900 men had been the victim of a well-orchestrated ambush by 150 or 200 Métis. On May 5, the Midland Battalion caught up to the general, who’d been delayed for weeks after the ambush.
Walter F. Stewart was among those cheering the departure of the Queen’s Own Rifles from Toronto when he heard Lieutenant-Colonel A.T.H. Williams was assembling a provisional militia unit, the Midland Battalion, composed of volunteers from several rural Ontario communities. Stewart rushed back to his native Port Hope to volunteer. Appointed a staff sergeant, Stewart recorded his sentiment: “Delighted at the prospect of being able to take part in defending our country.”
Stewart’s first experience of war was to visit the Fish Creek battlefield, which he described in his diary: “Saw dead horses, broken wagons and dead Indians, and graves being dug. The smells were none too good.”
Increasingly cautious and seeking to avoid another ambush, Middleton frequently halted his column’s advance on Batoche to reconnoitre, offering soldiers plenty of opportunity to ponder the danger ahead. “During these halts everything became quiet; stillness and peace seemed to reign on all sides,” Stewart recorded. “Each individual seemed to be completely wrapt up in his own thoughts and when the order came ‘to advance’, we felt as if we were suddenly awakened out of a sleepy dream. Everything bore a very strange aspect to me: the sun, the different shadows it threw; the water in the ponds, the trees with their newly budded foliage; in the distance, seemed altogether different. Nothing seemed to be quite our usual environment. Then the questions were very often asked among ourselves as to what we were going to do tonight. We must be close to the enemy.”
The battle at Batoche began on the morning of May 9, with Stewart deployed to the left flank. Although the rebels were only 300-400 yards away, they were hidden behind brush or in rifle-pits. As the Midlanders came under intense fire, Stewart reflected: “It seemed to us all that this was a rather different way of fighting from what we had expected. We calculated on seeing the enemy anyway. We were all fully under the impression that in aiming our rifles we would have something to aim at in the shape of human forms; in this we were disappointed, for instead we had hideously painted grinning idiots and puffs of smoke from among the trees to fire at. And they were in prepared positions, well protected, while we were in the open working forward to take theirs away from them. And that is going to be some job.”
“It was a very peculiar feeling when first coming under fire,” Stewart wrote. “You feel inclined to, and in fact do, constantly keep ducking your head as you hear the ping and zip of the bullets as they come whistling about you. This is only nervousness and soon passes off. One thing we all soon learned to do admirably, and that was to take cover. We did not require any teaching.”
Over the course of the day, the government forces dug in, erecting a zareba or improvised fort. Stewart slept little that night, without tent or fire for comfort. For a second day, and a third, the troops skirmished with the rebels, using every stump and mound as cover in futile attempts to advance. As the days wore on and the attack became a siege, the men grew discouraged.
On the morning of May 12, Middleton initiated a coordinated attack from the east and south that failed when the latter group didn’t hear the signal to move. As he’d done time and again at Batoche, Middleton angrily castigated his officers for not achieving a breakthrough, then retired for lunch. Colonel Williams, who for days had been eager to charge the Métis’ entrenched positions, was indignant. Returning to his men, he impetuously organized the Midland Battalion to attack. “I have not received any orders to do what I am going to do,” Williams whispered to his troops, according to Stewart. “Batoche can be taken and will be taken today. We will advance through and along this ravine. I only ask you to follow me, and we will go as far as we can.”
As the Midlanders charged the rebels, the rest of the soldiers along the front joined in. Realizing what was happening, Middleton hastily organized the remaining men and artillery to support the advance. Stewart described the scene:
The firing now became heavier from both sides. Then the reinforcements arrived and our whole line was extended a full mile east. The advance all along the line then began in earnest. Firing as we went in rushes, then taking what cover we could. There was no volley firing. Every man regulated his own shooting. Then a small fenced-in cemetery was reached. Here our men passed round either side, then doubled up to re-form the line beyond. At this point the Indians and halfbreeds put up their real fighting. Running from rifle pit to rifle pit firing as they went, they fell back, stubbornly contesting every foot of ground.
The Métis, exhausted and so low on ammunition that some were firing nails and rocks at the soldiers, could offer little resistance and were quickly overrun. The soldiers pressed the attack and took the village of Batoche itself.
One of the fatalities during their charge on the village was Marcile Gratton, a ten-year-old Métis girl who, running towards her mother, crossed the soldiers’ line of fire. “Our boys gathered round the little dead thing as she lay in her frantic mother’s arms, who kneeling on the step rocked her as she had when a baby, trying to get her to speak,” Stewart recalled. “She couldn’t believe that her child was dead.” He added: “The group of soldiers looking on were deeply touched by the scene that was being enacted at their feet. ‘I’d sooner let them keep Batoche than to have hurt one hair of that poor little girl,’ one soldier was heard to say.” Within days of leading the defining charge of the decisive battle of the rebellion, Williams too was dead, succumbing to fever. Riel was apprehended on May 15, and sent to Regina to stand trial.
The Waning Days of the War
Meanwhile at Battleford, Cassels complained of the “enforced inaction” of Otter’s column after the battle at Cut Knife. “The general has persistently refused to allow us to move against Poundmaker again and he, being undisturbed, has become bold once more,” he wrote in mid-May. While townspeople feared an attack by Poundmaker, Cassels declared the region’s swarms of mosquitoes to be the soldiers’ greatest adversaries.
From a visiting priest sympathetic to the rebels, Cassels gained better understanding of the First Nations’ plight, though he expressed it in less-than-progressive terms and never questioned the justice of the government’s cause. “They are, he says, just like children, know when they do wrong, but never think of consequences, and the young braves are almost beyond any control, though the chiefs and councillors have lots of common sense,” Cassels outlined the priest’s viewpoint. “The Indians often ill-treated by the whites—cheated, cursed, and oppressed. The settlers often take advantage of them, make a bargain with them to work for a certain reward and, when the work is finished, send them off without any recompense. From the whites the Indians have learned to lie and steal.”
Recognizing that his starving people were outnumbered and outgunned by the government forces, Poundmaker and his followers surrendered at Battleford to General Middleton, who’d arrived a few days earlier. “The Great Chief himself is a very remarkable looking looking man: tall, very handsome, and intelligent-looking and dignified to a degree,” Cassels recorded on seeing Poundmaker at the fort. “He wears a handsome war cap made of the head of a cinnamon bear, with a long tuft of feathers floating from it, a leather jacket studded with brass nails and worked with beads, long beaded leggings coming up to his hips, and brightly colored moccasins, while over his shoulders hangs a very gaily colored blanket.”
(Left: Portrait of Poundmaker as a prisoner in Regina by O.B. Buell, 1885. From the Library and Archives Canada (C-001875).)
With Poundmaker’s imprisonment, Big Bear was the only insurrection leader remaining at large. “Not an officer or man in our company is willing to remain,” Cassels noted of the planned pursuit of the Cree leader. The lawyer expressed disappointment, however, at rumours Middleton only intended to take his column with him. “We feel terribly indignant, for whatever the rules of the service may be about a commander keeping particular troops with him, here at least we are entitled to a show. The other column has done its work and the Indians are our legitimate prey. Jealousy of the too great success of Colonel Otter is the root of the whole matter.” Over the course of the rebellion, Canadian military men grew increasingly critical of the pompous but overly cautious leadership of the Belfast-born British officer; and Middleton, in turn, distrusted Canadian soldiers and officers. Under Otter’s command, Cassels and the Queen’s Own did indeed “wander with systematic aimlessness” in futile pursuit of Big Bear, but he eventually surrendered elsewhere.
Prior to their return to Toronto at the rebellion’s close, Otter assuaged his men’s disappointment at not playing a larger role: “Our marches have been wearisome, but they have been so well performed as to gain the admiration of everyone. Although it has been our misfortune not to have shared in the glories of the campaign, as have befallen other brigades, that the duties which were assigned to you have been willingly and well performed is beyond question, which is all that can be expected of a soldier.”
(Right: Northwest Rebellion Monument at Queen’s Park, 1910. From Toronto Public Library’s Digital Collection.)
By the time the Queen’s Own Rifles arrived back in Toronto on July 23, the Midland Battalion—which had returned to Port Hope a few days earlier for the funeral of their commanding officer—had been disbanded. “And I was left alone to change my uniform into civilian clothes and get my hair cut,” Stewart solemnly recorded. “And so ends the Northwest Rebellion of 1885.” Within days of his homecoming, he complained that the village seemed “very dull.” Returning again to Toronto, Stewart expressed ambivalence towards the merits of the rebellion in his final diary entry on July 31: “I was back where I started out last March to do my part in putting down a rebellion that should never have happened. But it did happen and now it is all over.”
Sources Consulted include: George T. Denison, Soldiering in Canada: Recollections and Experiences by Lt.-Col. George T. Denison (George N. Morang and Company, 1900); R.C. MacLeod, ed., Reminiscences of a Bungle by One of the Bunglers and Two Other Northwest Rebellion Diaries (University of Alberta Press, 1983); Charles Pelham Mulvaney, The History of the North-West Rebellion of 1885 (A.H. Hovey, 1885); Aldona Sendzikas, Stanley Barracks: Toronto’s Military Legacy (Dundurn, 2011); Rudy Wiebe and Bob Beal, eds., War in the West: Voices of the 1885 Rebellion (McClelland and Stewart, 1985); and articles from the Toronto Globe (July 24, 1885).