Monday, November 27, 2023

Canadian Campaigns : The Great North West Rebellion Part 1: Metis Fighters and the 90th Winnipeg Rifles

Years ago I became interested in the Military History of 19th century Canada.  No idea why.  Maybe just because it was a rather obscure subject about which I knew nothing, aside from the events of the War of 1812.  However, the turbulence of the USA's great Civil War and her conflicts with the culture of the Great Plains did seem to spill over the Canadian border in the form of a handful of interesting and little known conflicts that interested me more and more the more I researched them. Amoung them are the revolts of the Metis and Cree peoples, and the fascinating, though weird, almost to the point of seeming surreal, Fenian invasions of the immediate post Civil War years. There are also the "What Ifs?"...What if The British Empire had gone to war against the North during the American Civil War?  What if Sitting Bull's flight across the border had brought his Sioux followers into clashes with the NWMP and the Canadian Army?   The pictures on the old blog today represent the beginnings of a collection of figures I hope to amass in order to game out some of these Canadian campaigns, some of which are historical and some speculative.  We start with the Great North West Rebellion of 1885
I will not address the particulars of each battle of the Metis campaign in this post, that is for later posts.  All the figures shown here are from RAFM, and sculpted by Bob Murch.

The rather sad story of the Canadian government's war against the Metis and Cree is well told in Prairie Fire, by Bob Beal and Rod Macleod.  It does a fine job of detailing the causes of the conflict and also describes the various small battles of the rebellion in enough detail to be a great aid to the Wargamer.  This is fortuitous, as there does not seem to be an overwhelming amount of information on this conflict within easy reach.  Although the Canadian government would try to paint the Cree and Metis as being allies in revolt against the government, in fact each group was reacting seperately and spontaneously to economic pressure brought about by the decline of the Buffalo herds and a tin-eared government's non-response to the concerns of men who feared for the welfare of their culture and their families.  The Canadian governement was no more bothered by the concerns of such men then as it would seem to be now, and the result was bloodshed, with raids by hungry Cree against settlements and government outposts, and an organized rising by several hundred fighting men of the Metis people, who hoped to establish a government of their own.  The Government responded with overwhelming force, and the revolts were  put down, but not before the Cree and Metis had inflicted a number of rather embarassing defeats on the government forces.

The Metis people were (and are) the descendants mainly of French fur trappers and adventurers who settled on the plains and married women of native stock.  For some time they had been developing a unique culture which blended European influences with the culture of the Plains peoples.  By the time war with the government broke out, they seemed to have developed 
a strong sense of themselves as a distinct nation.  Their response to the conflict with Canada was far from uniform.  Although several hundred Metis fighters actively opposed the government forces, many other Metis opposed the rebellion and took no part in it. 
Louis Riel.  Brilliant, pious, charismatic, and possibly mad,  Riel was invited by the Metis to be the champion of their cause at the outbreak of the rebellion.  Since the failure of the abortive Red River rebellion a decade or so earlier, Riel had been in exile in America, but he would return home to Canada to be the militant religious and political leader the Metis needed to front their cause.  He was hanged by the Canadian government after the end of the Rebellion, an event which would sow bitter seeds in Canadian politics for generations to come.
Metis fighters take up position in some rocky ground at the direction of another important Metis leader, Gabriel Dumont.  

Dumont played a key role in Metis politics and was present at most of the battles of the rebellion.
The Metis had developed a set of defensive tactical procedures during their conflicts with the Sioux that made them formidable fighters on defense.  They preferred to fight from camoflaged rifle pit, strike from ambush whenever possible, and make excellent and very creative use of terrain.
They struggled to maintain a regular supply of ammunition, however, and this hobbled their efforts in a number of battles.  Their military thinking was so overwhelmingly defensive that they sometimes failed to take advantage of golden tactical and operational opportunities which, had they but seized them, might greatly have improved their overall military position.
Riel rallies some of his fighters...
On the other side of it...One of the four regiments of the Canadian government forces which I am currently painting up for my collection is shown here.  These are the Royal Winnipeg Rifles in their distinct dark green uniforms.
The Canadian Army was in its infancy at this time.  Canada had her famous North West Mounted Police, but these were scattered in tiny penny-packets of men all across the vastness of the Canadian west, and although tough fighters, their organization was ill suited and positioned to try to put down the rebellion on their own.  According to Prarie Fire,  the professional Canadian Army in 1885 consisted of the infantry school and the newly minted artillery school.  This handfull of full-time soldiers were expected to train the officers and men of Canada's various militia regiments, which were all Canada had in the way of an army.  As there was, of yet, no cavalry school, and so no cavalry regiments available.  Many instructors and Administrators of these schools would accompany Canada's militia army on the march west against the Metis and Cree. 

Uniform of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles.

A sergeant of the Winnipeg Rifles leads his men forward.
The Winnipeg Rifles would aquit themselves well in the campaign.  Their dark green, almost black, uniforms marked them out from the other Canadian regiments who wore mainly British Imperial crimson.    
At the Battle of Fish Creek, some captured Metis said of the Winnipeg Rifles to a British officer, "The Red Coats we know, but who are those little black devils?  The name would stick.
Thence forward the regimental badge would depict a merry devil, carrying the motto: "Hosti Acie Nominati"  or "Named by the Enemy"
The 90th Winnipeg rifles would fight at the major battles of the Metis campaign, namely Fish Creek and Batoche.
An officer of the 90th organizes his men into a skirmish line.  


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