Between 1880 and the First World War, as part of this heightened self-consciousness by Scots-Canadians and a rising interest in militarism generally, several kilted regiments were raised in cities across Canada. Hamilton had had a kilted military presence since 1856 when James Aitchison Skinner organized a Highland company; it later became a company of the 13th Royal Regiment, later the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry.
The idea for a full Highland regiment in Hamilton first took shape among the members of the St. Andrew's Society (of which James Chisholm was the long-time treasurer) and the Sons of Scotland (of which, he was also a member). Late in 1902 meetings were held and prominent members of the city's Highland-Canadian community were asked to "take hold of the matter."
James Chisholm and his partner, William Logie (a captain in the XIII Regiment), took a leading role in organizing locally and in lobbying Ottawa. With the support of local Scottish organizations and clan societies, a deputation was sent to Ottawa bearing a petition to the minister of Militia. The minister, Frederick Borden, was less than enthusiastic about the potential cost and the Highland character of the proposed unit (he wanted the militia in a common uniform). Col. W. D. Otter, whom Logie canvassed for his opinion, was skeptical of the group's ability to "get either the officers or the men and if we got both [of] these we could not get the money …"
Hamilton's Scottish-Canadian elite moved quickly to fill the ranks of the officer corps and to raise the necessary funds to outfit the regiment in full Highland dress. Those who came forward included: Chisholm, Logie, J. R. Moodie, Walter W. Stewart, E. M. Dalley, Roy Moodie, E. F. Lazier, John Inglis McLaren, and many others from all walks of professional and business life.
A draft letter written by either Chisholm or Logie to local MPs noted that the proposed "officers are a fine lot of fellows and of good standing and large influence in the community." The group obtained (as of 25 March 1903) over 700 names for the rank and file. The "men are a particularly fine class drawn chiefly from the better class of Scotchmen who own their own homes and have a stake in the community." Chisholm and Logie were well-connected within the Liberal Party and maintained steady pressure upon local politicians to forward the group's cause. Chisholm monitored all communications with Borden. When the minister curtly informed a local lawyer to forward his support of the proposed Highland regiment "through the regular official channel," Chisholm promptly asked the minister of Militia for an explanation particularly as Borden had already written to Chisholm indicating that a Highland regiment would be raised. Borden denied having done so but by 17 August 1903 he reported (confidentially to Logie) authorizing the establishment of a Highland regiment. Chisholm, Logie, and the Scottish community were unrelenting and in the end won the day.
Chisholm began his service with the 91st on 16 September 1903 as its paymaster holding the rank of honorary captain. For the rest of his life, the Regiment was a major part of his life. Logie served as the Regiment's first commanding officer until 1911 so for a time Chisholm and Logie's office on James Street was an alternate battalion headquarters. Two evenings a week, Chisholm could be found at the James Street Armouries — the 91st was quartered in the recently built addition (designed in part by his architect brother-in-law Walter Wilson Stewart, also a member of the 91st). As well as the matters of weekly administration, there was an endless round of ceremonial functions and Chisholm took (and maintained) a particular interest in the Pipe Band. Finally, the 91st provided a rich social life in the elegant officers' mess, whether the normal course of socializing after weekly parades, full mess dinners, special functions, balls, or the annual celebration of Hogmanay.
As part of the 4th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Division, the 19th went from the mud and misery of Salisbury Plain, England, to the mud and blood of Flanders. The Battalion saw its first action at Saint-Eloi in April 1916 and went on to serve on the Somme, at Courcelette, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, Passchendaele, Drocourt-Quéant, and the Pursuit to Mons. In December 1918, its pipe Band played a victorious Canadian Corps across the Rhine and into Germany. The 19th has had no official history published.
The Argylls mobilized a battalion for the Canadian Active Service Force in June 1940. Prior to this, there were occasional call outs. Beginning in August 1939, Argylls performed guard duty on the local canal and electrical facility, for example. The problems of active duty were myriad. First World War pattern tunics and the kilt were issued until modern Battle Dress was issued, Ross rifles were the only weapons, and hollow pipes and bricks comprised heavy weapons for the mortar platoon. Niagara The first months of the war were spent in and around Niagara-on-the-Lake, a dreary round of guard duty on the Welland Canal and local power facilities. There was little training and almost no new equipment. The first Bren guns, for example, arrived in December 1940. But there was time for setting the foundations for excellent administration and for addressing the usual range of problems associated with turning civilians into soldiers. It was during this period that the notorious "Mad Five" went AWOL, made their way to the Sunnyside amusement park in Toronto and telegraphed the CO — "Having a great time. Wish you were here." In May 1941 the 1st Battalion entrained for Nanaimo, B.C., where it underwent several tedious months of route marches alternating with inspections.Jamaica September 1941 to May 1943 brought a sojourn in the sun — garrison duty in Jamaica. During this period, the reality of war was brought home by the fate of the Winnipeg Grenadiers (which unit the Argylls replaced in Jamaica) in Hong Kong, and of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (a sister unit from Hamilton) at Dieppe. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Ian Sinclair, the unit received new weapons and modern equipment, improved its administration, and began a complete program of small unit tactics, fitness, and training. England The men of the 1st Battalion returned to Hamilton in May 1943. In preparation for overseas service, it received a new CO and senior officers,and many warrant officers and NCOs were also replaced. A notable exception was the Regimental Sergeant Major, Peter Caithness McGinlay. By August 1943 the unit had moved to England and joined the l0th Brigade of the 4th Canadian (Armoured) Division. Acting Sergeant John Rennie won a posthumous George Cross in October 1943, dying while shielding others from an exploding grenade during training. Collective training, specialized courses for individuals, and schemes at battalion, brigade and divisional level occupied the unit, now under the command of Lieutenant Colonel J. David Stewart for whom the Argylls' reported a genuine affection. In action, he was described as having an intuitive sense of battle (which could not be taught), cool imperturbability, and a refusal to fight according to preconceived notions.Normandy The unit's first battles in early August 1944 were small successes fought along the road to Falaise. The first major action, Hill 195 on 10 August, was an unorthodox success; Stewart led the Battalion single file through the darkness of night and German lines to capture this hitherto unassailable strong point. It was an act which historian John A. English has called "the single most impressive action of Operation Totalize." Less than ten days later in the Falaise Gap, a battle group of "B" and "C" companies of the Argylls, and a squadron of South Alberta Regiment tanks captured St Lambert-sur-Dives and held it for three days against desperate counter-attacks. The action resulted in Major David Vivian Currie of the South Albertas being awarded the Victoria Cross.
Of the experience of battle, Cpl H. E. Carter wrote to his mother on 13 August:
"That life in the front is not fun, not glamorous — it's dirty, and fierce and anyone that says they're not scared is crazy. But I'm not going to talk much about that. We try and keep our spirits up, joke and enjoy yourself under fire and we do an exceptionally good job of it." That very same day Capt Mac Smith put it best when he wrote to his wife: "The men are simply wonderful. They have done well, and are getting better. They grumble . . . and dig, and advance and dig, and advance. They stand shelling mortaring and occasional bombing, and then stand up in their trenches and ask where the hell the food is."The ScheldtThe RhinelandClosing Phases Canadian Army Historian C.P. Stacey commented that the only time he saw what could be considered a war crime committed by Canadian soldiers was after the very popular Commanding Officer of the Argylls, Lieutenant Colonel F.E. Wigle, was shot dead during the battle of Friesoythe on 14 April 1945, allegedly by a German civilian. Several civilian dwellings were burned to the ground by the Argylls as a reprisal.
This unfortunate episode only came to my notice and thus got into the pages of history because I was in Friesoythe at the time and saw people being turned out of their houses and the houses burned. How painfully easy it is for the business of "reprisals" to get out of hand! C.P. Stacey, A Date With HistoryThe incident is also recounted in Tony Foster's Meeting of Generals.Overall Through Moerbrugge, the Scheldt, Kapelsche Veer, and the Hochwald Gap to Friesoythe, the Kusten Canal, and Bad Zwischenahn, the Argylls were successful against the enemy — but there was more. Their losses (267 killed and 808 wounded) were the lowest in the l0th Brigade and their successes constant. Cynicism is a soldier's rightful lot and the Argylls' never lost it. Self-satisfaction came with, and was sustained only by, success — a success sustained despite the successive wholesale turnovers in the rifle companies. Neither quality was lost during ten months of battle. It made them as Capt Claude Bissell once remarked "a happy regiment and a formidable one in action."
The 1st Battalion provided the headquarters and one rifle company for the Canadian Berlin Battalion, a composite battalion which represented the Canadian Armed Forces in the British victory celebrations in Berlin in July 1945. The Battalion returned to Hamilton in January 1946 where it was dismissed.
Community support has been symbolic, material, and artistic. In 1972, Hamilton granted the Argylls the Freedom of the City. The Ontario government has erected heritage plaques to two Argylls (Pipe-Officer Charles Davidson Dunbar, D.C.M. and Acting Sergeant John Rennie, G.C. 1919-1943) on the Armouries' outer walls (the only regiment in the Hamilton-Wentworth, Niagara, Toronto area to be so distinguished). Retired Colours hang in three Hamilton churches and there is a continuing affiliation with Central Presbyterian Church. The local business community contributed generously to the Argyll Regimental Foundation. Local, provincial, and national funds underwrote the project (1984-91) and publication (1996) of Black Yesterdays: The Argylls' War, a pictorial history of the Regiment in the Second World War.