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Filling the Ranks: The 87th Battalion Blues

May 3, 2018

Filling the Ranks: The 87th Battalion Blues

By Bill Alexander

After the initial surge of patriotic fever swelled the ranks of the first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, the losses and horrors of war experienced at Ypres stunned Canadian communities. Enlistments fell off over the next months. New battalions forming for service overseas found it increasingly difficult to fill the ranks, and resorted a wide range of strategies to entice attestations. In Montreal, competition for soldiers between several new battalions made recruiting even more difficult. Over the late summer and early fall of 1915, one battalion, the 87th Canadian Grenadier Guards approached the problem with a unique solution.

gg canada metal title

The Canadian Grenadier Guards, the parent unit of the 87th, prided themselves on being a sister regiment to the imperial Grenadier Guards. Dress and deportment had always been important to Guard’s regiments, a practice not lost on the Canadian Grenadier Guards. To distinguish their overseas battalion, the 87th, unique insignia was requested. The Battalion desired a cap badge of the same design as worn by the militia regiment, and for the shoulder insignia, instead of the CEF mandated battalion numeral, 87, over INF, the CGG wished their battalion to wear their metal shoulder title reading GG/CANADA.  To further set them apart and assist in recruiting, it was requested that “the 87th Overseas Battalion be allowed to wear blue shoulder straps in place of khaki ones”. The Officer Commanding, Lt. Col. F.S. Meighen argued that with “Recruiting becoming increasingly difficult, … any little distinction such as above is a help, especially to (sic) battalions which are recruiting in districts where Highland battalions with their special uniform are also recruiting”. Second, “the men of the 1st Canadian Division were very proud of their coloured shoulder straps, which served to distinguish Canadians at once from Territorials or Kitchener’s army.” At an undated meeting with the Quartermaster General in September, Meighen secured approval for all the 87th’s insignia requests. Or, so, he believed.

Almost immediately the acquisition became complicated. The Department of Militia would only provide standard tunics, unaltered, with the khaki shoulder straps. The acquisition of the blue shoulder straps and the alteration of the tunics would be the Battalion’s responsibility, with some compensation extended. On the positive side, the badges were authorized and costs would be reimbursed. Anticipating the dress modifications, the Battalion publicised their new uniforms in hope of enhancing recruiting.

87th bn blue shoulder straps

A Montreal Gazette article featuring the distinction came to the attention of Maj. Gen. W.G. Gwatkin, Chief of the General Staff, Canadian militia. In a memo on 21 October 1915, he strenuously disagreed with the approval indicating the same to the Quartermaster General. Unfortunately, in his opinion, protocol had not been followed, and the Governor General, His Royal Highness, the Duke of Connaught, the King’s representative in Canada, had not been consulted. Gwatkin indicated “I do not think that the Duke will like the blue shoulder strap”. He continued, “you ought to have to have approached His Royal Highness before you proposed “G.G. CANADA”.  The same day, a letter from Montreal indicated the Battalion, with the understanding they had approval, and that compensation was forthcoming, had proceeded with acquisitions of both the blue shoulder straps and the shoulder titles.

87th bn blue should rev

In a meeting of the Militia Council on 23 October 1915, Gwatkin pushed for a re-consideration of the blue shoulder straps. The Council rescinded the approval, and a letter was sent indicating the “blue shoulder straps for this unit would not be approved and these straps will have to be removed from the jackets.” The design for the badges, other than those supplied by the Dept., must be submitted for approval, and must contain “87” and “Overseas”.  The 87th Battalion was not prepared to give up. Lt. Col. Meighen, having been indirectly informed of the reversal, and with the misunderstanding that it had been instigated by H.R.H. The Duke of Connaught, wrote the Quartermaster General, arguing for the retention of the blue shoulder straps. Indicating that the tunics with the blue boards would be in service until worn out, as had happened with the First Contingent, he noted that in the course of time, they would no longer be on issue. As the 87th uniforms had already been fitted with the blue straps, it would be considerable expense to alter them again. In addition, the hit to Battalion pride would be considerable, and a negative effect on recruiting would likely ensue. His protests had little effect; the blue shoulder straps were to be withdrawn.

gg canada bluept

The issue of compensation remained. Originally approved by the Dept. of Militia, it was only appropriate that payment for the straps be made. As no government issue badges, (the general list maple leaf cap, collars, Battalion numerals, INF, and CANADA), were to be issued to the 87th, the Battalion requested payment in lieu, which would then be applied to the cost of the Battalion badges. Included in the consideration, supposedly, would be reimbursement for the now unauthorized blue shoulder boards. In early January of 1916, a hastener was sent to the Quartermaster General, requesting the reimbursement. It was indicated the payment had been sent. Upon examination, it was found that a payout had been made the previous November for badges, but not for the shoulder boards. A requisition for compensation for 1111 pairs of shoulder straps at 15c per pair, in the sum of $116.65 was submitted. Finally, in early February, the Quartermaster General authorized the pay out to the 87th Battalion. The Battalion would proceed overseas, in drab khaki tunics, with drab khaki shoulder straps, but wearing their Canadian Grenadier Guards badges. [i]



[i] Library and Archives Canada Record Group 24, Volume 1539, File 638-132-1 Badges 87th Battalion, and Record Group 9, III, D1 Vol. 4689 File 4-C-87-2 87th Battalion Regimental Badges.

From → Badges, Uniforms

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