It happened today - June 29, 2016
Here’s a curious item that caught my eye and that of others. The fact that on June 29, 1786, Rev. Alexander Macdonell led over 500 Roman Catholic Highland Scots to Glengarry county in Canada. It might not seem like a world-historic event like Waterloo or D-Day. And of course it wasn’t. Just one more example of people seeking a better life in the New World and, with all due regard for the vicissitudes of human existence, finding it. But Macdonell’s story has a curious minor intersection with my own life and, as part of that process of people seeking a new start in Canada, with world history including D-Day.
You see, Macdonell was rather a, shall we say, vigorous cleric, ultimately a bishop known sometimes as the “Big Bishop” and sometimes as the “Warrior.” He first led his kinsmen to Glasgow where he helped create the Glengarry Fencibles, of which he was chaplain, the first Catholic chaplain in the British army since Henry VIII’s break with Rome. And when that regiment was disbanded, he persuaded the government to grant its members land, some 160,000 acres in 1804, in what became Glengarry County, Ontario.
There he proceeded to raise another regiment in 1812, the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles, which took part in the defence of Upper Canada and the 1813 attack on Ogdensburg during which, legend says, he threatened immediate excommunication of all who did not attack with sufficient vigour.
Wending their way through the vicissitudes of Canadian defence policy, the Light Infantry Fencibles eventually became the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders or “Glens,” a front-line regiment during World War II who were part of D-Day as a component of the 9th Brigade, 3rd Division. (And many were victims of a particular massacre by the 12th SS that is still solemnly remembered in a section of their armoury officers’ mess.)
My own connection is that it was through the late Reg Dixon, Intelligence Officer for the Glens on D-Day, that I first made contact with the Canadian reserves to which the regiment now belongs, and from there to the Brockville Rifles. I owe much of my understanding of our military tradition to that connection, as well as some very memorable exercises as an embedded journalist. But it goes far beyond that.
I owe my freedom to the sorts of men who joined such regiments and fought or stood ready to fight in various wars including the Second World War. Of course if the Glens had not existed there would have been some other regiment in their place in the order of battle, and if Reg had not enlisted when war came some other officer would have done his duty. But it’s because so many people did come, and did volunteer, and did create these citizen-soldier formations, that others would have stood in the gap if this particular one had not.
So it does matter greatly that such a man as Macdonell would have understood the need to defend freedom, and have inspired his followers to do so, including settling Canada in that spirit. And for Macdonell personally, to understand the need to serve God and freedom, and indeed to serve freedom because you serve God.
Every regiment’s history matters, and all those who lie in those cemeteries in Normandy, and across northwestern Europe and elsewhere, deserve our respectful remembrance. But I confess that I do particularly look for those belonging to Glens. Because individuals matter, and our connection to larger ideals and institutes does come from individual connections.