By Michael Shyne
In the pursuit of examining collections of military weapons, SAR readers need go no further than our closest neighbors. America’s neighbor to the north, Canada, has military weapons collections as vast as its expansive military history. Unfortunately, most Americans know little of both its collections and its proud military history.
A little known historical fact pertaining to our neighbor to the north concerned World War I. Canada contributed more troops, per capita, to The Great War than any other nation. Fully 10 percent of its population went to World War I. However, centuries before the War To End All Wars, Canadians were writing military history in blood at La Citadelle de Québec. The strategic promontory overlooking the city of Québec and the St. Lawrence River offered a perfect location for the construction of the fortress. Yet even before La Citadelle officially came into being, history was twice made. The British had defeated the French and ended French dominance of this territory. Then, just a few years later on a cold December 31, 1775, American Revolutionaries suffered defeat on these same grounds.
Described as “the coldest post in the British Empire” in 1871, La Citadelle is the residence of the Royal 22e Régiment. This regiment is the only French Canadian infantry regiment in Canada. It was formed in 1914 as a Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Its contributions and its sacrifices were considerable in both World War I and World War II. Three of the Regiment’s heroes received the Crown’s highest honor, the Victoria Cross: Corporal Joseph Kaeble, Lieutenant Jean Brillant and Major Paul Triquet. The Victoria Cross “requires a conspicuous act of bravery carried out in total disregard of danger and with utter contempt for death, at the extreme limit of courage or beyond.” The British Commonwealth places profound value in history and tradition. Each Victoria Cross is cast from the bronze of actual Russian cannons captured at the famous battle of Sebastopol in the Crimean War of the 1850’s.
With the history of the Royal 22e Régiment deeply ingrained in the hearts and souls of French Canadians, it is no wonder many of them chose to donate their families’ firearms to the Regimental Museum when Canada’s politicians took away the right to own firearms from their fellow citizens. Given the option to surrender their guns to the Queen or donate them to a government museum, many fine examples were so-donated, some with remarkable history.
The Royal 22e Régiment Museum is located in two separate buildings: the Old Military Prison built in 1842 and the Old French Powder Magazine (1750). Both are open to public visits as part of the tour of La Citadelle. The museum collection spans the several centuries of history written on this location. Many remarkable muzzleloaders are on display including very rare French flintlock muskets. But the focus of interest of SAR readers is also well-fulfilled.
The Powder Magazine contains the collection’s oldest machine gun, a strikingly beautiful brass 1896 Maxim Nordenfelt machine gun. And just a few feet away, a 75mm recoilless rifle of World War II vintage and a beautiful brass mountain howitzer are tastefully displayed on polished wood floors with ancient stone walls as their backdrop.
The Royal 22e Régiment took part in offensive operations during the Korean War and in 15 United Nations peacekeeping missions around the world, from Cyprus and Bosnia/Croatia to peacekeeping missions today in Afghanistan alongside US troops. The small arms displayed in the Powder Magazine well represent the military actions of the Regiment in the last century. Maxims, Vickers, Brownings and Brens are displayed alongside Kalashnikovs and their Russian predecessors. Both models of the remarkable FG42 are on display along with a very interesting FN FAL designated “FN CDN serial number EX1.”
In the yard outside the Powder Magazine larger pieces of artillery are on display. Among them, a 37 millimeter Maxim Pom Pom. This rare brass Maxim of substantial caliber, designated a 1905 Mark One, is in excellent condition and must only be displayed outdoors during temperate weather.
From America’s perspective, the Royal 22e Régiment Museum is the home of one of the holy grails of our history. Sitting low on the floor, practically below one’s field of view, is a small brass cannon. It would have been easily overlooked it if it was not for Chief Guide Réal Léveillée. Mr. Léveillée, retired after 28 years serving around the world with the Royal 22e Régiment, applies his vast experience in military small arms to the preservation and display of the museum’s excellent collection.
When Réal Léveillée directed my attention to the small brass cannon on the floor, I at first did not understand the magnitude of the item I was looking down upon. I would have expected a raised crown to decorate the breach of the gun. But instead it bore the image of an odd shaped fellow in a kilt, cast into the barrel of the cannon. And when my knowledgeable guide said that identification was the Coat of Arms of the Massachusetts Regimental Guard, my brain still did not grasp the significance of this historic cannon. Not until I read its inscription did I stand in awe: “CAPTURED BY THE BRITISH ARMY AT BUNKERS HILL JUNE 17, 1775”.
Here, in the Old French Powder Magazine, rests one of the most significant artifacts of the American Revolutionary War. Mr. Léveillée said there is no way to authenticate the history of this cannon. It had been found in a Canadian military arsenal 150 years ago. However he did say that a Bunker Hill organization tried diligently to acquire this item 50 years ago and more recently they resurrected their effort. Canada stands firm behind its right to ownership of this piece of revolutionary artillery. It was won in battle.
And then there was “Rosalie.” Rosalie is an SMLE Enfield rifle. Millions were made and there are thousands upon thousands of Enfield rifles in the hands of collectors in America. What makes this rifle so different? The stock is completely covered with hand carving. Firearms collectors hunger to know the history of the firearms in their collections. On the surface of this Enfield stock are carved names such as “Vimy, Kemmel, St. Eloi, Hoodge, Zellebeck, Courcelette, Bully Grenay, Neuvilles Vaade, Mericour, Lievin, Lens, Cote 70, Passchendaele and Arras.” The Canadian soldier to whom this rifle was issued in World War I lived through the combat of 14 of the 18 major campaigns of the 22nd Battalion (French-Canadian – at that time it was still the 22nd Battalion).
And then Mr. Léveillée related Rosalie’s story. “Rosalie” was one of the popular French World War I songs and the soldier carrying this rifle named his trusty companion after that song. Perhaps because of the luck of the name, that soldier lived through 14 life-taking campaigns. His good fortune faltered when his commanding officer saw what he had done to the King’s rifle. Why, he had practically destroyed it, carving up the stock to such an extent. Because he had so completely defaced government-issued property, he was forced to pay a fine of $86 plus forfeit pay for 28 days, even though the actual cost of the rifle was only $48. His punishment did not deter him and he continued with his masterful carving. Again he received punishment for disregarding orders given by his superiors and forfeited another 28 days pay. That done, sometime in June of 1918, only months before the end of the war, the soldier was caught in a gas attack. He was evacuated from the battlefield and separated from his cherished rifle. Many years passed – 38 years to be exact. The Royal 22e Régiment wanted to honor its soldiers of battles-past and put together a traveling exhibit in 1956 of artifacts and weapons. Included in that exhibit was Rosalie. When that traveling exhibit reached Lachute, Québec, it was treated with the same attention and care it had received in other cities and towns of the province. The citizens came to see the exhibit, to talk of years gone by, of lost soldiers and found memories. But in Lachute, this exhibit had extraordinary meaning to one of its residents, Mr. H. P. Lecorre. For it was Private H. P. Lecorre who carved the names of the 14 campaigns in the stock of this Enfield rife. It was Private H. P. Lecorre who named it “Rosalie”. And it was Rosalie who kept Private Lecorre alive through those 14 hard-fought campaigns.
Mr. Lecorre approached the captain from the Royal 22e Régiment who was escorting the traveling exhibit and disclosed that the carved up Enfield was his during World War I. He explained the history of the gun. And then he told the captain the story about having been forced to pay for the Enfield as a penalty for carving up the stock. The captain was obviously moved by the story. Violating all military protocol, that captain made an instant command decision, removed Rosalie from the exhibit and presented it to Mr. Lecorre. “You paid for it, so it is yours.” The family of H. P. Lecorre chose to return the gun to the Royal 22e Régiment upon the passing of its owner.
Québec City and La Citadelle de Québec are a worthwhile destination, particularly if you take advantage of the beautiful and historic Le Château Frontenac hotel nearby.
La Citadelle de Québec
Le Musée du Royal 22e Régiment
Cote de La Citadelle
Canada G1R 4V7
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V10N4 (January 2007)|