A Brief History of the Militia of Grey and Simcoe Counties

In 1795, the Simcoe District (then covering much of what is now Grey and Dufferin Counties) was created by Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe in order to organize the area for military purposes. The District was sparsely populated for many years but by the outbreak of the War of 1812, there were enough men to provide at least a dozen to the York Militia and these fought at Queenston Heights. Other men went from North Simcoe with the Newfoundland Fencibles in 1814 in time to save Michilmacinac and capture the two American schooners attacking that place and thus restored British Naval supremacy on the Upper Great Lakes. Several of them then went with Captain Bulger when he captured the American post at Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin. At the end of the War, the militia units were all disbanded and the Sedentary Militia resumed its normal routine.
The Mackenzie Rebellion in 1837 resulted in the formation of 2 loyal provisional battalions. These marched south as soon as the news of the rebellion was known and occupied the epicentre of the rebels in South Simcoe and North York Counties. Many of these men remained on duty in an incorporated battalion established in Toronto over the winter. This was known as the “Royal Foresters” and served in both Toronto and along the Niagara Frontier. When it was broken up, the most efficient companies were retained on active service in Penetanguishene until 1842 when the men were finally released.

It was not until late 1855, that the new Militia Act finally established an Active Militia, organized as local companies. The first of these in our area was the Barrie Rifle Company, authorized in December 1855. Soon others sprang up across both Grey and Simcoe Counties from Owen Sound and Leith to Cookstown and Bradford.

The first test came in December 1865 when the militia was called out as a result of the St Alban’s raid. The Barrie Rifle Company became part of the 2nd Administrative Battalion and served on the Niagara Frontier for about 2 months. In March 1866, more of the militia was called out to defend against the Fenians. Some of the Grey County companies went to Sarnia while some of the Simcoe County Companies once again went to the Niagara Frontier. June 1866 saw the most significant call-up. The Grey County companies had never been sent home and remained at Sarnia except for the Leith Company which eventually ended up at Cobourg. The Simcoe County Companies once again went to Niagara. They remained on active service for nearly 2 months.

On 14 September 1866, the government finally authorized the formation of battalions. The companies in Grey County were organized into the 31st Grey Battalion of Infantry while those in Simcoe were formed into the 35th Simcoe Battalion of Infantry (soon to be re-named the The Simcoe Foresters).

The North West Territories saw the next two call-ups. In 1870 a number of local men volunteered to go with Colonel Wolseley to the Red River. Sam Steele is the best known but Captain Daniel Hunter McMillan also went and eventually became Lieutenant Governor (and was knighted) of Manitoba. In 1885, the Headquarters and 4 companies of the Simcoe Foresters combined with 4 companies of the 12th York Battalion to form the York and Simcoe Provisional Battalion and served in Saskatchewan during the “North West Rebellion”.

The Boer War saw more activity. A number of men from the Grey and Simcoe battalions volunteered. The first Canadian soldier killed in action in South Africa and at Paardeberg was Private James Halkett Findlay, a Corporal from the Simcoe Foresters and a Barrie resident. He was the first soldier of the Grey and Simcoe Foresters to die facing the enemy.

The eruption of the First World War resulted in a tremendous upsurge of patriotism. Frustrated with waiting for their Regiments to be called up, many 31st and 35th men left their units and joined the early contingents. It was not until 1916 that local battalions in the form of the 147th Grey and 157th Simcoe Foresters were authorized. The response was so great that 2 more battalions, the 177th Simcoe Foresters and 248th Grey Regiment soon followed. Companies of the 157th battalion helped clear the new Camp Borden and by the summer of 1916, most of the 4 battalions were training there. In the fall, they were shipped to England only to find that the Canadian Corps had decided not to expand the number of divisions in the Corps. As a result, the new battalions and many others were broken up for badly needed reinforcements. Nevertheless, many of them would go on to carry out great deeds. Private Tommy Holmes (147th Grey Battalion) became Canada’s youngest Victoria Cross winner at Passchendaele while serving with 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles. Doctor Norman Bethune began his service with the 147th Battalion. Leslie Frost, Ontario’s longest serving Prime Minister served with the 35th Simcoe Foresters, the 157th Battalion and the 20th Battalion CEF.

The years between the wars were lean ones. Nevertheless, the now renamed Grey Regiment and the Simcoe Foresters served on. In 1932, the Simcoe Foresters were granted an Imperial alliance with the Sherwood Foresters. This alliance has remained ever since, although the Sherwood Foresters are now the 2nd Battalion of the new Mercian Regiment. The key event of the 1930’s however was the amalgamation of the Grey Regiment and the Simcoe Foresters in
1936 to form The Grey and Simcoe Foresters. In some respects, this is very much a restoration of what once was.
Again in 1939, the country went back to war. This time, the Grey and Simcoe Foresters were mobilized under the condition that it must be formed from one company from Grey, one company from Simcoe, one company from the Algonquin Regiment and one company from the Northern Pioneers. These units had all formed 23 or the Northern Brigade. The unit trained in Borden before being shipped to the Canso, Nova Scotia area for coast defence duties. They were eventually concentrated at Debert and intensive training carried out. In due course, the battalion was shipped back to Niagara and put to guarding the Welland Canal. Rumours abounded and in due course, one came true. The unit was converted into an Army Tank Battalion and shipped back to Camp Borden for training. In late 1942, they began movement to England. On arrival, they once again faced disappointment. The army had too many tank units and as the new boys in town, in August, the unit was once again broken up for reinforcements.

Since the War, Foresters have continued to demonstrate Tenacity and Versatility. Converted to an anti-tank unit in 1946, the anti-tank guns were replaced with field guns in the early 1950’s. A light anti-aircraft battery was brought in, in the mid 1950’s and the whole was converted back into an armoured regiment in 1956. In the 1960’s, light reconnaissance became the role until 1969, when the Grey and Simcoe Foresters once again became infantry.

Foresters have served all over the world, in Korea, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Sudan and Sierra Leon.