Written by Buzz Bourdon (late the RMR 1975-82)
Once a year, The Royal Montreal Regiment marches through the streets of Westmount to the city cenotaph on Sherbrooke Street, not far from city hall, to pay tribute to its soldiers who lost their lives in two world wars.
The RMR holds its annual Remembrance Day parade on the Sunday closest to the actual day itself, which is Nov. 11, of course. On that day, at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, the guns fell silent on the Western front. Over six thousand soldiers fought with the RMR in the First World War, with 1,192 losing their lives.
Well, that’s just a number to most people and 100 years later, it’s hard to realize what our forefathers actually suffered and endured in both wars. But some of us tried and knew it wasn’t just another parade. We were there to remember and keep the faith, even if we didn’t talk about it. Maybe it’s too big to comprehend.
The routine was always the same during my era of the 1970s. Arrive at the armoury by 0800, sign the paysheet – ‘don’t ever forget that, my son!’ – and form up for a quick inspection. In those days we always wore the CF service dress uniform, commonly known as CF greens, complete with white belt and white gloves. After clattering down to the QM in the basement to draw an FN-C1 rifle, complete with white sling, we got on the bus for the trip to Montreal’s West Island.
Yes, we had two parades to do that day, not just one. The one in the morning was held in Pointe Claire. I imagine we were there because the RMR, after 1945, had its ‘D’ Company located there. But ‘D’ Coy was long gone by the time I joined in 1975.
Anyway, we paraded for the city worthies of Pointe Claire and got back on the bus for the armoury. After a quick lunch, we formed up again and marched out the front door, colours flying, did a left wheel and eventually went east on Sherbrooke Street to the cenotaph. There we halted on the street, not far from its figure of victory standing over a soldier who marches eternally into battle with his .303 Lee-Enfield rifle sloped on his shoulder.
Starting in November, 1977, I was given a special tasking. As per tradition, four guys were needed for cenotaph sentry, one on each corner of its base. The four of us, along with an NCO – usually Butch Gannon, if I remember rightly – arrived at the cenotaph before the parade.
A few minutes before the troops arrived, Butch posted us and gave the command to present arms. After that, he bellowed, “Sentries, rest on your arms….reverse!” You brought the FN about two feet higher than from it was at the present, then rotated it forward so that the end of the barrel ended up on the toe of your left boot.
We made a proper pause of two, three, then we bowed our heads in tribute. It wasn’t easy to keep the timing because the four sentries had their backs to each other. But there we were, for the next 45 minutes or so, standing rock steady without moving anything. Being November, it was always cold and usually wet from rain or snow so our noses ran. Butch would come by before the parade arrived and considerately wipe them for us.
The climax of the parade occurred when the troops presented arms and a musician played ‘The Last Post,’ that haunting and evocative air that symbolizes the grief, tragedy and loss that war brings. The brass saluted and everything stopped for about two minutes. The killing fields of France and Flanders seemed an eternity away but we knew the RMR had fought and died there two generations earlier.
We know what those men went through for almost four years: the rain and snow and cold, mud and lice and blood, fighting their way through thick belts of barbed wire then having to shoot and ram their bayonets into another human being.
The brass, safe behind the line, issued the orders that ensured your friends got killed, blown up from artillery shells or mown down from machine guns. They must have asked themselves if it was all worth it. But the concept of king and country was strong then. I wonder what would happen now?
One member of the RMR who made it home, Charles Yale Harrison, an American who had been a machine gunner, later published a book called Generals Die in Bed. Pretty much forgotten now, it is a realistic and stark account of his war.
Back in the armoury, we were grateful to be warm again. Still on parade, we watched as promotions were handed out and presentations made. In those days, pretty much the entire balcony was filled with friends and families along with retired members.
Another evocative moment occurred when the youngest member of the RMR was called forward to read a page of names from the RMR’s book of remembrance. It is kept in the bronze memorial plaque set into the north wall of the armoury. I wonder how many people present remembered that those soldiers, when they lost their lives, were around the same age as the reservists on parade today?
Finally the parade was dismissed, we turned in our rifles and everyone headed to their respective messes. Those who were promoted were expected to ring the bell to announce a free round for the boys. Some years that meant two or three free rounds. The beer flowed and it was all over for another year.
They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.