When Great Britain went to war with the Russian Empire
in 1854, she was forced to withdraw a great number of troops
from Canadian soil to form a Crimean Expeditionary Force. By
the Spring of 1855 there were only 1,887 British troops in
Upper and Lower Canada, and 1,397 in the Maritimes.
Canadians came to the realization that should hostilities
develop with the United States, she would have to be almost
completely self-reliant for defense.
Accordingly, a commission was appointed in 1855 to
determine the best course of action to raise a new Canadian
defense force. It put forth several plans for the expansion
of the militia, and while it supported the retention of the
old Sedentary (compulsory) militia, it also recommended that
a volunteer force be raised, trained and uniformed much
along the same lines as today's Canadian Forces Reserve.
This new force was to be made up of proper proportions of
artillery, cavalry and rifles. Additionally, arms and
ammunition to supply a force of 100,000 was to be stockpiled
in case of national emergency.
These recommendations were summed up in a bill
presented to the Canadian legislature. It expressly retained
compulsory service as the principle upon which Canadian
defense should be hinged. It also divided the country in 18
military districts, each with battalion and regimental
sub-districts, to facilitate mobilization. The principle
unit was, as it had always been, the company, and raising
the required men was the responsibility of the company
commander. Each district was commanded by a colonel, who was
assisted by an unpaid staff. The colonel was had to answer
to the the paid staff comprising the Adjutant-General and
two Deputy Adjutant-Generals, one each for Canada East and
The first Adjutant-General was Colonel Baron de
Rottenberg. The two Deputy Adjutant-Generals were
Lieutenant-Colonel Melchoir-Alphonse de Salaberry and
Lieutenant-Colonel Donald MacDonald.
In principle the bill had hardly departed from the
traditional Canadian militia organization established in the
days of Frontenac and d'Iberville. The major innovation was
the creation of the "Active Militia", consisting of 16
troops of cavalry, seven field batteries, five companies of
artillery and 50 companies of riflemen, totalling a number
not exceeding 5,000 men. All were uniformed volunteers and
trained for ten days a year (twenty for artillerists) at
This was a real departure. Although Sir Isaac Brock,
hero of the War of 1812, had proposed a similar concept in
1812, and various small volunteer organizations had come and
gone since 1815, this was the beginning of a true volunteer
system in the Canadian military. It became wildly popular,
and the clause of compulsory service gradually fell into
disuse. In 1856 the governor was granted powers to dispense
with the annual compulsory muster, and the concept was
completely eliminated in 1950.
The enthusiasm for all things military sparked by the
Crimean War resulted in Canadians flocking to the colours at
an unprecedented scale. Before long, an amendment was passed
to the bill authorizing the establishment of additional
companies of riflemen, although these were to be unpaid.
Still, the enthusiasm for such units did not falter.
Of the 22 units formed in 1855, eighteen still exist
today in some form or another, including such famous
regiments as the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada and the
Canadian Grenadier Guards.