The Royal Canadian Mounted Grizzlies
By David Atwell
Of all the oddities of war, no other animal can truly claim the ultimate prize other than the North American Grizzly Bear. This great creature, usually left to its own devices in the wild, nevertheless can lay claim to having been a war winning beast albeit for a short period of time. And even though it enjoyed such a brief history of military success, The Royal Canadian Mounted Grizzly Regiment did its duty for King and Country.
Yet it was not always so, as the history of the domesticated Grizzly Bear had more or less been forgotten. How such things came about, that being the first domesticated bears, is only truly known by the pioneers of Canada. In the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War, and with the formation of the United States, Loyalist frontiersmen, who had rejected the American Republic, sought refuge and a future in the wilds of Canada. Needless to say, this was a hard life with few pleasures. For the most part, furthermore, these Canadian pioneers had to fend for themselves and only had their own bodies to use as labour. Horse and oxen were few.
It was, hence, out of necessity, more than anything, some adventurous characters decided that an opportunity for a beast of burden laid in the Grizzly Bear. Being numerous meant that a ready supply of labour was available. It goes without saying, though, that training such beasts was far from easy, yet eventually, through trail and error, sometimes to the detriment of the human involved, young offspring, stolen from their parents, raised by their human captor, proved promising. Alas, regardless of such careful upbringing, many of these Grizzly Bears still turned on their human masters once they reached adulthood. A handful, however, remained tamed.
Thus by 1810 some 500 Grizzly Bears had become domesticated. Unfortunately most proved to be next to useless. They were unhelpful labourers not to mention pointless house maids. At best they were good guard dogs. Some 150, though, did demonstrate that they could carry goods, not to mention being able to carry a human handler. Unlike dogs and horses, however, they had a virtuous appetite and ate far more than any other animal. Furthermore they demanded meat, more than any other food item, and proved to be far more expensive, in regards to their food requirement, than any other animal including their human hosts. Then there was their demand to hibernate during winter. It goes without saying that neither dogs, horses, donkeys, or oxen slept for an entire season of the year.
Consequentially the oddity of having a useful domesticated Grizzly Bear almost vanished into history, not long after it started, until the idea was saved by the War of 1812. The young nation of the United States, sensing a chance to rid itself of the British presence in Canada, decided to take advantage of Britainís involvement in the Napoleonic Wars being waged throughout Europe. Thus on 18 June 1812 the United States declared War on Britain and Canada. Thinking that they would soon have all of Canadian territory to themselves, they attacked.
At first, though, the War did not venture far from the border regions. This was to change, as time went by, but the local Canadians were able to resist various American attacks with the minimal of British assistance. This minimal British assistance was, however, to eventually change, but throughout 1812 the local Canadian militias were left to themselves in order to hold back the American tide. And they did so with much success. This, though, only incensed the Americans more as they realised that the conquest of Canada was more difficult than first imagined. As a result, as more Americans entered the fray, their plans for conquest became even greater.
By the beginning of 1813, as the war began to enter a second year, the local Canadians realised that they would be stretched to the limited. Even with British professional soldiers, being added to the Canadian Army, the Americans would have the numbers and were likely to launch a full on invasion at any moment. Thus the Canadians needed everything they had in order to repeal such a threat. And they did not have long to wait until the Americans launched their offensive.
It took, though, until late June 1813 until the Americans finally succeeded in gaining a breakthrough in the Canadian defences along the border. By then, though, numerical supremacy began to take its toll as the Canadians retreated back to York (modern day Toronto). Here a garrison of local militia had a unique unit attached to them - a so-called and hastily formed cavalry unit of tamed Grizzly Bears numbering about 100. Although at first appearance, they looked impressive, in truth, no one knew what to do with these volunteers from the frontier, but now necessity ensured that they were desperately needed by the defenders of York. It goes without saying that the oncoming Americans knew nothing about them.
On the second last day of July the Americans began their inevitable attack on York. The defenders did what they could to keep the Americans at bay, but it was soon obvious that a determined attack by the American force could overwhelm the Canadian defenders. And even though there was a battalion of British soldiers present, the battle experienced American soldiers outnumbered everyone by at least three to one. Furthermore they believed that they would be even a match for the British regulars. Thus, with such confidence, the American commander decided to attack the next day en masse.
The 31st July 1813 would go down in history, fore not only did the American invasion of Canada come to a screaming holt, but the attack of the Grizzlies would write their place into the history books. At dawn, as planned, the full American force attacked trying to gain the advantage from the start. Their attack soon pushed the Canadians back. Even the British regulars began to give way. It seemed that a general retreat was about to commence and that York would be captured by the Americans. Then, out of the fog of battle, growls and roars, until then unheard of upon any battlefield, was soon noticed above the noise of battle. Within a few minutes the Americans saw, in horror, what was making such sounds as the makeshift Grizzly cavalry regiment charged their line.
Some of the Americans tried to give off a disciplined volley, but this proved to be ineffective. Some others fixed bayonets and readied themselves to meet this unexpected charge as if trying to repel horse cavalry. Most, though, soon had lost their earlier confidence and thought about refuge to their rear. Whatever the Americans thought about, or wanted, it did not matter however as soon the Grizzlies, along with their human riders, were quickly upon them.
It was not, though, the volley of pistols, from the human handlers, which broke the American line in the end: it was the virtuous attack of the Grizzly Bears themselves. Some of the bears where serious hit, by a volley of American muskets, and fell by the wayside, but for most of the others it merely angered them forward. Within a minute or two, the bears were amongst the Americans mauling them as they went. Some human bodies were violently tossed around like play dolls, dying almost instantly by the power of the bearís mighty paws, whilst many other Americans were decapitated by claws or even had their head bitten off and eaten. Regardless, though, of the individual fate of the members of American front line, to this dreadful onslaught, the rest soon ran for their lives. The Battle of York was over. Canada was saved.
Although York might have been saved, and Canada along with it, the War of 1812 was far from over. The Americans still controlled the border and much Canadian territory. And the Americans still enjoyed the superiority of numbers. Still their defeat at York unnerved them, even though their senior commanders - even the US President James Madison - scoffed at the talk of Grizzly Bears as cavalry. This was not, however, the case north of the border. Upon hearing of the successful Grizzly Bear attack, Governor-General George Prevost immediately honoured the makeshift unit as The Royal Canadian Mounted Grizzly Regiment and ordered them to spearhead the counterattack against the Americans.
It took, however, several months until such a counterattack was able to get under way. Even though the Americans had been repulsed at York, several other raids were being conducted elsewhere. And although the Mounted Grizzlies were ordered to get involved, in repulsing two such raids, through slowness of travel, amongst other things, they missed further battles until the Anglo-Canadian counterattack was able to finally get moving. This time, importantly, was not wasted by the Mounted Grizzlies who had, not only replaced the twelve bears lost at York, but had doubled their overall number by the time the counterattack had started.
Having said that, even with the Mounted Grizzlies present, the main Anglo-Canadian column fought hard in order to get to the main American position on the border: Buffalo. The American troops, regardless of the scepticism coming from Washington DC and their senior officers, refused to fight a major set-piece battle against the advancing Anglo-Canadian force fearing this would lead to an attack by the now feared regiment of Mounted Grizzlies. Although this still meant that the Canadians finally got to Buffalo, it nevertheless took them until early December 1813 to do so. By then the Grizzly Bears had already become lethargic and were more than happy to enter their hibernation for the next three or so months. Even the Americans believed that this could well be the case, and combined with urgent messages from Washington DC, decided to make a stand at Buffalo.
The Battle of Buffalo started as an infantry affair. The Americans, braced behind good defences, were more than able to keep the Anglo-Canadian troops at bay. In fact it appeared, by the end of the third day, that the Americans were going to easily repel the Anglo-Canadian army and thus force them to retreat before winter truly arrived. In this respect, then, believing that the Mounted Grizzlies were not going to be committed to the battle, the Americans decided to go onto the attack. It was a mistake as the British commander had decided, at the same time, to use the Mounted Grizzlies in one last desperate attack before having to withdraw before winter had well and truly set in.
Thus, on the morning of 19th December 1813, just as the Americans launched their attack against the Anglo-Canadian lines, they marched right into the charge of the Mounted Grizzlies who were supported by three battalions of Anglo-Canadian troops. Considering most of the Americans had not seen such an attacking force before, although all of them had heard of the carnage some six months earlier at York, few stood their ground. Most fled within minutes. Those that did stand were soon dispatched, either through a savage bear claw or sharp teeth, and several hundred others, fleeing for their lives, did not last much longer. Consequentially, American resistance in the Buffalo region ceased and The Royal Canadian Mounted Grizzly Regiment enjoyed a very merry Christmas as a result.
Even though the War of 1812 would go on, fighting for the now famed Mounted Grizzlies had come to an end. The border frontier region, around Buffalo, was conceded by the Americans whilst they had more pressing matters to attend to: not only had the Royal Navy began various raids along the coastline, the most famous of which was the attack on the American capital itself, Washington DC, that climaxed with the burning of the White House, but actual invasion seemed on the cards in the south. Oddly enough, fears of invasion was settled once a peace treaty was finally signed, not to mention the defeat of a large British force at the Battle of New Orleans which, ironically, took place after the actual peace treaty had been signed and hostilities officially ceased.
Still, even though the War for the Mounted Grizzlies was over, they nevertheless remained part of the Canadian military, albeit under British control, until their demise during the Crimean War. Britain, thinking that The Royal Canadian Mounted Grizzly Regiment could be used as shock troops against the Russians, in a manner akin to the North American experience, took the entire Regiment to the Crimea in early 1855. There they never fought an action. Nor did they fire a shot in anger. Instead, due to a dreadful diet, as well as numerous illnesses, all 250 of the Grizzly Bears (none of which had fought in the War of 1812), constituting the full Regiment, died as well as half of their human handlers. As a result of such a calamity, the Regiment was never reformed.
Postscript : In 1998 the Canadian government in Ottawa found itself in the custody of ten Grizzly Bears after a large Canadian circus troupe went bankrupt. After failing to find them a home at several Canadian zoos, including the famous one in Toronto, the Canadian Army finally took them in when no one else would. In doing so the Canadian Army reconstituted the 1st Squadron of The Royal Canadian Mounted Grizzly Regiment. Although they are only used for parades and such, they have become a huge tourist attraction during certain times of the Canadian calendar. Various animal rights groups, however, protest this practice declaring that the bears are ill treated.