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History and Uniform of the
Governor General's Horse Guards, 1822 to the Present
The following is an extract from the book Military Uniforms in Canada, 1665-1970 by Jack L. Summers and Rene Chartrand (Ottawa: Canadian War Museum, 1981) and is reproduced here by the kind permission of the Canadian War Museum. Reprinting or duplication of the text or illustration without permission from the Canadian War Museum is prohibited.
The Governor General's Horse Guards is the senior regiment of the Canadian militia, and claims the longest period of unbroken service for a mounted unit of the Canadian Army. The regiment traces its beginning to the reorganization of the militia of Upper Canada after the War of 1812-14, when the provincial Militia Act provided for a troop of cavalry for each regimental district. In 1822, Colonel Chewett of the 1st West York Regiment of Militia persuaded Captain George Taylor Denison of Bellevue, Toronto to raise and command such a troop for his regiment. The Denison family was to maintain a long association with the newly formed unit.
Though not provided with weapons until 1831, Denison's troop, which assumed the title of York Dragoons, continued voluntary training. This was most unusual for a militia unit of the period, but it proved its worth. When the Rebellion of 1837 confronted Toronto, Denison's troop was taken immediately into regular British service, and performed so effectively that it was granted the honorary designation of Queen's Light Dragoons. The corps was relieved from service in May 1839 after two six-month periods of active duty.
The Militia Act of 1846, enacted to standardize militia regulations in the recently united provinces of Lower and Upper Canada, authorized the formation of volunteer units of infantry, artillery, and cavalry. Such units had existed previously, but the new Act provided the first official recognition of volunteer corps by Canadian authorities. Some reorganization of the militia followed, and in 1847 the Queen's Light Dragoons was re-gazetted the 1st Toronto Independent Troop of Cavalry. In 1853, a regiment of volunteer cavalry designated the 1st Regiment, York Light Dragoons was formed in the county of York, and Denison's Independent Troop of Cavalry was named the 1st Troop of the new regiment.
The Militia Act of 1855 provided for the formation of the Active Militia of selected volunteer units, to be equipped and paid by the government. It also authorized the enrolment of troops of cavalry, rather than regiments. The 1st Troop, York Light Dragoons was selected for the new force and designated 1st Troop, Volunteer Militia Cavalry of the County of York (1st York Cavalry).
As one of the better trained and mounted units in Toronto, the 1st York Cavalry and its predecessor, the 1st Toronto Independent Troop, were called on frequently to furnish an escort for the Governor-General of the day. Because of this long tradition of vice-regal service, a memorial was presented to His Excellency in 1861 requesting that the troop be granted the title of the Governor General's Body Guard. No reply was received. When, in April 1866, the Royal Guides of Montreal was gazetted the Governor General's Body Guard, the 1st York Cavalry protested vigorously. As a result, an order of 27 April 1866 directed that the Royal Guides be designated the Governor General's Body Guard for Lower Canada, and the 1st York Cavalry be titled the Governor General's Body Guard for Upper Canada. The latter designation was changed to the Governor General's Body Guard for Ontario on 1 July 1867.
The Body Guard was placed on active service during the Fenian raids of 1866, serving in the Fort Erie area with the British regulars. The corps made a creditable showing during these operations despite the inadequacy of its weapons and equipment.
In 1874, it was proposed that the strength of the unit be raised to two troops. The second troop was soon recruited, although authority for the increase in establishment was not forthcoming until May 1876. It was with a strength of two troops that the Body Guard went on active service with General Middleton's North West Field Force in 1885; and during the ensuing campaign the unit was assigned a protective role on the right flank of Middleton's advance to Batoche.
In May 1889, the Body Guard was raised to the status of a cavalry regiment of four troops. The new regiment was designated the Governor General's Body Guard in 1895, as the Royal Guides had been disbanded in 1869.
Although it was not mobilized as a mounted unit on the outbreak of the First World War, the regiment contributed volunteers to the 3rd Battalion, CEF, on the assembly of the First Canadian Contingent in 1914. Subsequently, the unit recruited for the 4th Regiment, Canadian Mounted Rifles, which served in France with the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifle Brigade.
After the 1918 armistice, the Governor General's Body Guard resumed its role as a horsed regiment of cavalry. When the Canadian militia was again reorganized in 1936, the regiment was amalgamated with the Mississauga Horse of Toronto and re-designated the Governor General's Horse Guards.
The Horse Guards, like most Canadian cavalry regiments, took on a modern mechanized role on active service during the Second World War. Mobilized in 1940, the unit was equipped first with motorcycles and later with tanks. As the 3rd Canadian Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (GGHG), the unit formed part of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, and served with that formation in Italy and North-West Europe until the end of the war.
The Governor General's Horse Guards remains on the roll of active regiments of the Canadian militia. Although its horses have been replaced by armoured vehicles for normal service, a special mounted troop of the regiment parades in full dress on very special occasions, adding a welcome dash of colour to Canada's mechanized army.
When raised in 1822, Captain Denison's troop of volunteer cavalry provided its own weapons, equipment, and clothing. While searching for a suitable uniform, Denison discovered that a retired master tailor of the 13th Light Dragoons had set up shop in Toronto. The tailor was engaged immediately to outfit the troop in a uniform that, understandably, bore a strong resemblance to that of the 13th Light Dragoons.
This early uniform of the York Dragoons consisted of a dark-blue coatee with buff facings, heavily laced across wide buff lapels and along the back and sleeve seams with silver braid for officers and white for other ranks. The dark overalls were trimmed with a double white stripe down the outside seam. A girdle was worn at the waist. A bearskin crest and a side plume of red and white feathers decorated the helmet-shaped head-dress.
During the Rebellion of 1837, the troop was issued with accoutrements, weapons (including flintlock carbines), and some items of clothing, such as cloaks and fur caps, from British Army supply channels. The coatee was simplified by removing the wide lapels and fastening the braid to the plain blue cloth front. About the same time, the bearskin-crested helmet was replaced by a bell-topped light dragoon shako with white plume.
On becoming a unit of the Active Militia in 1855, the 1st York Cavalry was issued with new pouches and pouch belts, swords, sword-belts, and pistols carried in a leather holster fastened to the sword-belt. The dress of the troop was described as a jacket of fine blue cloth with white facings, and the old bell-topped shako.
A marked change in regimental dress came in 1871, when the light dragoon uniform was discarded in favour of one of heavy cavalry design. A dragoon helmet of German silver with brass binding, chin scales, spike, and white horsehair plume replaced the bell-topped shako. The dark-blue dragoon tunic was edged with braid, silver for officers and white for other ranks. The white collar of the officer's tunic was edged with silver lace, and the pointed cuffs were trimmed with an Austrian knot of silver cord and tracing braid. The back of the skirt had three-pointed flaps of standard cavalry pattern. Edged with silver lace, the flaps had a silver button at each point and two at the waist. Shoulder-straps were of flat braided silver cord with blue lining. The front of the officer's tunic was fastened with six silver olivets, a regimental distinction that was carried over into succeeding patterns of patrol jacket and frock, including the khaki service-dress tunic worn until the introduction of the green Canadian Forces uniform.
The officer's waist-belt was of silver lace, lined with white morocco leather and edged with white velvet, with white metal fittings and snake buckle. The shoulder-belt was of silver lace with white metal buckle, tips, and slide; the silver chain and prickers were of light cavalry origin. The silver flap of the black leather pouch was mounted with the inscription GGBG in gilt metal.
Dark-blue overalls with a double stripe of silver were worn in full dress, while pantaloons with a double white stripe were worn with black butcher boots and steel jack spurs in mounted order. A white sabretache was trimmed with silver lace and mounted with an embroidered regimental badge. Sword slings were of silver lace, the sword-knot was of white leather with silver acorn, and gauntlets were of white leather.
The men's uniform was similar to that of the officers, except that white braid and cord were worn in place of the officers' silver, and white shoulder cords replaced the officers' heavy silver shoulder-straps. Waist-belts and cross-belts were of white leather for troopers and
The simple and dignified full-dress uniform illustrated in the plate went almost unchanged until 1936, when the regiment was amalgamated with the Mississauga Horse and redesignated the Governor General's Horse Guards; at this time the white plumes and facings were changed to scarlet.
Various patterns of jacket and frock were worn for undress and drill order. During the Northwest Rebellion both officers and men wore stable jackets and round pillbox forage caps. Shortly after the campaign, the men were issued a dark-blue serge frock with breast pockets for undress. A white helmet or round forage cap was worn with this order of dress. In the late 1890s, the unit received a new pattern of blue serge frock with white collar and shoulder-straps, and a crow's-foot in white cord on the cuffs.
Ultimately, the colourful blue uniforms of the Horse Guards were replaced by various forms of khaki service dress and by the black coveralls of armoured crewmen; but the mounted detachment can still be seen in full dress wearing the century-old dragoon helmets of German silver on special ceremonial occasions.