Remembering the regiment

Sgt. Robert Hartley has just completed work on a book documenting the history of the Royal Westminster Regiment, which will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2013. - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
Sgt. Robert Hartley has just completed work on a book documenting the history of the Royal Westminster Regiment, which will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2013.

Sgt. Robert Harley probably heard his first war story while he was still in the cradle.

The military is in his DNA. Harley comes from a long line of relatives with connections to the armed forces. Some won medals, including a great uncle, Cpl. Harry Garnet Miner, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his brave actions that cost him his life during the final months of the First World War. Harley says one branch of his family lost all the men except one serving in the military.

So it was natural for him to join the cadets when he was 12 and the Westminster Regiment when he was 17, which was 29 years ago. And it was natural for him to already be fascinated with its history.

So fascinated, in fact, Harley has wanted to chronicle its past in book form for more than two decades. When he was put on the committee to develop ways to honour the regiment’s 150th anniversary in 2013, Harley pitched his idea.

“This was my chance to jump in there and say let’s do a pictorial history of the regiment,” says Harley as he sits amidst the medals and memorabilia in the regiment’s armoury museum which he runs.

Harley’s worked on For King and Country: 150 years of The Royal Westminster Regiment for nearly two years. He and retired Capt. Terry Leith sent the final scans to the printer Halloween night.

“The vast majority has not been published before,” says Harley.

“It was a huge project, but I love it. I have my own little museum at home.”

How it all began

The volunteer regiment’s origins stem from a meeting at Hyack Hall on the evening of Nov. 11, 1863. Ten days later, Gov. James Douglas approved establishment of the New Westminster Rifle Company No. 1.

At the time, New Westminster was the region’s capital and the prevailing sentiment was the area needed protection.

Its first actual action was in the spring of 1865 up the coast at Bute Inlet where the regiment assisted the Northwest Mounted Police in stopping “raiding parties” by Chilcotin Indians against trappers and miners.

The first regiment member to be killed in action was Arthur Timleck, who died in 1901 during the Boer War at the age of 21. He was buried in Fraser Cemetery.

The regiment had different names over the years, with it being broken into the 47th and 131st Battalions during the First World War. At that time, 6,500 were sent from New Westminster and the Fraser Valley to participate in a campaign fought mostly in the trenches which took a heavy toll. Harley says the 47th Battalion lost 988 members, and that doesn’t count the men who were sent to other units after signing up at the New Westminster recruiting depot.

“Most of the casualties came in the last 100 days of the war,” says Harley.

That’s because the Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders spearheaded the last actions in taking down the Germans “and were taking the brunt of the war,” says Harley.

In contrast, more than 4,200 Westminster Regiment men served in the Second World War with 134 killed in action.


‘Always a Westie’

The regiment, which stretches up to Boston Bar, has never had a problem finding recruits and is one of the largest in the province. In fact, it’s about to move its Aldergrove branch to Chilliwack so it can be expanded.

“It’s for the friendships you make, the buddies you have here,” says Harley. “Once a Westie, always a Westie.”

He recalls meeting a Westie who served in the Second World War at a banquet in Edmonton. “He talked with me for hours. There’s just always having that connection.”

One of the Westminster Regiment’s commanders, Donald Stanley Montgomery, was the older brother of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, one of Britain’s leaders during the Second World War. The museum’s memorabilia includes a tunic donated by ‘Monty.’

Capt. Joe Burr, the grandfather of New Westminster native Raymond Burr, the Perry Mason and Ironside star, was an early Westie in the late 1800s.

A favourite display of Harley’s in the museum is the seven medals, including one for bravery, given to Roger C. McDonald, who fibbed about his age and signed up for service in the First World War when he was 17. More than 20 years later, during the Second World War, McDonald lied about his age to authorities again, this time he was claiming he was younger.


Restoration piece

Terry Leith, 70, is the new president of the Royal Westminster Regiment Historical Society, taking over from retired Gen. Herb Hamm, who is 82. While Leith helped Harley, he’s been concentrating on another anniversary project. The society recently bought a bren gun armoured personnel carrier from a Vancouver Island military collector. It is currently being restored, along with a cannon, and will be put on a concrete pad for display outside the barracks.

The armoury, says Harley, was built in 1895 and is the oldest wooden free-standing military structure in Canada. There are a few tales hidden in its walls, including a few ghost stories, which even Leith gives credence to.

“I’ve been in the building when I know I’m by myself and I hear people walking around upstairs. At first you think you’re hearing things because you know darn well you’re the only one in the building, but lots of guys have said the same thing,” says Leith.


Sharing the story

So far $30,000 in book sales have been raised for the project.

“I was confident from the get-go we were going to raise the money. We were hoping for more from larger organizations,” says Harley.

The book is more than 320 pages with about 120 of them dedicated to embarkation lists of regiment members who participated in the Boer, First World War, Second World War and Afghanistan.

Individual copies are $80 each with the price going up to $100 in January. There are also limited numbered editions available. They can be purchased through by going to the Regiment 150th button.

The regiment’s museum is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Harley is more than willing to do tours at other times, often giving them to school classes, cubs and scouts, and other organizations because he never grows tired of the Westies’ story.


Remembrance Day ceremonies

New Westminster Remembrance Day ceremonies will be held at the Royal Westminster Regiment Armoury at Queen’s Avenue and Sixth Street on Nov. 11 starting at 10 a.m.

A live broadcast can also be seen across the street at Queens Avenue United Church. Participants are requested to get there at 9:30 a.m. with the doors to the armoury being closed at 9:45 a.m.

The memorial address will be given by Jack McGee, who recently retired as president of the Justice Institute of B.C. Following the ceremony there will be a parade from the armoury to the cenotaph in front of City Hall where the two minutes of silence will be observed at 11 a.m. A wreath laying ceremony and a march past on Royal Avenue will come afterward.

Royal will be closed from McBride Boulevard to Eighth Street between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. No traffic will be able to access Royal or the Pattullo Bridge during those hours. Trucks wishing to access the bridge will be diverted to the Port Mann Bridge.

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