April 24, 1885, marked the turn of the tide in the Northwest Rebellion. Ottawa had been moved to act by the news of Duck Lake (see my March 18 post – Riel Arrests Hostages) and rushed a force of 3,000 men from the east under British General Middleton. Middleton also had 2,000 men from the west and 500 Northwest Mounted Police. One of his first decisions was to order Colonel Herchmer to take fifty Mounted Police to Battleford and try to rescue the besieged inhabitants. Herchmer acted contrary to the spirit of Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade. “Theirs not to reason why. Theirs but to do and die.” He did something unheard of in the annals of the famous force, and refused to go! The order meant a march of 200 miles from Regina to Battleford, when only half his men had horses. They would have to ford the South Saskatchewan River in spring flood and would be easy targets for Poundmaker’s Indians.
Middleton then revised his plan and divided the force that was destined for Edmonton. Half of it was ordered to take the train to Swift Current and go to Battleford. Colonel Otter was in command and then joined by the fifty police Herchmer had refused to squander.
When they reached the South Saskatchewan River, they waited for the paddle-wheeler Northcote to bring supplies from Medicine Hat, a trip that took a week. Since in some places, the water was only 20 inches deep and the Northcote drew 26 inches, the ship had to become amphibious to get over the shoals. General Middletonlater wrote, “The long expected steamer arrived after a tedious voyage most of which seems to have been made on land. All the steamers are stern-wheelers and have four strong spars fastened, two on each side off the bow, by. Sort of hinge. These spars are lowered when the vessel runs on a shoal or sandbar, and the vessel is forced over; made to walk, as it were.”
On April 24, Middleton’s own force was almost ambushed by Dumont and 130 Métis at Fish Creek. A more important development on April 24 was that Otter and Herchmer reached Battleford. It was like the relief of Lucknow to the people who had been besieged there for nearly a month. It must have been a thrilling event to hear the music of a military band approaching from the distance.
There are quite a few places on the internet that cover this battle. There’s Canada’s First Peoples, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment Military Museum, and Buckdog‘s blog, and a site I just found is Canada’s Historic Places. Still want more? There are a lot of choices at Google Canada!