Lieutenant Colonel W. T. Stewart
84th (Toronto Depot) Battalion
…the genial silver-haired Irishman who commands the regiment, and who is the originator of the Home Guard movement of Canada, a movement that to-day has over 160,000 men in its train. The chief characteristic of this commander is that when he wants anything he gets it.
(Brantford Expositor, Dec 1915, 16)
A native of Killarney, Ireland, William Thomas Stewart was a twenty-five year member of the Canadian militia, serving in the 13th (Hamilton), the 66th (Princess Louise) and 100th (Royal Canadians) Regiments. One month after the outbreak of the First World War, Stewart began organizing the Home Guards from Toronto.
Pleased with Stewart’s efforts, Minister Sam Hughes appointed him commanding officer of the new 109th Regiment in the Canadian Militia. Some of Toronto’s later battalion commanders originally joined the 109th, such as Jesse Wright of the 169th, Dick Greer of the 180th Sportsmen and Walter McConnell of the 256th Railway Battalion. By summer 1915, Stewart was authorized to raise the 84th Battalion.
The Toronto Globe remarked on Stewart’s initiative, “Some people were inclined to despise the Home Guards (like the Kaiser despised the ‘contemptible little British army’), but it was a most pregnant nucleus from which sprang the 109th Regiment…” The newspaper regarded it as an “easy step” for Home Guard civilians to transition into trained fighters with the 84th.
Despite official inquiries about battalion finances, which led to Stewart’s temporary suspension, the 84th eventually proceeded to England in June 1916. Although Stewart had expected that his unit would be split up, the reality was nevertheless difficult to bear. According to a letter from 84th Private Herbert Cunliffe to his wife:
…they took nearly all our battalion away from us the day after we got here, which was a shame, after being together so long. The Officers were crying on the parade ground, at having to part with the men, not just one or two of them, but all of them from the Colonel down to the last Officer we got in the battalion.
…so I guess we shall get somebody’s else’s battalion, but they won’t be as good as our’s, I don’t care how good they are…
On 18 October 1916, two months after arriving in France, Cunliffe was killed in action while serving with Lieutenant Colonel Beckett’s 75th Battalion.
After the breakup of his unit, Stewart assumed command of the 51st Garrison Battalion. He returned to Canada in April 1917 in charge of a shipload of wounded men. When he landed, Stewart remarked to the press that the Canadian soldiers were, “the top-notchers in England to-day.”