The Old Soldier

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Belcher
138th (Edmonton) Battalion
Belcher

I have in mind a man who has served for many years, first in the British Army, and afterwards in the Northwest Mounted Police and then in the South African war. Finally he was authorized to raise a battalion at Edmonton. On strength of his military experience and on the strength of his personal standing, he did raise a battalion without any serious difficulty. Surely such a man with such a battalion, raised under such circumstances—surely it would be right and proper that that battalion should go to the front intact under such leadership.

(Frank Oliver, Debates, 23 Jan 1917, 76)

Criticizing the breakup of the Canadian battalions, Frank Oliver, Liberal MP for Edmonton, alluded to the experience of Colonel Robert Belcher. Born on 23 April 1849 in London, England, the sixty-seven year old soldier and policeman was “one of the real old-timers in the west.”

After serving five years in the 9th Lancers, Belcher immigrated to western Canada and joined the Northwest Mounted Police in 1873. His long career as a police constable in the “wild and wholly west” took him to Edmonton, through the Riel Rebellion and into the Yukon. During the Boer War, Belcher served as second-in-command under Colonel Sam Steele, fellow NWMP member and commander of Lord Strathcona’s Horse.

In November 1915, Belcher was appointed commanding officer of the 138th Battalion stationed at Edmonton. According to the Calgary Herald, “it can certainly be said that few Canadian battalions can boast of such a competent and efficient commanding officer.” When the 138th landed in England, its troops were absorbed into existing Alberta battalions. Belcher received a staff position in France before returning to Alberta in November 1917. A few days before leaving for Canada, his son, Captain Percy James Belcher, was killed in action at Passchendaele.

138th

In Ottawa, Frank Oliver argued that the perceived mistreatment of surplus senior officers like Belcher would ruin their reputations at home. According to the Edmonton MP, they “will never get over the disgrace that has been placed upon them by the action of this Government…There is no way that these men can justify themselves to the people from amongst whom they come.”

Despite Oliver’s concerns, Belcher remained a celebrated and respected citizen upon his return to Alberta. Shortly after the death of his old friend, General Sam Steele in January 1919, Belcher died of a heart attack in Calgary on 10 February 1919. At a banquet two weeks later to honour the returned men who had enlisted in Belcher’s 138th, Edmonton MPP Albert Freeman Ewing praised the old solider, stressing, “Only the hand of age prevented his taking his place with them on the firing line.”

Digitized Service File (LAC):
http://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.item/?op=pdf&app=CEF&id=B0602-S020

Photo: Glenbow Museum

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