Lieutenant Colonel Dick Greer
180th (Sportsmen) Battalion
But the English and Canadians and Australians fight in a different way. They make a sport of fighting.
The German soldier has no sport. He is a machine; he is rigidly in his place. He can’t understand the idea that fighting is sport to the British. That long line of men charging, laughing and kicking a football along ahead terrifies him.
(Greer to Fosdick Commission, Toronto Globe, 18 June 1917, 9)
As president of the Sportsmen’s Patriotic Association, Richard Haliburton Greer proposed to raise a battalion of athletes from Toronto. Born on 19 October 1878 in Toronto, Greer was an Ontario Crown attorney and one of the city’s leading sportsmen. In his youth, Greer played amateur and semi-professional baseball. As a member of the University of Toronto ball club in the late 1890s, he was regarded as “one of the best short-stops in Canada.” In the 1898 UofT yearbook, Greer cited as his chief ambition in life: “To play the game.”
Once authorized in January 1916, Greer’s 180th Battalion attracted many nationally and internationally recognized sportsmen, whose specialties ranged from boxing to football to baseball to hockey. Due to the battalion’s unique composition and the high caliber of its athlete-volunteers, the 180th became one of the most popular units raised from the Ontario capital.
When the battalion departed for England in October 1916, the Toronto Globe emphasized the central importance of sports and games to the Anglo-Saxon people. An editorial explained, “That men are better fitted for the crisis by the spirit, discipline and physical training of outdoor sport goes without saying.” In England, the 180th was eventually absorbed by the 3rd Reserve Battalion in January 1917.
Following a battlefield tour in spring 1917, Greer returned to Canada in order to resume his duties as provincial Crown attorney. Unable to get into the “great game,” Greer embraced a supporting role as he cheered on his men from the sidelines. In June 1917, he went to Washington D.C. to promote the benefits of sport investment on military effectiveness. Testifying before American government commissioners, Greer asserted, “I cannot exaggerate the importance of sport in the modern army. The psychological effect of any competitive sport is almost miraculous.” Sports not only served to develop a soldier’s body, competition and gamesmanship also provided necessary diversions from the grind of war.
Shortly after his meeting in Washington, Greer learned that his younger brother, Lieutenant Tom Boles Greer, who had enlisted with the 180th, died while fighting with the 38th Battalion. As Greer explained to the American officials, Canadian soldiers refused to surrender; “They fight while they have a cartridge left or a leg to stand on. It isn’t in the game to quit. It’s against every principle of sport.”
One of Toronto’s most prominent criminal lawyers, Colonel Greer died on 22 May 1949 at the age of seventy.
Image: UofT Baseball Team, Torontonensis, 1898, standing far right
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