The Lil’ Colonel

Lieutenant Colonel W. Rae, D.S.O.
4th (Central Ontario) Battalion Rae

A battalion of infantry is a chameleon, ceaselessly changing its colour to suit the changing complexions of its commanding officers. The Fourth Canadian Battalion followed the rule.

But the madness of the Fourth appears to have been an intermittent fever. Birchall engendered it, Colquhoun advertised it, Rae damped down the fire. For with the coming of Rae we first discern another element creeping in, which seems as difficult to mix with the rugged abandon of the early days as oil with water—the element of cold discipline.

(Lieut. Pedley, Only This, 1999, 18)

A native of Scotland, William Rae was born on 15 January 1883 in Aberdeen. He immigrated to Canada in 1907, moved to British Columbia and joined the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders Regiment. At the outbreak of the Great War, the five-foot-six Scotsman enlisted with the 16th Battalion. Rae fought at Second Ypres during the German gas attack and was the only company commander in the 16th to survive the battle. By June 1916, he had transferred to the 4th Battalion in order to take command from Lieutenant Colonel Malcolm Colquhoun.

4thRaeIn the opinion Lieutenant James Henry Pedley of the 4th, Rae lacked the necessary ardour of a good commanding officer. He wrote in a postwar memoir:

One gathers that when the prim little colonel was finally promoted to Staff he left behind him a well chastened set of madmen. He was a while steady Rae, even a brilliant Rae, but a Rae that gave out little or no heat.

Rae remained in command for a year until he was replaced by Major A. T. Thomson of the 10th Battalion on 2 June 1917. He took a staff position in England and remained overseas after the war. During the 1930s and 40s, he acted as Canadian Legion representative in London. He returned to British Columbia in his elder years.

In 1967, Rae was one of the Canadian veterans to voice outrage at an article by American Colonel Stanley D. Fair of the Army War College. In “What’s Wrong with Gas Warfare?,” Fair suggested that all Allied troops had fled the gas attack at Ypres, an assertion many Canadian veterans replied was “a damned lie” In an interview with a reporter about the article, Rae stated, “if I said what I thought, I would burn up this telephone.”

He served as honorary colonel of his old militia regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders, until his death on 11 November 1973.

RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 8068 – 45

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