Lt. Cols. Cowan and McPherson

Lieutenant Colonel Harry Cowan
Lieutenant Colonel C.D. McPherson

32nd (Portage la Prairie) Battalion

In view of the serious war situation I decided that I would write to you to ascertain what steps those of us located in this part of the world, and wishing to serve, should take … Just to what extent this U.S. neutrality law would restrain us, I do not know. However, I do know that there will be quite a large number who will offer to serve should hostilities break out.

(McPherson to defence minister, 24 Aug 1939)

Harry James Cowan was a Boer War veteran and commanding officer of the 18th Mounted Rifles. In November 1914, he was authorized to raise the 32nd Battalion from Manitoba and Saskatchewan. He selected Major Charles Duncan McPherson, of “C” Squadron in the 18th Mounted Rifles, as his second-in-command.

Born on 23 August 1873 in Portage la Prairie, Cowan was a solicitor and son of Dr. James Cowan, a Manitoba politician, physician and one of the wealthiest men in the Northwest. Cowan was a leading local militia officer and fought at the battle of Paardeberg during the South African Campaign. Previously associated with the Manitoba Dragoons, he formed the 18th Mounted Rifles in 1906.

After arriving in England in February 1915, the 32nd Battalion was redesignated the 32nd Reserve battalion under Cowan’s command. In September, Cowan was reassigned to the 10th Reserve Brigade and command of the 32nd passed to Major McPherson.

Born on 14 April 1877 in Forest, Ontario, McPherson was a newspaper editor, journalist and Liberal politician. He represented Lakeside in the Manitoba legislature from 1910 until his defeat in July 1914. He was one of the first Canadian officers to visit the front in 1914 but was recalled to become second-in-command of the 32nd Battalion. While stationed overseas in England, in August 1915, McPherson was again elected to Lakeside after a corruption scandal had brought down the Conservative Government. He commanded the 32nd Reserves in England until August 1916, when he reverted to the rank of major and joined the 28th (Northwest) Battalion on the Somme.

In October 1917, McPherson took temporary command of the 31st Battalion during the absence of Lieutenant Colonel A. H. Bell. After the battle of Passchendaele, McPherson reported, “words entirely fail to do justice to the splendid efforts, the courage, initiative and gallantry displayed by all ranks.”

In April 1917, Cowan went to France as commandant of the 4th Division Infantry Base Depot at Etaples. He returned to Canada in September 1919 and died in Portage la Prairie on 25 August 1930, two days after his fifty-seventh birthday.

After the war, McPherson returned to his seat in the Manitoba legislature and became a cabinet minister in the Liberal Government. He was defeated for re-election in 1922 by the United Farmers Party.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, McPherson was living in California but was eager to aid the war effort. But at over sixty, his offer to serve was declined. He died in Vancouver on 18 July 1970.

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