8th Canadian Hussars celebrate 175 years

The 8th Canadian Hussars fighting in Italy. (Strathy Smith / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-140208 - image credit)
The 8th Canadian Hussars fighting in Italy. (Strathy Smith / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-140208 - image credit)

A well-known New Brunswick military unit is celebrating its 175th birthday this weekend.

The 8th Canadian Hussars, also known as Princess Louise's Hussars, will mark the anniversary of their official founding with parades and concerts in Sussex, their ancestral home, and Moncton.

Princess Anne, the younger sister of King Charles III, and the unit's colonel-in-chief, will attend the celebrations in New Brunswick.

The cavalry-turned-tank unit has a long history in battle, including stints in the Boer War, the First and Second World Wars, in peacekeeping operations and in Afghanistan.

Anti-revolutionary roots

The Hussars officially began in 1848, but their roots can be traced back to the American Revolution.

In 1755, Capt. John Saunders, who lived in what was then the Colony of Virginia, raised a cavalry unit to fight colonial rebels — or patriots, depending on point of view.

The fate of the unit, named Saunders Horse, was sealed after the British defeat during the Revolutionary War.

Saunders and many of his men would move to New Brunswick, many settling in the Saint John and Kenebecasis Valley areas.

Ron Ward/The Canadian Press
Ron Ward/The Canadian Press

The unit disbanded, evolved and morphed into several distinct militias until they were brought together officially as the New Brunswick Yeomanry Cavalry.

The use of horses in war would diminish with the development of tanks, leaving many cavalry units to trade in their steeds.

The Hussars also changed, but had a unique way of doing so.

"In the 1930s, when it was clear that horse cavalry were a thing of the past … the Hussars themselves chose to start playing around with rented cars," said Lee Windsor, a UNB history professor and a former reservist with the Hussars. He is the author of Steel Cavalry, a book about the unit's Italian campaign in the Second World War.

Italian campaign

The Hussars are best known for their participation in the Italian campaign.

The campaign was controversial from the start. The British supported it while the Americans were in opposition, wanting instead to open a second front in France instead.

The campaign has often been misunderstood, said Windsor. He wrote in his book that the Allies knew they wouldn't win the war in Italy.

Catherine Harrop/CBC
Catherine Harrop/CBC

"Italy was never intended to win the war by piercing the so-called soft underbelly of Europe and driving to the Reich," said Windsor.

"Allied policy for Sicily and Italy was to set the conditions for successful Normandy landings in 1944."

The Italian campaign forced the Germans to fight on two major fronts, drawing resources away from occupied France.

Malaria drugs

The Hussars were stationed in England from their arrival in Britain in 1941 until November 1943, when they were loaded on ships to move out.

They were told they were headed to Northern Ireland for training, but the fact they were given malaria drugs, and that the ships kept sailing south, made it "clear … the Northern Ireland plan was a cover story," wrote Windsor.

After a short layover in Algiers, the unit arrived in Naples on Dec. 2.

Tanks were not new to warfare, they had been used in the First World War, but their use on the battlefield was evolving.

While many tank units saw themselves as the most important part of ground forces, Windsor said the Hussars knew they needed to work collaboratively with artillery and infantry units.

"A lot of Hussars saw and talked to other experienced British and Canadian armoured veterans and understood that tanks alone In Italy would die," said Windsor

Windsor described the Hussars as an underpowered force in Italy that still managed to "defeat one of the most powerful and effective German units on the battlefield anywhere in the Second World War."

The unit was officially named after Princess Louise, the daughter of Queen Victoria and wife of John Campbell, Canada's fourth governor general.

But is was a second princess, one without royal ties ... or human ones that became the unit's mascot.

She was an orphaned horse rescued by the unit outside Coriano, a city on Italy's Adriatic coast.

Louise remained with the unit for the rest of the war. She was brought back to the unit's home in Sussex and continued as the unit's mascot until her death.