02 May 2013

Anniversary of the Battle of Cut Knife Hill

Today is the 128th anniversary of the Battle of Cut Knife Hill, the first military encounter in which Ottawans, William Osgoode and John Rogers, gave their lives fighting for The Dominion of Canada. Here from the book The Ottawa Sharpshooters (out of print) is the description of the battle.

"At 1 p.m. Friday, 1 May, using a debatable interpretation of his orders, Col. Otter set off on a “reconnaissance in strength” toward the reserve of Chief Poundmaker. The “strength” referred to two 7-pounder brass muzzle-loaded cannons, a Gatling gun and 320 men. The Sharpshooters involved were Lieut. Gray, Colour Sgt. Winter, Staff Sgt. Newby, Lance Corp. Pardey, Privates Bell, Boucher, Brophy, Brumell, Cassidy, Chepmell, Chester, Cunningham, Jarvis, McCarthy, McDonald, McQuilkin, Henry and John May, Osgoode, Phillips, Rogers, and Taylor.

Two Sharpshooters set out with considerable unease. Rogers, son of a prominent Barbados family of British origin, had had a premonition of being killed; and Winter a dream of being wounded in the face.

Travelling on horseback, and in fifty wagons, they progressed 17 miles before stopping to eat and rest during the three hours between sunset and moonrise. Under a clear early May night sky the temperature plummeted as they continued on toward Cut Knife Creek expecting to find Poundmaker’s camp. At dawn scouts discovered the camp, relocated over a mile further west, beyond Cut Knife Hill. The first troops followed the scouts over the creek’s marshland and started up the hill, hoping to stop for breakfast and warm themselves.

Suddenly, Cassells wrote, things became very hot.  “... just as the scouts reached the top of the first steep ascent, I heard a rattle of rifles ahead and then in a minute or two saw the police and some artillery lying down firing briskly over the crest of the hill and the guns and Gatling also working for all they were worth. At the same time bullets began to fly around us and puffs of smoke floated from the bushes on the right and left.”

The troops took up defensive positions as best they could on the exposed high ground in a rough horseshoe formation with the open end toward the creek. The Cree were hidden in ravines and willow thickets 200 to 300 yards away, and were able to move undetected around the troops’ position. Gray spread his Sharpshooters along the extreme left flank, next to the Queen’s Own Rifles, the scene of some of the most deadly fire.

Winter was the first casualty, and, in accordance with his dream, he was shot in the nose and left side of the face. Although a bad looking injury it healed well, but left him without a sense of smell.

Private William Osgoode, recruited to the Sharpshooters from the 43rd Batallion of Rifles, was shot in the head at point-blank range after jumping off a five-foot cliff while on a sortie to protect the route for withdrawal.

Private John McQuilkin was hit by a musket ball which lodged in his hip.

GGFG Private John Rogers’ premonition proved sadly accurate. About 11 a.m., during a lull in the fighting in his sector, Captain Patrick Hughes commanding the Queen’s Own Rifles “felt like having a smoke, but found I had no tobacco. I turned to the man next to me, poor Rogers, of the Guards, and asked him for some. He did not quite hear me and said, “what, sir” and then, like a flash, a bullet came from the left, hitting him on the side of the head, and killing him instantly.” According to Private Edmund Boucher, the bullet that got Rogers just missed his own face.

Shortly thereafter, with eight of his men killed and 14 wounded, Otter accepted he would make no progress and ordered a withdrawal. It remains unclear whether it was owing to a lack of ammunition, or to an order by Chief Poundmaker, but the force returned to Battleford without being pursued."

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