Manitoba man remembered for leading a battalion of mostly Indigenous soldiers during First World

Lt.-Col. Glen Campbell was an advocate for Indigenous people during First World War says great-grandson.

He might not be in the First World War history books, but to Glen Campbell, his great-grandfather and namesake is a hero.

Lt.-Col. Glenlyon (Glen) Campbell was the recruiter and commanding officer of the 107th (Timber WolfBattalion during the First World War.

Based in Winnipeg, it’s estimated around 500 of the 860 men in the battalion were Indigenous.

Though Campbell wasn’t Indigenous himself, his great-grandson says Campbell wanted to lead a fully Indigenous battalion – an unusual goal considering the racial attitudes of the time.

“He just wanted to prove that they could be outstanding soldiers. He just thought they were outstanding people who weren’t treated very well,” says his great-grandson Glen.

“He was a lifelong advocate for Canada’s Aboriginal people.”

In 2019, Glen self-published a book about his family, Leaders, Warriors, Heroes, and Heroines, which mainly focuses on Campbell’s life and achievements. “He was a lifelong advocate for Canada’s Aboriginal people,” says Glen.

Indigenous advocate

Campbell’s life was intertwined with Indigenous culture from birth.

His father was Robert Campbell, a famed Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader and explorer renowned for his exploits in the Yukon. His great-grandson says Campbell’s father passed down his respect for Indigenous people onto Campbell.

Campbell was born in Fort Pelly, Sask., where he grew up playing with local First Nations children. Through his playmates, he learned to speak fluent Cree and Ojibwe.

Campbell later married Harriet Burns who was the daughter of Plains Ojibwa Chief Keeseekoowenin in what is now present-day Manitoba. They had four children together.

Officers of the 107th. Campbell can be seen in the middle of the picture. Courtesy: Glen Campbell

Prior to the First World War, Campbell lived in Manitoba where he was a rancher and politician.

In 1903 he was elected as the MLA for Gilbert Plains as a member of the Conservative Party. He resigned his seat in 1908 and successfully ran in the federal riding of Dauphin. He held the riding until 1911 when he was defeated by Robert Cruise.

His great-grandson says during Campbell’s tenure as a politician he would often speak in English or a mixture of Cree and English.

He says Campbell was also an advocate for Indigenous languages to have the same recognition as English and French, an issue he raised during his time in the House of Commons.

His great-grandson says Campbell’s beliefs were not popular nor widely accepted amongst his peers at the time.

Forming the 107th

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Campbell petitioned prime minister Robert Borden for an Indigenous battalion. In his petition, he noted how Indigenous soldiers were self-reliant, good riders and shots and “couldn’t be beaten” when it came to scouting and guerilla warfare.

Campbell’s request was denied.

As mounting causalities grew and replacements were needed, by late 1915, the request was granted.

The 107th was raised in Winnipeg and trained in England.

After arriving in England in 1916 the battalion was almost disbanded as troops were needed to backfill depleted infantry units.

His great-grandson says Campbell was able to keep his men together by convincing his superiors his fluency in Indigenous languages would be an asset when giving commands.

“He (also) felt he could protect them from the racism they may face in less integrated battalions,” his great-grandson says.

During the battalion’s voyage from England to France, Campbell’s great-grandson says it was a proud time for Campbell.

“He said it was one of the happiest days of his life because after three years he would soon be leading an Aboriginal battalion.”

Originally trained as an infantry battalion, the 107th was reassembled as a pioneer battalion which mainly performed engineer tasks such as digging ditches, laying communication wires and repairing trenches.

Campbell’s great-grandson says the reassembling of the battalion was likely influenced by racial prejudice towards Indigenous soldiers.

“It would’ve been the attitude at the time and I’m sure that’s why, ‘because you’re Aboriginal you’re better suited to dig trenches,’ which obviously was totally wrong, but prevailing attitudes of the time, that’s what it would have been,” he says.

While the 107th was mainly a pioneer battalion, Campbell says they did participate in some combat action, most notably in the Battle of Hill 70.

Campbell’s great-grandson says during the battle, the 107th volunteered to rescue 25 Canadian soldiers from No Man’s Land. They also retrieved the bodies of several dead soldiers. He says the 107th was praised by other commanders for their bravery on Hill 70.

However, the battalion experienced heavy losses on Hill 70. Around 150 men were killed in the battle, 88 of whom were gassed during the mission.

Campbell’s great-grandson says after Hill 70 and the loss of so many lives, Campbell became disillusioned with the war and wanted to return back home with his men.

“I know Glen took every loss personally because he had such a personal relationship with so many men in his battalion,” says his great-grandson.

“When soldiers didn’t show up for the morning roll call he took it very personally.”

Only a few weeks after Hill 70, Campbell died in 1917 at age 53 from natural causes while in France.

The 107th remained together through the Battle of Passchendaele and disbanded in 1918 due to growing causalities. The remaining soldiers were dispersed throughout other battalions.

His great-grandson says Campbell had hoped his men who survived the war would be treated with respect when they returned back to Canada, though this wasn’t the case.

“He had hoped the First Nations (men) would get the same benefits as all other returning veterans,” he says.

“The ones that went back to their reserves were told ‘thank you for your service, now go back to your reserve and be good Indians.”

While many might not know Campbell’s name, his great-grandson says he’s proud of him nonetheless.

“He was a decent human being who respected Canada’s Indigenous people when not very many people did.”

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