The Van Doos are one of Canada’s famous infantry regiments. The regiment, consisting of mostly French-Canadian soldiers and based in Quebec, is officially called “Le Royale 22ieme Regiment du Canada”. “Twenty-two” in French is “Vingt-Deuxieme”. During the First World War English Canadian soldiers couldn’t pronounce the complicated French numbers correctly, so began calling the regiment the “Van Doos”. For the past century the name has stuck!
The Van Doos ceremonial home is the citadel fortress of old Quebec City. As one of Canada’s largest active regiments, consisting of three regular force battalions, two reserve battalions, its own airlift capability, band, artillery battalion and intelligence company, the Van Doos are today on the front lines of Canada’s defence capabilities.
The Van Doos are highly trained and highly motivated. They have pride of place in international military competitions, often winning gold in marksmanship, assault drills and marching against the United States, Great Britain and other Canadian regiments. This highly trained, highly skilled combat regiment carries its honour and pride with it wherever it is called to go.
Like most of Canada’s military, the Van Doos were formed at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. French Canadian pharmaceutical baron Arthur Mignault lobbied Prime Minister Robert Borden to form a solely French regiment, arguing that having one would keep the support of the Francophone population behind the war effort. Borden agreed and the Royal 22ieme Regiment was born.
The 22ieme, with 4,000 men, arrived in France at the end of 1915 and took part in the bloody Battle of the Somme the following summer, losing nearly half of its men. Fighting alongside the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (Princess Pats) , western Canadians who couldn’t understand a word of French, the men of the 22ieme were quickly given the monicker “Van Doos”. As the war progressed and the 1st Canadian Army grew in size to more than 300,000 personnel, the name “Van Doos” was made all but official. Even the newspapers back home began calling the regiment the “Van Doos”, and the men of the regiment took the new monicker with pride.
The Van Doos participated in every Canadian battle of the First World War, losing more than 12,000 dead during the conflict. A constant stream of new reinforcements to the regiment kept them up to combat strength, but virulent opposition to the war back home in Quebec, resulting in province-wide riots and the near downfall of the federal government, meant that the Van Doos had more trouble replacing losses with French-speaking soldiers than their compatriot English Canadian formations. Nevertheless, the Van Doos gained a fierce reputation as soldiers with something to prove, and two members of the regiment won Victoria Crosses during the war.
After the war, when the federal government drastically downsized Canada’s military capability, the Van Doos were one of three infantry formations that were kept in existence, but only after a lot of fighting by the Quebec provincial government and a final appeal to Parliament by King George V himself! The regiment was downsized significantly from its wartime compliment, but the members who rotated through during the interwar years wore the badge and the name of the Van Doos with obvious pride.
The Van Doos also had a distinct place of pride as being named Parliament Hill’s ceremonial guard of honour, mounting parades and dazzling spectators every morning with the changing of the guard ceremony (a tradition that still continues today, although now the changing of the guard is performed by reservists and hobbyists). When heads of state visit Canada, and especially when the monarchy and family visit, the Van Doos are the official regiment designated to greet them.
After the war, King George V gifted the Van Doos (one of his favourite regiments: he had a soft spot for French Canadians) with the Royal Goat, a direct descendant of a goat given to Queen Victoria by the King of Iran in 1883. The Van Doos renamed the goat “Batisse”, and the goat began to appear at all ceremonial guard events. Although at first politicians complained, they couldn’t get the soldiers to stop taking this goat with them everywhere, and eventually the goat was incorporated into the greeting and changing of the guard ceremonies. Today, Batisse X, the tenth descendant of that goat, still greets heads of state and tourists alike when they visit Parliament Hill in Ottawa!
In 1939 Canada went to war again, and the Van Doos made up part of the 1st Canadian Division, one of the first Canadian army formations to be deployed to Europe in early 1940. The Van Doos were the first Canadian regiment to mount guard at Buckingham Palace, and then, after the fall of France and the disastrous evacuation of Dunkirk, the Van Doos made up one of the only fully trained and fully equipped military formations guarding England’s coast against Nazi invasion.
For the next three years the Van Doos sat in England, training and marching performing ceremonial drills for the home front, but the soldiers were becoming more and more demoralized. Great battles were occuring in North Africa, Russia and the Pacific, but it seemed most Canadian formations were slated to be on permanent guard duty in England. In 1943 all that changed, when the 1st Canadian Army, including the Van Doos, were slated to take part in the invasion of Sicily.
The Van Doos landed in Sicily and ran into a retreating SS Panzer division, one of the only allied units to face combat on the first day of the landings. Despite three years of preparation, the Van Doos were still green in combat and the experienced German veterans of the Russian front caused grievous casualties while they pulled away. The Van Doos then took part in every major operation of the Italian campaign, including the ferocious Battle of Ortona, one of Canada’s biggest military battles. In 1944 the Van Doos were kept in Italy while the other Canadian regiments were sent to take part in D-Day and the Normandy campaign. The Italian theatre of war turned into a slugging match of attrition, and while the big battles of Normandy stole the press headlines, the soldiers of the Van Doos seemed completely forgotten in Italy.
Near the end of 1944 the Van Doos were transferred from Italy to the Netherlands theatre, and once again, as in the First World War, they were given their chance to prove themselves one of the bravest and toughest of Canada’s fighting units. They led the way in the Schuelt Estuary campaign and were the Allied formation that liberated Amsterdam. They fought their way across Northwest Europe, crossed the Rhine and pushed all the way through northern Germany to Denmark, liberating the south of that country, as well. They were also the first Canadian unit to enter devadstated Hamburg, Germany.
After the war the Van Doos remained in Germany as part of NATO’s defence of Europe against Warsaw Pact forces. Soldiers in the regiment rotated in and out, and the Van Doos played a key part in Canada’s contribution to the Cold War. In 1950 the Van Doos were again called to action, this time in Korea after Communist North Korea invaded South Korea.
The Van Doos lost 135 men during the Korean war, and returned to its bases in Germany after the conflict ended. There they remained for the rest of the Cold War, while reserve battalions performed ceremonial duties back home in Canada. At the end of the Cold War in 1990, the Van Doos were permanently brought home, where they were immediately thrust into a new conflict, this time in their own back yards,
At Oka, a First Nations reserve in Quebec, a golf course developer had bought rights to develop treaty lands without agreement from the reserve band. Angry First Nations members of the Oka band took up arms and barricaded the streets and surrounding countryside. A standoff with police ensued, ending in the shooting death of a police officer after they tried to storm the native’s barricades. The government called the Army in, and the Van Doos were deployed to Oka, Quebec.
The standoff lasted for 21 days while negotiations between the federal government and the Oka band ensued. In that time the Van Doos displayed amazing professionalism and restraint. Despite being face to face with enraged warriors, shouting insults, pointing their rifles in their faces and throwing bottles at them, Van Doos soldiers never flinched or responded, but let their presence be known and felt with professional seriousness. The steadfast resolve of the Van Doos has been attributed to the peaceful end of the Oka Crisis, as it has been called.
The Van Doos remained in Quebec and Ottawa for the next decade, performing their historical ceremonial duties, grooming their goats and remaining at a high degree of combat readiness through constant training and discipline. They remained in Canada after the war in Afghanistan began, until 2007, when the Princess Patricia’s were rotated out of theatre and the Van Doos were tasked to replace them.
The Van Doos paraded through Quebec City amidst crying loved ones and shouting protesters. The war in Afghanistan had become incredibly contraversial in Quebec, and while western Canada’s Princess Pats were being killed there was concern, the deployment of Quebec’s own Van Doos to that deadly conflict caused an uproar. Nevertheless, the Van Doos marched proudly out to the airport and arrived in Kandahar in the summer of 2007.
During their time in Afghanistan the Van Doos lost more than 70 soldiers. The Taliban employed IED-initiated ambushes, where they would detonate an IED and while the survivors were stunned from the explosion they would attack. The Van Doos were involved in many vicious encounters with the Taliban, patrolled aggressively and attempted to bring the fight to the Taliban. The Van Doos performed with their usual professional excellence, and in 2010 they were rotated out of Afghanistan.
The Van Doos are one of Canada’s permanent force regiments with a long and hard history that dates back to 1914. As Canada’s only French-speaking regiment, it keeps a place of pride for Quebecers but is also a source of conflict for Quebec nationalists, who despise anything to do with Canada’s military. Still, the Van Doos, one of the best combat formations in the world, will continue to fulfill vital roles in Canada’s defence policies for years to come.