By Buzz Bourdon (late the RMR, 1975-82)
Westmount, 02 Sept 2014 – Two army reserve soldiers from the Royal Montreal Regiment had the eyes of the world on them this summer, as they stood guard over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the heart of Ottawa, Canada’s capital city.
For the first three weeks in August, Pte Brigitte O’Driscoll and Cpl Benjamin Gancz of the RMR had the privilege of mounting a two-person guard on the tomb, arguably one of Canada’s most revered military gravesites.
With their bayonets fixed on their C-7 automatic rifles, O’Driscoll and Gancz, wearing the Canadian Forces service dress uniform, complete with white gloves and white belts, marched smartly twice a day to their posts just a few feet behind the tomb. It is located in Confederation Square, in front of the National War Memorial on Elgin street, a hundred yards from Parliament Hill.
The RMR’s presence in the capital was accentuated by the RMR capbadge worn by both soldiers on their green berets, along with their regimental collar badges (a miniature version of the capbadge) worn on the lapels of their jackets. They also wore anodized RMR shoulder titles on the bottom of the jackets’ shoulder straps.
Once they were read their orders by the posting non-commissioned member, both RMR soldiers ordered arms and stood perfectly still in the position of stand at ease, rifle thrust out to the full extent of the right arm, head up and feet 30 inches apart. Sentries have been mounted on the tomb during July and August starting in 2007.
Standing on guard for an hour at a time, no matter how hot the weather, Gancz, 23, and O’Driscoll, 20, symbolized the ceremonial protection the government of Canada and the Canadian Forces extend to the tomb during Ottawa’s tourist season. It is an actual gravesite.
The unidentified unknown soldier, who may have been killed in action somewhere near the 1917 Vimy Ridge battlefield, was exhumed from his grave on May 16, 2000, from the Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery, in Souchez, France. After arriving in Ottawa, the body lay in state in Parliament Hill’s centre block for three days.
In a solemn ceremony held on May 28, 2000, in front of high-ranking military officers, parliamentarians, government officials and thousands of spectators, the body of the Unknown Soldier was transported from Parliament Hill on a horse-drawn gun carriage before being reburied in a bronze sarcophagus. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier symbolizes the tens of thousands of Canadians who gave and will give their lives during the nation’s wars, both past and present.
For O’Driscoll, who joined the RMR on Jan. 13, 2013, it was “definitely a huge honour to be able to stand there and represent the Canadian Forces to the tourists, (since) people rarely get to see the army. To be able to stand sentry for this soldier who gave his life in the First World War, (was inspiring).”
Although they spent most of their sentry shifts – there were only two a day, for an hour each time – standing at ease, Gancz and O’Driscoll had the option of marching their beat to relieve the monotony of standing still.
To do that, Gancz, as senior sentry, would give a sharp tap on the ground with his rifle butt to start the patrol sequence. After O’Driscoll acknowledged the order by tapping her own rifle, both soldiers would come to attention, take a pace forward, shoulder their rifles – each movement had a two-three pause after it before being followed by the next movement – turn outwards and start marching their beat of nine paces.
At the ninth pace, both would execute an about-turn and return to their original position if a halt was signalled. If not, they could theoretically keep marching their beat as long as they wanted.
Gancz, who originally joined the Royal Canadian Hussars (Montreal) in 2011 before seeing the light and transferring to the RMR in June, 2013, said people were often taken aback when he called a beat. “They seemed surprised that we moved after standing still. They’d whip up their cameras and take more photos of us.”
Over their three weeks of sentry at the tomb, both RMR soldiers posed for hundreds of photos with people of all ages. Adults, teenagers, little children, people visiting Ottawa from all over the world took the opportunity of posing with the pair. Guides from the National Capital Commission were also present to answer questions and make sure no one interfered with the sentries.
Of course, the sentries had to maintain a poker face without any expression whatsoever, no matter how hard people tried to make them laugh or speak. One of the tricks of the trade is to avoid eye contact at all costs. That’s not an easy thing to do, however, especially when you’re wearing a beret that leaves your face completely open to the front, unlike the bearskin cap of the Guards.
Now and then, though, the odd visitor might do something unusual. On one really hot day, O’Driscoll said, an old lady came up to her and offered her a drink of water. “I couldn’t answer so she said it louder and louder. When she finally left she was upset that I didn’t answer her!”
On another occasion, a man lay down on the ground a few feet from Gancz and started writing something on a paper. Five minutes later, he got up, saluted Gancz and held the paper right in front of Gancz’s face so he could read it. While all this was going on, Gancz was thinking, “what’s this guy going to do to me!”
Kids being kids, some of them acted silly as their parents took photos of them in front of the tomb and its RMR sentries. “One time a kid’s balloon popped in his face and it was really hard not to laugh,” said Gancz, who lives in Laval. A recent police academy graduate, he hopes to be hired soon by the Montreal Police Service.
Standing still without moving takes a lot of patience and self-discipline, so both O’Driscoll, from Lachine, and Gancz had little tricks to help get them through their long and tedious sentry shifts.
For example, before the duty piper marched them out to the tomb, they gave each other math problems to figure out in their heads. Gancz would also, from time to time, go over the hoary old song, “99 bottles of beer on the wall,” to kill time.
Gancz had always wanted to join the militia since high school. Studying police technology at John Abbott College, he saw that the army could teach him valuable skills and self-discipline, he added.
After meeting some RMR recruits on his Basic Military Qualification course in 2011, he decided two years later he wanted to transfer to the infantry. “I made good friends with my RMR buddies. I wanted the infantry more than the armoured (corps).”
As for O’Driscoll, she joined the RMR because she “felt like a proud Canadian and wanted serve my country.” She starts her first year at Concordia University in September, studying history and Canadian/Irish studies.
The highlight of her time in the RMR so far occurred last March, when she volunteered to participate in a week-long Arctic exercise near James Bay. While her classmates at John Abbott College were relaxing during spring break, O’Driscoll humped her rucksack and C-7 rifle during a physically and mentally demanding exercise.
“It was pretty awesome, not something a typical person would do. Interacting with the natives was awesome. We did defensive positions, live firing, surviving in the North when it was minus sixty,” she said.
After arriving in Ottawa on July 29, both RMRs spent five days on the parade square brushing up on their drill and learning sentry drill, under the watchful eye of instructors from the Ceremonial Guard, the Ottawa-based unit that stages the Changing the Guard ceremony on Parliament Hill every summer.
Overall, 16 privates/corporals volunteered from across Canada to guard the Tomb from July 29 to Aug. 24. Some of the other militia units that contributed personnel besides the RMR included the Calgary Highlanders, the Royal Westminster Regiment and Le Regiment de Hull. There were also regular soldiers from the Royal 22nd Regiment and Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians). The 16 soldiers were commanded by two sergeants and a master bombardier from the Royal Canadian Artillery.
Living at Ottawa’s Carleton University – the Ceremonial Guard has been based there since 1996 – both Gancz and O’Driscoll quickly adjusted to their one day on, one day off schedule. When they weren’t on sentry, they spent their time playing video games in the guardhouse, located under the bridge that enables Wellington street to cross the Rideau Canal.
Now back in Montreal, O’Driscoll will enter the RMR’s venerable Westmount armoury in early September for another year of training as a member of ‘A’ Company, the RMR’s rifle company. Gancz will either join her in No.1 Platoon or be sent to the recce platoon.
Regulars from the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Navy took over guarding the tomb on Aug. 25. They will do duty until Remembrance Day on Nov. 11.