Major General Malcolm Smith Mercer (1859-1916)
The Sash Our Forefathers Wore
Malcolm Smith Mercer was born on September 17th, 1859 in Etobicoke, Upper Canada (Ontario) to parents Thomas Mercer and Mary Smith.
He was the third of nine children and was raised in Delmer and St. Catharines, Upper Canada. During his childhood he was educated at local schools, worked on the family farm and was a member of Lake Shore Loyal Orange Lodge No. 163 in Port Credit. Malcolm enrolled at the University of Toronto in 1881 to study philosophy. He graduated in 1885 and turned his attention to law, being called to the bar three years later. He established a practice in Toronto and had several partners, forming a highly successful but discreet firm which he managed until 1914. Mercer never married or had children and reportedly he was "quiet and unobtrusive. He avoided publicity, moved little in society and in his legal practice preferred to keep his clients out of court, if he could."
At university Mercer had joined the 2nd Battalion of Rifles (Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada), one of the most efficient units of the Canadian militia. It chose its recruits carefully, with an eye to their suitability as officers, promoted its officers from the ranks, and combined vigorous social and athletic activity with a serious attitude to training and discipline. Six feet tall and of athletic build, with a heavy, drooping moustache, Malcolm would have been an attractive recruit, and, apart from an amateur enthusiasm for painting, he found the chief outlet for his energy and talent as a member of the unit.
Though Malcolm did not join the contingent from the QOR sent to help suppress the North-West rebellion in 1885 he was appointed a provisional lieutenant on April 24th of that year and qualified for this rank on October 27th, 1886; promoted lieutenant on April 7th 1887, he was made captain on October 16th, 1891. He spent the usual long years as a captain before becoming brevet major on December 29th, 1902 and major on April 10th, 1906. In October 1903 Malcolm had commanded the detachment of the QOR which was part of a force of regulars and militia rushed to Sault Ste. Marie to quell a riot of unpaid workers of the Consolidated Lake Superior Corporation. On February 1st, 1911 he was promoted lieutenant-colonel when command of the 1st battalion of the regiment became vacant, and later that year he completed the militia staff course. He was appointed commandant of the QOR on February 20th, 1912, and he held that position when war was declared on August 4th, 1914. Malcolm mobilized as a lieutenant-colonel eight days later, leaving his 70-year-old brother as next of kin, assigning a share of his pay to his law office, and accompanying a composite battalion of soldiers from the QOR and 10th Regiment (Royal Grenadiers) to the Valcartier camp near Quebec City. “It is characteristic of the man,” wrote a biographer, “that on the day his regiment paraded at the armouries, at 12.30, to go to Valcartier, he worked in his law office up till twelve o’clock.”
As one of Toronto’s senior officers and a discreet Conservative, Malcolm seems to have struck Colonel Samuel Hughes, the minister of militia and defence, as the logical person to command the four Ontario battalions in the 1st Infantry Brigade of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The choice seems to have provoked none of the controversy that swirled around some of Hughes’s other appointments. Mercer departed for England in that role, supervised the training of his brigade on Salisbury Plain, and was confirmed as brigadier-general on 4 February 4th, 1915, on the eve of the Canadians’ departure for France.
When the raw Canadian Division faced its first serious test at Ypres (Ieper), Belgium, on April 22nd, Mercer’s brigade was in reserve at Vlamertinge, several miles behind the line. Two of his battalions were fed into the battle and he was left with almost no role. The next day he obediently sent his men to attack Mauser Ridge and went in person to rage at the nearby French troops whose promised support had not arrived.
Apart from showing his courage under fire, the battle was no test of Mercer’s ability in combat. When Lieutenant-General Edwin Alfred Hervey Alderson was appointed to command the new Canadian Corps in September and Malcolm's fellow brigadiers Arthur William Currie and Richard Ernest William Turner rose to command the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions respectively, he remained with the 1st Brigade. However, on November 20th he took command of the corps troops, a collection of units that a month later became the nucleus of the 3rd Canadian Division. A scratch formation that had to shake down on active service, the division included Canada’s only regular infantry, the Royal Canadian Regiment, the already famous Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, and four battalions of Canadian Mounted Rifles, which had originally been organized to fight on horseback in Egypt and whose men found little joy in being transformed into footsloggers. The command justified Mercer’s promotion in January 1916 to major-general. By March the division was complete except for artillery. British batteries formerly with the 3rd (Lahore) Division of the Indian army filled the gap.
The first real battle for Malcolm's division was unexpected. On June 1st his CMR battalions held the last part of the Ypres ridge in allied hands, from Mount Sorrel to Hill 62, the top of a spur that stretched west into the allied line between Armagh and Sanctuary woods. It was vital ground and the Germans, bent on distracting the British from their expected Somme offensive farther south, were determined to attack. Even inexperienced troops could eventually see the signs of German preparations. At dawn on June 2nd Malcolm and Brigadier-General Victor Arthur Seymour Williams set out to visit Mount Sorrel and Hill 62 to see for themselves. They were with the 4th CMR when the German barrage fell with an unprecedented intensity. A German eyewitness wrote, “The whole enemy position was a cloud of dust and dirt, into which timber, tree trunks, weapons and equipment were continuously hurled up, and occasionally human bodies.”
In the first minutes both generals were affected. Another officer remembered that the bombardment left them “dirty and very white and shaken, also quite deaf.” Williams was badly wounded and, according to the official historian, Mercer’s eardrums were broken by a shell explosion and his leg by a bullet. Lieutenant Lyman Gooderham, Mercer’s aide-de-camp, reported that he helped the general to the edge of Armagh Wood, behind the battalion’s position, and went to get aid.
Shortly after noon, German troops advanced almost without resistance, capturing Williams, Gooderham, and a few hundred shaken survivors. Malcolm was not among them. On June 12th and 13th, Canadians retook the lost ground, and on June 16th Malcolm's remains were found in Armagh Wood. A staff officer concluded that he had been struck and partly buried by a shell, possibly during the unsuccessful Canadian counter-attack on the night of June 2nd and 3rd.
Information from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
Malcolm Smith Mercer in the uniform of the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada.
Graves of Major General Malcolm Smith Mercer, 3rd Division and Lt. E.S. Batterell, 15th Infantry Bn. May 1918 located at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Belgium.