Paul McNicholls, Journey Through the Wilderness Garnet Wolseley’s Canadian Red River Expedition of 1870 (Helion, 2019)

Garnet Wolseley is probably best known for his mission up the Nile in 1884 to save the doomed Gordon of Khartoum. That was a noble and heroic effort, but Wolseley had previous experience with river expeditions, most famously in Canada in 1870. Paul McNicholls narrates that story in Journey Through the Wilderness Garnet Wolseley’s Canadian Red River Expedition of 1870.

The Red River Expedition is a story of a great military adventure rather than a military conflict. McNicholl’s begins with a description of the colonial settlement in Western Canada, and the formation of the Canadian Confederation in 1867. When the Canadian government bought the Red River region from the Hudson Bay Company, it prompted a backlash from the local Métis people led by Louis Riel. He organized a provisional government that negotiated with the Canadian Government to create the province of Manitoba, but in the process executed an English speaking, pro-Canadian settler, Thomas Scott. It was therefore deemed necessary that a military expedition be mounted to assert Canadian authority in the region and that the British Army should do that. Lieutenant-General James Lindsay was sent out to oversee the operation and he placed Colonel Garnet Wolseley in command of the Red River expedition.

The Victorian British were a can-do people who barely allowed anything to get in their way once they decided on a course of action. Wolseley defined the stereotype: an ambitious, pugnacious officer who had fought his way up the ranks, demonstrating the sort of blithe courage mixed with administrative capabilities that exemplified the finest Victorian officers. The Red River Expedition was his first independent command and he was determined to succeed. The problem was that no clear passage existed to cross Canada and the window of opportunity was a narrow one because of the lengthy and severe Canadian winter.

McNicholls follows the expedition across the country; from the raising of the force and preparing all the other logistical concerns; organizing transport across the Lakes; overcoming American objections to using their canal; building and repairing roads; embarking and disembarking troops; setting up and dismantling camps; and all the while negotiating forest fires, insects, and incessant rain. At times, Wolseley had to order the boats lifted out of the water and dragged past rapids and falls using portage methods. The phrase ‘not a happy camper’ might have originated with Wolseley who feuded with the Canadian engineers responsible for the roadworks that proved insufficient. McNicholls detours to narrate the activities of British intelligence officer Lieutenant William Butler who travelled through America and onto Fort Garry to prepare the way for Wolseley’s arrival. He then reported back to Wolseley who he met on his advance. The expedition continued, aided by the skill of its Iroquois guides and Canadian boatmen, until it arrived, predictably in pouring rain, at their destination at Fort Garry. But any hopes of a battle were dashed: Riel and his followers had fled. McNicholls concludes, rightly, that the expedition was a “minor masterpiece of logistics and sheer physical effort”.

Journey Through the Wilderness is a very detailed account of Wolseley’s expedition with a solid base of footnotes to guide the reader – it must surely be the definitive version. McNicholls writes well and keeps the story moving along while adding commentary on the events and people involved. Anyone interested in Canadian or Victorian military history will enjoy this, but so will those seeking an interesting tale of adventure and drama. McNicholls also provides an excellent bibliography for further research.

Highly Recommended. 9/10

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