For someone destined to become one of Canada’s most valiant war heroes, Jean Brillant’s early life and military career were relatively unassuming.
Like the province in which he was born, Brillant would come to distinguish himself through his courage and sense of duty during the First World War. His actions as a member of Canada’s storied French-speaking Royal 22e Regiment would help to speed the armistice signed 100 years ago Sunday, bringing to an end a global conflagration that killed close to 20 million people.
Son of a railway worker, Brillant was raised in Rimouski, 300 kilometres northeast of Quebec City, on the verdant southern shore of the St. Lawrence River.
A telegraph operator and volunteer with his local branch of the Canadian militia, he was eager to join when the First World War broke out. Stationed in northeastern France as a lieutenant with Canada’s French-speaking 22nd Infantry Battalion (which soon took on the unofficial title “the Van Doos,” after the English-accented approximation of their name), his early letters betrayed tiredness with biding his time in cold, muddy trenches and doing little on a military front he described as “frustratingly quiet.”
Eloquent and thoughtful, Brillant displayed a keen eye for the social disparities in Europe, the horrors of war, and a touching concern for his parents.
“Rest assured that my affection for you only increases with our separation,” he wrote to them in the fall of 1916, at the age of 26. “I implore you not to have any undue worries. I am in no immediate danger.”
Conditions would change drastically in 1918, when Brillant and the Van Doos were called to the Battle of Amiens, a turning point in the war that relied heavily on Canadian and Australian forces. Brillant and the other corps would rout the Germans and win back nearly 20 kilometres of land over the first two days. The soldiers’ actions at Amiens, as well as other battles like Vimy Ridge and Hill 70, earned Canada and the Van Doos a place of distinction and paved the way for Armistice Day.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the morning on Nov. 11, 1918, when the Allied forces signed an armistice with Germany in Compiègne, France, to end fighting on the Western Front. The signing took place at 11 a.m. — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — commemorated every year on Remembrance Day.
The armstice came too late for Brillant, killed three months earlier while rushing a German machine gun outpost for the third time in two days, and for close to 61,000 Canadians killed in the war. More than 20 per cent of Canada’s 22nd Infantry Battalion died in battle.
But Brillant’s valour, alongside that of the Van Doos regiment and the Canadian Expeditionary Force as a whole, would do much to solidify the sense of identity of the fledgling nation of Canada, and dispel the narrative that French-Canadians were cowards who were shirking their military duties.
“There was a revulsion against German atrocity stories in Quebec as much as anywhere else,” said University of Ottawa history professor Serge Durflinger, who specializes in French Canada’s participation in both world wars. His French-Canadian grandfather served in the First World War. “The idea of obligatory service, that’s a whole other question. A lot of people misidentify or conflate these things — that Quebec was anti-war. Not true.”
For men like Brillant and for the Van Doos infantry battalion, the war was not just about stanching the onslaught of the German army. They were fighting for the reputation of all of French Canada. Many would die to secure it.
A crucial deterrent to French-Canadians enlisting was the lack of a dedicated French unit within Canada’s Expeditionary Force. While there were more than a dozen French-speaking regiments in Quebec at the outset of the war and many more formed during, their members would be split up once they went overseas, placed in English-speaking battalions decimated by casualties. French-Canadians would have trouble following orders, face limited opportunities for advancement, and in the case of death, not be cared for by a Roman Catholic chaplain.
“It was bad enough getting killed because you can’t understand orders, but you sure didn’t want to die and have the last rites read by a Protestant minister,” said one museum tour operator, quoted in Legion magazine.
The Canadian Minister of Militia and Defence, Sam Hughes, a staunch Protestant, distrusted French-Canadians and resisted creating a French unit. It was only under political pressure directed at Prime Minister Robert Borden, and a $50,000 donation ($1.2 million in today’s dollars) from a private French-Canadian doctor, that the Royal 22e Regiment was formed in October 1914.
Other factors dissuaded French-Canadians from enlisting. Few held an affinity for the British Empire, and ties with mother country France had been all but severed for decades. Religious education taught them France had abandoned French-Canadians after 1760, and was now a secular and anti-clerical republic.
In the early 1900s, Quebec was still a rural population, where able-bodied fathers and older sons were needed on the farms to feed their large families. Farmers and rural populations across Canada were against mandatory enlistment. Married men were statistically the least likely to volunteer, and Quebec had the largest percentage of married men in all of Canada. Those most likely to volunteer were recent immigrants from Britain — two-thirds of Canadians who signed up for the first contingent were citizens who had been born in the British Isles.
The main source of French-Canadians’ antipathy was their sense that the federal government was abandoning them. In 1912, Ontario adopted Regulation 17, eliminating French schooling beyond Grade 2 for Franco-Ontarians. For many French Canadians who regarded Confederation as a pact between the country’s two founding language groups, the law was a betrayal, and a sign the federal intention was to assimilate the French-speaking population as opposed to protecting them.
When Prime Minister Borden realized volunteer recruits would not be enough to fulfil his promise to furnish a steady supply of troops, he enacted conscription in August 1917, after earlier promising he never would. All male subjects between 18 and 45 were subject to military service. Exemptions initially granted for farmers were later revoked.
It was seen by many in English Canada as a way to get Quebec “shirkers” enlisted, even though statistically, “if British immigrants are not counted, the respective contributions of French- and English-Canadians were more proportional than raw data would suggest,” historian Durflinger wrote. “Conscription was considered the result of the English-language majority imposing its views over a French-language minority on an issue of life and death. …. Canadian national unity had never seemed so fragile.”
Protesters took to the streets of Montreal. Angry crowds smashed the windows of pro-conscription newspaper the Gazette. The summer home of the publisher of the Montreal Daily Star was dynamited. (He was not harmed.) In Quebec City, federal troops fired on a threatening anti-conscription crowd on April 1, 1918, killing four.
For many francophones, the Easter Riots and conscription crisis would become the defining event of the First World War, when the seeds of Quebec identity and nationalism were sown, nurtured by the pride of having resisted what they saw as an unjust law.
Despite this resistance, Durflinger notes, several battalions were formed in Quebec to fight overseas.
“Many French-Canadians wanted to enlist, but didn’t have the language skills, or felt they would be at a disadvantage,” he said. “There was popular support to enlist, if you could do it under a French-speaking officer, in a French battalion.”
There was intense pressure on the federal government to form a French regiment, including from the French-language newspaper La Presse.
It’s a historical reality that is often forgotten, or glossed over in favour of a separate narrative, Durflinger says, a “hijacking that has taken place of the history for political reasons.”
He notes that renowned Canadian historian Desmond Morton once posed the question: “Why is it that in French-speaking Canada, especially in Quebec, that somehow we chose to celebrate the 10,000 or 12,000 defaulters from military service, those who failed to report when called upon to do so, or deserted the colours? Why do we celebrate those people when there were three to four times as many who volunteered or were conscripted, and did serve? Where is their story?”
There was a popular support for the war that co-existed with French-Canadians’ objection to the concept of obligatory service.
Jean Brillant was among those eager to join. Born into a family with a lengthy military history and a member of the Canadian volunteer militia, Brillant felt he had to.
“How I regret all the sadness my departure has caused you,” he wrote to his parents in October 1916. “But I did not feel I could avoid a departure that seemed to me the duty of a man of honour, and you would not want me to do otherwise. Soldier in a time of peace, I have no choice but to be a soldier in a time of war.”
The sense of duty hung heavy over the Van Doos. They considered themselves the representatives of French Canada, and as such, were under an enormous burden to succeed and be the equal, if not the better, of the English-speaking units. The future of French-speaking regiments and the bilingualism of the Canadian military going forward was also at stake.
Their first major offensive was at the French village of Courcelette in September 1916, part of the devastating five-month Battle of the Somme that would devour tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides. The commander of the Van Doos requested his unit be given a key role.
“This is our first significant attack,” Lt. Col. Thomas-Louis Tremblay wrote in his diary. “It must be a great success for the honour of all French-Canadians we represent in France. …
“We know very well that we are heading to the slaughterhouse. … Even so, morale is wonderfully high and we are determined to show that we Canadians are not quitters.”
The Van Doos led the offensive and captured the village on the first night, then defended it for two more days against counterattacks.
“Despite all the pressure on them, they conducted themselves well,” said Dany Hamel, director of the Royal 22e Régiment Museum in Quebec City. “The main battle that marked a turning point in their making of their reputation was the Battle of Courcelette.”
The courage of the troops was noted by many, said Maxime Dagenais, co-ordinator of the Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University. But it came at a severe cost. In four days of fighting, the unit of roughly 800 men suffered 207 casualties, including 90 fatalities.
Tremblay, who led his troops into battle and was beloved by his men, had to leave afterward due to a pre-existing medical condition.
The heavy losses, full exposure to the horrors of war and absence of Tremblay’s leadership exacted a heavy toll. Morale faltered and discipline waned. Desertion and absences without leave increased to the point it was noticed by the commanders of other battalions.
Tremblay returned, and with the weight of French Canada’s reputation on his shoulders, ordered strict measures to regain discipline. Seventy soldiers were brought up for court martial. Five were executed by firing squad, the highest number for any Canadian battalion.
Discipline restored, the Van Doos would serve with distinction at Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 and Passchendaele in Belgium in November 1917, where the “image of dead bodies rotting in the mud was seared into the minds of many,” Dagenais said.
Brillant took part in the Vimy attack. Eager to be part of an Allied victory, his letters showed a growing awareness of war’s atrocities.
“We’re busier and busier,” he wrote in May 1918. “Great things are in preparation for the near future. What blood and suffering this terrible war costs.”
Soon afterward, Brillant would prove his heroism, repeatedly.
On May 27, near Boiry-Becquerelle, 170 kilometres north of Paris, Brillant led a group of volunteers to take down an outpost defended by two machine guns and 50 men. Despite being wounded, he killed four of the enemy, took the outpost, and remained in action the next day. He was awarded the Military Cross for Bravery.
Just two months later at the Battle of Amiens that started on Aug. 8, Brillant spotted a machine gun holding up his company’s left flank and charged it himself, killing two men. His left arm was injured but he refused to be evacuated. He returned to fighting the next day.
Commanding two platoons, with his left arm in a sling, he took 15 machine guns and 150 prisoners. He suffered a head wound, but again refused to leave.
Soon after, he led another charge against a four-inch field gun. He was hit in the abdomen, his third injury in two days, but kept moving forward for 200 metres until he collapsed from blood loss and exhaustion.
In his last words, he asked to be transported to the back of the lines so his suffering wouldn’t dishearten his troops. He died the next day at the age of 28. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for valour posthumously, the highest honour given to members of the British Armed Forces.
“For most conspicuous bravery and outstanding devotion to duty when in charge of a company he led in attack during two days with absolute fearlessness and extraordinary ability and initiative,” the London Gazette wrote.
Brillant was buried in a cemetery in Villers-Bretonneux, France. Three months after he died, armistice was signed.
On their return to Quebec, where months earlier there had been anti-conscription rioting in the streets, the Van Doos were fêted as heroes.
“It was an absolute orgy of festivities and open houses and vibrant speeches,” Durflinger said. “They were seen as the ones who brought the name of French Canada to the enemy. The real heroes were considered those who served. Not those who didn’t.”
That reputation persisted among veterans who fought alongside the Van Doos, who remembered them as a rowdy but brave battalion, Dagenais said. To this day, it remains one of the most researched battalions because of its unique linguistic heritage.
“Those Frenchmen are damn good fighters (and) the 22nd was a good unit,” said a veteran of the 25th (Nova Scotia) battalion interviewed as part of a 1960s CBC documentary.
The Van Doos made a special stop in Rimouski on the way home to honour Brillant and Joseph Keable, another member from the region who gave his life and was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Of the 5,584 men who served in the Van Doos regiment in the First World War, 1,147 were killed and 2,814 wounded — a 71-per-cent casualty rate.
Brillant’s family received a personal letter of condolence from King George V. Brillant’s mother never got over his death. She kept her son’s letters wrapped in a bundle, tied with a ribbon. From time to time she would take them out of the drawer and hold them to her neck.
Every Nov. 11, family members gather around a monument that was erected in his honour in Montreal in 1933, Brillant’s 82-year-old niece, Suzanne Brillant-Fluehler, told La Presse in 2014. She visited Brillant’s gravesite in France several times, once bringing her four children. Somebody there would leave flowers at his tombstone. She never found out who.
The Van Doos regiment was dismantled after the war, like most other units in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. It was reactivated in 1920, the only permanent, French-speaking regiment in the Canadian Forces. The designation Royal was added in honour of its service in the First World War. Later, members served in the Second World War, Korea, Bosnia and Afghanistan.
The headquarters of the Royal 22e Regiment reside in the walled fort known as the Citadelle in Quebec City. There is a museum dedicated to the unit, which celebrated its centennial in 2014.
In the walls of the chapel inside the Citadelle resides soil from the graves of Brillant and Keable.