Blatchly Page 12 Great Canadian Art & Artists
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William D Blatchly (1838-1903)

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The Blatchly Lithographs: 1885

In the mid 1800s the coloured lithograph fulfilled the role occupied today by television, coloured pictures in newspapers and magazines, as well as radio, all rolled into one. Action pictures of great battles of the empire were in high demand, and with rebellion breaking out in Canada's Far West in 1885, everyone wanted battlefield images that showed what was going on in the far distant wilds of Canada's North West Territories.

Canada was then in the last stages of the "combative phase" of her history, where you shoot people to make them understand you. And Canadians were understandably eager to have pictures showing how it was done.

The Toronto (Ontario) Lithographing Company, seized the opportunity to capitalize on a popular war to print patriotic lithos, of the key battles and events, for sale to hotels, businesses, offices, and private homes. Their chief illustrator - and one of Canada's leading artists of the time, WD Blatchly (1838-1903) above in 1889 - was given the task of doing the paintings.

Blatchly used the battlefield sketches of military men who were skilled artists, and who had been at the actual battle sites - including FW Curzon, Capt. Rutherford, Lt. Wadmore, and Sgt. Grundy - as the basis for his large panoramic paintings. He integrated the highlights of each battle into one view.

To help the audience understand the personalities and events he illustrated, keys were added at the bottom of the prints. This "educational" technique was the 19th century version of today's film sound track, and the television subtitle.

The Riel Rebellions: 1870 - 1885

Four British colonial territories had been united into the Dominion of Canada in 1867. In 1869 the new Government in Ottawa bought the vast north western territories from the Hudson's Bay Company, and decided to exert its power over the people living in those areas, the Métis (a mix of French traders and Indians) and the Indians themselves. These two groups, long united in marriage, now joined forces to stand up for their rights, and to protect their age-old way of life against an aggressive, distant Anglo-Saxon government, and its local colonizing agents.

The first conflict of culture - the Rebellion of 1870, in Winnipeg, Manitoba - had quickly fizzled when the new Dominion's army was sent out under British Colonel Wolseley. Many Métis, and Indians too, moved west to Saskatchewan, further than the arm of the Government in Ottawa could reach - they thought - and their leaders fled to the US.

But by 1885, the Canadian Pacific transcontinental railway was nearly completed, allowing quick train travel from Ontario across the entire west. The Métis and Indians chaffed under the aggressive advance of the "civilizing power" of the agents of the Anglo-Saxon government in Ottawa. Ottawa ignored treaty promises it had made to win title to the land from the Indians. It had not delivered food, supplies, and equipment it had promised to the Indians. As the situation deteriorated, the Métis convinced Louis Riel to return to Saskatchewan, from Montana, and help head up the protest.

Angry discussions in Indian tents, and Métis log homes, burst into the open at Duck Lake on Mar. 26, when 100 Mounted Police, under Superintendent Crozier, confronted, then opened fire, on a larger group of Métis, and some Cree Indians, under Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont. The police were forced to retreat, after losing 17 (12) killed. Riel's group lost 6 (5) depending on the source.

Another chapter in what became known as the Riel, or the North West Rebellion, had begun.

Days later, on April 2, a group of overheated young Indian braves massacred nine white civilian men at Frog Lake.

When the shooting started, the Government in Ottawa sent British General Middleton - the head of the Canadian Army (Militia) in Canada - west with 3,000, mostly Canadian volunteer militiamen. In 1870 it had taken months for troops to get to the west. This time, by train, it took only a few short weeks.

Leaving the railway in the south, General Middleton's North West Field Force, marched north to confront the Métis and Indians in their camps and settlements. The focus was to stamp out the rebellion by taking Batoche, where Riel and Dumont had the headquarters for the rebellion. Three key battles figured largely in the events that brought the conflict to an end.

These were recorded in three of Canada's most celebrated coloured battle chromolithographs.

The Cast of Characters:

General Middleton was the British Commandant of the Canadian Militia and the commander-in-chief of the North West Field Force, assigned to put down the rebellion.

Col. William Otter was a top Canadian column commander.

Louis Riel was the political and spiritual leader of the Métis and Indian rights movement.

Gabriel Dumont was the military commander of the resistance.

Poundmaker was Chief of the Cut Knife Band and a key political leader among the Indians.

Big Bear was Chief of the main group of Plains Cree in the Frog Lake region, and had for years demanded a better deal for Indian people.

It is increasingly customary, these days, with competing groups jockeying for position for their rightful place on the historical stage, that Métis and Indian groups, and guilty white liberals, are referring to the rebellion as the Métis or Riel Resistance.

Which it was...

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Fish Creek: The Battle of Fish Creek took place April 24, 1885, as Maj. Gen. Frederick Middleton below was leading 900 men of the North West Field Force along the east bank (near side) of the South Saskatchewan River, (background) to Batoche where he hoped to crush the rebellion at its source.

The Battle: Gabriel Dumont left, leading some 150 Métis and Sioux Indians, decides to set an ambush to try to halt the approaching army. He chooses the deep ravine of Fish Creek, some 20 kms from Batoche. He hides his men in the brush-filled coulee and waits.

When the Canadians approach, he sends out a few men to act as decoys.

Seeing a "few rebels" the militiamen charge, jubilantly, right into the gully where Dumont's men are waiting.

They open up a withering fire that makes the militiamen drop to the ground, madly scrambling for cover.

All day Middleton uses his heavy nine-pounder guns to try to dislodge Dumont's men from the gully. In vain.

As the rifle fire from the Métis and Indians is causing mounting casualties among his men, Middleton decides to withdraw from the gully, to a safer place.

Dumont decides to pull his men back to Batoche.

Middleton had lost six killed; Dumont four.

The result was inconclusive. Middleton resumed his march on Batoche.

Battle of Fish Creek, 1885 - WD Blatchly
Orig. chromolithograph - Image size - 49 x 63 cm
Found - St. Thomas, ON
Signed WD Blatchly, from sketches, Toronto Lithographing Co.
Pub. by Grip, Toronto, 1885

Blatchly has given us a wonderful sense of place for the events that happened on this battlefield. He shows Middleton's men - enthusiastically, if recklessly - charging in from the left, towards the gully of Fish Creek, where they fall to the ground, seeking cover from the withering fire coming from the brush-filled coulee.

Blatchly shows Middleton mounted, in the open space in middle left. He has successfully captured the General's central conviction about the situation - the belief that his men were facing a powerful enemy force of superior numbers, all hidden by brush. Blatchly cleverly uses only a shower of puffs of smoke to represent an enemy that might well be in the thousands, just waiting to pounce out of the bushes, and wipe out Middleton's militiamen!

Below the nine-pounder artillery pieces arrive to do their work, shooting at puffs of smoke in the gully. The gun is given pride of place at the bottom of the print.

But another gun will become more famous during the campaign, an early type of machine gun, called a Gatling Gun, loaned to the Canadian Militia by an American firearms manufacturer and operated by an American reserve officer, Capt. Arthur Howard.

But Blatchly does not show it or mention it in this print.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

This is a pretty good ground view of the battlefield from the same angle which Blatchly showed in his bird's eye view.

The Canadian troops arrived along the top of the ridge on the left, while the Métis and Indians were firing up at them from the gully below, and from the dense brush which once covered the sides of the creek.

In the middle distance is the centre of the battlefield where the original road angles down to the creek.

The old wagon road still snakes down towards where the ambush was laid, and gives a great view of what the typical shooting position was of the Métis and Indians as the Canadians tried to advance down the lip of the far ridge.

Somewhere in front of the trees was where General Middleton sat his horse as he directed operations, before finally calling off the failing assault upon the insurgents' positions.

Battlefield of Fish Creek (1885) - Saskatchewan
Orig. Great Canadian Historic Site
Found - south east of Rosthern, Saskatchewan
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

WD Blatchly also prepared another set of battle and campaign lithographs for the Canadian Illustrated War News which was published in a large black and white souvenir edition in 1885.

Both feature the prominent knoll, featured at the centre of our photo, as the focal point of the action.

This is one of a set of sixteen different rebellion lithos from this series, that was hand-coloured, decades ago, in the old style by a member of the Britnell (renowned Toronto bookseller) family, who learned the old technique and paints used by the illustrators who did exactly this kind of work on Currier & Ives prints in the 19th century.


Battle of Fish Creek, 1885 - WD Blatchly
Orig. lithograph - Image size - 36 x 50 cm
Found - Barrie, ON
Signed WD Blatchly - Later hand coloured
Pub. by Toronto Lithographing Co. 1885
for the Canadian Illustrated War News
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

As the Métis withdrew from the battlefield some ten kms up river from this spot at Gabriel's Bridge, they could have been seen streaming back along the top of the far side of the South Saskatchewan river bank.

A few days later, with their shattered composure regained, General Middleton's army - mostly men walking, horses and wagons - approached along the top of the same river bank making for Gabriel's farm at the ferry crossing he operated.

In the river below the steamer Northcote hove into view carrying supplies for the expedition, as well as armed men behind sandbags, making it the first Canadian warship to operate in the West.

The reverse angle showing the bank along which the Canadian army approached the ferry crossing making for Gabriel's farm below.


South Saskatchewan River, looking south of Gabriel's Bridge
Orig. Great Canadian Historic Site
Found - east of Rosthern, Sask
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Gabriel's Farm & Bridge, South Saskatchewan River
Orig. Great Canadian Historic Site
Found - east of Rosthern, Sask
Gabriel Dumont had his farm across the river on the site of the distant buildings. He had a pool room there and ran his ferry service where the bridge, bearing his name, now crosses the river. After the Battle of Fish Creek, some 10 kms upriver to the right, the steamer Northcote tied up at his farm which the soldiers plundered and burned to the ground. They were on the way to Batoche some 10 kms further down the river.
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Battle of Cut Knife Hill, 1885 - WD Blatchly
Orig. chromolithograph - Image size - 49 x 63 cm
Found - St. Thomas, ON
Signed WD Blatchly, from sketches, Toronto Lithographing Co.
Pub. by Grip, Toronto, 1885

Otter's Last Stand: Blatchly shows Col. Otter below mounted, directing the battle, behind the guns on the hill at top left. The print wonderfully captures the exposed nature of Otter's position, surrounded on all sides by hostile fire, coming from an unseen enemy, hiding in the brush, and only identified by puffs of smoke. Blatchly shows that there was no cover for the horse corral, or the wagon park with its Red Cross ambulance station. He shows exactly the right number of horses that were there, but is mysteriously missing half the contingent's wagons! Invoking artistic license, no doubt, you can hear him say "There's just too damn many wagons! Half is good enough."

To please the home crowd - and its principal market for the print - Blatchly gives the Toronto-based Queen's Own Rifles pride of place at the front left of the picture, and shows them heroically putting the fear of God into the Indians! You can almost hear breast buttons popping with pride on Armoury Street in Toronto. The truth was rather the reverse. The Indians were still there that evening; the Queen's Own were long gone, with a well-advised strategic withdrawal - others would call it a defeat - from the site...

But Blatchly does mention the Gatling Gun this time - in the key at the bottom of the page - but he only shows it indistinctly, in the far distance, with the other guns in front of Otter. And quite incorrectly, at that, surrounded by a group of operators!!! Or is it the one belching a huge cloud of smoke?

Cut Knife: The battle took place on May 2, 1885, on a hill above the Cut Knife Reserve, headed by Chief Poundmaker below. His band had recently raided stores and homes near Battleford for provisions and equipment.

Col. William Otter, below and his Battleford Column of the North West Field Force, fearing that the lawlessness would escalate, without orders, marches on the reserve to subdue the Poundmaker Cree. He has 325 men - only 50 being mounted - some 48 wagons, 2 muzzle-loading artillery pieces, and a Gatling Gun.





























The Battle: After marching 35 miles in freezing rain, spending a night out with no sleep, and nourished only on packed rations, the Otter column reaches Cut Knife Hill, overlooking the Indian camp. The Indians are hiding in the brush-filled coulees that criss-cross the hill and fire from cover at Otter's men out on the open hilltop.

Otter's artillery guns are useful at first, then break down, and the Gatling Gun's range is too short to be effective, and proves too difficult to use against Indians who refuse to come out in the open.

By noon, realizing the exposed and hopeless position of his men, and having nightmares of a repeat of Custer's Last Stand, only nine years before, Otter retreats with his men, under a heavy sniper fire. Their rear is protected by the rapid firing of Arthur Howard's Gatling Gun which persuades the Indians to stay a healthy distance away.

The Indians do not pursue. Otter has lost eight men; the Indians six. Nothing is resolved.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

The heart of the battlefield, with the grave of Chief Poundmaker on the approximate site of the flag in the middle of the wagon park and Red Cross shelter, but looking in the reverse direction from the Blatchly print.

The Canadians marched from the horizon on the left and swarmed up here from the middle distance. The wagon park was established here, and behind us the corral as the troops made for the top of the rise.

The view behind us to the right is up the hill, down the dip, beyond which the horses were corralled because this was an infantry action, the standard 19th century set piece battle, where one side has the ground and the other tries to dislodge them and hold it and so claim the victory.

The building marks the top of the advance of the Canadians as they were hemmed in on all three sides by the gully full of angry shooting Indians. It was not a good military maneuver by Col. Otter, but hey, good enough that he later became the first Canadian born general to head the Canadian Army.

Can General Hillier be far behind?

Battlefield, Cut Knife (1885) - Saskatchewan
Orig. Great Canadian Historic Site
Found - Cut Knife Reserve, Saskatchewan

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

This is the rim along the top left of the battlefield, the area shown by Blatchly opposite the horse corral.

The Canadians were lying down along the fence line which today marks the edge of the ridge, shooting down into the gully which looks the same now as it did then.

They were mostly shooting at shadows, moving twigs and leaves, while they were out in the open without protection.

In the meanwhile the Cree women and children were hiding in the dark copse of trees in the far right top of the picture.

The gully curved around and kept them safe from direct attack by the Canadians though not from rifle and gun fire.

The reverse angle shows the lip again along which the Canadians were lying down all the way along the ridge in the direction from which they had come.

Later in the day it was the same direction in which they would withdraw.

Battlefield, Cut Knife (1885) - Saskatchewan
Orig. Great Canadian Historic Site
Found - Cut Knife Reserve, Saskatchewan
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
The Canadian Point of View

The exact view seen by Colonel Otter's men, that day, as they fired thousands of rounds of shells from rifles and Gatling Guns down at Indians in the woods.

They can't see the people they're targeting. Shooting is easy though, because they don't know the language, culture, religion, history, or the families of the people they're shooting. They're ignorant, too, of their rights...

They only knew them as insurgents that needed to be put down with guns and rifles.

Reminds us of Buffy St. Marie's Universal Soldier.

And of Afghanistan... where descendants of the same group that was at Cut Knife is reprising the identical role of their forebears.

We mean targeting, with artillery and tank shells, people who they can't see, people whose religion, culture, language, or history is unknown to them. Probably their regiment won battle honours doing the same thing in 1885..

Like Buffy says, "The battle against the Universal Soldier is an on-going struggle."

Battlefield, Cut Knife (1885) - Saskatchewan
Orig. Great Canadian Historic Site
Found - Cut Knife Reserve, Saskatchewan
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Battle of Cut Knife Hill, 1885 - Canadian Illustrated News
Orig. lithograph - Image size - 36 x 50 cm
Found - Barrie, ON
Signed Kelly - Later hand coloured Pub. by Toronto Lithographing Co. 1885
for the Canadian Illustrated War News

Zooming back from the close up photo - the far edge of the soldiers firing above - gives you the exact perspective across the battlefield shown in this drawing made by an eyewitness who was there and published in the Canadian Illustrated News. Note the wagon park and the position of the horse corral. The dominant hill in photo and litho is where Cree War Chief Fine Day was directing the defence of the Indian community against the onslaught of the soldiers from Ontario. Chief Poundmaker's grave today is in the middle of the wagon park above, dominating for eternity, a battlefield he commanded at the end of the day. By nineteenth century military standards he was the clear cut winner. The Blatchly print pretends that Col. Otter was...

This litho is signed Kelly. It could very well be that JD Kelly, then only 23, was given a chance to try his hand at a historical picture, an art form in which he would become enormously successful over the next sixty years.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Batoche: The Battle of Batoche lasted three days, from May 9, to May 12, 1885. The North West Field Force, under Maj. General Middleton, launched an attack (near side) against some 350 Métis and First Nations people, bunkered down in rifle pits, in front of Batoche (background).

Louis Riel above and Gabriel Dumont below - who was the military leader - were both in the town.

The Battle: On May 9 Middleton begins a frontal assault, by land, in concert with what was to be a water-borne attack by the heavily sandbagged steamer Northcote, bristling with riflemen, who are to be put on shore behind the backs of Dumont's men. The steamboat attack fizzles when Dumont orders the ferry cables lowered, which cuts off the tall funnels of the passing steamship. It drifts helplessly down the river with its load of captive riflemen carried away from the battle.

The Militia's land attack fails too, as Dumont's men fire mercilessly from their rifle pits. When Middleton pulls back his men, the Métis and Indians advance and snipe at them constantly.

Over the next two days Middleton bombards Dumont's positions with heavy guns and sporadic rifle fire. The Métis and Indians hold their ground and keep up a peppery sniping, but are running dangerously low on ammunition.

On May 12, Middleton (right) tries to orchestrate a two prong attack, from opposite sides, against the men in the rifle pits around the church. He plans to feint an attack with a few men on the far side, hoping to draw the defenders out of the trenches. Then the second more powerful pincer would attack and catch the defenders, by surprise, out in the open.

Their signal to close the pincer would be the sound of Middleton's group starting to fire. But the cross wind is so strong they do not hear the gunfire from Middleton's group, and the support attack never starts. Middleton returns to camp, fuming at the failure.

The Capture of Batoche, 1885 - WD Blatchly
Orig. chromolithograph - Image size - 49 x 63 cm
Found - St. Thomas, ON
Signed WD Blatchly, from sketches, Toronto Lithographing Co.
Pub. by Grip, Toronto, 1885

Out to Lunch! Blatchly has wonderfully set the scene to allow us to visualize the events of the battle that was won while General Middleton (right) was having lunch. In the foreground the Militia is attacking the village in the background, around which the Métis and Indians have set up a defensive perimeter of rifle pits.

Beyond is the South Saskatchewan River, and the ferry crossing where the cable was used to cut off the Northcote's smoke stacks, preventing it from dropping off the men behind the defenders.

The heavy guns are shown again (left foreground), but for the first time the importance of the Gatling Gun is recognized by being given prominence in the bottom right of the print - one man and one gun! The key notes #27 - "The Man with the Gatling."

In the campaign, American Capt. Arthur Howard had established the reputation of his gun, and his own as well. Till the day he died he would be known as Gatling "Gat" Howard.

As he eats lunch in frustration, word arrives that the Métis have - after all - come out of their rifle pits to investigate what is going on. They are quickly overrun by a group of soldiers who put them to flight while Middleton is angrily eating lunch, and getting indigestion, no doubt over the incompetence of his Canadian
volunteer militiamen.

The battle was over; but Riel and Dumont escaped.

Each side had lost some 25 men.

With the main leaders captured or put to flight - Riel surrendered days later, and Dumont was a refugee in the United States - the Northwest Rebellion was effectively over.

The Batoche church below, which was the centre for much of the early fighting, is several hundred yards out of frame, to the left of the guns on the left margin of the Blatchly print.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

The Blatchly print compresses a considerably spread out battlefield.

The initial charge of the Canadians came from behind us to the right, and swept towards the church, through this cemetery.

After the battle nine Métis were buried in the grave in the foreground.

The priests, sheltering women and children in the church and nearby rectory, gesticulated wildly to show the shooting soldiers they were non-combatants.

No use!. Rifle bullets and Gatling Gun fire hit the buildings. Bullet holes can still be seen today.

The fighting was quite severe around the buildings with the Métis firing from trenches then gradually withdrawing as the Canadian assault gained strength.

The religious buildings, unlike all the other farm houses, and stores in the area, were not burned.

Battlefield, Batoche - The Cemetery
Orig. Great Canadian Historic Site
Found - Batoche, Saskatchewan
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

The church at Batoche carries Canada's highest designation as a historic monument.

It was the principal church of the most important Métis community in the Canadian west in the 1880s.

As the Canadian troops drew near to Batoche, women and children huddled in here their loud French-Canadian chatter echoing off the walls.

Would their fathers, husbands, brothers be killed? Would everyone live or die?

Most women and children sought shelter next door in the rectory with the nuns and the priests.

During several days of battle as the Métis retreated from the area around the church, it became a hospital to house the many British wounded.

Battlefield, Batoche - The Church
Orig. Great Canadian Historic Site
Found - Batoche, Saskatchewan
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

The attack, coming from the cemetery to the far right swept by the church and the rectory building on the left making for the knoll in the immediate foreground which overlooked the fields sweeping down to the village of Batoche proper, on the banks of the Saskatchewan River where the ferry for the Carleton Trail was operating.

The artillery pieces and the Gatling Gun were set up in the foreground.

The reverse angle shows the firing positions from where the guns swept the fields in front of them with shells and bullets..

Métis were hidden in the brush filled ravines that still criss cross the fields here.

The village itself was located in the far right distance where the white specs show plaques that tell where the houses were burned down.

During the final charge hundreds of soldiers streamed down the hill here, heading for the town site.

Battlefield, Batoche - Mission Ridge
Orig. Great Canadian Historic Site
Found - Batoche, Saskatchewan
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

On the last day of the fight the Canadians advanced to the right along the ridge, drawing nearer to the town site below.

The knoll here is the location of the last gun positions from which they raked the village down below.

The white dots are plaques marking the fronts of buildings that fronted the main street of the little town of Batoche.

The Carleton Trail from Winnipeg passed in front of them before disappearing into the trees bordering the river.

The end of the Métis Nation came here as guns pounded their homes, and hundreds of Canadian troops ran from the left across the fields.

The most numerous and prosperous Métis community in Canada lost it all: its lands, its buildings, property, its rights. They fled for their very lives, many to the United States and decades of bitter exile before they once again drifted back to their ancestral homelands. But there were now new European owners everywhere...

Battlefield, Batoche - The Village
Orig. Great Canadian Historic Site
Found - Batoche, Saskatchewan
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

The Return of the Volunteers:

The Toronto Lithographing Company and Grip were so pleased with the response to their battle series that they issued a wonderful lithograph showing the joyous reception the men received when they got home after having put "Riel in his place."

This lithograph is extremely difficult to find today in any condition.

The popularity of the Blatchly battle prints was so great that today - some 120 years later - it is still possible to find original prints of the Blatchly lithos at auction, sometimes with original glass and frame intact.


Go to The Return of the Volunteers

Go to Gat "Gatling Gun" Howard




The Return of the Volunteers, 1885 (detail)
Orig. lithograph - Size - 13" x 18"
Found - Napanee, ON
Toronto Lithographing Co., Pub. by Grip, Toronto, 1885
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