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Princess Anne to visit Canada’s oldest regiment in New Brunswick this weekend

FREDERICTON — Princess Louise,the mare that was once the mascot of the 8th Canadian Hussars, never met the calvary regiment’s horse-loving colonel-in-chief. But this weekend the cherished horse will be present in photos and in memories as the colonel-in-chief, Princess Anne, visits to mark the 175th anniversary of the regiment based in southern New Brunswick.

Princess Anne, sister to King Charles and a former Olympic equestrian rider, was appointed to her role with the 8th Canadian Hussars (Princess Louise’s) regiment in June 1972, when she was just 21. She has visited the unit several times and maintained a close relationship with it.

On this visit she is scheduled to take part in events from Friday through Sunday in Moncton, N.B., and Sussex, N.B., meeting with regiment members past and present and taking in a commemorative concert, a parade and a gala dinner.

James Lockyer, the regiment’s honorary colonel, said the unit has a record of service and sacrifice. “Its formation back in 1848, as a response to expansionist American ideology flowing from the Revolutionary War, and then picking up again during the Civil War, was quite remarkable,” he said in an interview.

“These were townsfolk, craftsmen, artisans, farmers who came together to defend New Brunswick at that time, and then subsequently, Canada. We are the oldest, continuous serving army regiment in Canada.”

During the regiment’s deployment in the Second World War, about a night after taking Coriano Ridge, in Italy in 1944, mechanics who were working under cover of darkness to recover tanks heard a screaming sound, he said, recalling the incident that brought Princess Louise to the regiment.

The mechanics who went to investigate found a three-month-old injured foal circling its dead mother. They brought the horse back to the unit’s doctor, who though not a veterinarian, treated it.

“Having a mascot during the Second World War was prohibited,” Lockyer said. “But the regiment did it anyway.”

The horse travelled with the regiment through Europe in a modified three-ton truck with a false wall, and made its way back to Canada after the war in March 1946.

Mike Bickerton remembers how fond his father, retired Sgt. Gordon Bickerton, was of Princess Louise. Gordon Bickerton, a Second World War veteran who is at the Ridgewood Veterans Health Wing, in Saint John, N.B., turns 103 on June 9.

“They had quite a relationship,” his son said. “Father had taught it to say its age by stamping its foot. Cigarettes and sugar cubes were a favourite treat for the horse, which Father used to carry in his pocket and usually feed the horse.”

Bickerton, born in England, was a driver during the Second World War serving from 1941 until after the end of the conflict, and joined the 8th Canadian Hussars in 1948 as a mechanic, said his son.

“It was then that he got involved with taking care of the horse.” The horse provided a lifelong companionship to not just his father but the entire family, he said in an interview from Norton, N.B.

Lockyer said the horse also helped the soldiers. “It’s something belonging to the regiment that everybody can associate with and everybody can embrace,” he said.

Lockyer, who later served as New Brunswick justice minister, encountered Princess Louise after being transferred to the reserve unit in September 1968.

“She was very much a military horse. Whenever the band struck up to begin a march past or something, you could automatically see the horse come alive and she would prance in the course of the march …. It was quite something to see.”

The horse died in 1973, but Lockyer said she will be present in photos and a video to celebrate the regiment’s 175th year during Princess Anne’s visit over the weekend. Though Anne never met the horse, she “certainly knows about her,” Lockyer said.

“It’s part of the historical profile. This weekend is all about history. It’s all about who we were, what we were and the original family, including the mascot, so it’ll be front and centre in the history.” 

Gordon Bickerton, the caretaker of the beloved mascot, is in failing health and will not be able to travel to meet the princess this weekend. But his son, who was a sergeant in the 8th Canadian Hussars from 1961 to 1964, plans to be “in the audience somewhere” over the weekend.

“It’s just going to be really sad that Father won’t be able to meet Princess Anne,” he said. “It’s certainly unfortunate.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2023.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press