By Bob Gordon
Sam Hughes’ fall from grace was a peculiar affair. Out of deference to his longevity he remained in Parliament, although out of Cabinet. On his part, Hughes assured Borden his first priority remained “his boys.” He wrote to the Prime Minister, on November 15, 1916 that “a kindly watchful eye will be kept over them by your humble servant.” If he was not de jure Minister of Militia he had every intention of remaining de facto guardian of ‘his boys’.
The war had hardened Borden and he could see the threat inside the velvet glove. Hughes had been a loose canon as a Minister and his demotion was only likely to exacerbate this behaviour. Borden responded with a political gamble and released his correspondence with Hughes. The payoff was that it made Hughes look like a bombastic, histrionic wildman devoid of self-restraint. The risk was that letting the public see him harangued by an apparent lunatic would leave him looking weak and intimidated.
The Central Liberal Information Office shared the latter opinion and published the correspondence in a pamphlet hoping to embarrass Borden. The effort failed. In his final letter to Hughes, Borden plainly stated the real problem. “You seemed actuated by a desire and even an intention to administer your department as if it were a distinct and separate government in itself. On many occasions but without much result, I have cautioned you against this course which has frequently led to well-founded protest from your colleagues as well as detriment to the public interest.” It worked to the PM’s favour. He appeared firm and resolute when Hughes overstepped his boundaries once too often and whose use was at an end.
Hughes was unrepentant. In the spring of 1917, agreeing to stand again as their candidate, he told the local nomination meeting of his endless accomplishments and of those yet to come. Describing Camp Valcartier as “that great camp” he asserted, suffice “that within ten days wool was made into cloth, cloth into uniform, and uniform was on the backs of our soldiers.” Specifically, he cited “Rifle ranges three and a half miles long [in fact, half that length] … Miles of water mains and drainage, electric lights and roads, railway tracks...”
Turning to the Ross rifle, Hughes continued, “intrigue was brought about by German gold to bring the Ross rifle in to disrepute and destroy its reputation. Why German gold? Because the German High Command knew the Ross rifle was so effective it would slaughter their infantry faster than machine guns.” Further, any problems encountered in the field were the result of bad ammunition, not the Ross rifle. Bombastically he concluded, “Today the Ross rifle has no equal, and with the proper ammunition can do more and better shooting than any other rifle manufactured.” This, almost a year after it had been ordered withdrawn from service.
Additionally he noted that the success of his wholly original mobilization program demonstrated, “my judgment proved correct,” while procurement for the First Division “is regarded as the most successful in history.” This came two years after most Canadian kit — from webbing and boots to wagons and trucks — had been replaced with British equipment. Facts never slowed Hughes down, especially not in front of a loyal crowd of Conservative constituents.
In similar fashion Hughes defended his achievements (even the imagined ones) in the House. He laid claim to an astonishing and imaginary string of achievements, gloating that he “invented” the trench system “and today the trench system is credited all along the front to your humble servant.” Spectacularly, Hughes also claimed the invention of “the system of hidden machine gun positions in rear of trenches,” Bangalore torpedoes, and trench mortars. All bald-faced lies, but indelibly recorded in Hansard.
Hughes did not hesitate to attribute his downfall to malice and jealousy: “While I was bending my best energies looking after our soldiers and the successful prosecution of the war hoping for the end thereof that I might retire to private life, agitations towards my downfall were planned.” Hughes did not intend to be bested by Borden and he not only recalled past victories, but schemed towards future victories: Namely, to become Prime Minister.
During the rather long period of his downfall, Hughes foresaw a pro-conscription party, headed, of course, by himself that would either win the next election or hold the balance of power, making him the kingmaker. He confided this to his son and enlisted Max Aitken in his campaign. However, his plans came to naught when Borden proposed a national unity government of Tories and pro-conscription Liberals.
Throughout his political machinations Hughes’ attention remained on ‘his boys’. Strangely, perhaps, protection of the rank and file of the Canadian Expeditionary Force morphed into a vendetta against Major-General Currie, its commander. As early as the battle of Cambrai (October 1, 1918), he had written the Prime Minister insisting Currie was responsible for the “needless massacre of our Canadian boys.”
Hughes considered himself Currie’s mentor, and correctly believed that Currie would not have advanced early in his career without Hughes’ patronage. But Curry had betrayed Hughes’ perception of the relationship when he dismissed his elder’s pressure to appoint his son, Garnet, to a battlefield divisional command. From that point on, Currie was nothing more than a coward and a usurper whose successful career began to threaten Hughes’ high station. This bubbling stew of resentments burst forth during the debate on the throne speech in the spring of 1919.
On March 4, Hughes rose and addressed the assembled Members of Parliament. Hughes pilloried Currie (without naming him) telling Parliament (assembled in temporary quarters following the disastrous fire of December 1916) that Cambrai was “an ideal spot for machine gun positions and booby traps. Why any man of common sense would send soldiers in there, unless it were for his [read Currie’s] own glorification, I cannot comprehend.” Hughes then insisted, untruthfully, that multiple battalions had suffered 95% casualties and, “sons of members of this House went into this attack and never returned — all through bull-headed stupidity.” He then read his letter to Borden of October 1 into the record.
Next, he turned his attention to the final day of the war in Mons. “Were I in authority, the officer who, four hours before the Armistice was signed … ordered the attack on Mons thus needlessly sacrificing the lives of Canadian soldiers, would be tried summarily, by court martial and punished so far as the law would allow.” Again, this claim was patently absurd. There were only a handful of casualties in Mons on November 11, typical wastage for 1918, and the ‘attack’ was light probes ordered to retreat if German resistance was significant.
Currie had no recourse. Hughes carefully reserved his verbal blasts to the House and its protections. According to the Parliamentary website members cannot be sued in civil court for remarks made in the House, “because the House has the preeminent claim to the attendance and service of its Members, free from restraint or intimidation particularly by means of legal arrest in civil process.” As long as Hughes kept his slurs in the House, Currie could not even contemplate a libel suit.
Through the postwar years, the two men’s lives followed totally different courses. Hughes’ mental and physical health declined although he remained a member of the House until he died on August 24, 1921. Currie became principal of McGill University in Montreal, initiated a fundraising drive that revitalized the campus, attracted high caliber faculty, and reveled in his casual interactions with the student body. The accusation that he was a ‘butcher’ remained a thorn in his saddle.
The obscure Port Hope, Ontario Evening Guide repeated all the accusations and untruths about Mons in a front-page article in June 1927. Years after Hughes’ death, the feud became front-page news again when Currie sued the Evening Guide for libel. The trial was held in Cobourg in April 1928 and widely referred to by contemporaries as the ‘trial of the decade’. The judge refused to allow Currie’s entire war record to be brought into the trial, and despite defense claims of a conspiracy to alter them, official records clearly demonstrated there was no slaughter at Mons on Armistice Day. However, it was a hollow victory for Currie: While he won the case, he was only awarded a token one-dollar in damages. The award spoke to the judge’s disdain for the whole tawdry affair, none of which changes the fact that six years after his death the cantankerous ghost of Sam Hughes continued to bedevil General Sir Arthur Currie.