Part II: Being Sam Hughes

By Bob Gordon

Amidst the guns of August, Sam Hughes was in heaven. He had his dream job — Minister of Militia and Defence — at the ideal time, while the country was at war. Irascibly and only semi-officially, he had briefly fought in South Africa before being sent home. This time around, he was Canada’s supreme warlord and was hell-bent on putting his mark on Canada’s contribution to the war effort.

Two years later, in the House of Commons, his description of the mobilization would speak volumes. “There was really a call to arms, like the fiery cross passing through the Highlands of Scotland or the mountains of Ireland in former days.” Hughes saw himself as a clan chieftain, not a minister of the Crown, and Canada was his clan. The Cabinet, Prime Minister, Permanent Force, and even the British Army be damned! They were mere know-nothings, described by Hughes as “his boys.”

Hughes inspects some German trenches during WW1.

Hughes inspects some German trenches during WW1.

In typical Hughes fashion, he immediately made two momentous decisions that would define the First Contingent. Impetuously, he scrapped the Permanent Forces’ mobilization plans, choosing to mobilize through the militia, sort of, until he quickly countermanded his own order. Men thus enlisted, he decreed, were not to assemble at Camp Petawawa on the Ottawa River, as it was too far from a port of embarkation. Instead, the First Contingent would assemble at Valcartier, Quebec. This would have them within marching distance of the port at Quebec City. There was only one small problem, Camp Valcartier did not exist. Hughes proposed to build the camp while the nation mobilized. Remarkably, both of these ‘seat of the pants’ decisions were met with great success.

In the summer of 1914, Canada had a comprehensive plan for a response to an international crisis known as a ‘War Book’. It detailed the responsibilities and actions of each branch and department of government, and was known as Defence Scheme No. 1. Memorandum C.1209 outlined the plans for mobilization. The plan was prepared by Col. W.G. Gwatkin, a British staff officer, under the direction of the Chief of the General Staff (CGS) Brig-Gen W.D. Otter, another British staff officer on loan. Ultimately, an infantry division and a mounted brigade totalling 24,000 were to be ready to depart for overseas. Although the plan was far from perfect, it provided a framework for mobilization approved by the War Office.

The plan called for the troops to be attested by Military District and assemble locally to be kitted out and armed before concentrating. Each Military District had a quota and, in general, the infantry came from the six Eastern Districts while the west provided the mounted element.
Hughes threw the “bar room loafers” plan, as he called it, out the window and employed the militia. Night lettergrams were sent to each of the 226 unit commanders of the Active Militia.

They were ordered to immediately prepare lists of qualified volunteers, and to submit their names and total numbers to the Minister’s office where they would be individually vetted. This of course, was impossible. The Ministry, let alone the Minister, simply did not have time for the task. The waters were further clouded when the Minister appeared to reverse himself on August 10, and reinstated the Permanent Force scheme. The net result, in practice, was that infantry were recruited through Hughes’ scheme while the artillery, engineers, and other specialists tended to muster following the original plan, proceeding to Valcartier as equipped units.

The concentration point for this irregularly raised force was also arbitrarily changed to a piece of undeveloped land near the port of embarkation, Quebec City. Camp Valcartier was to be built on land located on the banks of the Jacques Cartier River, 25 kilometres northwest of Quebec City. By the end of the war, it would encompass over 12,000 acres. The site had been acquired in 1912 as a central location for the summer camp of the Quebec militia. However, in the intervening years, no development had been undertaken. There was no branch line connected to the Canadian Northern Railway; there were no ranges for the recruits to learn musketry and familiarize themselves with the Ross rifle; there were no tent lines cleared; and of course, there were no barracks, offices, water, or electricity.

Hughes set to construct a camp faster than recruits could be hustled to the site. He contracted with former Quebec MP, dedicated Tory and lumber baron William Price to oversee the project. Price then contracted with Bate and McMahon for the construction cost plus 14%. On August 4, Major A.P. Deroche, RCE and Assistant Director of Works and Buildings, inspected the site and laid out a camp. Construction commenced on Saturday August 8.

Within weeks, two pumps with a total capacity of 1.5 million gallons per day were operating through mains of four and six inches. Telephone lines connected unit HQs to the Camp HQ, and both telephone and telegraph connected it on to Quebec City. A small power plant on the river electrified the camp.

The Great Northern Railway was contracted to lay almost 7 kilometres of track, including four sidings, three loading platforms, a freight shed and auxiliary buildings. The rifle range was over two miles long and included 1,500 targets. Even the Duke of Connaught was forced to admit that Hughes had gotten it right.

Incredibly, the troops began arriving on August 18, a mere ten days after construction began. By mid-September, it was home to 32,000 troops. Historians have agreed that it was a remarkable achievement. Desmond Morton describes it as “miraculous,” with Hughes’ biographer taking it a little further, referring to the feat as “magical.” It was, undeniably, a superhuman achievement that — coupled with the rapid deployment of the First Contingent — made Hughes the ‘cock of the walk.’ He was Canada’s Generalissimo, and the country was marching to the beat of his drum.

In the beginning, Hughes had a very good war, but even then, voices of dissent were rising. The British were bamboozled by the Byzantine command structure in England, with Hughes running a shadow staff and various personal emissaries, notably Lord Beaverbrook (Max Aitken), on special missions, with personal authority that clouded roles, responsibilities, and authority. The staff of the CEF resented his constant interference, particularly in personnel matters. At Valcartier, Canon Frederick Scott likened him to Napoleon and wrote, “to me it seemed that his personality and despotic rule hung like a dark shadow over the camp.” A ranker simply noted, “It wouldn’t have surprised any of us if somebody had assassinated” Hughes. Even ‘his boys’ were eventually booing and hissing when he rose to address them.

Throughout 1915, disquiet with Hughes’ performance emerged in the House and within the ranks of the Conservative Party. Cabinet meetings often descended into shouting matches between Hughes and Finance Minister Thomas White. In the House, Canadian munitions production was criticized. Contracts, costs, quality control, and quantity were all bones of contention. There were also minor scandals around the Minister’s procurement of horses and drugs for the CEF. Hughes impetuosity and independence also grew, driven both by his personal popularity across the country and his increasing paranoia.

Eventually, criticism came to focus on the quality of the Ross rifle. Hughes, a noted marksmen, had been on the committee that evaluated and approved the Ross. Afterwards, he took criticism of the Ross personally. He saw it as an insult to his intelligence, and an insinuation that he was not doing his best by his beloved militia. Emotionally, intellectually, and politically Hughes was committed to fighting for the Ross rifle to the “bitter end,” as he assured the House in 1907. A decade later, he was still defending it vociferously despite its manifest failure and withdrawal from service in favour of the Lee-Enfield.

Personal loyalty and recognition of his accomplishments led Borden to stand by Hughes longer than was sensible or politically sound. However, by November 1916, the Prime Minister had to move. He unveiled an earlier letter of resignation from Hughes, composed and delivered during a fit of exaggerated contrition, and announced that it was being accepted. Apologies, contrition, anger, and threats all failed to move the PM, and Hughes career as a Cabinet Minister was over.




Who the hell was sam hughes?

By Bob Gordon

Sam Hughes was Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence in Robert Borden’s Conservative government from 1911 to 1916. He was a proponent of the citizen-soldier militia man, a hero of the Boer War (at least in his own mind), and a Tory to the core. He also had a  larger-than-life profile and is one of the most polarizing figures in Canadian history.

His opponents described him as insane and, occasionally, demonic. Even his allies regarded him as irascible, unpredictable and egotistical. He was prone to giving too many speeches with too much information, liberally peppered with outrageous claims and assertions, absent any social intelligence. In the hyperbolic figure of speech of historian Tim Cook, Hughes did not just put a foot, or feet in his mouth, he often put his entire lower body in his mouth with his outrageous statements.

As early as 1903, while lobbying for a Victoria Cross, the War Office assessed him as “a bit mad.” Not surprising as Hughes is the only man to have nominated himself for a Victoria Cross, and he did so twice. The Governor-General His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught despised Hughes and described him as a “conceited lunatic.” Again, in September 1914, only weeks after war was declared, the G-G repeated that Hughes was “mentally off his base.” Further, the prime minister’s diaries frequently describe Hughes launching into angry diatribes followed by bouts of contrition and weeping accompanied by promises to do better next time. During the war, Sir Joseph Flavelle, head of the Imperial Munition Board and heir to much of Hughes’ former authority damned him: “I believe him to be mentally unbalanced, with the low cunning and cleverness often associated with the insane.” Mental illness was frequently mentioned in the same breath as Hughes and not without justification.

But as well, Hughes inspired an array of strong emotions, for others regarded him as a determined man of action and the right man for the times. In 1914, a contemporary marvelled at his energy and force of character, describing him as, “the right man — the man who not only knew what needed to be done but had sufficient force of character and driving power to convert his decisions into practical achievements.” Like a magician, he pulled Camp Valcartier out of a wilderness hat in a matter of weeks with the aid of Tory lumber baron William Price. He threw away the Permanent Force mobilization plan and still had 35,000 men ready to go overseas within ten weeks. As a result, he became the face of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and in the fall of 1914 many civilians and soldiers loved him for it.

These are the two sides of Sam Hughes. While the former, to the extent of caricature, has predominated over hagiography and balanced assessments have been, for the most part, absent.

So, who the hell was Sam Hughes?

Sir Samuel Hughes was born January 8, 1853, at Solina near Bowmanville in what was then Durham County, Canada West. His father, John, was an Irish immigrant, a farmer and a school teacher. His mother was the daughter of a British artillery officer stationed in the area. He was the third of four boys and had seven sisters. As a youth he hunted, fished and excelled at sports, particularly lacrosse and track and field. He joined the 45th (Durham West) Battalion of Infantry the year before Confederation.

Hughes was a Canadian hybrid. He was a proud patriot who saw Canada’s brightest future as a significant Dominion within a dominant and dynamic British Empire. Hughes the imperialist fought in the Boer War and Hughes the nationalist oversaw the progression of the distinctly Canadian Ross rifle from the selection process, into production, and then converted into multiple versions. A nationalist and an imperialist — the combination was not uncommon in Canada as well as Australia and New Zealand at the time — Hughes was also a committed, loyal and partisan Conservative.

These passions — the militia, the Tories, nationalism coupled with imperialism — remained dear to his heart throughout his life,  and were often expressed with vanity, egotism, paranoia and delusions. Sam Hughes was “an unstable megalomaniac, who also happened to be a twenty-year veteran of the House, a war hero, and powerful voice for the militia, rural Ontario, and the Orange Order,” Tim Cook writes. This was the complex reality that Sam Hughes truly embodied.

Hughes lost the 1891 election, but challenged the result and was granted a run-off election which he won on February 11, 1892. He was re-elected in 1896, and won every subsequent election he contested. In 1904 he survived a Liberal thrashing that even cost the Tory leader, Robert Borden, his seat. Sam was the first to offer to resign, creating an opening for the leader to run in a by-election and regain a seat in Ottawa. He may have made the offer knowing it would be refused because the Tory caucus could not afford to lose him. Regardless, it deeply touched Borden and may in part explain the prime minister’s enduring loyalty to him later in his peripatetic career. Hughes constantly assailed ‘regular soldiers,’ be they British or Canadian, as lazy drunkards while exalting his beloved citizen soldiers of the militia. In 1913, while speaking in Halifax, he dismissed the permanent force as “barroom loafers.”

In 1911, when Borden finally formed a Conservative government, Hughes achieved his dream of becoming Minister of Militia and Defence. Politically, he was positioned to have a positive impact on his beloved militia and to advance the idea of the Canadian citizen soldier as the ‘ultimate warrior.’

Politically, however, he was also vulnerable. His loyalty to the Orange Lodge, his frequent wild pronouncements about Quebecois disloyalty and clerical plots all made Borden wary. Prevarication on Borden’s part coupled with a desire to remind Hughes who was the boss made him Borden’s last cabinet selection. Further, he was excluded from the powerful, policy making body, the Liberal-Conservative Association of Ontario.

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, initiating the chain of events that would lead to World War I. The five-week European diplomatic dance that followed only dragged for Sam Hughes. In his feverish mind the road to war should have been double-timed. Even as the dispute became critical and Great Powers mobilized in the first week of August the clock was his enemy. He raged to his staff about Albion’s perfidy as Germany attacked yet the British refrained from declaring war. According to biographer Ronald Haycock, “he bawled to his embarrassed military secretary, C F Winter, to take down the Union Jack atop the building proclaiming, ‘I don’t want to be a Britisher.’”

Within hours England declared war, the ‘Jack’ was run back up, and Canada was at war. Sam was its warlord, the first face of the war effort. Prime Minister Borden, who Hughes dismissed “as gentle as a girl,” could not match Hughes assertive attitude, aggressive pronouncements and pugnacious visage. The bellicose Minister of the Militia had a face and outlook that fit the times unlike Borden.