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.