Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Recommended: Canada's Controversial Sir Sam Hughes (1853–1921)

By Carol Whitfield at the Parks of Canada Website

Col. Sam Hughes, MP
July 1905 (Public Archives of Canada)
Sam Hughes was a man who often seemed to be trying to serve his country in the wrong century. With his undeniable energy and Central Ontario beliefs, he might have made an excellent minister of militia and defence in Macdonald's first government. Macdonald might have been capable of controlling Hughes's volatile personality and putting a bridle on his tongue; Borden never could force Hughes to behave like a minister of the crown.

Samuel Hughes, known through out his life as "Sam," was born 8 January 1853 in Darlington County, Ontario. From his father, John Hughes of Tyrone, Ireland, Sam acquired his strong Orange and imperialist beliefs. These views were probably reinforced by his mother, Caroline Laughlin, who was of Scottish, Irish, and Huguenot descent.

Possibly his mother's stories of her grandfather, General Saint Pierre, Brigadier of Cuirassiers, and her two uncles, who served under Napoleon at Waterloo,  encouraged the boy's fascination with war. Hughes joined the active militia when he was 13 and several years later was mustered to guard the border during the abortive Fenian Raid of 1870.  He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel commanding the 45th Battalion on 9 June 1897.  By that date he had achieved such prominence in Canadian militia and political circles that he had been offered the positions of deputy minister of militia (1891) and adjutant general (1895). Hughes declined both desk jobs, but he did take part in Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebration on 20 June 1897, for which he received a medal. 

The Hughes were not wealthy, but they did send their son to Toronto Model and Normal School. After graduation, Hughes taught for a short time in Belleville and Bowmanville before returning to Toronto to join the staff of Toronto Collegiate Institute, where he taught English and history besides attending the University of Toronto part-time. Hughes graduated with a BA in 1880.  Five years later he purchased the Lindsay Warder, a strongly Conservative paper that he edited until 1897.

Through the pages of his newspaper, Hughes made himself and his views known to the citizens of Victoria County. His ideas were not always popular, but a burned newspaper office and shots at the editor did not deter him. In 1891 he stood for election as the Conservative Party candidate in North Victoria but was defeated. A year later he won the same riding in a by-election. From February 1892 until his death in 1921, Hughes represented the constituency of North Victoria, or Victoria and Haliburton as it became after the redistribution at the turn of the century. In the House of Commons Hughes was one of the leading Conservative critics on military and militia affairs.

Regardless of how exciting the parliamentary battle was, Hughes was constantly restless. He offered to personally raise a corps to assist Britain in the Egyptian-Sudanese campaign and in the Afghan Frontier War. Both offers were declined. Because he felt so strongly that the colonies must militarily assist England in her conflicts, Hughes went on an extended visit to New Zealand and Australia during the winter of 1897–98, promoting colonial military assistance. 

His chance came with the Boer War. As soon as he learned that war was certain, he offered to personally raise a corps for service in South Africa. Unfortunately, he made the offer in an unorthodox fashion. Instead of just offering his services to the district officer commanding, who would transmit the offer to General Hutton, commander of the Canadian Militia, Hughes impatiently wrote also to F. W. Borden, the minister of militia and defence, and to Chamberlain, the secretary of state for the colonies. Before Hutton had an opportunity to decide on the merits of Hughes's offer, he was being pressured to accept it by Borden and Chamberlain. Hutton furiously accused Hughes of "irregularity and breach of military procedure."  Unwisely deciding not to let the issue calm down, Hughes again wrote Hutton proffering his services. Hutton, having decided this letter was threatening and insubordinate, denied Hughes employment in South Africa and suggested that any more action on the latter's part might lose him the command of the 45th Battalion. Hughes ignored the warning. Hearing rumors that a fellow officer was to command the Canadian contingent, Hughes wrote Hutton attacking the possible commander, praising himself, hinting about irregularities in the British high command and threatening Hutton.  Not only was this letter insubordinate, it was appallingly undiplomatic.

Hutton, who had been called before the Cabinet three times to explain why Hughes could not go to South Africa,  was livid. Probably pressure from the Cabinet was the only thing that prevented Hutton from cashiering Hughes. Instead he demanded a public apology for the two letters and denied Hughes permission to join the Canadian contingent. Hughes was, however, allowed to sail with the contingent in the SS Sardinian, but, "It is to be clearly understood that this officer does not proceed in any military capacity whatever, and will accordingly, not wear uniform on board ship." 

As soon as he disembarked at Cape Town, Hughes hurried to register at the Grand Hotel. Here he re-established contacts with high-ranking British officers he had met at the Diamond Jubilee. They found him a job as a railway transport officer. His next position was assistant to Inspector General Settle on the lines of communication; then he became Settle's chief of intelligence staff, and finally was transferred to General Warren's staff where he served in the same capacity as well as leading a mounted brigade in the Griqual and West and Bechuanaland campaigns.  It was a phenomenal rise during a period of just eight months, but, unfortunately, Hughes could not keep his pen from committing his exploits to paper. Writing to the newspapers at home, he detailed not only his own brilliant activities but also the failures of his superiors. Soon he was politely dismissed from the battle front; he was given command of a unit returning home on a troop ship to England. 

Gen. Sir Sam Hughes watching British attack at Battle of the Somme, October 1917. 
(Public Archives of Canada.)

The Boer War did not end Hughes's involvement in the British empire. He had always been an uncompromising supporter of imperial federation: the masthead of the Warder was,

A union of hearts, A union of hands, A union no man can sever, A union of tongues, A Union of lands, And the flag — British Union forever.

Hughes envisioned a confederation of the British empire with the various autonomous bodies maintaining the form of government best suited to their individual requirements. The imperial Parliament would handle international, financial, military, and naval matters. Hughes felt that each country within the confederation would set its tariffs but that the imperial Parliament would be able to impose sanctions upon any country by adding a high imperial tariff to the individual member's tariff. Similarly, each country would be responsible for its own defense but would be duty bound to contribute to imperial defense.  For this reason Hughes did not support the Canadian naval policy of the Liberals or Conservatives. He argued that a professional navy did not fit into his scheme of imperial militia authorized by the imperial Parliament. This argument follows if a navy is used only for offensive purposes. Such a navy, under Hughes's allotment of responsibilities, would then be a creation of the imperial Parliament. By denying that Canada needed a navy, Hughes denied the possible defensive functions of a navy.

The speeches he made on imperialism and his letters to General Hutton had amply illustrated that Hughes was opinionated, outspoken, and rash. Nevertheless, Borden chose him to be minister of militia and defence when the Conservatives won the election in 1911. According to his memoirs, Borden hesitated about the appointment, but, having extracted a promise that he would be discreet, he gave Hughes the desired appointment. Hughes had strong advocates recommending him: Clifford Sifton, Sir Frederick Borden, and Hughes himself called on Sir Robert Borden to plead the cause. However, the major factor in Hughes's favor was probably the strong support he could muster from his fellow Ontario Orangemen, Macquarrie. An article on the formation of Borden's cabinet lists one other reason for Hughes's appointment. When Borden was personally defeated in the 1904 election, Hughes was the first man to offer the party leader his seat.  If the incident did occur,  it no doubt influenced Borden's decision.

With quiet and generally competent activity between 1911 and the summer of 1914, Hughes behaved like a minister of the crown whose sole interest is his department. Convinced that war was inevitable, he decided to augment the Defence Department's budget. Despite opposition by his cabinet colleagues, the budget was increased by $3.5 million from the fiscal year 1911–12 to 1913–14. Some of this money was spent building 44 new armories that could double as public halls. The fourth-largest of these new structures was built at Lindsay,  the site Hughes later authorized for the second dominion arsenal; it was, incidentally, the center of his own constituency.

Part of the increased budget paid for the new Connaught Rifle Range on the outskirts of Ottawa. Hughes handled all the plans for this project  to encourage one of his special interests. Having served as president of the Dominion Rifle Association and chairman of the Standing Small Arms Committee for Canada,  Hughes was interested in rifle accuracy, which he further encouraged by free grants of ammunition to both civilian and militia rifle associations. 

Hughes devoted part of his time to improving the caliber of Canadian militia officers. He held the first military conferences,  conducted a tour of American Civil War battlefields, and took selected officers to attend the annual British, French, German, and Swiss maneuvers in 1913. This final project was undertaken because Hughes felt that the majority of Canadian officers and men had no experience with either battle or large numbers of troops. He encouraged large summer militia camps so the men could become accustomed to operating in units larger than their local battalion. 

Unfortunately, not everything Sam Hughes did as minister of militia before the war was wise. The only blunder that aroused public attention, however, was his refusal of permission to the 65th Regiment to carry arms in the Fête-Dieu procession in Montreal in 1914. Technically he was right, but previous ministers had avoided irritating French Canadian nationalist feelings by granting such permission. 

The governor general prevented a second blunder on Hughes's part from becoming very serious. In the spring of 1914, a Count von Loudow presented himself at militia headquarters as a German officer touring Canada. Hughes decided the man's credentials were in order and answered some of his questions until the governor general ordered a security check which revealed that the count was a spy, sent to acquire specific information about Canadian defenses along the St. Lawrence River. 

Hughes's biggest error was one that no one could prevent: he assumed too much personal responsibility. A militia council of six senior officers had been established to advise the minister, but Hughes ignored it.  Prior to the war this tendency not to delegate responsibility was not too serious, but once fighting started, the department's problems multiplied so enormously that one man could no longer handle all of them adequately.

Probably the most significant instance of Hughes assuming too much personal responsibility was the mobilization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Detailed plans for mobilizing 20,000 men had been made in 1911 and revised in 1912, but Hughes discarded them. To the House of Commons he later likened his method to "the fiery cross passing through the Highlands of Scotland or the mountains of Ireland in former days." Ignoring the militia districts, he sent letters to unit commanders and individuals asking them to prepare descriptive rolls of men suitable for service overseas. These rolls were to be sent to Ottawa where the men were to be individually selected. After four days even Hughes recognized that this procedure was impossible. The new plans he issued gave each district a quota of men to raise.

"In a short time," proudly declared the minister of militia, "we had the boys on the way for the first contingent, whereas it would have taken several weeks to have got the word around through the ordinary channels... The contingent was practically on the way to Europe before it could have been mobilized under the ordinary plan." This disparagement of the "ordinary plan" was scarcely justified; normal military channels of communication properly used could have carried the warning in a matter of hours, not weeks. Indeed, once the confusion caused by the first dramatic but irregular "call to arms" subsided, most of the volunteers joined through existing militia units in virtually the manner prescribed by the prewar scheme. 

Although many men did join through their local militia units, when they reached Valcartier they found themselves completely realigned into units which had no geographical base or tradition.  Mobilization was further hindered by the fact that final selection of the contingent was to take place at Valcartier; good men hesitated to quit their jobs only to be turned down just before the contingent sailed for Europe. 

Gen. Sir Sam Hughes, Canadian
Minister of Militia and Defence
(Public Archives of Canada.)
As soon as he had dispatched the mobilization orders, Hughes began creating a camp to collect and train the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The physical creation of Valcartier, the huge camp outside Quebec City, was due to Hughes's fantastic energy. In a very few weeks, he erected out of virgin bush a camp to house and train 25,000 men.

Confusion prevailed at Valcartier, but the situation would have gradually improved if Hughes had not interfered.

The first few days in camp was chaos. Bodies of men arrived before arrangements were made to receive them. There were no units in the true sense of the word, but certain bodies of men submitted themselves to the command of individuals many of whom were subsequently displaced by the minister. The Valcartier Camp Staff, hindered to a great extent by the continual presence and the interference of the late Sir Sam Hughes, gradually formed this mob into units and brigades. 

In his memoirs, Borden cites reports of incidents of Hughes speaking harshly and insultingly to the officers at Valcartier in front of the men.  The trouble really was Hughes's desire to assume total personal responsibility. In a speech on 15 August 1914, he hinted that the "dearest ambition" of his life was to "lead the boys" and that he still might "go to the front." 

Hughes's total involvement with "the boys" caused him to hurry to New York as soon as the first contingent had sailed and race them to England. He was on hand to welcome the troops and see them settled at the future mud hole, Salisbury Plain. Among other details, Hughes assured himself that there was no liquor sold at the Canadian canteens. Eventually he was forced to rescind this order when numerous incidents showed that a totally dry camp resulted in leaves being passed at the local pubs. However, he did not reverse the order before the men parodied an old song to commemorate his temperance attitude.

D'ye ken Sam Hughes, he's the foe of booze;
He's the real champion of the dry canteen;
For the camp is dead, and we're sent to bed,
So we won't have a head in the morning.

Actually Hughes's presence in England was fortunate for the cause of Canadian autonomy. When he paid a courtesy call on Lord Kitchener, he learned that the Canadian forces were going to be dispersed among the British units. He refused to sanction such a decision and eventually forced Kitchener to concede that the Canadians would serve as a separate unit. 

Hughes returned to Canada and began preparations for mobilizing a second contingent. Again he ignored the prepared mobilization plans and ordered recruiting by electoral district. This scheme worked in cities which had the facilities to handle recruiting and training but broke down entirely in rural areas. The plan lasted only one season; there were sufficient recruits, but they were poorly and unevenly trained.  Borden's announcement on New Year's Day, 1916, that Canada was committed to a force of 50,000 men required a new recruiting scheme. Eventually the government realized that their commitment could be met only by conscription.

Hughes augmented his recruiting difficulties by the manner in which he treated French Canadians. Beginning wisely by approaching Cardinal Bégin over the problem of chaplains,  Hughes's methods soon changed.

He placed an English Protestant in charge of recruiting propaganda. [in Quebec] and from time to time emphasized the foolishness of this action by more mischievous activities. 

Hughes increased French Canadian resentment by statements such as Quebec "has not done its duty." 

As minister of militia and defence, Hughes's problems were not limited to just recruiting sufficient men; the men had to be properly equipped. To handle the complex details of purchasing uniforms as well as rifles and shells, a shell committee was established in September 1914. Prior to this, Hughes made some purchases without the Privy Council's approval. The shell committee, which became the Imperial Munitions Board, worked reasonably well. Unfortunately Hughes was personally committed to Colonel J. Wesley Allison who, independently of the committee, was also placing orders. Allison's activities aroused the suspicion of the Opposition, and Borden submitted to their demands for a royal commission. He therefore called Hughes home from one of his periodic visits to the front to answer the commission's queries. Borden also forced Hughes to temporarily relinquish the administration of his department during the investigation. Eventually Hughes and the shell committee were exonerated, but Allison was censored for deceiving Hughes and the committee about his activities.  Hughes' reputation was damaged however, and the Cabinet was furious; they felt that he had subjected the government to unnecessary scrutiny. At this point Borden wrote in his diary, "It is quite evident that Hughes cannot remain in the Government." 

Hughes was also deeply involved in the controversy over the Ross rifle. Although the rifle had been adopted before he became the responsible minister, it had been selected by a Commons committee of which he was a member. Unfortunately, he was unable to consider the rifle in a detached manner. He knew that it was an excellent target rifle and assumed that it was therefore an excellent battle rifle, a conclusion which did not necessarily follow. Confusing reports as to the rifle's behavior with different makes of ammunition tended to support Hughes's contention that people were attacking the rifle unjustly, and he strongly defended it against the documented arguments of Gwatkin and Alderson. Probably part of the reason Alderson was transferred from the command of the Canadian contingent at the front to inspector general in England in May 1916 was because of his opposition to the Ross. It is unfortunate that while Hughes and the officers argued over the attributes of the Ross, men died because the rifle jammed, Borden and Hughes clashed finally over the organization of the Militia Department in England.

Throughout the summer of 1916 it became increasingly evident that the existing condition of affairs must be remedied: it was found that unfit men were being sent from Canada; that reinforcements were being neither sufficiently nor uniformly trained in England; that the methods of caring for convalescent wounded, and of returning casualties to the front when fit, were unsatisfactory; that recommendations for promotion in the field were being unduly delayed; and that there was a growing number of senior officers in England, stranded there when the juniors and other ranks of their units were sent as reinforcements to France. These failings could only be rectified by establishing an organization through which direct and efficient control, both military and governmental, would be exercised. The need for such an arrangement had long been foreseen by some, but the insistence of the minister of militia on devoting his personal interest to adjustment of arms and equipment and the destinies of individuals, rather than to the co-ordination of general policies, imposed an unreckoned indeterminate stress upon the machinery of the War Office, and precluded the effective employment of a responsible intermediary. Early in August, 1914, it had been agreed that the minister should deal with details of a military character in direct communication with the Army Council, but the sphere of his influence was not in fact limited by the English Channel; he maintained continual touch unofficially with the frontline troops, and his enthusiasm impelled him to comment frequently and freely on the tactics and strategy employed. 

The problem was that the Militia Department in Ottawa was corresponding with the War Office and three separate individuals in England. MacDougall and Steele had separate commands of the two Canadian contingents in England. Completely divorced from these two officers was an honorary colonel, J. W. Carson, whom Hughes appointed as his special representative in England. 

Carson's terms of reference applied only to supplies, but he soon came to supersede the other two officers in authority. Eventually Carson was deciding policy and dispensing promotions under Hughes's direction. Confusion reigned; no one was sure who was responsible for what.

In the summer of 1916, Hughes returned to England to begin reorganizing the command structure. Despite repeated telegrams from Borden asking for his recommendations so an order-in-council could be issued, Hughes did not inform the Canadian Cabinet of his decision. It was through the newspapers that Borden learned that Hughes had established an acting sub-militia council for overseas Canadians chaired by Carson.  The council's decisions had to be endorsed by Hughes in Ottawa before they took effect. Despite this delay, the council was an improvement.

But Sir Sam's efforts to bring about a more business-like state of affairs were doomed to failure when he chose to ignore the prime minister's repeated instructions. 

Hughes returned to Canada to discover that an angry prime minister and Cabinet had made their own plans for the organization of the Militia Department in England. A new ministry of overseas military forces of Canada with Sir George Perley as minister would replace the sub-militia council. Hughes objected strongly, claiming that the new ministry would rob him of all his powers. Because Borden was adamant, Hughes finally agreed to the new ministry if his friend, the future Lord Beaverbrook, was made minister;  however, when Borden announced the new ministry, Perley was named minister.

In a rage, Hughes wrote Borden a letter accusing him of planning the new ministry behind his back.  The letter was so impertinent that Borden was compelled to demand Hughes's resignation. After noting Hughes's lack of Cabinet responsibility, Borden stated,

I take strong exception not only to statements which it contains but [also] to its general character and tone. You must surely realize that I cannot retain in the Government a colleague who has addressed to me such a communication. I regret that you have thus imposed upon me the disagreeable duty of requesting your resignation as Minister of Militia and Defence. 

Hughes resigned 11 November 1916, ending a career which had brought him all the glory and pomp he could desire. Although he had not been able to assume personal command of the troops, he had visited the front several times and taken the salute at numerous parades. He had commanded the troops, police, and firemen at the Parliament buildings fire on 3 February 1916. He had also been created a Knight of the Bath on 24 August 1915  and an honorary lieutenant general in the British army on 18 October 1916. 

Hughes retired from public service to enjoy the relative peace of his family at his Ottawa residence, 21 Nepean Street. However, by 1920 he was seriously ill and in July 1921 he was moved to Lindsay, where he died on 24 August of that year. 

He was a man of great ability, immense energy, and strong enthusiasms but possessed of a singular aptitude for uttering the wrong phrase at the wrong time. A man of intense egotism, he was capable of unyielding loyalty, however mistaken, for his friends and equally bitter hatred for those he considered enemies. Headstrong and imperious, he was inclined to make and announce decisions without submitting them to the Cabinet, or even to the prime minister, and he was strongly disposed to ignore the line of demarcation between political authority and military command. There seems little doubt that, as the war continued, the colonel became increasingly erratic and difficult.  
Canadian Historical Review, 1950, No. 1.

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