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One of the most important political leaders for Canada during the first part of the First World War was a charming, somewhat vain and colourful man named Samuel Hughes. With his extremely strong belief in the Imperial connection with England, and in the importance of a volunteer militia on Canadian soil, his impact on those early years of the war would be immense.

This isn’t a look at his entire life, but at how his years leading up to the First World War influenced him in his decisions, and his eventual downfall.

Born in Darlington, Canada West on Jan. 8, 1853, to John Hughes, an Irish immigrant, and Caroline Laughlin, a descendant of Scottish immigrants, he would be educated in Durham County, before attending Toronto Normal School and then the University of Toronto.

His belief in volunteer militias began early in his life. At the age of 13, he joined the 45th West Durham Battalion of Infantry and through the 1860s and into the 1870s, he took part in repulsing the Fenian Raids that intruded into Canada from Irish supporters in the United States.

As a young man, Hughes would attend drill practice sessions on a regular basis, and in his spare time he took up rifle shooting to improve his aim. Eventually, he became an excellent shot with the rifle. His activity in gun clubs ultimately reached such a high level that he became the president of the Dominion Rifle Association.

For Hughes, he believed completely in the Victorian ideals for men that emphasized self-discipline, manliness and hard work. That mentality led him to develop a muscular frame that helped him stand out, and pushed him to excel in sports, especially lacrosse.

After working as a teacher in Toronto from 1875 to 1885, where he was known for his habit of eating chalk during lectures, he would move to Lindsay, Ontario and purchase the local newspaper. As a newspaper owner, he would become known for his editorials that were aimed directly at the Roman Catholic Church and French-Canadians, including accusing the church of being behind the Montreal smallpox epidemic, and calling French Canadians, quote:

“Little better than brutes.”

His columns would also criticize urbanization as leading to the loss of masculinity and that the best way to preserve traditional masculinity in Canadian men was for compulsory militia service. For Hughes, toughness was manliness and the best way to toughen someone up was to put them into military service. He believed that Canadian men would go soft in an urban environment with labor-saving devices. Through his columns, he would praise the Canadian militia during the War of 1812, stating that they had saved Upper Canada from American invasions during the war, but ignoring the fact that British Army regulars did most of the fighting.

Around 1885, Hughes began to look into politics as a career path and he would join the Liberal-Conservative Association. The same year, the North West Resistance broke out in the Canadian West and Hughes would attempt to volunteer for the expedition that was leaving for the Canadian West, but he was turned down. The rejection seems odd considering how active he was in the militia for over a decade by that point.

While Hughes could not fight in the resistance, he wrote about it extensively in his newspaper, calling it a triumph of the Canadian militia, praising the men who had been sent west that had been regular citizens only weeks earlier. He would write near the end of the resistance, quote:

“Regular troops were all right for police purposes in times of peace and for training schools, but beyond that they are an injury to the nation.”

In 1891, Hughes was elected to the House of Commons in a by-election, after losing his bid for a seat in a federal election and taking his opponent to court over claims of electoral fraud.

In 1899, the Governor General of Canada and Major General Edward Hutton put forward a secret plan to send 1,200 Canadian men to South Africa to fight in the Boer War. He saw Hughes as a possible commander for the force as he was the most outspoken Members of Parliament when it came to militia matters. Laurier, who was not in the know of what was going on, hesitated over sending troops to South Africa.

Hughes, growing impatient, put forward an offer that he would raise a regiment himself, at his own expense. Hutton saw this as upsetting his plans because Hughes raising his own regiment would allow Laurier to do nothing but not look like nothing was done. Hutton ordered Hughes to remain silent, and Hughes responded with an outburst stating that a British officer was trying to silence a Canadian Member of Parliament.

Hutton would then write to Lord Minto, quote:

“I regret that I must decline to recommend Colonel S. Hughes for employment with our troops in any capacity whatever. This officer’s want of judgement and insubordinate self-assertion would seriously compromise success of Canadians when acting with Imperial troops. His insubordinate and improper correspondence, official and unofficial, renders his appointment moreover impossible on military grounds.”

Laurier would decide to send a contingent of Canadian volunteers, and Hughes promptly volunteered but he was vetoed by Hutton, who was still angry at Hughes. Laurier, for his part, then insisted that Hughes be allowed to go with the contingent. Hughes would leave with the troops on Oct. 31, 1899, sailing for Cape Town, South Africa. Hughes would go over as a civilian and was forbidden by Hutton to wear a uniform. Hughes decided to speak with some high-ranking British staff officers he knew and before he left, he was in uniform as a transport officer.

While serving in South Africa, despite his strong imperialist feelings, Hughes would often be at odds with the British military and by the end of the war he felt that Canadian soldiers were tougher and hardier than the British. His view that the part-time militia of Canada was better than the professional soldiers of Britain would have long lasting ramifications when the First World War came along. It was also during the war that he came to believe that all future wars would be fought like the Boer War, and it was where he was first introduced to the Ross Rifle, something else that would come up again in a few years. While the British would reject the Ross Rifle as unsuitable, this only made Hughes believe more that it was a good weapon.

Despite his classes with the British officials, Hughes was praised for his commanding of the Canadian troops and for being a hard-driving and aggressive commander whose cavalry covered vast distances over the open terrain of South Africa in order to confront the opposing side.

On May 27, 1900, the British Camp at Faber Pass was attacked and Hughes, half-dressed, sprang into action, helping to drive the enemy back at the cost of 23 dead and 33 wounded. Hughes would then campaign, for himself, to be awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions in the battle, but he was unsuccessful. Hughes, for his part, felt he was owed two Victoria Crosses.

During his time in the Boer War, he would write letters back to Canada, recounting his supposed military exploits in vivid detail for newspapers.

In the summer of 1900, Hughes would leave South Africa after he was quietly ordered to do so due to his letters home. While he would say that when he left, the British commander was sobbing at losing such a gifted soldier, the truth was that Hughes had been dismissed from service for military indiscipline.

Hughes, writing to Lord Connaught, would state in the third person, quote:

“General Warren begged and implored Hughes to remain. He assured Hughes that he had no officer left on whom he could rely. On the night of June 25, sobbing like a child, General Warren went over the same story and again begged Hughes to remain, but the return fever had seized him, so he insisted on going.”

Upon his return to Canada, Hughes was back at work in the House of Commons and forming a close friendship with Robert Borden. For the next decade he would be in the shadow cabinet but in 1911 when Robert Borden was elected Prime Minister, he made Hughes his Minister of Militia and Defence.

This would allow Hughes the opportunity to create his dream of a distinct Canadian Army to be used in the case of war. He had also not given up his request for a Victoria Cross for actions in the Boer War, even writing the Governor General directly, which prompted the Duke of Connaught to tell Borden to dismiss Hughes. Borden did not actually want Hughes in his cabinet, but Hughes insisted on having the defence portfolio and Borden wanted to reward him for his loyalty.

Hughes would write to Borden prior to his selection, stating quote:

“In your coming Cabinet operations difficulties may arise from time to time. It strikes me that it might be that again, my tact, firmness and judgement might come in to help matters along. In my walks through life easy management of men has ever been one of my chief characteristics and I get the name of bringing success and good luck to every cause.”

At the time, those around Hughes described him as having “great charm, wit and a driving energy with consummate political skills”

They would then add that he was, quote:

“A stubborn, pompous racist and a passionate Orange Order supremacist.”

Hughes would insist on wearing his military uniform at all times, even cabinet meetings, and in 1912 he promoted himself to major-general. As defence minister, he would increase the defence budget from $7 million in 1911 to $11 million in 1914. In today’s dollars that is an increase of almost $100 million. He would see the construction of new armories and the number of drill halls in Canada increased. He was openly hostile to the Permanent Active Militia, what would be called the Canadian Army today, and praised the Non-Permanent Active Militia of the country. He would even cut the budget of the Permanent Active Militia, in order to put more money into the Non-Permanent Militia. He was also against the idea of a Navy, but he also opposed the plans to disband the Navy and have Canada contribute directly to the British Navy. For Hughes, it was better Canada had its own Navy than be part of Britain’s Navy.

In the lead up to the First World War, Hughes would ban militia regiments in Quebec from taking part in Catholic processions, he would push out Permanent Force officers in favour of militia officers, and he would give a free Model T to every militia colonel in Canada. He would also begin a push to create compulsory militia service for every able-bodied male in Canada based on the Switzerland example. He would also ban all alcohol at militia camps.

By this point, Borden wanted to remove Hughes, who he saw as a liability due to his controversaries, but he felt he still owed Hughes for his loyalty. Borden was a quiet and gentlemanly lawyer out of Halifax, while Hughes was described as a blustering man fond of getting into brawls. Hughes would himself say of Borden, quote:

“He was as gentle hearted as a girl.”

Everything would then change on Aug. 2, 1914, when Germany invaded Belgium. While the British debated going to war, Hughes would arrive at the Defense Department on Aug. 3 and say quote:

“They are going to skunk it. They seem to be looking for any excuse to get out of helping France. Oh, what a shameful state of things. By God, I don’t want to be a Britisher under such conditions.”

Hughes then had at the Union Jack taken down from out front of the Defense Department, but it was put up the next day when Britain issued an ultimatum to Germany.

On Aug. 7, 1914, Borden announced that Canada would be sending a force to Europe. Hughes, instead of using a plan that had been drawn up in 1911 to mobilize an expeditionary force of one infantry division and a cavalry brigade with artillery support from the permanent force, chose to create the Canadian Expeditionary Force, made up of numbered battalions separate from the militia. This threw the entire mobilization effort into chaos because it required a new bureaucracy be created when thousands of young men were trying to enlist at once.  

Over the next few months it is said that Hughes insulted everyone from the Governor General all the way down to regular citizens. When the president of the Toronto Humane Society expressed concern over the treatment of horses at Camp Valcartier, Hughes screamed he was a liar and threw him out of his office. When Anglican Bishop John Farthing complained of the shortage of Church of England chaplains at Valcartier, Hughes began to loudly swear at Farthing.

While Hughes was bringing troops to Camp Valcartier to create his new force, his methods had some questioning if he had gone insane. Deputy Prime Minister Sir George Foster would write on Sept. 22, 1914 in his diary, quote:

“There is only one feeling about Sam. That he is crazy.”

The construction of Camp Valcartier was done under the direct supervision of Hughes, who ordered work begin on Aug. 7, 1914, and be finished by the time the entire force was assembled. Over 400 men worked to build the camp as 33,000 troops began to arrive at it. With little time to train the new recruits, things were rushed and overall the camp was poorly organized. The first commander of the camp would be Hughes’ brother John.

At the camp, Hughes was known to openly criticize officers in front of their men, and to ride around surrounded by an honor guard of lancers as he shouted orders for infantry maneuvers. He also only appointed officers to command the brigades who were English Canadian, never French Canadian. One such person not given a command was Francois-Louis Lessard, who was a Boer War veteran and had an outstanding record. Unfortunately, he was also a Catholic and French-Canadian, and as a result Hughes refused to give him a command.

On the other side of things, Hughes was known to give promotions almost without thinking in Valcartier Camp, despite the fact it wasn’t really in his ability to do so. In one story, which varies, but I will relate it as I saw in Maclean’s magazine, he said to an officer, quote:

“A fine unit you have here major.”

The officer responded that he was only a captain, to which Hughes stated, quote:

“You’re a major now.”

While it was chaotic at the camp, he was praised by Borden and others for the speed of his actions in getting things ready for shipping soldiers off to war.  

On Oct. 3, 1914, the first group of men left Quebec City as Hughes stood next to his horse giving a speech that caused the men to boo and jeer him. Borden would write in his diary that the speech was flamboyant and that everyone was laughing at his address. Hughes would go with the troops over, and upon landing in England, told the press that if not for him being part of the convoy of 30 ships, they would have been hit by U-boats, although he gave no explanation as to why.

In England, Lord Kitchener wanted to break up the Canadian Expeditionary Force and put its troops into the British battalions. Hughes would fight him on this and would win this battle, keeping the force together. If nothing else, this can be regarded as the biggest achievement for Hughes in his career. Keeping the force together would help down the road as Canadians fought as one, creating a strong sense of national pride and helping Canada move farther away from being just part of the British Dominion and more its own independent country on the world stage.

As Canadians began to go into battle in the spring of 1915, it soon became apparent that the Ross Rifle that Hughes loved so much was ineffective in battle and would jam on a regular basis. Hughes had a strong desire to furnish the Canadians with Canadian equipment, but this turned out to be ill advised. The boots that the men wore often leaked, vehicles lacked spare parts, belts were irregular and the trench equipment was often unusable. The Ross Rifle itself was excellent when it came to competition, but when used in a rapid fire situation it would jam. For the Canadians in the trenches, when they could find a Lee-Enfield Rifle, they would toss their Ross Rifle away.

Hughes would write to General Edwin Alderson, the commander of the Canadian troops, regarding the Ross Rifle, stating quote:

“You seem to be strangely familiar, judging from your letter, with the list of ten suggestions intended to prejudice the Ross Rifle in the minds of Canadians. These suggestions were first worked out at Salisbury. The insidious whispering went on in France. The questions took definite form just before St. Julien and were continued until after Festubert.”

Hughes also would make decisions without consulting Borden at all, often going against what was decided. At one point, Borden found out that Hughes had ordered that a Canadian brigade be fitted with kilts. Borden wired to Hughes, who was in England, quote:

“We decided last winter against large additional expenses necessary for kilts.”

Hughes responded in his typical manner when he was questioned, quote:

“You are entirely in error regarding kilts. They are less than half the cost of trousers. One kilt outwears four to six trousers.”

On Aug. 24, 1915, Hughes was knighted as a Knight Commander of the Order of Bath, officially becoming Sir Sam Hughes. The knighting of Hughes created a large controversary over knighthoods in Canada and from this would come the Nickle Resolution, which is why Canadians don’t get knighthoods today. Hughes also arranged for his own promotion from Major General to Lt. General.

Hughes’ desire for no drinking in the force would be met with opposition by military commanders who knew that if troops couldn’t drink at the training camps, they would just go to the towns to drink and not be under military control.

In a long letter to Colonel Logie on Oct. 14, 1915, Hughes reiterated his point, citing a story from his youth that may or may not have been true. He would say, quote:

“I was a mere boy being in a tent at Camp where a couple of fellows insisted on intruding their booze ideas. I promptly went to the captain of the company and told him that I would hold him responsible that these men did not annoy the occupants of the tent with their odour, their language and their filthiness. He refused to interfere and I promptly, although a mere boy, reported him to the Colonel, who also, refused to interfere. I then promptly took the matter up with a Member of Parliament who saw the matter through.”

By this time, there was growing criticism of Hughes and how he was handling the war, as well as his confrontation attitude to anyone who disagreed with him. Despite the growing criticism, Borden kept Hughes on due to the loyalty from years past. For Borden, he would visit the Western Front and Hughes would lead him to believe that the British Army was inefficient, and that while his methods were unorthodox and seemed chaotic, he was merely trying to cut through the red tape to help the Canadian soldiers in the field. Hughes argued that the Canadians were equal of England in imperial affairs and should not be talked down to. When Borden then dealt with British officials who were condescending to him, this only cemented his belief in Hughes.

Around this same time, reports emerged that the Shell Committee had $170 million in orders to fulfill but only delivered $5.5 million in orders. This created accusations that Hughes and his friend were profiting from the war. Borden put his support behind the British stopping all orders until Canada created an Imperial Munitions Board. The corruption soon ended and by 1917, Canada was turning out $2 million in shells per day. While this may seem like a good thing, Hughes was furious that an important function of the war had been taken from his department. Despite this, Hughes stayed on as Defence Minister.

Hughes spent little time in Ottawa, often traveling the country and to Europe. Between 1914 and 1916, he was out of the country about one-third of the time. Borden would write to Hughes, telling him that his first responsibility was to his department. Hughes would respond by saying he was doing more than all the other cabinet ministers put together. He would write, quote:

“I, as the responsible Minister and having an experience second to none in any Department and far superior to many, and generally being considered an endowed with some common sense, will certainly not delegate my responsibility to any subordinate officer in my department, or to any militia council in my department.”

Hughes would also develop a shovel, which he patented in his personal secretary’s name, that featured a hole in it. The belief was that it could be used as a shield on the battlefield. Called the Hughes Shovel, 22,000 would be made, with the hole being where a rifle could be placed. The device proved to be highly ineffective. A letter from Brigadier General A.B. McRae, in a letter to Sir George Perley, stated quote:

“It, however, was found to be impracticable. As it weighs over five pounds and has a large hole in the centre it is not considered that it can be made use of.”

The 50 tons of metal used to make the shovels would be melted down and used in other aspects of the war effort. The purchase of the spades had cost $33,370 on the shovels, only to sell the scrap they made for $1,400.

As the war raged into the Autumn of 1915, the need for more men became apparent. To deal with this, Hughes announced that anyone could form a Chum’s Battalion for the Canadian Expeditionary Force. This led to the formation of units comprised completely of Scottish Canadians, Irish Canadians, battalions formed by hockey players, American volunteer battalions, battalions for men shorter than a certain height, and Orange battalions made up of Orangemen. This effort resulted in 170 new battalions, of which only 40 reached full strength. Often the men who joined these battalions were too old, too young or unfit for duty. I will talk about these Chum Battalions on Oct. 10.

The racism and anti-French sentiment of Hughes would only make matters worse as the drive for new recruits increased as 1915 turned into 1916. He would send Anglo-Canadians into Quebec to recruit French Canadians, he forced French volunteers to speak English in training, he only accepted Japanese-Canadians and Chinese-Canadians into the force when he had no choice, and he pushed Black Canadians into construction units. While he seemed to have issues with the French and other races, he actively encouraged the recruitment of Indigenous soldiers, believing them to be excellent troops. Out of his belief that the Indigenous were excellent marksmen, he would typically assign them as snipers.

Between 1914 and 1916, Hughes was able to raise 500,000 troops for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, of whom only 13,000 were French-Canadians. While Hughes was successful in raising this force and keeping it as its own entity in Europe, his ministry was seen as inefficient and full of waste. Various scandals would plague the ministry through 1915, typically related to the purchasing of ammunition and other military items. This would result in Borden taking more functions from the defense ministry and giving them to men who were not seen as yes men to Hughes. Another issue was that Hughes would raise new battalions rather than send reinforcements to current battalions, creating more administrative waste and leading to those new battalions being split up into older battalions. Hughes also insisted that every decision go through him and he would often go beyond his powers as a minister to get what he wanted done. This was seen in September of 1916 when he announced the formation of the Acting Overseas Sub-Militia Council, to be chaired by his friend Major General John Wallace Carson and Hughes’ son in law as the chief secretary. This was done without consulting Borden at all.

Within the Canadian Expeditionary Force itself, Hughes was actively disliked. This was seen in July 1916 when he visited Camp Borden and was booed by the troops. Lt. General Byng was so irritated by the constant interference by Hughes, despite Byng being the commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, that he threatened to resign. Byng was very popular with his troops, who he took great care to ensure they had what they needed. That admiration in turn made Hughes jealous.

On Aug. 17, 1916, Hughes and Byng were having dinner when Hughes stated that he alone would hold the power of promotion in the Canadian Corps. Byng responded that he was the commander and he had the power of promotion and he would inform Hughes before making any as a courtesy, but that he would resign if Hughes interfered as he had done with previous commanders.

Things came to a head when Byng decided to give the command of the Canadian Second Division to Henry Burstall, a gifted Canadian commander who had distinguished himself. Hughes wanted to give the command to his son Garnet instead. Byng did not like Garnet and felt he could not command anything. Byng, in an attempt to be diplomatic, stated that he would not appoint Garnet because the Canadians should have the best leaders available. Byng then wrote to Borden that if Hughes put Garnet in charge of the Second Canadian Division, he would resign. Burstall would be given command, further angering Hughes.

Criticism of Hughes was now coming not only from troops, but from high ranking officials in the army and even King George V himself. This led Borden to tighten control over Hughes more and more. Borden, by this point, more confident in his role as the leader of the country during the war, began to tire of Hughes and his outbursts. In the autumn of 1916, the Ministry of Overseas Military Forces of Canada was created, which created a massive reduction in the power of Hughes. This caused Hughes to fly into a rage and to even threaten Borden himself.

After receiving an insulting letter from Hughes on Nov. 1, 1916, Borden had enough.

In the letter, Hughes stated quote:

“Regarding the consultative sub-Militia council. It has only been tentatively formed. My way of doing things is to obtain results, not necessarily the creation of bodies organized by Order-in-Council. As everyone knows what may seem workable in theory does not turn out in practice.”

On Nov. 9, 1916, he dismissed Hughes from cabinet, stating that Hughes was fired because he had a quote:

“Strong tendency to assume powers which he did not possess.”

Deputy Prime Minister Forster would write in his diary, quote:

“The nightmare is removed.”

Most in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, including officers and lower ranks, reacted favourably to his firing.

Hughes for his part began to attack the government, of which he was a part of. He accused Borden of not doing enough for the war effort and on Jan. 20, 1917, stated that the finance minister was running up the debt irresponsibly, and that his successor as defence minister was mismanaging the ministry.

Hughes then began working with his friend Lord Beaverbrook to start a third party, called The War Party. The plan was for Lord Rothermere to join up as well, but it all fell apart when Rothermere stated he wanted no part of it and Beaverbrook would not take part without him.

For the remainder of the war, Hughes would become paranoid, stating that his mail was being tampered with and calling the war effort hell on Earth without him leading it. Some have argued that there may have been signs of dementia with Hughes around this time. He would also call his old friend Borden a weakling on several occasions. Hughes would also begin to openly feud with General Arthur Currie, who was commanding the Canadian troops and had just recently achieved the success of Vimy Ridge. He accused Currie of causing needless death. He would write to Lord Beaverbrook, quote:

“Currie was a coward at St. Julien and a damned fool ever since. He was the cause of practically having murdered thousands of men at Lens and Passchendaele and is generally supposed the motive was to prevent was to prevent the possibility of Turner coming back with the Second Army Corps and to prevent Garnet from commanding the Division.”

He would even attack Currie’s reputation in the House of Commons, calling for Borden to fire Currie, of which Borden refused. Hughes anger towards Currie would continue after the war as well, saying as late as 1920 that Currie’s reputation was all military propaganda.

In 1917, future prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King would write in his diary that he had met with Hughes at the Chateau in Ottawa. He would state, that Hughes was, quote:

“A pathetic figure at present, aging rapidly.”

Even at this time, Hughes was known to provide a grandiose story of his exploits in the military. In another lunch on April 14, 1918, King would write quote:

“General Sir Sam Hughes joined us at breakfast and we had no end of fun in our talk with him. His account of how he raised the army at the start, of the services at Valcartier, etc., were so amazing as to be ludicrous beyond words.”

In the summer of 1921, Hughes found out he had only weeks to live. On his death bed, a Methodist minister came and Hughes stated, quote:

“Don’t you bother about me. Pretty soon I’ll be sitting on the right hand of God and I’ll be able to arrange things soon enough.”

By March 11, 1921, any aura of importance around Hughes had faded for those around him, even though he was still in the House of Commons. King would write quote:

“The debate this afternoon on patronage was a good one from our side of the House. Sam Hughes was a pathetic figure pleading for a return for patronage and making light of the clergy uplifters etc. in what may be his last speech. He has a certain genius and certain view of truth but is rough and coarse and conceited.”

Hughes died on Aug. 24, 1921, at the age of 68. His funeral two days later was the largest ever seen in Lindsay, attended by 20,000 people. His coffin was carried by six veterans down main street while the 45th Victoria Regiment marched behind it.

R.B. Maxwell, president of the Dominion Command of the Great War Veterans Association, would say of Hughes death, quote:

“I am certain I voice the feelings of my comrades of the Great War Veterans Association in saying the death of Sir Sam Hughes, the man who did things.”

Upon his death, newspapers across Canada printed the accomplishments of his life. Some embellished, others kept to the facts. To end this episode though, I will take a quote from the Regina Leader-Post, which states quote:

“Self-centered, at times overbearing and quite unfitted for the teamwork so essential to the smooth working of any government, it is admitted by all that in fitting out the Canadian contingent at Valcartier in the fall of 1914, Sir Sam accomplished something that few other men could have done and won himself the gratitude of the Canadian people, accomplishing a task that was herculean in its magnitude.”

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Library and Archives Canada, Biographi, Macleans, Ottawa Journal, Regina Leader,

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