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We Were There

Sir Sam Hughes

Politics and War

Sir Sam Hughes was Minister of Militia and Defence from October 1911 to November 1916. His decisive action profoundly influenced the organization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Sure of himself, he led his department in a manner that often brought controversy. Some of the measure he took were successful, others were failures. Sir Sam Hughes was eventually forced to tender his resignation.

Hughes was no stranger to controversy even before he entered active political life. His statements in his Lindsay newspaper had already alienated Catholic public opinion and earned him the reputation of a bigot among French Canadians. More than religious or linguistic issues, though, he was most inspired by military affairs. But even in this area, his forthright positions embarrassed his colleagues in the Conservative Party more than once, and offended the sensibilities of regular and British military authorities.

Hughes identified with the nationalist-imperialist movement that advocated a more active role for the dominions in the management of the Empire's affairs. For him that meant the Canadianisation of local authorities. He worked toward this by promoting the militia and by finding local suppliers.

A Few Successes

When Canada entered the war in August 1914, it had only about 3,000 regular troops. Rather than implement the existing mobilization plan, Hughes decided to rely on militia units. This improvised system, complete with marching bands and parades, brought early successes but its inconsistencies soon led to serious problems.

The fall of 1914 and the spring of 1915 saw intensive recruitment that some counted among Sir Sam Hughes' successes. Spurred on by patriotic fervour and the general excitement of the early days, and convinced that the enemy would soon be crushed, thousands of young men enrolled in the newly-formed battalions. To organize these recruits and provide an adequate training site, Camp Valcartier was quickly built. Other camps were built later on, including Borden to the north of Toronto.

Within a few weeks, the first contingent was ready to set sail. The ships left from Quebec City and gathered in Gaspé harbour. Before the convoy left for England, Sir Sam Hughes gave the soldiers a harangue (long and forceful speech) to stir up their fervour.

Failures

Hughes' wish to provide his "boys" with Canadian equipment was admirable in principle but partially unsuccessful. The boots leaked, the disparate vehicles lacked spare parts, the military belts were irregular and the trench equipment was unusable. The manufacture of munitions was the subject of scandal. Much effort was wasted on limiting the consumption of alcohol. And finally, perhaps worst of all in Hughes' eyes, the Ross Rifle was replaced by an English gun.

The Ross, an excellent gun for competition, tended to jam during rapid fire. The Canadians had infuriating confirmation of this while being exposed to asphyxiant gas before Ypres. In despair, several soldiers gave up their long and heavy Ross Rifle in favour of the more reliable Lee-Enfield, if they could find one. Shortly thereafter, General Alderson expressed, in Ottawa, a desire to replace the defective rifle. Hughes struck a committee to establish the truth, under the leadership of Sir Charles Ross, the rifle's inventor. The Ross Affair remained an apple of discord between the Minister and military command.

The End of The Minister's Career

The criticism of the Minister from within his own party gradually led the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Laird Borden, to tighten the reins on Hughes.

Hughes, accustomed to acting without worrying about the consequences, exceeded his ministerial authority once again at the end of August 1916 by creating a sub-militia council, in England, without Cabinet approval. Borden took the opportunity to once again clearly define Cabinet authority over the affairs of the Expeditionary Force even though, at first glance, Hughes' new creation seemed to be a step in the right direction. By September 22, Borden had outlined the organization of the future Ministry of Overseas Forces, far removed from the influence of the Minister of Militia and Defence. On October 27, a secret decree was signed creating the ministry and appointing Sir George Halsey Perley as Minister.

Hughes rebelled and tried to reverse the Prime Minister's decision. Without any initial success, Hughes then became impertinent, even insulting. The Prime Minister therefore had no choice but to ask for his resignation. Hughes spent the next five years, the last years of his life, as a backbencher.