World War I: who the hell was Sam Hughes? Part II: being Sam Hughes.
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."
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.
Caption: A portrait of Sir Sam Hughes during his elder years. After being booted from Cabinet, Hughes spent his remaining years in politics taking up a seat as a backbench Member of Parliament. This did little to shed whatever forces made him a magnet of controversy. (LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA)
Caption: Sam Hughes and staff visit captured German trenches on the Somme in August 1916. Hughes was known to visit the front from time to time. Unfortunately, throughout his storied career, arrogance may have eclipsed his bravery. (LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA)
NEXT MONTH: Sam Hughes continued to sit as a backbench Tory MP, and it was in this capacity that he started his final battle with an unlikely foe, General Arthur Curry, commander of the Canadian Corps. Next month, Hughes accuses a national hero of being a vainglorious "butcher."
RELATED ARTICLE: the Ross Rifle, Part II.
by Bob Gordon
WHEN CANADIAN TROOPS began entering the trenches in the first months of 1915, most--with the exception of the Patricia's--carried the much-maligned Ross Rifle.
Historian Andrew Iarroci downplays complaints about the Ross, writing: "there is relatively little mention of weapon malfunction in the immediate post-Second Ypres official sources ... Perhaps the impact of the Ross was less significant than postwar mythology implies."
This assertion directly contradicts official historical accounts, which describe the various malfunctions the rifle was widely reported to have from "the rifles jam," to "is not as satisfactory as it should be."
Some of the anecdotal evidence is heart rending. After Second Ypres Lt-Col George Tuxford, CO of the 5th Canadian Infantry Battalion wrote, "Men cursed the rifle and threw it away. I have seen strong men weep in anguish at the failure." In a letter intercepted by censors, one enlisted man stated simply, "after the first ten rounds with the Ross it is only good to use as a club."
A month after the Armistice Corps Commander General Arthur Currie opined that the Ross had been the cause of more casualties amongst Canadian troops than any other single factor. The Ross could not withstand the dirt, hard pounding, and rapid fire required in the trenches.
The men in the ranks spoke with fast fingers. Six weeks before the Second Battle of Ypres, men of the division were begging, borrowing, or stealing SMLEs (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield's) with such frequency that their possession was expressly banned by order. After Second Ypres, it was reported that of the 5,000 Canadian infantrymen that survived, almost one-third had adopted the SMLE. Clearly, the final word, and the best evidence, is rankers' behaviour.
The CO of the British Army in the Field, Field Marshal J.D.P. French, took the criticisms seriously. On June 12,1915--less than two months after Second Ypres--he ordered the Ross rifle be replaced by the SMLE in the 1st Canadian Infantry Division. Interestingly, he implied that the lack of confidence in the weapon was as important as the actual defects themselves. "I have decided that, in view of the definite statements made by the Committee and of the reports I have received of want- of confidence in their rifles on the part of the Infantry of this formation, it is necessary immediately to re-arm the Canadian Division with the Lee-Enfield rifle."
The First Division was reequipped with the SMLE promptly, either specifically due to the Ross itself, or to the fact that there was no Canadian ammunition for the rifle immediately available (the British-made ammunition was proven to jam).
However, other units of the CEF carried on using the Ross, a weapon Sam Hughes continued to refer to as, "the most perfect military rifle in every sense in the World today." In May 1916, French's successor, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, reported to the War Office, "as a service rifle, the Ross is less trustworthy, than the Lee-Enfield, and that the majority of men armed with the Ross rifle have not the confidence in it that is so essential they should possess."
It was only then, after complaints at Mont Sorrel, that all Canadian troops were issued SMLEs. The Ross was finally withdrawn from service with the exception of snipers, who still favoured the Ross's long-range accuracy.
Caption: Sam Hughes was perhaps the foremost champion of the Ross rifle, a weapon that quickly became reviled by soldiers engaged in trench warfare due to its propensity to jam. The Ross was effective, however, as a sniper rifle. When Canadian soldiers finally traded in their guns for Lee-Enfields, snipers passed on the opportunity because the Ross offered greater accuracy at longer ranges.
Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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|Publication:||Esprit de Corps|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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