THE MISFORTUNES OF WAR
THIS LIFETIME IN CANADA The best of Ralph Allen’s remarkable new book, ORDEAL BY FIRE
Half heroic and half preposterous, Minister of Militia (1911-16) Sam Hughes built, championed and tyrannized the Canadian Army until two scandals cut him down. One was a munitions fraud, in which other men prospered. One was the Ross rifle fiasco, in which other men died
To MOST OF THE CANADIANS who can remember him for themselves, the palmy years of Colonel Sam Hughes were half heroic and half preposterous. In his more blustery and grandiose moods the man who, as minister of militia, built, championed and tyrannized over the Canadian Army of 1914, 1915 and 1916 bore an unmistakeable resemblance to W. C. Fields in the role of a Mississippi gambler. But in times of crisis he was capable of his own kind of dignity, coupled with an extraordinary degree of loyalty. Often the second quality, coupled with Hughes’ unbounded stubbornness, spilled over into foolhardiness.
It was through two examples of his excessive and misplaced loyalty — one to a man and one to a weapon — that his fantastic career finally came to an end. In both cases there was a tumult of scandal and public outcry, although Hughes’ personal honesty was not involved. The stakes in one imbroglio were money, and in the other, lives.
In the early months of the war Hughes had created a munitions buying and manufacturing complex called the Shell Committee. It was characteristic of his love of military clanking that he put the enterprise under the direction of a handful of honorary colonels.
Hughes’ most favored honorary colonel was not a member of the Shell Committee but a sort of freelance commission agent. J. Wesley Allison had come to Canada from Ohio as a contractor. He had done well in many things, but in none so well as in making a friend of the
editor from Lindsay, Ontario. With Sam’s sponsorship behind him, Allison went into the buying of arms with a status resembling that of a Chosen Instrument.
The Shell Committee’s chief job was to obtain munitions, mostly for Britain, in Canada and the United States. On some, if not all, of the half billion dollars’ worth of orders he placed, Allison collected commissions. Everything he did was within the law, and was made much simpler by the prevailing air of confusion and subterranean haste.
Finally, in the second year of the war, the Liberal opposition got wind of Allison’s activities and launched a massive assault against him and through him against Sam Hughes and the government.
The ground was well prepared by a former Laurier cabinet minister, William Pugsley, and two fellow MPs, Frank B. Carvell and G. W. Kyte. They had not only found out where the body was buried; they had seen it. Carvell accomplished this by going to New York and hiring a lawyer and a private detective. The detective, in the best cloak-and-dagger tradition, broke into the offices of the New York commission broker through whom Colonel Allison and the Shell Committee placed some of their largest American orders. Reinforced by the resulting evidence, William Pugsley read the main indictment to the House of Commons. Carvell and Kyte spelled him off in reciting the particulars. The indictment was this: Members of the Shell CONTINUED ON PAGE 39
CONTINUED ON PAGE 39
The misfortunes of war
continued from page 19
There had been charges of profiteering in drugs, binoculars, even dressings for wounds
Committee had made money from munitions contracts; on many contracts there was no competitive bidding; huge orders were placed in the United States when they could have been filled more cheaply and quickly in Canada; finally, and most flagrantly, Sam Hughes’ friend and protégé, Wesley Allison, was turning these practices to his own excessive profit.
Assertions as harsh as these would ¡have embarrassed any government, at any time. At this juncture the Borden administration found them especially painful. During much of the previous year — the first full year of the war—it had been explaining and unscrambling a whole mare’s-nest of lesser scandals. The first contingent were equipped with shoddy, substandard boots and it had taken a special committee of the House of Commons to get to the root of the matter and start setting it right. Of the first 8,500 horses bought for the army, nearly one out of four had been proved unfit for use. There had been public charges of profiteering in drugs, in binoculars, in trucks, in field dressings, in bicycles and even in jam. Two Conservative MPs were among those caught simultaneously robbing the public purse and endangering the war effort, and Borden had forced them to resign their seats. (As many later episodes were to show, it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a dishonest Canadian politician or civil servant to go to jail.)
“Saved us $50 million,” said Hughes
For the most part, the public was ready to attribute these early derelictions to a combination of rush and human nature. So far there was no widespread inclination to blame the government. But the accusations against Colonel Allison and the colonels of the Shell Committee were a different matter. If there was the slightest doubt that the colonels were a government responsibility. Sam Hughes put it right. He had been associated "with Colonel Allison, he told the House of Commons staunchly and defiantly, for twenty-five or thirty years. Among other things he described his life-long friend as “an absolutely disinterested and straightforward businessman, the soul of honor and kindness.” Through his wisdom and integrity. Sam told the House indignantly, the much-abused Allison had “saved upward of fifty million to Great Britain and Canada.”
How much of this was Hughes’ instinctive bluster in the face of criticism, how much loyalty to a friend under duress, how much the flame of full and honest belief even Hughes' boss. Sir Robert Borden, could not be sure. But the prime minister wanted desperately to think the best or a sufficient portion of the best to refuse the full parliamentary inquiry the Liberals were asking for. For the time being he took refuge in the reminder that the Shell Committee had done all its buying for Great Britain and therefore if anyone was robbed it wasn’t Canada.
“If any investigation is sanctioned or approved by the British government.” Borden assured the House, “we shall not have the slightest objection, and we will assist and co-onerate in every way. So far as our own affairs arc concerned, so far as the actions of the government
are concerned, these stand upon a different basis.”
Any relief that this evasion might have given the government was dissipated by another act of evasion on the part of Hughes. Having declared his confidence
in Allison, the defense minister almost immediately took ship for England. Borden pleaded with him to stay in Canada at least until the end of the defense debate (but inexplicably did not order him to dó so). Hughes in turn pleaded that he
needed a rest, needed a change of scene, that his health was failing, that he couldn't sleep. Finally he wrung Borden's reluctant consent to the journey after telling the prime minister he had been secretly in touch with the opposition and
won their promise not to insist on an inquiry. No such undertaking had been given, as Hughes well knew and as Borden had a ready means of finding out. The Liberal onslaught continued as Hughes sped across the Atlantic to attend to what he insisted were more pressing duties.
In the early stages of the debate the nation, while fascinated, had found it difficult to follow all the details. But on March 28 W. B. Kyle produced a case history that had all the lucid symmetry of a short story by O. Henry.
This involved three New York entrepreneurs, who took as their corporate name the American Ammunition Company. Beginning with a total capitalization of $3,000, the neophyte concern— with Allison as the go-between and the Canadian Shell Committee as backer and ultimate buyer — was given some ten million dollars in orders for artillery fuses. Since it lacked either a factory or the money to build a factory, Allison arranged for the Shell Committee to advance the company a million and a half dollars. The three primary partners, one of them the already legendary railway promoter, Benjamin Yoakum, ultimately received a cash commission of a million dollars. Of this sum $220,000 was kicked back to Colonel Allison.
These astonishing revelations could not be met by mere adroitness. Old Sir George Foster, deputy prime minister to Borden, went home that night from the Commons to scribble a lament in his diary: “To this point of great danger the foolish tolerance of the Hughes-Allison alliance carried us. The Prime Minister knew the connection, was warned by all his Ministers of the probable results, but did nothing.” But Borden at last did three things: he appointed a royal commission; he asked Hughes to come home from London, and cabled the apologetic suggestion: “Hope you will take into consideration desirability of placing your resignation in my hands while inquiry is pending.” George Foster was still uneasy: “The danger ahead is the premier’s lack of will when Sam sits opposite. What he will do no one can tell. What he will not do, we all fear.”
Hughes arrived in Ottawa in midApril and proceeded to Borden’s office. The latter’s diary described the meeting thus: “Hughes came at four and was as eccentric as ever. Wept at one time and laughed at another. He is confident that he will come through inquiry with flying colors, which I doubt considerably. Discussed with him my proposal that during the inquiry I should administer his department. He objects, thinking it will humiliate him. I told him it would strengthen him and that in making his statement on Tuesday he should say that he had asked me to relieve him of administration during progress of inquiry. We finally left it open after I had impressed upon him its importance.”
Though he might show signs of weakness in the privacy of the prime minister’s office, the militia minister still confronted his enemies with unwavering self-righteousness. On his first day back in parliament he gave a lecture to the entire House of Commons. After painting a picture of the rigors of the war from which he had just returned, he thundered: “Yet. after an absence of four or five weeks I find, on my return to Canada, that two hundred of the ablest men in this country, members of the House of Commons, instead of being out helping in the cause, are sitting here listening to piffle.”
He returned to his championship of Allison: “A gentleman who today stands high in the estimation of the people of
the country.” When, during the proceedings of the royal commission, the auditorgeneral asked some suggestive questions about Allison’s operations, Hughes rose to charge that he “makes reflections on a gentleman who has more honor in his little finger than the auditor-general has in his whole carcass.” Although the new object of his wrath, the auditor-general, held an office nominally outside politics, Hughes promised darkly: “I will find means of reaching him.”
But the hearings of the royal commission did nothing to ease the government's discomfort. Big Ben Yoakum came up from New York, eased his burly frame into the witness chair and blandly corroborated every detail of the American Ammunition Company transaction, including the quarter-of-a-million-dollar kickback to Allison. Allison made the same admission during a wearing two-day appearance, but attempts to pin him down on his other ventures in the buying of arms ended in a blind alley of I
Don’t Remembers. Toward the end of his second afternoon on the stand Allison collapsed and his lawyer demanded that he be excused on grounds of health.
The commission’s ultimate findings, as the findings of royal commissions occasionally do, bore faint echoes of Lewis Carroll. Everyone was guilty, so in fairness to all everyone was acquitted. The Shell Committee had discriminated among manufacturers, notably in favor of Americans against Canadians. It had paid more than four dollars a fuse for twenty million dollars’ worth of fuses when even the most perfunctory investigation would have shown the going price to be three dollars a fuse.
Hughes had known nothing of his friend Allison’s rake-off on the American Ammunition Company contract and certainly had not partaken of it. Hughes had, however, successfully urged the Shell Committee to award contracts to certain of his own constituents, including his own son-in-law. As for Allison, he had practised deception. From these premises the commission proceeded to three main conclusions: (1) the members of the Shell Committee had been overworked and deserved the nation’s sympathy; (2) Hughes was exonerated of complicity with Allison and of using undue influence in the awarding of contracts; (3) Allison’s conduct in the American Ammunition purchase “could not be either justified or excused.”
The sole visible outcome was that Allison was stripped of his honorary colonelcy. Hughes tried to soften the blow by complaining privately to Borden
that his friend deserved better in view of his “services to the Empire” and publicly that he was “the biggest and best man in Canada — and the cleanest too.”
Almost simultaneously another confusing drama was approaching another conclusion of sorts. Again Hughes was the most vociferous if not the most convincing figure on the stage.
The Ross rifle was a mere thing of wood and steel (and possibly of tin, some of its adversaries were known to cry), but during the quarter of a century covering its gestation, birth, rise, decline and fall it became almost a part of the country's animate being. This would have been true of any basic infantry weapon in a war of infantry.
But more than ten years before 1914, in a time of peace and peaceful prospects, the Ross rifle had already begun to excite feelings of special depth and complexity.
Until well after the Boer War Canada, like the other dominions and colonies, was absolutely dependent on Great Britain for weapons and most other military supplies. The feeble militia forces got only what the mother country chose to let them have, sometimes by sale, very frequently as handouts. During most of the nineteenth century Canada had not only acquiesced in this arrangement, but had basked in it.
But immediately before and during the Boer War, the Laurier government was rudely reminded of the drawbacks. When Laurier’s militia department tried to order 15,000 Lee-Enfield rifles in England for direct delivery to Canada, it found it couldn’t buy a single one. The British Army, quite naturally, was exercising its own priority to all arms production.
An earlier attempt to persuade a British firm to establish a branch plant in Canada for the manufacture of the LeeEnfield had been rebuffed. Accordingly Laurier’s militia minister, Sir Frederick Borden—a cousin and political opponent of Sir Robert — persuaded his leader that Canada would have to make its own rifles.
This, it soon developed, would not be so formidable an undertaking as had been supposed. It happened that an exciting new sporting rifle, incorporating several features of design and performance more advanced than the Lee-Enfield’s, was just being put on the market in Great Britain and the United States. Its sponsor was Sir Charles Ross, ninth baronet of Balnagown and an inventor of promise, a soldier of excellent record and a businessman of good reputation. Ross expressed the conviction that, with a very little modifying, his rifle—which had been patterned after a military weapon, the Austrian Mannlither — would make a first-class infantry rifle. He brought several of them to Ottawa. Sir Frederick Borden was so impressed that in the early summer of 1901 he drafted, but did not sign, an agreement to buy 62,000 of them for the Canadian militia. At the same time he appointed a five-man committee to prepare a report on the rifle. One of the members of the committee was Sam Hughes, then a private MP on the opposition benches, a battalion commander in the militia and a well-known amateur marksman.
Hughes, like most of his fellow committee members, liked the look and feel of the Ross. It was an unusually long rifle, but it was light and well balanced. What particularly appealed to the experts was its simple, straight-back-andforth bolt action (two motions to unload and load, compared with four motions for the Lee-Enfield). They liked its strong breech mechanism, with its promise of standing up to higher chamber
pressures, hence greater muzzle velocities, longer ranges and greater accuracy. Sam Hughes, as always the man of impulse, fell in love with it on the spot. But before they would consent to begin the tests, he and his colleagues insisted that Ross make half a dozen changes in the sights, magazine, breech and bolt.
No inventor ever had a more sympathetic audience than had the Scottish baronet when he came back to Canada to subject his new Ross Mark I to a trial of accuracy and endurance against the veteran Lee-Enfield Mark 1.
The dominion government’s desire to make the Canadian foot-soldier independent of the whims of the British Ordnance Corps had already been communicated to the nation and the nation, generally speaking, had applauded. What a poetic thing if Canada, which only a year sr so before had not been able to
buy or beg a rifle from Whitehall, should now be on the brink of making rifles of her own of such incomparable merit that Whitehall might in time be coming, brass hat in hand, to Ottawa to buy others like it! Though all Hughes' colleagues on the jury were like him. loyal officers of the Crown and unswerving admirers of the Empire, it would have been strange if each of them had not felt some tiny bias against the Imperial Lee-Enfield and in favor of the “Canadian” Ross.
Had it been otherwise the history of the Ross rifle might have ended then and there, on a rifle range near Quebec City, on an August day in 1901. Twelve different tests had been agreed upon. Reporting on one of them, the dust test, the jury was obliged to observe politely: “Both .rifles were heavily sanded. ... Sir Charles Ross oiled Lee-Enfield bolt under cover, but this was objected to by the committee, and both rifles were fired dry.” The two rifles were rated about even by the committee in this particular test and in nine others.
But in two of the most critical ones, the Ross came off very badly. One was designed to show how the two rifles would react to over-heavy charges of powder. The Lee-Enfield passed without incident. On the first round the Ross
jammed and had to be kicked open with the heel of a boot. After the second round Sir Charles refused to let his rifle continue the excessive-charge test.
Perhaps the most important of the dozen tests was that intended to show how well each w-eapon would stand up under steady and prolonged action. They were to fire a thousand rounds each. The Lee-Enfield performed perfectly. The Ross jammed and misfired constantly. After each fifty rounds the bolt worked stiffly, if at all. After three hundred rounds the barrel was so hot that it melted away the soldered foresight.
For the Canadian militia the Ross remained, however disappointing its first trial had been, the only rifle Canada could make for itself. Thus, when the inventor put forward a ready explanation for its failings he found in the testing committee a ready audience. All the tests, he pointed out, had been made with British .303 shells made in Canada. All his earlier private trials and hence all his niceties of tooling had been based on experiments with American and Austrian shells. The British-Canadian shells he had been compelled to use in the tests were inferior to those both in precision and quality, he informed the jury, and no one called on him to prove it.
Thus reassured, all five members of the testing committee recommended that Canada switch to the Ross. But a month after the contract was signed the majorgeneral commanding the militia, R. H. O'Grady-Haly, raised several objections to the tests themselves and to the rifle that passed it. Still a month after that, the British War and Colonial Offices joined in an alarmed plea that Canada abandon the Ross in the interests of uniformity and efficiency. When this had no effect, the War Office began issuing statements to the effect that it too had tested the Ross against the Lee-Enfield and established that “the inferiority of the Ross was very marked.”
Nothing further was needed to remove the issue forever from the realm of cool and logical discussion. The Ross rifle was now in politics — in Empire politics and Canadian politics. In the next dozen years the original Mark I underwent more than eighty additional changes, and created at least as many headlines. Australia was about to buy 100,000 Ross rifles; Australia was about to do nothing of the kind. The peerless and discriminating Royal North West Mounted Police switched to the Ross in 1904; the disgruntled Royal North West Mounted Police switched back to Winchesters, Lee-Enfields and Lee-Metfords in 1906. The newly formed Department of Naval Service found 350 Mark I Rosses in its stores in 1911 and tried to give them to the militia; the militia would not have them.
A Ross Mark I blew up in a militiaman’s face, mortally wounding him. A Liberal MP thereupon charged in the Commons that the Ross killed “as much behind as in front.” Sam Hughes rose fiercely and declared his willingness to swallow any Lee-Enfield rifle that did not jam when he fired it. By 1907 Hughes wrote that with just a few more changes the Ross would be “the most perfect military rifle in every sense in the world today.” “I condemn the LeeEnfield from start to finish,” he added.
The facts, rumors, pronouncements and contradictions about the Ross piled up endlessly. There was not a saloon, hotel lobby or barber shop across the whole dominion whose rafters had not rung at the merest whisper of that name.
After the 1911 election, which made Hughes the new minister of militia, it seemed likely that the argument was
settled for good. By the time war broke out Ross had manufactured 112,000 rifles of various marks at his factory near Quebec.
Without correcting all its defects, the endless revisions had lengthened the rifle's barrel by more than two inches and increased its weight by more than two pounds. No one disputed that it was still an excellent target rifle—it had, indeed, won the King’s Prize at Bisley in 1911 and again in 1913 — but it was now more than a pound heavier and seven inches longer than the Lee-En-
field. When the first contingent went into the trenches at Ypres thousands of men who had experienced or heard of epidemic jamming and faulty cartridge ejection on the ranges of Salisbury and Valcartier had begun to regard the traditional “soldier’s best friend” with suspicion and alarm.
In the First Division’s memorable stand at Ypres against gas, artillery, small arms and an empty flank, the Ross’s already shaky reputation among the men who had to use it was all but obliterated. The battle ended with about
five thousand Canadian infantry survivors and an official arms census showed that 1,452 of them had thrown away their Rosses and armed themselves with Lee-Enfields, picked up on the battlefield beside dead Englishmen or acquired in trades with adjoining units moving out of the line into relief. If men could judge dispassionately when their own lives hung upon the judgment, it might have been said that this soldiers’ verdict against the Ross was more harsh and sweeping than it deserved. Just as there were infinitesimal differences in the
chamber measurements of the Canadianmanufactured Ross and the Britishmanufactured Lee-Enfield, so were there infinitesimal differences in the Canadianmade and British-made .303 shells used by both. Since they were part of a British army and were in a British chain of supply, a high proportion of the Canadian rifles were supplied by British shells; their rate of failure was greater than that of the rifles for which Canadian shells had been supplied.
But none of this had the slightest meaning to the Canadian infantryman who, fighting for breath itself as he peered across his parapet into the greygreen fogs of Ypres and the grey-green Germans marching through them, suddenly found himself with a seized-up rifle. There was, of course, no way of telling what loss of life was directly entailed while the desperate forward battalions tried to kick back their frozen bolts with their muddy boots or hammer them loose with trenching spades. But Lieutenant-General E. A. H. Alderson. the divisional commander, determined to get as much precise information as he could. As soon as the battle ended he asked his brigade and battalion commanders to report on their experiences of the Ross and the feeling toward it in their units. The majority reaction ranged from one officer’s terse: “The men have lost confidence in the Ross as a service arm,” to another’s angry: “It is nothing short of murder to send our men against the enemy with such a weapon.”
The soldiers weren’t convinced
Alderson forwarded the reports to the British commander-in-chief. Sir John French, along with a warning: “This matter is as delicate as it is important . . . . Canada will no doubt be extremely annoyed if fault is found with the rifle: this, however, cannot be allowed to stand in the way when the question may be of life and death, and of victory and defeat.” French appointed another committee to test the Ross against the LeeEnfield. The report he sent to the War Office in London was a model of tact. The Ross worked smoothly and well with Canadian ammunition. But it was still impossible to guarantee a continuous supply of Canadian ammunition to the front line. Therefore French had ordered the entire First Division to be rearmed with the Lee-Enfield.
French conceded that there was as yet no need to switch the Second Division, then in England, from the Ross to the Lee-Enfield. If it could be guaranteed a steady supply of Canadian ammunition, it might fight with the Ross indefinitely: ultimately, indeed, if the cartridge chambers were slightly enlarged, the First Division’s old rifles might be reclaimed for useful duty.
During the next few months all the Ross rifles of the Second Division were rechambered as were those returned to stores by the First Division in exchange for Lee-Enfields. But almost at once history began to repeat itself. Despite Sir Sam Hughes’ personal order that its members should be told “the Lee-Enfield jams even worse with bad ammunition than does ours,” the Second Division, equipped with the Ross, was full of foreboding when it arrived in France. No amount of reasoning could dissuade the soldier who carried it from the notion that the Ross was heavy and ill-balanced; that the long barrel took a long time to bring on a target and was forever knocking against the parapets and other abutments in the trenches; above all, that it had been disowned and cast away by the men who had passed that way before.
In the confused, costly and futile
fighting around St. Eloi in early 1916, Canadian soliders again found that they were defending themselves with rifles
that had ceased to work. Those who had a chance followed the example of the First Division and acquired British
weapons in whatever way they could.
The exact number was never established but there were enough that the Second Division thought it necessary to issue a special order threatening to court-martial any company commander who allowed his men to use the Lee-Enfield or to keep the Lee-Enfields they had already obtained.
In the Third Division, which also fought its first main engagement at St. Eloi, so many infantrymen threw away their Ross rifles that Hughes sent a personal emissary to demand an explanation from the divisional commander in the field. Major-General M. S. Mercer made a devastatingly unapologetic reply. The Ross jammed whether the ammunition was Canadian or British, good or bad. “To longer withhold the issue of the L.E. rifle and compel the men of this division to use the Ross rifle would be criminal in the extreme.”
General Alderson. now promoted to commander of the Canadian Corps, had launched his own attack against the Ross. He reported back to Canada that the latest of the tests had actually flattered the Ross. “It does not state, as it should, that the Lee-Enfield, although handled by men not trained to it, fired (owing to it being, as I have before said, much easier to charge the magazine) its 100 rounds in about one-third less time than the Ross. Nor does the report state, as was the case, that the hands of the men using the Ross were cut and bleeding owing to the difficulty they had in knocking back the bolt.”
Alderson ended his letter to the chief of staff with a pointed hint that he show it to Hughes. This was done, whereupon Sir Sam replied directly to his corps commander with a torrent of insults. “I am well aware that very few officers. British or Canadian, know much about any rifle, especially a new one like the Ross.” he said by way of preamble. “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 the Canadians .... It is not worth while, with men who know little or nothing about rifles, to take up these ten points in detail, but some of them are so absolutely absurd and ridiculous that no one excepting a novice or for an excuse, would be found seriously advancing them. . . . Each and every one. to anyone informed on the expert aspect of rifles, carries its own condemnation on the face.”
Alderson's reply was to order still another pre-Gallup poll of the officers of the Second and Third Divisions. Before the returns were in he was relieved of his command and returned to England as Inspector-General of the Canadian Forces. Like General Hutton. Hughes’ adversary of the now-distant Boer War days. Alderson suddenly found himself face to face with a bewildering and painful discovery. To win an argument with Sam Hughes, all you needed was a resolute will, a clear mind, a thick skin and a detachable head.
But he and the other critics of the Ross did, at last, prevail. Hughes was still good for another six weeks of rearguard action and he fought it out-so doggedly that a final decision was reached only after the intervention of Sir Douglas Haig, the new British commander-in-chief in the field, the governorgeneral, Prime Minister Borden, the Privy
Council, and the colonial secretary, Bonar Law.
On the day Alderson was fired, Haig informed the War Office that “the Ross is less trustworthy than the Lee-Enfield” and recommended that the Canadian Second and Third Divisions be rearmed with the British weapon. Hughes immediately demanded yet another round of tests. Almost simultaneously Borden, who had played a largely passive role throughout the earlier years of argument and invective, demanded yet another poll. When the returns were tabulated the
senior officers of the Second Division were exactly divided in their recorded opinions of the Ross: 25 for; 25 against, 13 undecided. But the Third Division was unanimously against. Haig repeated his recommendation that the Ross be abandoned “without delay” and his recommendation was accepted in July 1916, and put into force in August.
Altogether the Canadian government bought 342,000 Ross rifles. The prices, at various stages of the contract, ran up to $28 each. In general they were between a quarter and a third higher than the
Lee-Enfields delivered to the British Army.
The government expropriated Ross's factory in 1917 and paid him a settlement of $2,000,000 in 1920. Ross had financed the venture privately on an initial capitalization of $1,000,000 and declared himself to be the sole proprietor. His statement of 1906 that no one in Canada had any interest in the company was never in dispute. Nor was corruption or profiteering ever seriously charged against the inventor or his supporters. The only real issue was
whether the Ross was a good service rifle.
The demise of the Ross coincided almost exactly with the exposure of Hughes’ proudly acknowledged “guide and counsellor,” J. Wesley Allison. A man of more flexible temper might have been crushed by two such blows. But Sir Sam, though he was hurt and indignant, was not even mildly deflated, much less apprehensive of his future. Fully aware that many of his colleagues in the cabinet were imploring Borden to get rid of him at once, he coolly wrote Borden: “Your road is more or less a hard one. It is generally understood that (Sir Thomas) White and (Sir George) Foster seek to impose their influence, adverse to me, upon you. But I know you are capable of seeing through them.”
But after five tempestuous years, Borden had begun to develop some resistance to Hughes’ blandishments and bullying. He had written in his diary, in the aftermath of the Ross rifle and Allison revelations: “It is quite evident that Hughes cannot remain in the government.” Nevertheless it required another four months and another first-class public row before the two men came to their parting.
Sent to demote himself
The cabinet’s liaison with the overseas forces had been chancy and sporadic from the outset. For information about higher strategy and higher statesmanship, Borden was wholly dependent on the occasional confidences of the British cabinet and the War Office, who told him very little, usually very late. And for information on the interior housekeeping of the Canadian Corps, its welfare, armament and state of mind he was largely dependent on Hughes. Through MajorGeneral J. W. Carson, his special representative in London, various other plenipotentiaries and his own frequent voyages abroad, the militia minister had established a highly efficient intelligence system of his own. But Borden had begun to feel the need of an overseas agent or agency whose first loyalty was not to Sam Hughes but to the government.
With that in view he instructed Hughes to study the whole overseas organization of the Canadian forces — excluding their actual combat role within the British Army — and cable recommendations for a change back to Ottawa. The risks he took in thus asking Hughes to preside over the liquidation of his own powers must have preyed on the prime minister’s mind, for within a few days of Sir Sam’s arrival in England, Borden cabled him: “When you have reached conclusions respecting your proposals for reorganization, please cable fully, as they should be definitely embodied in orderin-council and it would be desirable to consider them before they are actually put in operation.” Two weeks later Borden cabled again asking for Hughes’ proposals. Finally, after three more weeks, the prime minister learned through an announcement to the London newspapers that his militia minister had appointed a Canadian Militia Sub-Council in England and given it major responsibilities in liaison and administration. A son-in-law of Hughes was to act as secretary to the council. Borden cabled Sir Sam to come home at once.
At their meeting in Ottawa in October, it was Borden who had disquieting news to convey. He had decided to appoint a minister of overseas military forces. As the holder of cabinet rank, the overseas minister would, of course, report directly to the government. Moreover, the man proposed for the job, Sir George Perley,
was one of Hughes’ oldest and bitterest enemies. Sir Sam, Borden recorded in his diary, “objected strongly and argued against it, saying there would be nothing left for him, that he would be humiliated and that he would have to leave the government. He gave a tirade against Perley and decried his ability. Said that everything he had done was perfect, etc. Complained that White was conspiring against him.”
A few days later Borden carried out his intention. Sir Sam put his last sulphurous and mutinous protests into a letter and Borden, to his own vast relief, now had no possible choice but to demand his resignation. This was duly provided on November 11, 1916. Sir Sam’s valedictory as minister was liberally peppered with complaints about meddling and intrigue and it roundly taunted Borden for the very quality or lack of quality that had permitted him to put up with Hughes so long. “Well, Sir Robert,” his departing colleague wrote, “each one’s manner is his own. It might be well if we could all possess your soft mannerisms, but I’m very much afraid, judging by all periods of history, that human liberty and human progress would not make much advance, as they never have made much advance, under such diplomatic forms and utterances.”
And thus, except for a few minor postscripts, there ended one of the most astounding public careers in Canadian history. For three of its most momentous and critical years the country’s energy and resources had lain to a very considerable degree under the command of a man who would have had the utmost difficulty in passing a standard medical test for sanity. Almost as remarkably, the hyper-sane Borden was aware of Sam Hughes’ infirmities — or later said he was — before he took him into his cabinet, and often reflected on them during the five years before he discharged him. Borden, who arranged his memoirs in 1928, then remembered the man he made militia minister in 1911 in these terms: “While he was a man of marked ability and sound judgment in many respects, his temperament was so peculiar, and his actions and language so unusual on many important occasions, that one was inclined to doubt his usefulness as a minister. ... In my experience his moods might be divided into three categories; during about half of the time he was an able, reasonable and useful colleague, working with excellent judgment and indefatigable energy; for a certain other portion he was extremely excitable, impatient of control and almost impossible to work with; and during the remainder his conduct and speech were so eccentric as to justify the conclusion that his mind was unbalanced.”
After his dismissal from the cabinet Hughes kept his seat in parliament. In the summer of 1921, in his sixty-ninth year, he fell seriously ill in Ottawa and asked to be taken home to Lindsay. Someone with a good memory and a sense of chivalry recollected that, in his days as minister, one of the old man’s favorite vanities had been riding back and forth on inspection visits aboard special trains. A special train was provided to bear him on his last journey. Before the train pulled out of the Ottawa station the conductor came to Hughes’ private car and asked if the engineer should be instructed to travel slowly. “No!” the dying man commanded. “Tell ’em to go like blazes.” +
hi a forthcoming issue, Ralph Allen tells how Canadians stood up to the gas attack at Y pres and gained their allies’ respect.