Brass Hats in Red Tape
By Wilfrid Bovey
The task of the officers responsible for the administration of the Canadian troops in Britain in the early days of the First World War was complicated by enough red tape to tie us all up in knots.
The over-riding factor was that the only real authority was vested in the British War Office. The orders of the “G.O.C. Eastern Command” (or some other Command) were legally all that we had to go by. All appointments and promotions had to appear in the London Gazette as sent in by the proper officer of the proper Command staff. If we had to have a court martial–well, the Command would have to hold it. In other words, we Canadians, from the British Army point of view, were merely some casual additions to the British Forces. However, we still had our origins, our regimental names (when we had any), our badges, and a sticky reputation regarding wine, women and song which was earned by a comparatively few bad actors.
The Canadian Government of the day finally displayed some more interest in our lot and, under an Order in Council, appointed Colonel John Carson of Montreal to be “Canadian Representative” with the War Office. Colonel Carson had successfully brought into existence the Grenadier Guards of Canada as heir to the traditions of the unit once commanded by James McGill, founder of McGill University. It was never very clear what his job in Britain was, but he certainly did it as well as anyone could and, like Sam Hughes, became a knight and a major-general.
By the end of 1915 the Canadian forces in Britain had become so large that Sir Sam Hughes decided on another step. Completely on his own authority, he set up what he named the “Sub-Militia Council”. The Militia Council of those days was a highly honoured body consisting of the Chief of the General Staff, the Adjutant-General, Quartermaster-General, etc. The Minister decided that the Sub-Militia Council should have its “acting Chief of the General Staff”, “acting Adjutant-General”, “acting Quartermaster-General”, “acting Director of Supply and Transport”, and even an “acting Deputy Minister” who was chairman. My job in those days was to be “acting Assistant Adjutant-General”. The Minister took over a large new building in London named Argyll House in which to house the large staff which these new officers would need.
Such a headquarters was indeed necessary to ensure at least some Canadian control of Canadian troops in Britain. Its authority was rather shadowy; it really had no legal status and some quaint things happened. When all the “acting” appointments were decided upon they had to get into the London Gazette to have any force. I was handed a list of the names on an unsigned piece of paper and told to “put these through”. Quite naturally, I said that it could not be done without the Minister’s authority. The officer who had handed it to me finally took it away and brought it back marked “O.K., S.H.”. He said as he did so, “Of course if you were to make a mistake and make us ‘confirmed’ instead of ‘acting’ we would not say anything.”
“Sir”, said I, the acting A.A.G., “we don’t make mistakes.” “We” did not. The Minister’s initials satisfied the British Eastern Command and the acting appointments went through.
As might have been expected, there were muddles very soon between the two Canadian offices. I was once sent for by Sir George Perley, the Canadian High Commissioner to Britain, and found him sitting at his desk. Opposite him was Sir Max Aitken, now Lord Beaverbrook, who had in front of him a cable from the Minister (who had returned to Canada), reading: “Carson has appointed Maurice Alexander Assistant Judge Advocate-General, Macrae has appointed John Lash Deputy Judge Advocate-General, see Perley and straighten this out.”
The two Judge Advocates were young lawyers, the first from Montreal, the second from Toronto. Macrae was the “acting Deputy Minister.” The tangle certainly needed “straightening out”, for when one Judge Advocate had a certain officer put in close arrest the other, who was a personal friend, had him released! John Lash carried on and later came to France as a “Court Martial Officer” and Alexander joined the staff of the British Foreign Office. He later became a junior Treasury Counsel in England and a great friend of Lloyd George, the wartime Prime Minister, who, I believe, found Alexander very helpful in solving some of his personal problems.
Not long after we heard that Sir George Perley had been appointed Minister of Overseas Military Forces of Canada, a position in which he was later succeeded by Sir Edward Kemp, and very soon the Argyll House headquarters was completely and officially reorganized. We were told later that Sir Sam Hughes was considered to have greatly exceeded his powers, mainly by setting up his Sub-Militia Council.
Sam Hughes had been eclipsed. But no condemnation, justified or not, of these later actions should make us forget the tremendous service he rendered in getting so many Canadians overseas at so unbelievable a speed.