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Mobilizing for War


Mobilizing for War

By Wilfrid Bovey

October, 1953

Before July, 1914, was over, militia regiments all through the country were alerted for the coming trial by battle. The source of power was a human atomic engine whom hundreds of us had met, Colonel Sam Hughes of Lindsay, Ontario, the Minister of Militia.

“Sam” was first, last and all the time a Canadian. He was also an equalitarian. He put on no airs of superiority. Even after he had been made a knight and made himself a major-general, a lieutenant who knew him would still call him “Sam”.

A few years ago the Premier of Ontario, a veteran of World War I, said to me, “If you ever write those war memoirs, who would you say had played the greatest single part in the Canadian effort?” After a little thought I replied, “Sam Hughes”. I still feel as I did then. Like many another leader Hughes made mistakes. His career, like many another, ended in a darkened sunset, but while he was in power he was a driver like Churchill.



We all knew that there was an official mobilization scheme calling for an orderly but somewhat leisurely collection of forces. But the fact that England would need help fast was clear. We were not surprised when our Commanding Officer (of the 5th Royal Highlanders of Canada, now the Black Watch), as soon as war was declared on August 4th, received a telegram telling him to raise a battalion for war service. So, we soon learned, did others all through Canada. But the official plan was far too slow for Sam Hughes. On that very 4th of August the Canadian Engineers were laying out a camp at Valcartier near Quebec.



Even the Hughes plan was not fast enough for a friend of my youth, Hamilton Gault. He jumped the gun and raised a battalion consisting almost entirely of experienced soldiers, of whom there were plenty in Canada. The unit was named The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry for the lovely daughter of H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught, son of Queen Victoria and Governor-General of Canada since 1911. The ranks filled quickly. Gault finally, after wounds that would have discouraged nearly anyone else, commanded the regiment. One of its Canadian-born officers was Talbot Papineau, a brilliant young lawyer who had studied in the Montreal law firm of which I was a member, and a great-grandson of the famous patriot Louis Joseph Papineau. Of him there will be more to say.



The Hughes battalions of the “Canadian Expeditionary Force” all had numbers; these had no connection with the numbers of the Canadian militia units. Ours was 13, but a persuasive telegram to the Minister brought an immediate reply authorizing the use of our own uniform and our own name. As the value of the uniform was considerable, the reply went into a safe deposit box in case of future argument. On the strength of it we sent out dozens of posters and advertisements which soon filled the ranks, mainly from our own regiment.



The military theory of Canada in those days was that the very sketchily trained if enthusiastic “Militia” was to form – as it had through history – our fighting force, while the main job of the “Permanent Force” was to teach the art of war. The Hughes idea was to carry the theory into practice in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. In the early days he made it clear that the “P.F.” officers were not going to run the show. He was generally supposed to be prejudiced, but the results did show what citizen-soldiers could be trained to do. Those of us, indeed, who had worked closely with regular staff officers knew very well that staffs would be needed in any army. Even before the Valcartier contingent had departed, Lt.-Col (later Major-General) W. B. Anderson, General Staff Officer at Montreal, conscripted me as a part-time assistant, set me lecturing to men who were later to win higher rank than I ever did and examining non-commissioned officers for qualifications. That start, it turned out, was to affect my whole life.

Even the best friends of Sam Hughes felt that his Canadianism affected his judgment. Rifles, equipment, boots were all Canadian. None had been tried in war (and none were to meet the test) but we were willing to give them a fair show.



One night in the fall of 1914 I remember making a slow trip to Valcartier in a very primitive sleeping car. With me was Lt.-Col. (later Brigadier-General) James G. Ross. There we saw the incredible result of Sam Hughes’ first efforts – 32,000 men already partly trained and ready to embark.

It was a truly wonderful sight in that great level plain amid wild green hills. All those thousands of men and horses, dust rising from feet and hooves, long rows of tents, mess tables in the open – it would look mediaeval today. We heard every sort of accent – Glasgow and the Highlands, West of England and Yorkshire, besides the voices of Canada. It was no surprise later to find that 60% of that first contingent were born across the Atlantic, although most officers were Canadian. I could not know then that one of those young soldiers, Company Sergeant-Major C. B. Price, was to win the Distinguished Conduct Medal, a commission and a Distinguished Service Order in this war, become a Major-General in the Second World War, and afterwards Dominion President of the Canadian Legion.

The camp was full of bustle, spirits were high and drinks (pre-war), when there was time for them, were long. Many young ladies, some just married, some hoping to be, brightened the scene. Our own regiment, particularly the officers and NCOs, like other units, had been a tightly knit group of close friends. We last-minute visitors said farewell with hearts full of pride. But somewhere in the far distance ghostly pipes played the lament of the departing Highlander:

Borne on rough waves to a far distant shore,

Maybe to return to Lochaber no more.









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