A PECULIAR KIND OF POLITICS: CANADA'S OVERSEAS MINISTRY IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR
Volume 11 Number 1.
This book is must-reading for students of Canadian history whose impressions of our effort in World War I are limited to the images of heroic troops, inspired generalship, firm political leadership, and the almost charming foibles of Sir Sam Hughes. Under the close and at times scathing scrutiny of Desmond Morton, only the reputation of the ordinary soldiers in the trenches survives.
Morton's new work, so long in the completion, has been well worth the wait. It is a shockingly revealing catalogue of stupidity, greed, pettiness, short-sightedness, and downright incompetence in the organization and administration of Canada's war effort, both politically and militarily. The unspeakable hardships of the troops now seem all the more poignant in the light of the scheming, back-biting, and confusion that persisted behind the lines.
Chief among the culprits was the flamboyant and notoriously vain Sam Hughes. Despite his undoubted achievements, including the initial raising of large numbers of troops, Hughes is portrayed here as a stubborn, unscrupulous, and dangerous man who insisted on having his way with decisions on everything from supplies and equipment to commanders, even of small units of the Expeditionary Force. Such decisions, as in the well-known case of the Ross rifle, were often wrong and therefore costly, both in financial and human terms.
Through his handling of Hughes, Prime Minister Robert Borden emerges as a somewhat tentative and gullible individual. In the early months of the war, he apparently did not realize the full nature and scope of Hughes's machinations. When these became painfully obvious, Borden seemed to place political considerations ahead even of the welfare of the troops in deciding how and when to sack his irrepressible and highly influential minister. No less flattering to Borden is Morton's depiction of the government's motives for and handling of the conscription issue. In fairness to the Prime Minister, it should be stated that Morton ascribes no higher nobility to the majority of Borden's political contemporaries.
The previously unsullied reputation of Sir Arthur Currie also draws some fairly heavy fire from the author. To be sure, Morton acknowledges Currie's renowned ability as a military tactician and his compassionate protectiveness of his men, as with his penchant for spending cannon shells rather than soldiers' lives. However, it is somewhat surprising to encounter in the same man a strong susceptibility to flattery and a stronger tendency to self-service. The extent of Currie's appetites are revealed with Morton's shocking uncovery of his misappropriation of $10,000 in regimental funds. Somewhat less surprising is the conspiracy of high political and military officials to cover up this sordid matter, thus preserving the untarnished public image of a much-needed hero-of-the-day.
If it is true that Canadians have too few myths on which to base a fervently patriotic national identity, then this book has compounded our problem. But, whether he intended to or not, Desmond Morton has given us even greater reason to be in awe of the achievements of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in World War I. In overcoming not only the German enemy, but the inadequacies of their own equipment, training, and commanders, both Canadian and British, the common soldiers acquitted themselves in a way which, in retrospect, seems little short of incredible.
Allan S. Evans, Emery CI, Weston, ON.
1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995
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