The Public Career of a Controversial Canadian, 1885-1916
by Ronald G. Haycock
Post Your Opinion
by Cynthia M. Smith
Had "Controversial Canadian" been emblazoned on the cover in two-inch red caps, the subtitle would have captured the impression Sam Hughes left on his peers and on historians. Ronald Haycock's meticulous scholarly biography of one of Canada's most colourful soldier-politicians is absorbing. It is limited only by the author's inability to gain access to what few personal papers of Colonel Sam remain in his grandson's possession. To document this vivid story, Haycock concentrated on the papers of Hughes's contemporaries, as well as the records of the Department of the Militia and National Defence and Hansard. Thoughtful, balanced, and carefully written, the book follows the flamboyant and enigmatic Hughes from childhood through his tempestuous days as minister of militia to his forced resignation, decline, and death.
A former teacher, Hughes honed his biases and his Toryism during years as editor of the Victoria Warder in Lindsay, Ont. Anti French, anti-Catholic, Imperialist, and a zealot for physical fitness, Hughes was a brash politician who entered the House of Commons in 1892 and held office for 30 years, eventually to be undone by his inability to run the ministry of militia during the Post World War.
Haycock portrays Hughes as a bold, egocentric, vain, bull-headed politician who remained blind to the logistical drawbacks of creating a national militia. His promotion of citizen-soldiers over professionals rankled the military as well as his political colleagues. His difficulties as a soldier-politician in a total war became insurmountable, an albatross around the neck of the Borden government.
Hughes managed to survive Opposition attacks on his blatant use of patronage and the shell scandal of 1915 only-to be forced out of office in 1916 by the repercussions of the shocking Ross rifle fracas. The Ross gun, which frequently jammed and was unsuitable for trench warfare, was inflicted by Hughes on the Canadian army over the protests of innumerable military men. When Borden finally dumped Sir Sam, the troops rejoiced. Haycock quotes a soldier's response to the ouster of Hughes:
There is a new contentment among us all .... The mad mullah of Canada has been deposed . . . . The Canadian Baron Munchausen will be to less affect .... The greatest soldier since Napoleon has gone to his gassy Elba and the greatest block to the successful termination of the war has been removed. Joy, oh Joy! I do not like to kick a man when he is down but I am willing to break nine toes in kicking Sam in the stomach or in the face or anywhere else.
Although Hughes has been a figure of fun and a target of invective in general histories and military volumes for 50 years, this is the feat full-dress biography of him. It is a crackling good book.