Harris, Stephen, Canadian Brass: The Making of a Professional Army 1860-1939. 1988, U. of Toronto Press.
[Cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]
Was Canada Ever Serious? The Canadian Militia and Military Since Confederation
In a recent post, I reviewed an excellent book on Canada’s role in the Boer War. Canadian social values, actively encouraged by the media and the elites of the day, led to the self-confident assembly and transport of thousands of young Canadian men halfway across the planet. Little more than a decade later, Canada again found itself engaged in a war not of its making. And again, tens of thousands of farm boys, factory workers and office staff risking their lives in the trenches of WW1 Europe. Why? Better yet, why aren’t they still doing it? How did a nation that prides itself on G8 status somehow spend the last sixty years doing a U-turn in its attitude toward the military?
The story, it turns out, gives us a better sense of the modern Anglosphere and the role that each of the Big Five (UK, US, Canada, NZ and Australia) play on the modern stage. Canadian Brass is an excellent place to start because it tells the story of British, and then Canadian, military culture in the eighty years after Confederation, and the domestic myths which drove and shaped international military participation.
Stephen Harris’ book on the history of the Canadian Army offers a broader but entirely complementary perspective to Miller’s Boer War account in Painting the Map Red. Harris considers military culture in Canada without focusing on battles at all (excepting their impact on politics, casualties, veteran’s affairs, etc.). Writing as a member of the Directorate of History at National Defence HQ, the author offers a very thorough piece of history, covering the organization of the militia, the nature of training and equipment, the role of national politics … and the establishment of permanent Canadian forces and a military college at Kingston, Ontario. Citations in the book often point to original internal government memos, letters, and planning documents. In other words, as close to candid insight as a modern author with official access could make it. The result is a model of thoroughness.
Initial chapters consolidate the early periods of Canadian military history as the British military staff digested the new geopolitical realities demonstrated during the American Civil War. Canada was to be spun loose politically in 1867 but its foreign policy and defense were to remain a very strange UK-Canadian hybrid well into the 20th century. The WW1 period in Canadian Brass is divided into (1) pre-war, a (2) Sam Hughes [Militia Minister] WW1 period, and a (3) post-Hughes WW1 period. An interbellum period gets thorough coverage and then WW2 is broken out into separate Military Planning, and Training/Education chapters.
The rather shocking message of this book is that the Canadian military has been the constant butt of political interference during the last 150 years. The exceptions are two brief periods: WW2 proper, and 1951-1964. During virtually all other periods of Canadian history, the permanent (professional) military forces have been starved of funds, denigrated in public by all, and then ignored completely during mobilization for wartime. The only time in Canadian history that professional pre-mobilization plans were actually used was WW2. In all other eras, professional plans were ignored and politicians turned to various militia cronies to assemble, train, lead, and transport Canadian troops.
In the case of two Canadian political crises with conscription in WW1 and WW2, the governments of the day (and the politically appointed militia officer corp) ignored the professional projections of the number of troops needed to sustain divisions in the field … and then over-promised how many divisions they could provide to the British. Incredibly, the government used what trained troops they had to first guard Canadian installations (needlessly), triggering the haphazard training of ineffectual replacement battalions that could not be fed effectively into frontline units in Europe. Falling further and further behind on manning levels, they were then forced to conscript troops to fill combat positions while perfectly suitable troops stood idle or were improperly deployed.
The author suggests, therefore, that lack of professional military organization led to unnecessary political crises (specifically the split between Quebec and English-speaking Canada). In the case of the First World War, the incompetence also triggered the needless slaughter of the initial Canadian divisions (because they were led by totally unqualified militia officers with political connections). The WW1 crisis created by Minister of Militia Sam Hughes was the result of a totally mythical and exaggerated memory of militia superiority in the War of 1812 and the Fenian raids of 1866, and careful news management out of the Boer War. Militia were held to be a superior in all ways to a professional force, moral and martial. Government money for militias (urban and especially rural) was a traditional source of political patronage in Canada, frustrating British military advisers and Governor-Generals for generations (and ruining many British military careers in the process). Such patronage methodically starved the professional units in a nascent professional Canadian Army. They were always short of training, equipment, facilities, pensions, wages and prestige. The result was a professional army that wasn’t, and an oblivious overconfident citizen-soldier militia that was destined for a horrific introduction to modern war in 1914.
The casualty situation got so bad by the late fall of 1916 that Minister Hughes was dismissed, and a new generation of Canadian officers (all political appointees, but survivors of the savage Darwinian selection at the front) began to lead. Just as importantly, they promoted their junior officers out of the ranks. The impact on morale and military success from early 1917 to the end of the First World War was dramatic. Canadian reputations for combat effectiveness essentially came out of this latter period.
Unfortunately, General Arthur Currie’s wartime success (he was ultimate WW1 commander of the Canadian Corps) was soon diminished by (1) the inter-bellum return to partisan political manipulation of the militia, (2) the deep enmity to Currie from Sam Hughes’ dethroned cronies, and (3) the Depression. Currie was unable to sustain professionalism in the military after WW1. Canada was marginally better prepared for WW2 than for WW1 but it had to relearn the professionalization lessons all over again.
It’s clear, in retrospect, that Canadian politicians and the Canadian public have had a long-standing expectation that the British (and more recently the US) were going to bail them out of any serious military situation. As a result, the professional Canadian military was seen as simply another source of political largesse for the party in power. It never had to be effective, and post-1964, it actually was designed not to be used at all … unification of the three services (Army, Navy, Air Force), and endless UN peace-keeping missions were an effective way to strip combat effectiveness and combat equipment out of the Canadian military. Harris provides all the necessary context and information for that conclusion but is politic enough to avoid much further commentary.
He does write an interesting epilogue that delicately skirts around those post-1939 issues … and avoids touching the “third rail” of military bilingualism introduced in the ’60s, which further degraded esprit de corps and combat effectiveness. After all, Mr. Harris was essentially writing about his own Cold War employer at the time of publication (1988), and probably wanted to keep his job. Nonetheless, it’s pretty clear that the Liberal Party dismantlement of the conventional Canadian military (after tactical nukes appeared in Europe in the ’60s) was yet another iteration of the political manipulation of the permanent military and a return of the good old days of “jobs for the boys.” The sorry state of today’s Canadian military (a small but excellent antiterrorist force [JTF2] to protect the elite in Ottawa, and a sprinkle of blue helmet cannon fodder without adequate air transport) is therefore very much part of a proud Canadian political tradition stretching back 135 years. It’s not a mistake, then. It’s on purpose.
To what can we attribute the 180 degree turnaround from the self-confident days of WW2 — from the oft-quoted heritage of Canadian battle honors evoked by names like Vimy Ridge, Dieppe, Juno Beach, and Arnhem? If Harris is to be credited, there simply was no turnaround. Canadians have played at war since 1867 and apart from WW2 and the initial conventional forces era of the Cold War, Canada has methodically avoided a serious and mature view to the use of military power. Canadian military glory in WW1, WW2 and its steadfastness in the early Cold War are anomalies, not expressions, of Canadian culture and attitudes. The myopic behaviour of both the Canadian government and the populace is therefore totally comprehensible. Any substantive change is unlikely without a deep crisis. Even the appearance of a new minority government (led by the Conservative Party) is not liable to change the effectiveness of the Canadian military without decades of subsequent effort by governments (and citizens) that not only want a professional military but are willing to use it without an immediate case of the vapours.
A few factoids for consideration:
1872 – British garrisons removed from Canada (some troops remain in the coastal fortresses). Militia standards prevail, and preparedness drops to virtually zero.
1908 – The Royal Navy concludes that it can no longer protect Canada from the US Navy (because of increasing German naval power in Europe) and recommends diplomatic resolution of all future Canada-US problems.
1913 – final round of Canadian planning for a US invasion. British military advisers consider the plan completely incompetent.
3 thoughts on “Harris — Canadian Brass: The Making of a Professional Army 1860-1939”
“Militia were held to be a superior in all ways to a professional force — moral and martial. Government money for militias (urban and especially rural) was a traditional source of political patronage in Canada, frustrating British military advisers and Governor-Generals for generations (and ruining many British military careers in the process). Such patronage methodically starved the professional units in a nascent professional Canadian Army.”
In the early 20th Century, the US National Guard’s annual budget was greater than the US Regular Army, largely the result of lobbying by the political agents of the Guard. The relations since have remained tenuous. The formalization of the National Guard Bureau resulted in a political organ that operates semi-independently of the regular services and sees to its own interests in Congress, even today. After the first Gulf War the Regular Army was reduced from 750K to 480K, but much of the Guard formations were politically protected. The budget however was not so adjusted as Congress sought more and more ‘Peace Dividends’. The result was that by the late 90s, the regular forces were starved of maintenance and training monies so that the largely untrimmed Guard had their funding. The first Gulf War again highlighted the disparity that had compounded upon the skills of the officer corps. In the 80s the Regular Army had instituted formalized strata of career educational requirements. While Guard members were encourage to participate, waivers and exemptions still prevailed in the personnel pool.
The entire structure of today’s Guard is counterintuitive. Governors need military police, transportation, medical, communications, and support personnel for disasters and traditional law and order. These are known as combat support and combat support services. The Guard is largely composed of armor, artillery, and infantry, that is combat arms. And that’s the way the NGB has wanted it for decades.
So, welcome to the club.
I hope the book does better justice to the Canadians’ WWI record than this review. Its picture of hapless recruits stumbling to the front in 1914 omits the main event. In point of fact the newly raised 1st Canadian Division didn’t reach the line till April 1915. Five days later it sustained the first gas attack of the war. Over three weeks, in what became known as the second battle of Ypres, the outnumbered division plugged the breach in the line, losing a third of its strength as the Germans continued their terrifying chemical attacks. This episode, not Vimy Ridge in 1917, was the foundation of the Canadians’ reputation in the war. A summary of the story is online at
There’s no comparable example in American military history of inexperienced soldiers holding firm against the combination of mass casualties and major technological surprise. Or anywhere else that I can call readily to mind.
I hope the book does better justice to Canadians’ WWI record than the review. Its picture of hapless militia stumbling to the front in 1914 omits the main event. In point of fact the First Canadian Division didn’t reach the line till April 1915. Five days later it sustained the first gas attack of the war. Over three weeks, in what was later called the Second Battle of Ypres, the division plugged a yawning gap in the line, losing a third of its strength as the Germans continued their terrifying chemical onslaught. A summary account can be read at http://www.worldwar1.com/sf2ypres.htm .
Nowhere in American military history is there a comparable example of inexperienced troops holding firm against mass casualties and technological surprise. Or anywhere else I can readily think of. This, not Vimy Ridge in 1917, was the foundation of the Canadians’ reputation in the war.
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