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Sir Sam Hughes: A Local Hero Remembered Internationally as a Madman

November 15, 2023

Sam Hughes Stepping off a Torpedo Boat as he Visits the Front, August 1916 (British Library)

Sir Sam Hughes is among the most famous people ever to live in the Kawarthas. Sam led Canada mobilization for the first half of the Great War. At the time, he was one of the most recognizable political figures in Canada. When he died of pernicious anemia on August 23, 1921, a local headline proclaimed, “Lindsay’s foremost citizen passes.” As local Orangemen led Sam’s funeral procession down Kent Street from the Armouries to Riverside Cemetery, flags were flying at half mast and many stores and homes draped their windows in black and purple. Though Lindsay would later be represented by Premier Leslie Frost, no one from the area has ever gained the same notoriety as Sam.

Sam was one-of-a-kind, a larger than life figure, whose personality seemed dominant wherever he went. During the Great War, few national figures were as prominent as Sam, who personified Canada war effort, both at home and in Great Britain. It was a natural role for Sam, he was and always had been a fighter. Living in an era when Canada largely got by on a militia, and was just launching its navy, Sam had an enthusiasm for the militia that few others shared. He had risen to be the Colonel, commanding the 45th Victoria Regiment (which perpetuated the 45th West Durham Battalion, that Sam had joined in 1866). His eagerness to build a militia in Canada, and to be there in any conflict that might involve the British Empire (which to him was one of the world’s great virtues), made him one of the prophets who foresaw that a war was coming between Britain and Germany. Few others could match the energy that Sam brought to expanding Canada’s military in the 1910s. Once Sam’s mind was made up he seldom wavered, which buttressed his steadfast dedication to the militia, but also contributed to him being written off as a madman, as he thundered in defence of impractical ideas.

Sam Hughes grew up at Solina, near Bowmanville in Durham County. Born on January 8, 1853, he joined the local militia at the age of 13, and showed a keen interest. Though his unit did not see action, they were called out defend against the Fenian raids. Both of his grandfathers had fought at the Battle of Waterloo, one for Napoleon, the other for Wellington. At age 16, the confident Sam Hughes became a teacher, and would subsequently attend the University of Toronto, while teaching at Toronto Collegiate Institute (now Jarvis Collegiate). Even as a teacher, Sam’s unique personality shone through. He had an unusual habit of chewing chalk, and making absurd or outrageous proclamations, trying to goad his students into contradicting him, so they would find their own voice. One student remarked, “his classes were a blessed relief after the humdrum of orthodox classrooms.”

Sam was a championship runner, and loved lacrosse. While he lived in Toronto, he played on a winning team and was remembered for his massive checks. Sam would do anything to win, was ready to take on anyone, and on occasion sent his opponents crashing through the boards on the perimeter of the field.

Soon after he was married, he found himself widowed, but remarried to Mary Burk, whose father was a Liberal Member of Parliament—which was ironic given Sam’s lifelong hatred of everything Liberal. Sam was a restless young teacher, switching schools several times. As a thirty-two-year-old in 1885, he purchased the Warder newspaper and moved to Lindsay. As he enthusiastically embraced his new career, it soon became clear that Sam had not mellowed at all since his days as an inflammatory teacher. In the late nineteenth century, it was common for newspapers to be highly partisan, typically to either the Liberal or Conservative cause. Sam took this to another level, as the Victoria Warder stridently attacked Catholics, Liberals, and whatever else angered Sam at the time.

The Victoria Warder was certainly not a newspaper for everybody, but the outrageous Sam Hughes soon attracted a following. When his comments landed him in court for libel, he defended the charges and it did not seem to hurt his following at all. Sam liked a good fight and as he was baiting Catholics and Liberals, he sometimes encountered opponents with the nerve to give it right back to him. In 1894 this led to a war of words with a Catholic blacksmith, Richard Kylie.

Kylie managed to so aggravate Sam, that the Orangeman challenged the Catholic to a fist fight on Kent Street. A crowd gathered that January day to watch the spectacle, which proved short-lived. Kylie drilled Hughes in the face, knocking him down, then proceeded to beat him with “sledgehammer blows.” As Hughes turtled in the snow to survive the onslaught, he was saved by the crowd. Kylie then added insult to injury, by having Hughes charged and convicted of assault, as the blacksmith’s supporters cheered on. Hughes had to pay $31.90 in fines. It was quite the sight to see the Catholic Reeve-elect of Lindsay duke it out with the Orange Member of Parliament.

In 1891 Sam had run for parliament, as the Conservative Candidate, largely relying on his following from the Victoria Warder. He was defeated by Liberal John A. Barron, a lawyer. But Sam Hughes was not the sort of person to accept defeat and move on. In the nineteenth century, dirty tricks and vote-buying were both common (though unacknowledged) tactics. Perhaps Barron was worse than most, or perhaps not the best at covering his tracks, or maybe it was just that Sam was very diligent in recording all the indiscretions that he could find—but the new Liberal Member of Parliament soon found himself in court.

Two justices of the Queens Bench were brought to Lindsay to hear the case, which Hughes surprised many by winning. A new vote was scheduled for 1892, and Hughes was a truculent as always—promising all sorts of patronage for his constituents (which was probably legal). Sam canvassed by riding his horse through the district, doing his best to be an impressive rider, as he often spent the night at locals’ houses or cabins, sleeping on the floor in front of the fire. Running as a manifestation of hard work, power and masculinity, he won the election and was never to be defeated again.

Sam was involved in his community. He founded the Victoria County Rifle Association, and was a lifelong shooting enthusiast. He was also very active in the Victoria Regiment, which he would rise to command. He often equated the sport of marksmanship with military combat, and it seemed that his ideal soldier was someone trained to shoot accurately from a long distance. Unlike many Victorians, Sam believed that women would benefit from learning to shoot too. He joined the Lindsay Board of Trade, the Freemasons, Oddfellows, and of course the Orange Order. Like many Orangemen, Sam was an avid British Imperialist. For Sam, matters were typically black and white, and once he made up his mind, he often would not waver, come what may.

The militia was extremely important to Sam Hughes, and when he heard that conflict was breaking out in South Africa, he was determined that Canada should send a contingent to support the British Empire. The Prime Minister at the time, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, was not so sure, having to consider the perspective of French Canadians, who were not as devoted to the British Empire as Sam. Throughout Sam’s political career, the feelings of French Canadians never seemed to be on Sam’s radar. He stood for British Orangemen and the Empire.

Sam was not going to miss out on any war involving the British Empire. As Laurier tried to avoid an official commitment, Sam was enraged by the inaction, and demanded that Canada send 5,000 soldiers, and proposed himself as the commander—even before Britain declared war. Once the war officially began, it was harder for Canada to stand aside, and Laurier offered a volunteer contingent with official status. Sam was perhaps the Canadian most eager to volunteer.

Sam was included in the Canadian contingent, but did not have any official role. In fact, G.T.H. Hutton, the British General commanding Canada’s militia specifically warned his British comrades about including Sam. (This may have contributed to Sam’s long-standing disdain for British officers commanding Canadians.) But Sam was not to be deterred, he brought his own colonel’s uniform from the Victoria Regiment, and was in his glory, ordering around the soldiers on the ship as then travelled. Once the contingent arrived in South Africa, Sam got to work writing letters, eager to find a role in the military. Persisting through many disappointments, he landed himself an appointment as a supply and transport officer. He showed a lot of cleverness as he defended transports against Boer attacks.

Sam earned a promotion, becoming an intelligence officer, who scouted ahead of Lord Roberts’ advance north into Boer territory. As a ranger, Sam was fearless, galloping headlong to attack stronger Boer forces. Once he single-handedly captured eight Boers. At the Battle of Faber’s Put, his commander General Sir Charles Warren ordered the contingent to camp below a hill. The Boers occupied the hill and their snipers opened fire. Hughes roused a small contingent of men to scramble onto their horses and counterattack—some in their underwear or without boots. They rode down the enemy. Sam became openly critical of General Warren, and was soon on his way home from South Africa.

Sam now believed that he was a war hero, and began to claim that he had earned a Victoria Cross (the highest honour in the British military for valour), or even two! At the same time that he was aggrieved about not receiving his Victoria Cross, he was condemning General Warren, precisely the man who would have to recommend him, if he were to receive this accolade. Though he had been sent home two years before the conflict ended, now Sam had fought a war and could speak with even more conviction on military matters. Now the wild assertions came from a self-proclaimed war hero.

Sam was more interested in the militia than anyone else in the Conservative caucus. Though he despised all things Liberal, he would eagerly support his Liberal counterpart Frederick Borden if he thought it was good for the militia. Borden was an astute politician and realized that having Sam on side was often beneficial, so he often checked to see what his opponent thought. Many Members of Parliament were a little intimidated by Sam—he did not speak in Parliament, he shouted! Not only that, he often had figures or statistics to back up his claims, which (for those constrained by truthfulness) were often hard to dispute on the spot, without actually looking into the matter.

When Great Britain launched HMS Dreadnought in 1906, it was the fastest, best-armed battleship in the world, seemingly making all other battleships obsolete. Looking back to Admiral Horatio Nelson’s Victory at Trafalgar in the Napoleonic Wars, Britain’s defence relied on having the world’s strongest navy. When the backbone of this defence became dated, and Germany started building modern battleships too, it set off a naval arms race. Sam Hughes thundered that Canada should donate millions of dollars to Britain to buy three Dreadnought-class battleships. While this may have resonated with British Imperialists, it was would be unpalatable to many French-Canadians and voters who were not as imperially minded as Sam. Instead, Laurier planned to launch a Canadian Navy of 5 cruisers and 6 destroyers. Lacking the big guns of a battleship, the Imperialists ridiculed this as a ‘Tin Pot Navy.’ Laurier and the Liberals would lose the 1911 election, though the Tin Pot Navy proved to be exactly the types of ships that Canada would need to protect convoys once war broke out.

By 1911, Sam was well established as a polarizing political figure. Beloved by Orangemen, especially in rural Ontario, his angry behaviour and attacks on Catholics and French-Canadians led others to see him as a “champion of race hatred.” But there was no doubting that he was the preeminent militia enthusiast in Parliament. As Robert Borden chose his cabinet, the last post to be filled was the Minister of Militia and Defence. Hughes had once offered to give up his own seat, so Borden could sit in Parliament, and the outgoing minister Frederick Borden (Robert’s cousin) recommended him. The self-proclaimed hero of the Boer War received the appointment. It might have helped to have someone in cabinet to represent the Orangemen of rural Ontario.

Being the Minister of Militia was dream appointment for Sam, and he set about the job with unmatched enthusiasm. Later described as “perhaps the most uninhibited battler the Canadian parliament has ever seen,” at times he was so assertive that his performances became farcical. But he did manage to double the departmental budget and built armouries to expand the militia. With a larger than life personality like Sam running a department, to a large extent priorities revolved around his prejudices. Sam loved the militia, he loved marksmanship, and saw the prospect of a war with Germany, as many others denied the danger. He was determined to inspire Canadians get past their disinterest, to be ready with a militia of citizen-soldiers who were very accurate shots from long range. With that kind of force, what country could possibly threaten Canada?

When the Great War began in August 1914, Sam’s moment had come. For English Canadians who believed in the British Empire, Sam was a brilliant military recruiter, Canada’s preacher, travelling the country to encourage young men to enlist. He had always been great at getting crowds riled up, energizing those who shared his worldview. Though not everyone agreed with Sam, he could pack venues like Kinmount’s Forester’s Hall, with his loyal followers. The crusade to fight the Germans (or Huns, as they were then pejoratively called) appealed to a lot of young men looking to escape the monotony of farm life in Snowdon, Galway or Somerville Township. By the end of June 1916, 312,000 Canadians had volunteered to join the colours, with Sir Sam Hughes (knighted in 1915) as the public face of the war effort. The next day, the Battle of the Somme began, with the British Fourth Army sustaining 57,470 casualties in one day.

In August 1914, as war spread across Europe, Britain’s Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener, soon realized that the country would need more shells, and appealed to Canada for help. Sam was, of course, eager to show what Canada could do. With his typical vigour, there was no time for proper procedures—he went around his own department to found the Shell Committee of prominent industrialists and his friends (Sam strongly believed in patronage!). The businessmen were cautious at the start, wondering if the war would last, and not wanting to over-invest in productive infrastructure that might prove fleeting. Contracts were let at a dizzying pace, far faster than they could be filled. Though this industrialization started slowly relative to British military needs, production actually outpaced the Americans and by 1917, Canada was supplying one-quarter of all British shells. By then Sam was no longer the minister, but his work had laid the foundations for Canada’s military industrialization.

Sam founded military bases at Gagetown, New Brunswick and Valcartier, Quebec, which are both still in use today. Though he was an imperialist, he was a very strong advocate of a distinct Canadian military, at a time when the Dominion did not control its foreign affairs. As he travelled the country, encouraging communities to create their own units, he promised that they would be able to fight as comrades. Britain started the war with some “Pals” units, the theory being that soldiers would fight harder for their friends and family. The downside of these companies, was that when they went into combat, given the horrific casualties of the Great War, dozens of young men from the same town would die together, creating searing local tragedies. But, for recruitment purposes, Hughes found these tactics extremely effective (especially before the long-term consequences were apparent). By April 1915, Canadians were serving alongside the British on the Western Front—just in time for the Germans’ first use of Chlorine Gas. Though many soldiers would never breathe normally again, the Canadians held the line.

Sam was inspiring, he had the zeal to win converts to his cause. But he did not have a mind for detail, nor did he delegate authority. Though he was extremely enthusiastic about war and Canada’s military, he had no practical experience of life in the trenches. He never seemed to understand the difficulties that his soldiers faced—though he was at the same time their loudest advocate. When he visited the trenches he often proposed war-winning tactics that were out of touch with reality.

Sam made the war equipment his own. Though it had been adopted by the Liberals to arm Canadians serving in the Boer War, he referred to the Ross Rifle as “his” rifle. Upgraded versions of the rifle were used in international shooting competitions, so clearly it was just what his accurate-shooting marksmen soldiers needed. Hughes did not seem to be able to hear that it often did not function in the muddy conditions of the trenches. He also designed and patented the MacAdam Shield-Shovel—a portable infantry spade with a hole in the centre, designed so that his marksmen could be protected while shooting through the hole in the blade. In practice, they were not good for digging or shielding soldiers, and were eventually sold for scrap.

Sam was a teetotaler. He liked to tell a story of from when he was a young militia recruit. He refused to drink the whiskey that his sergeant was using to initiate him, “When the bottle reached me, I simply passed it on. He let out a yell and ordered me to drink. I thanked him, stating I never drink. He then attempted to force it down my throat, cut my face and lips and half choked me. I struggled free, grabbed his own short sergeant’s rifle and struck him along by the ear. When he recovered there was no more talk of forcing me to drink. I had meantime fixed the bayonet and warned him.”

When Sam’s turn came to be the commander of the Victoria Regiment, he inspired a story of his own. In 1906, he confiscated the uniform of a private who showed up drunk at training camp, forcing him to leave in his underwear. For the many soldiers who enjoyed a stiff drink, this led them to associate Canada’s Warlord with the church ladies advocating for prohibition. Sam was such a character that it was easy to make fun of him.

But by 1916, the jokes were not as funny any more. As local papers all across Canada published the death notices of young men that practically everyone in their community knew—time and again—it became clear that Sam’s glorious crusade for King and Empire had become a bloody stalemate. Though Sam would not want to admit it, it was becoming harder to find volunteers eager to enlist—prompting talk of conscription. Once the ‘pals’ units reached Britain, practically all of them were broken up to act as reinforcements for other units—a psychological blow for the communities whose hopes they carried. This included both battalions (109th and 252nd) of his own beloved Victoria Regiment. Sam was not going to win any popularity contests with soldiers in the trenches whose boots dissolved, rifle jammed in the mud and shovel had a large hole in the centre.

To make matters worse, all of the hastily made (patronage) contracts for war supplies created a national profiteering scandal—“The Million Dollar Rake Off.” True to form, Sam was in no mood to moderate or back down, thundering that a firing squad would solve the problem. Nor did it look good that as the country was fixated on these problems and the soldiers dying by the thousands in the trenches, Sam was busy strutting in his militia uniform, in his glory, visiting England.

Sam was showing the signs of exhaustion from the war effort. Bit by bit, Prime Minister Robert Borden, brought in others to help carry part of the load. While some ministers might have seen this as a relief, Sam took it personally, and bitterly fought those who were appointed to help, including Peterborough’s Sir Joseph Flavelle, chair of the Imperial Munitions Board. As he saw every delegation of authority as an expression that the Prime Minister lacked faith in him, this poisoned their relationship. On November 9, 1916, the Prime Minister felt compelled to ask Hughes to resign.

Borden would later write, describing Sam: “About half the time he was an able, reasonable and useful colleague, working with excellent judgement and indefatigable energy. For a certain other portion of the time he was extremely excitable, impatient of control and almost impossible to work with; and during the remainder, his conduct and speech were so eccentric as to justify the conclusion that his mind was unbalanced.”

By 1917, Sir Sam Hughes was an angry backbencher, but won re-election to represent Victoria. His own party, which he believed had betrayed him, often became the focus of his anger. He never seemed to understand how the Great War had become a bloodbath, and he looked for a scapegoat for the deaths of so many of ‘his’ beloved soldiers. As the diplomats were still working through the details of the Treaty of Versailles that would turn the armistice of November 11, 1918 into peace, Sam made an unforgettable speech to Parliament. On March 4, 1919, Sam stood and railed against what he perceived as the autocracy of the War Measures Act and his old enemy Sir Joseph Flavelle. He alleged that an unnamed general (that was clearly Sir Arthur Currie, Commander of the Canadian Corps) had a habit of “needlessly sacrificing the lives of Canadian soldiers.” He was particularly angered by the capture of Mons on the last day of the war, and boomed that the general ordering the attack should be “tried summarily by court martial and punished so far as the law would allow.” He asserted, “you cannot find one Canadian soldier returning from France who would not curse the name of the officer who ordered the attack on Mons.” Parliament sat in shocked silence, one MP later observed, that it had created “a considerable sensation, but I think that nearly everyone was quite disgusted.” Sam’s accusations would not be answered in the House for two weeks.

To the end of his days, Sam would rail against Sir Arthur Currie, who never responded publicly to these attacks. Sam would take to his grave the fact that he had previously suppressed information of Currie’s embezzlement from the militia. In the summer of 1921, Sam learned that he had weeks to live, he returned to his magnificent hunting lodge home, Glen Eagle, on Eagle Lake, now Sir Sam’s Inn. As the train was pulling out of Ottawa to take Sam home, the conductor asked if they should travel slowly and carefully because he was sick in bed, but knight rose and exclaimed, “No! Tell ‘em to go like blazes!” Sam was always dramatic.

Though Sam had been discredited on the world stage, and at times was a national embarrassment, he remained a local hero. His bronze casket was proudly displayed at the armouries he had helped to build. 20,000 people gathered to watch the procession, as shops closed, and six veterans of the recent conflict paraded the casket to Riverside Cemetery, led by pipes and drums. Bugler Arthur Rhodes, who had lost his arm in the great war, played the last post by his grave, then field artillery guns sounded fifteen salutes.

Lindsay’s Legion and Armouries both honour Sir Sam Hughes. The plaque at the armouries reads: “Soldier, journalist, imperialist and Member of Parliament for Lindsay, Ontario from 1892 to 1921. Sam Hughes helped to create a distinctively Canadian Army. As Minister of Militia and Defence (1911-1916) he raised the Canadian Expeditionary Force which fought in World War I, and was knighted for his services. Disagreements with his colleagues and subordinates forced his retirement from the Cabinet in 1916.”

Premier Leslie Frost, who briefly met Sam while serving in the Great War wrote: “Sir Sam’s name was a legend in my own family. … Sam Hughes was indeed an incredible man” despite “his abrasive character and his stepping on toes, particularly of officialdom. He made enemies. As a matter of fact, he may have thrived on making enemies. He was abrasive, impetuous, with very strong and positive views. He did not suffer opposition lightly. … He did his best to awaken people from their complacency. In this, some of his colleagues thought he was mad. Many of the rest of us, who were to serve in our own way, thought we could stand some more such mad men. In the period of a few short weeks, he organized the dispatching overseas of what was to be the first Canadian Division. It is said to be the largest movement of troops across seas in all history. … In retrospect, there were some things which he might have done differently and better, but this is true of all people who do things. We are all human. Indeed, Sam Hughes was very human. He got things done, while others who should have done things were standing by. He was impetuous, rude, disregarding convention at a time when action counted. … Indeed, in the first two years of the war, Sam Hughes’ monumental accomplishments dwarfed his weaknesses and peculiarities, which because of party politics and jealousies, have been magnified out of their true place and position. … His mighty achievements… are a proud story in Canadian History.”

Historians will be debating the complicated legacy of Sir Sam Hughes for generations to come.

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