Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

Sir Sam Hughes, WWI Minister of Militia and Defense… and Rogue

Canada needed troops for WWI, and needed them soon.  A great promoter, Samuel Hughes enlisted a substantial number of soldiers for duty in a short time.   But Hughes was also a rogue.  He and the Prime Minister sharply disagreed on policies, and then Jughes resigned.

Samuel Hughes was a military man at heart. Born into a large family on Jan 8, 1853 in Darlington Township, Upper Canada, Samuel was one of eleven children in the Hughes family. He was well-educated and loved sports and the outdoors, especially partial to lacrosse and hunting. At age 13, he joined the militia in Durham County and stayed within military circles for over 50 years. Hughes became a primary-grade teacher at age 16, earning his first-class certificate at Toronto Normal School.

Married in 1872, Hughes first wife, Caroline, died only a year later. He took another wife in 1875, marrying Emily Burk of Darlington. The Hughes had three children. Supporting his family by teaching, Sam Hughes “began teaching English and history at the Toronto Collegiate Institute,” said Robert Craig Brown in “Hughes, Sir Samuel,” in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Continuing his own education at the same time, Hughes took extra courses and received a provincial school-inspector’s certificate. He joined the 45th Battalion of Infantry at West Durham in 1866 and rose to the rank of adjutant by the time he was 25 years of age.

Portrait of Sir Samuel Hughes

Portrait of Sir Samuel Hughes

Hughes Favoured the Militia

Switching careers in 1885, Hughes purchased the newspaper, the Victoria Warder. He used the paper to enthusiastically support the Conservative party, “and, while it was in power in Ottawa under Sir John A. Macdonald, he enjoyed the favour of government advertising in his paper,” noted Brown. Hughes also used his printed voice to challenge others on religious grounds, his being against the Catholic separate schools. He was strongly in favour of the militia and firmly against the government’s Permanent Force.

Running for a seat in government in Victoria North, Hughes lost on his first attempt in 1891. He was elected in the by-election the next year. He remained the Victoria and Haliburton (the riding name was changed in 1903) representative for nearly 20 years. Meanwhile, Hughes was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel of the 45th Battalion in 1897. He also became an ally of the Conservative party leader, William Laird Borden. (Liberal leader Wilfred Laurier was Prime Minister from 1896 to 1911.)

Minister of Militia and Defence in 1911

In 1911, Hughes was appointed Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence by newly-elected Prime Minister Borden. Becoming independent and assertive, Hughes worked to change military orders so become promoted to Major-General. With the higher rank, “he worked tirelessly to build up the militia to unprecedented levels of strength, to proved equipment and training, to construct new armouries and drill-halls,” said Brown. (Hughes was gazetted Major-General in 1914, with the announcement back-dated to 1912.)

Canadian Aviation Corps

At the beginning of World War One, Hughes put his vast and remarkable energies into recruiting. By the time the 1st Division was near completion of training and preparing to ship overseas, he was already recruiting for the 2nd and 3rd Divisions. Hughes organized Canada’s first air force, the Canadian Aviation Corps, debuted on September 16, 1914. The service obtained the American-built Burgess-Dunne biplane, and shipped the aircraft to the European war theatre with two officers and a mechanic. Unfortunately, the plane never left the ground. The Canadian Aviation Corps was disbanded in 1915.

Hughes made his presence known across Canada and in Europe, inspecting the troops, promoting the militia, and said, Brown, issuing orders against his own department’s rules. For his impressive work, Hughes was given a knighthood in 1915. Sir Samuel Hughes.

Prime Minister Borden Displeased with Hughes

His ally, W.L. Borden, was now Prime Minister, but Borden was unhappy with Hughes’ job performance, the senior soldier ignoring his department and taking matters into his own hands. The Ross rifle was one of many issues that became thorns in Hughes’ side during the war. A staunch advocate of the gun, Hughes insisted the Canadians use the rifle in battle against advice and proof of deficiencies. When the rifles failed during the first battle at Ypres and many good men were lost, Hughes still stood by his faulty decision. He was over-ruled for the safety of the soldiers, and the Lee-Enfield became the standard, against Hughes’ strong wishes. The Major-General won no one over when he accused those opposing him with “incompetence and political malice,” stated “Canada and the First World War” of the Canadian War Museum.

After Hughes directly violated orders, Prime Minister Borden was forced to take action against his rogue Minister of Militia and Defence in 1916. The Prime Minister demanded the resignation of Samuel Hughes on November 9th, and the obstinate Hughes acquiesced on November 11, 1916. Still a member of Parliament, Hughes continued to voice his disruptive and negative opinions on government, fellow members of Parliament and policies.

Pernicious Anemia the End of Hughes

Major-General Sir Samuel Hughes became ill during WWI but carried on with his duties for several years. By 1920, he was confined to bed, diagnosed with “pernicious anemia.” (Pernicious anemia is a condition in which the body is unable to make red blood cells due to lack of vitamin B12. Previously a fatal disease, it is now in most cases easily treated.) Hughes died at home in Lindsay, Ontario on August 24, 1921. The lifelong militiaman was buried with full military honours.


This article first appeared on in 2011.  Copyright Susanna McLeod

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