October 12, 2005

Was Canada Ever Serious? 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 were to risk their lives in the trenches of Europe during WW1. Why? Better yet, why not still? How did a nation that prides itself on G8 status somehow spend the last sixty years doing a 180 in its attitude toward the military?

The story, it turns out, is well worth understanding when considering 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.

Harris, Stephen - Canadian Brass: The Making of a Professional Army 1860-1939 -- pub. 1988 U of Toronto Press

Stephen Harris’ book on the history of the Canadian Army offers a much broader but entirely complementary 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.). A member at the time 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 are often 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. Very good stuff.

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 hybrid well into the 20th century. The WW1 period in Canadian Brass is divided into pre-war, a Sam Hughes [Militia Minister] WW1 period, and a 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 except for 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 sundry, 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, they were forced to conscript troops to fill positions while perfectly suitable troops stood idle or were improperly deployed.

The author suggests, therefore, that lack of professionalism in the organization of the military led to unnecessary political crises (specifically the split between Quebec and English-speaking Canada), and, in the case of the First World War, 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 literally generations (and ruining many Brit careers in the process). Such patronage methodically starved the professional units in a nascent professional Canadian Army 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.

The casualty situation got so bad by the late fall of 1916 that 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, and promote 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 were dramatic. Canadian reputations for combat effectiveness essentially came out of this 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 then the US) were going to bail them out in 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 writes 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 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. It’s on purpose.

To what can we attribute the 180 turnaround from the self-confident days of WW2 – and the list of Canadian battle memories evoked by names like 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 current myopic behaviour of both the Canadian government and the populace therefore becomes much more comprehensible. Any change is unlikely without a deep crisis.

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.

Posted by jmccormick at October 12, 2005 08:19 PM

You might also mention 1914, when the total stripping of British and Canadian naval forces from the Pacific forced Canada to rely upon an Imperial Japanese Navy squadron led by the battlecruiser Izumo to protect Vancouver from the Germans.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at October 12, 2005 10:48 PM

I thought that Canada had to take charge of its defense during the Crimean war

As for bilingualism in the military, well you needn't worry. A retired Francophone colonel lamented at how French has retreated in such bastion as the military HQ and the department itself. A lot has to do with demographics. Quebecers simply don't join the military due to historical anti-militarism, poor career prospects and bad pay. That,s unfortunate.
I suppose Canada's weak military is one of the consequences of being under an 'imperial' umberella. Why bother if the major power of the day will protect us? Also, we've also been historically constrained as to just how independent a course we can take.
At present, our tactics, plans and communications equipment have to compatible with the americans just as in the past we were with the British.
So not much leeway.

Posted by: xavier at October 13, 2005 08:03 AM

The downward spiral in Canada's military since the 1960's has coincided with the polital preoccupation with Quebec. Generally the price Canada has paid to keep Quebec in Canada is that Canada has more or less become like Quebec. Quebec's politicians have little interest in the military, much like large parts of Europe, so the military budget has slowly been eroded away.

Perhaps Canada would have become a different and better place had it allowed Quebec to seperate in the 1970s.

Posted by: Ed in Kanata at October 13, 2005 01:31 PM

xavier: you may be right on Crimea (Harris' book covers 1860 onward, Crimean War was 1854-56) however the British garrison at Kingston from the 1830s onward (after completion of the Rideau Canal) was considered sufficient to halt all pre-Civil War American aggression. As mobilization and professionalization grew down South, the balance of power shifted irrevocably. The Kingston garrison may have been drawn down during the Crimean campaign, but if Harris is any guide, the Canadian militia was always a fig leaf that the Brits discounted, and ultimately the British garrisons only left after Confederation. The Brits were in Halifax and Esquimault til WW1, I believe.

As for military demographics, my comments only related to the disruptive impact that bilingualism had on the mid-60s Canadian military (at the time overwhelmingly white, male, Anglo and Protestant). Selective promotion for language skills over military skills played havoc with morale, military tradition, and preparedness. A similiar disruption in the RCMP took place somewhat later. Not to say that some adjustment wasn't inevitable and valid. It just reflected bureaucratic and social-science values rather than military values.

I cannot speak to today's situation ... but the idea that a military career could be chosen for financial or advancement reasons is a cultural attitude all on its own. And one foreign to both the Canadian and US militaries of the post-WW2 era. As we see now in the US, the officer corp has a substantial multi-generational "caste" that is drawn from primarily southern ethnic Scottish and Scots-Irish Protestants. Something similar existed in the post-conscription Canadian military til the 60s. Gone by now, I'd suggest, along with the values that could field a division of troops storming the beaches at D-Day.

But as "Ed in Kanata" suggests, the current Canadian attitude toward the military is a "lowest common denominator" ... and (again referring to Harris) a winding down of the total social mobilization during WW2. A habit, then, rather than an appetite. And that brings us back to my post title ... was Canada *ever* serious?

Posted by: james mccormick at October 13, 2005 04:11 PM

Thanks for your response.
I've never regarded bilingualism in the military as pandering to Quebec and to prevent separatism. It's an old problem that caused the senior officers a lot of headaches. There was understandable resentment by the Francophone officers and men that if they wanted to succeed they had to know English while the Anglophone soldiers weren't obligated.
Further, there was still the historical memory of Hughes blowing off the genuine Quebec/Francphone desire to create their own units in 1914, the conscription crisis in '17 and the second crises in '44.
I doubt Canada would've better off with a separated Quebec, the new country would've still leeched off English Canada and the U.S for its defense needs.


Posted by: xavier at October 13, 2005 05:06 PM

Canada has had the good fortune to not have to be serious, with Big Friends who by geographic necessity provided a first line of defense. If Canada had been parked next to, say, Germany, it would have had two options. It could have scrambled to get firm defense commitments from other countries and created some kind of military power of its own as a first line of defense. Czechoslovakia did this in the interward period, but got betrayed. The other course would be to roll the dice on no defense and surrender if it faced aggression. Canada however knows perfectly well that the USA is not like Germany or Russia or China, and is extremely unlikely to attack without provocation. So, it is sensible for Canada to be a defense free-rider. Of course, if Canada has military capabilities that it can bring to the table, it can have some influence on its big neighbor, in a way that it cannot if it has no military power. But, that is a trade-off it has been willing to make most of the time. Not particularly admirable, but comprehensible, and not even necessarily unserious.

Posted by: Lex at October 13, 2005 06:15 PM