In mobilizing the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Minister of the Militia Sam Hughes called on hundreds of prominent citizens to raise volunteer battalions from their home counties. Militia leaders, lawyers, Tory politicians and businessmen answered the call. The battalion system was fraught with competition, corruption and partisanship. At the same time, the recruitment strategy reflected the Canadian political culture of the early 20th Century. Community leaders with close connections to the militia, politics and business, staked their personal and professional reputations to gather local volunteers for overseas service. Many of the middle-aged colonels fully expected to lead their men on the battlefields of France. Most were disappointed and humiliated when British and Canadian military officials broke up the battalions and sent the former commanders packing.
Some reverted in rank to fight in the trenches, while others fought legal battles against charges of embezzlement. If not corrupt, several were incompetent officers and wholly unsuited for military command. Some were motivated by patriotism and righteousness but others pursued self-interest and glory. Upon their unceremonious return to Canada, critics blamed the “safety-first” colonels for having abandoned their men. After the war, certain reputations were tarnished; others were destroyed. While some colonels drifted into obscurity, a few continued to play an influential role at both a local and national level until the Second World War.
This blog aims to detail, in 500 words or less, the biographies, experiences and personalities of every CEF battalion commander. In some cases, where information is scarce, only the briefest online is possible. However, for most, written records, service files, newspapers and other primary sources make fairly complete sketches possible. A link is provided to an officer’s service file if it has been digitized by Library and Archives Canada. In the centenary year, the story of each colonel provides important insights into the larger context of Canada’s experience in the First World War.