Lieutenant Colonel S. G. Robertson
17th (Nova Scotia Highlanders) Battalion
As a matter of fact Robertson was quite hopeless as a commanding officer. When I obliged to tell him so he made at least 3 answers in excuse all of which made me exclaim to him: ‘Why here, out of your own mouth, you more than ever convince me of your unfitness for command.”
(Gen. Alderson to Perley, 12 Mar 1915)
Struan Gordon Robertson was a Nova Scotia barrister and militia major. Born on 13 September 1868 in Bothwell, Scotland, he was a Conservative party activist and a candidate for the riding of Pictou. When the First Contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces organized at Valcartier in August 1914, Robertson assumed command of the 17th Battalion.
Dissatisfied with the direction of Sam Hughes, Robertson’s frustration was only further exasperated when he learned that the 17th Battalion was to be broken up in England. He attributed the disorganization of his unit to the “unrelenting antagonism of the Minister of Militia.” When Robertson had raised his concerns with the Minister, Hughes allegedly disparaged the 17th senior staff as “cowards and wire pullers.”
In January 1915, Robertson expressed his discontent and anger in a letter to Conservative MP Fleming Blanchard McCurdy. The 17th commander admitted, “If a statement of our wrongs were to reach the public of Nova Scotia it would be disastrous to our party.” He claimed that his officers were mistreated at Valcartier and Salisbury Plain; taunted as “political pets of the prime minister.”
Robertson was also critical of the Canadian Corps commander, British General Edwin Alderson, calling him “a very weak man. He does not seem to understand human nature. He makes no effort to get to know the officers or men.” For his part, Alderson said of Robertson, “Am sorry had to tell him that commanding a battalion was not quite his vocation in life.”
When the Halifax press and Liberal MP George William Kyle publicized the feud, Prime Minister Borden was placed in the awkward position of defending his Militia Minister and General Alderson as well as protecting the reputation of his friend Robertson. Embarrassed by the public attention, the former 17th commander expressed his personal regrets to Borden particularly regarding impolitic comments about Alderson.
To the opposition party, the allegation that the Militia Minister had called Robertson and his officers “cowards,” was even more troubling. At best, the comment was unseemly; at worst it was a fireable offense. Hughes admitted to using “strong language” but avoided an outright denial. Attempting to calm the debate, Wilfrid Laurier injected, “My hon. friend can lose his temper, and I think that is what has happened to him.”
Officially relieved of command on 30 January 1915, a disillusioned Robertson eventually returned to Canada. He died in Bermuda at the age of eighty-one in 1949.