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. E..A. Alderson to George Perley, 12 Mar 1915)
Born on 13 September 1868 in Bothwell, Scotland, Struan Gordon Robertson was a Nova Scotia barrister, militia major, a Conservative Party activist and nominated candidate for the riding of Pictou. When Militia Minister called on militiamen from across the country to assemble at Valcartier, Quebec in August 1914, Robertson arrived with 500 Nova Scotia determined to go overseas as a unit. When Hughes derided Robertson, he complained to his friend Prime Minister Robert Borden, who was equally interested to see a full battalion representing their home province. Robertson was given command of the 17th Battalion.
Frustrated by Hughes’ pettiness and hostility, Robertson’s resentment was only exasperated when he learned that the 17th Battalion was not to go to France. Instead it would provide reinforcement drafts as a reserve unit. He attributed his unsatisfactory position to the “unrelenting antagonism of the Minister of Militia,” likely provoked when Robertson suggested possible defects with the minister’s favoured Ross Rifle. When Robertson had raised his concerns about the treatment, Hughes allegedly disparaged Robertson and his senior officers as “cowards and wire pullers.”
In January 1915, Robertson expressed his discontent and anger in a private letter to Conservative MP Fleming McCurdy. The 17th commander framed his troubles in the partisan manner that a politician could understand: “If a statement of our wrongs were to reach the public of Nova Scotia it would be disastrous to our party.” Robertson further revealed how his officers were mistreated at both Valcartier and Salisbury Plain, taunted as “political pets of the prime minister.”
Robertson further disparaged British general Edwin Alderson who the War Office had placed in command of the Canadians, 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.”
Soon the saga played itself out in the House of Commons at Ottawa. When the Halifax press and Liberal MP George William Kyte publicized the feuding overseas, and leaked Robertson’s candid letter, Borden found himself in the awkward position of defending his militia minister and General Alderson as well as protecting the reputation of his friend. Embarrassed by the public attention, the now former 17th Battalion commander expressed private regrets to the prime minister, particularly regarding the impolitic comments about Alderson. Mortified that Kyte had read his letter into the parliamentary record, Robertson clarified to McCurdy, “I would be sorry if any expression of mine would reflect on any of our officers at the front, and the statement was made inadvertently.”
To the Opposition, the allegation that the militia minister had evidently called Robertson and his officers “cowards” was even more troubling. At best, the comment was unseemly. At worst it was a fireable offence. Hughes admitted to using “strong language” though 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 returned to Canada. He died in Bermuda at the age of eighty-one in 1949.
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