Major General Sir Sam Steele
2nd Canadian Division
Climbed the high hill to where the 19th, 20th [Bns.] and engineers were busy digging trenches and completing them. They are doing very well indeed, all hands working with a will, but I thought what an awful thing it is to be obliged to do this for the sake of our freedom, and to enable us to kill other men.
(Gen. Steele diary, 1 July 1915)
Born on 5 January 1848 in Medonte Township, Upper Canada, Samuel Benfield Steele was among the first officers of the North-West Mounted Police and the first commanding officer of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse in the Boer War. His leadership during the Klondike Gold Rush and his memoirs contributed to linking his name with the iconic image of the Mountie. As Canada’s most famous policeman and soldier, Steele received an appointment to command the 2nd Canadian Division in May 1915.
As old age made him quite unsuited for a field appointment, Steele only led the 2nd Division to England before it deployed to France under the command of Major General Richard Turner. He was then appointed commanding officer of the Southeastern District of England which included the Canadian training division at Shorncliffe. Confusion over who was senior general over all Canadian troops in England caused much friction with the existing command hierarchy at Shorncliffe, particularly with Brigadier General A.C. MacDougall
Seeking to clarify the situation and secure his status, Steele wrote to Prime Minister Borden in September 1916: “I have worked unceasingly and to the very best of my ability in the interests of Canadians, and I, therefore, contend that I am the senior Canadian General Officer serving in this country, and for that matter, in France.” Two months later, Steele lost his Canadian command through retained his post in the British Army.
Steele died in London on 30 January 1919 from the flu pandemic.
Further reading: Rod Macleod, Sam Steele: A Biography (University of Alberta Press, 2019)