The Royal Military College of Canada, Kingston
The Ugly, the Bad, and the Good
1596 Lieutenant General Guy Granville Simonds CC, CB, CBE, DSO, CD (April 23, 1903 – May 15, 1974)was a senior officer of the Canadian Army who commanded the II Canadian Corps during World War II. He served as acting commander of the First Canadian Army, leading the Allied forces to victory in the Battle of the Scheldt in late 1944. In 1951 he was appointed Chief of the General Staff, the most senior member of the Canadian Army.
He studied at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario between 1921 and 1925. Simonds’ class was the last to be selected from nationwide exams (Simonds having placed second) and the first after the war to enter a four-year course. At graduation he was awarded the Sword of Honour, judged the best “all rounder”, placed second academically, and was generally considered the best horseman in the class.
Over the next several Issues, e-Veritas will reproduce a series of excerpts from an unpublished Guy Simonds autobiography. The excerpts will deal mainly with his time as an officer-cadet at Royal Military College of Canada from 1921 to 1925.
We wish to acknowledge the kindness of 3521 Charlie Simonds Class of 1956, the son of Guy in providing access to these very interesting papers.
The title: The Ugly, the Bad, and the Good was chosen by the editor and likely not a big surprise to Ex Cadets; others who have not ‘lived RMC’ should eventually better understand why we chose it.
The R.M.C. – 1921-1925 – The Ugly, the Bad, and the Good – Part 2
Throughout our four years at the Royal Military College, the Commandant was Maj. Gen. Sir Archibald Cameron Macdonnell, K.C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., a great gentleman and a soldier with an outstanding war record as G.O.C. of 1st Canadian Division. To him fell the difficult task of guiding the College through a major transition. An institution oriented during World War I to training junior officers for war in the shortest possible time had to be converted to one designed to educate young men for a professional career in the service, or on civil life with a military background fitting them to make an effective contribution to defence serving the part-time Militia.
Macdonnell’s foresight and wisdom were responsible for remarkable progress during the four years he was in command, and he initiated all the measures necessary to the development of a first class military academy. Whilst fully maintaining the military character of the College, great strides were made in the improvement of academic standards, and he worked with persistence and a large measure of success in getting recognition of these academic qualifications by the major universities. His tenure as Commandant was plagued by a series of scandals and attacks upon the College in parliament and by the press, most of which, though they might be little justified, were in keeping with public attitudes of the time.
We were living in the aftermath of the war to end all wars, and the Canadian public were at best apathetic and generally unsympathetic to anything military. To the country at large the R.M.C. was regarded as a haven where upper middle class snobs could swagger about in fancy uniforms and lord it over others.
“But there were other visitations from ex-cadets which were certainly not welcome at least as far as recruits were concerned. Some of the graduates from the first post World War I classes were from well-to-do families and had no immediate need to find employment in civil life. They tended to drift back to the R.M.C. from time to time, in groups of two, three or four, to satisfy themselves that the rigorous traditions under which they had been trained were being maintained.’
The main target for press attacks was the treatment of first year cadets by their seniors, known at the College by the term “recruiting”. Like most things, it had both its good and its bad aspects.
To appreciate the conflicting influences affecting the cadet body during this period, it is necessary to understand the legacies left by the war and early post war years. During World War I the Royal Military College really became an officer training unit. The cadets who entered had one object and a very praiseworthy one – to get through their training, get commissioned as soon as they reached qualifying age, and get to the war as quickly as possible. They had to be knocked into shape in short order, and appreciation of the importance of discipline and disciplinary training was a paramount necessity.
In a wartime atmosphere the public at large did not care too much about the methods used, and those who did not or could not respond to disciplinary training had to be weeded out. The course of instruction had to be sharply reduced in length and limited to the essentials for war. An incoming class of recruits within months became seniors and within a further period of a few months were graduated and serving in the field.
Since “getting to the war” was the objective which really mattered, academic proficiency was only of consequence to those who were seeking a commission in a technical arm. For the rest, all that mattered was to pass the academic course by any means, so that failure would not delay qualifying for a commission. The academic part of R.M.C. training in the war years was regarded as a nuisance which had to be borne but which had nothing to do with becoming a good officer.
When World War I came to an end in November 1918, for most cadets in attendance at the R.M.C. the whole purpose of their presence there suddenly evaporated, and like demobilized officers and soldiers they were faced with a major readjustment.
The R.M.C. course was immediately extended as a first move towards the reintroduction of the pre-war academic curriculum. Cadets who had served a few months as recruits and then become seniors, instead of serving with that status for a few months as did the “war courses”, found themselves in that role for some two and a half years. These were determined to pass on to new arrivals the rigorous disciplining they had had, with interest, and new refinements of their own added.
In these early post war years, with steady escalation, opportunities for abuses tended to increase, and developed into a harshness in treatment of recruits which would not have been tolerated by the public if all its aspects were known.
The Commandant encouraged ex-cadets to visit and take an interest in the Royal Military College. Large numbers of ex-cadets returned to the College for such occasions as the Christmas dance, Graduation exercises and the June Ball and R.M.C. Club reunions.
These graduates were representatives of classes covering a span of many years, from members of the “Old Eighteen” – the first class to attend the College when it opened in 1876 – to those of the World War I and post war courses.
No institution in the country had a more loyal alumni, and to see them and realize the interest they took in the College was an inspiration to serving cadets, for many of these graduates had made marks of distinction in nearly every walk of Canadian life, civil as well as military.
But there were other visitations from ex-cadets which were certainly not welcome at least as far as recruits were concerned. Some of the graduates from the first post World War I classes were from well-to-do families and had no immediate need to find employment in civil life. They tended to drift back to the R.M.C. from time to time, in groups of two, three or four, to satisfy themselves that the rigorous traditions under which they had been trained were being maintained.
They genuinely believed that the harsh system of “recruiting” had been good for them – had made men out of them – that things should continue exactly as in their time, and they put pressure upon senior cadets to see that this would be so. Arriving in small groups, they often stayed in the College dormitories if spare accommodation was available. Their presence was a signal for many seniors to turn the heat on recruits to prove that they could be just as rough with their recruits as anyone else had ever been.
This stand taken by some ex-cadets was in direct conflict with the responsibilities of the Commandant and his staff, and many of the latter, both in military and civil departments of the College, were pre-war graduates of the R.M.C.
Through the defence department, the Commandant and staff were accountable to the government of the day and the public; these ex-cadets were responsible to no-one but themselves.
The Commandant had to reconstruct a military academy, whilst press and parliamentary criticism questioned whether such an institution was necessary and inferred that even if it were, the R.M.C. was a bad institution encouraging bullying and maltreatment of first-year cadets.