“The Unusual Character of the Royal Military College” The Founding of RMC, Part 1

This is the first in a four part series on the politics and people involved with the creation of the Royal Military College of Canada. It is taken from pages removed from the “Queen’s Quarterly 74, no. 3 (Autumn 1967), ” found in the shoe box of old photos in Panet House.

The Founding of the Royal Military College – Gleanings from the Royal Archives

By Adrian Preston

Modelled more on West Point than on Sandhurst but under imperial control until 1919, the Royal Military College, Kingston, from its establishment in 1876 offered a four year course designed to prepare students for civil as well as military employment, with salutary results and others less salutary.

Part 1

It has been well said by a former Commandant of the National Defence College that defence colleges, like high dams or nuclear reactors, have become essential prestige symbols for newly-emergent nations. With equal force, this kind of remark concerning the inseparability of nationhood from the creation of formal military educational institutions could apply to the nineteenth century proliferation of Staff Colleges following the many European wars of unification and to the earliest military academies that accompanied the emergence of the modern nation-state in the Swedish wars of Gustavus Adolphus in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Almost without exception, these institutions, which have aimed at providing progressively higher and broader levels of instruction as modern war and international relations have become increasingly complex, were born of war or crisis. Sandhurst, St. Cyr and the Imperial Defence College are cases in point. The scientific study of war with which the academies, staff and defence colleges were centrally to be concerned was invariably meant to reflect the national determination to advertise if not use its military power. In the case of Canada, however, this was not so.

The unusual character of the Royal Military College – the first academy to be established in the self-governing colonies, and one that emphasised a civilian rather than a strictly professional military education – was its twentieth rather than nineteenth century approach to the broad educational problems of national security. This peculiar distinction emerged from the competing claims of two intrinsically incompatible traditions. On the one hand, there were the British concepts of discipline, organisation and imperial strategy transplanted by Wolfe which unalterably directed the course of local Canadian defence policy for almost two centuries, undiminished by subsequent steps towards autonomy, and established a persistent belief in British regimentalism as the true custodian and model of professional pride and proficiency. As opposed to this, there was a traditional suspicion of Ancien Regime origin, excessive even or a new nation and stranger than that historically associated with Great Britain or the United States, that regular standing armies and all the apparatus of professionalism are susceptible to Caesarism or Civil War and are inconsistent with the hard facts of Canada’s economic and geographical position. An aspect of maturing autonomy, there has developed a corresponding belief in the Canadian Militia as the first line of local defence to be directed against an increasingly imaginary American continentialism, a sense of political involvement that has frequently led to unsavoury examples of unblushing patronage and interference, with consequences detrimental to professional efficiency and esprit de corps.

In the early 1870’s, this struggle between conflicting concepts of the functions and status of military power had been exacerbated by two major international developments. For the British, the re-opening of the Central Asian question had made imminent the possibility of a major continental, perhaps global, war against Russia over the defence of India. At the same time, the German and Italian wars of unification had closed her traditional sources of foreign mercenary contingents upon which she had chiefly relied to supplement her own meagre manpower in the earlier coalition war against Russia in the Crimea. A small but insistent demand for increased colonial military cooperation for overseas imperial purposes had sprung up, and to many arch-imperialists and defence experts who frequented the Royal Colonial Institute and Royal United Service Institution there seemed no reason why Canada could not become a third great recruiting ground along with India and Ireland, providing in her backwoodsmen, voyageurs and mariners troops admirably suited for the irregular kinds of warfare that would play so large a part in any war policy against Russia. Indeed, Disraeli himself responded to the Russian crisis by ignoring the implications of Confederation, modifying Cardwell’s withdrawal policy, and inaugurating a subtle but determined program designed to reassert and retain real British control over Canadian military affairs for possible overseas imperial service in a major war. Viewed from the peculiar angle of vision of Whitehall, the founding of R.M.C. was one important in this program.

This kind of thinking tended to ignore the fact that geographically and strategically Canada constituted a dangerously vulnerable military liability. It was potentially the region for a serious distractive threat in any war against Russia. Canada’s extensive coastlines were unprotected against marauding Russian cruisers. On the west coast, there was no naval base or defended war anchorage closer than the Falkland Islands with which to confront the growing Russian naval power centred on Vladivostok and Petropaulauski – the easternmost points of Russia’s North-Pacfic frontier. There were no connecting road, rail, or telegraphic communications except through American territory, and the close Russo-American relations, as manifested in the Crimean and Civil Wars, meant that Canada wa always susceptible to Russian-incited Fenian invasions at indiscriminate points along her southern border.

Most important of all, however, the British soldier-imperialists failed to appreciate the significance of Confederation, and the great practical, social, and constitutional issues that were inherent in the very process of nation-building. Financial and constitutional considerations outweighed those of strategy and imperial defence, and obscured the need to provide an effective substitute for Cardwell’s withdrawn garrisons, let alone earmark a Canadian contingent for overseas imperial service. When the Russian conquered Khiva in 1873, generating a war scare that was to sustain the colonial and Indian defence movements for the next forty years, Canada possessed no professional standing army, no senior officers experienced in the planning of continental strategy or the handling of large formations in war, in fact no organised military means to make an effective contribution to an Imperial coalition. She had no need for large numbers of officers trained in the conventional professional sense, and had no clear conception of the usual relationship between armed force, military academies and dominion autonomy. It was the intention of the Imperial authorities to stimulate for their own purposes an awareness of this relationship. Out of the conflict between the British military and Canadian constitutional traditions that ensued emerged the special and peculiar structure and curriculum of R.M.C. The Duke of Cambridge’s papers in the Royal Archives, Windsor, contain a small amount of unpublished correspondence from Carnarvon, Selby Smyth, Dufferin and Lorne which suggests the nature of this struggle as it centred on R.M.C., and it is from this correspondence that the following paragraphs are largely drawn.

 “The Founding of the Royal Military College – Gleanings from the Royal Archives” will continue in the next e-Veritas.

One Comment

  • John McKay

    August 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    Fabulous. I havent been so ‘connected’ to our history since I had the pleasure of interviewing Guy Simmons as part of my 3rd year project on Military Leadership and Management. We may look like a backwater or footnote in history, but our impact has been larger and more widespread than we may have dreamed.