“…to offer Imperial commissions to graduates of the Canadian Military College…” The Founding of RMC, Part 3

This is the third 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 3

Undoubtedly, Selby Smyth’s most enduring contribution to Canadian military development was the institution of a military college at Kingston. As early as 1816, proposals had been made for the creation of a Canadian military college at Three Rivers in conscious imitation of those established at St. Cyr, Sandhurst and West Point during the Napoleonic Wars. But nothing was to transpire in that direction for another sixty years. In the Militia Report of January 1874, Lieutenant Colonel Walker Powell, acting Adjutant General, recommended the establishment of “a high-class military school in Canada… at which young men could secure a superior military and scientific education.” This would obviate the need to send Canadian officers to British staff schools. Mackenzie accepted this proposal and almost immediately began to organise its implementation. In this connection, there can be little doubt that the chief impetus in determining the nature and function of the proposed college was provided by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Charles Fletcher of the Scots Fusilier Guards, military secretary to the Governor-General and a former colleague on the British Commission on Military Education in 1870.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the influence of private military secretaries who were also close personal friends upon Governors-General or Viceroys and their military policies was constant, continuous, confidential and often decisive. The Northbrook-Baring, Lytton-Colley combinations are cases in point; and that of Dufferin-Fletcher was no exception. Fletcher, an ardent supporter of the Volunteer movement, had visited the Union Armies during the Civil War and later published a three-volume History of the American War. He had been actively associated with Wolseley and MacDougall in the reconstruction of the Canadian military system, and for “his papers and reports, as well as by lectures, and personal influence” in promoting that cause he was to be rewarded the C.M.G. In 1872, Fletcher became Dufferin’s private and unofficial military secretary, and therefore, as the Dufferin-Carnarvon correspondence discloses, his influence in that capacity was far-reaching and paramount. In his “Report on the Military Academy at West Point,” as well as his “Memorandum on the Militia System” (published in 1873), Fletcher recommended the establishment of a military academy “somewhat on the model of West Point” whenever Canada should attempt to train her own officers. “In the belief that what was needed was an institution suitable for the colonial society in which it must flourish,” this proposal was adopted and the Canadian military college borrowed its essential structural features from West Point rather than Woolwich or Sandhurst. Its purpose, as defined by Act of Parliament, was to impart “a complete education in all branches of military tactics, fortification, engineering and general scientific knowledge in subjects connected with and necessary to a thorough knowledge of the military profession.” It was to offer a four-year rather than a two year course. It was to train “scientific” officers for the engineers and artillery as well as “ordinary” officers for the non-technical branches, infantry and cavalry. It would produce Canadian officers for command and staff appointments, and so obviate the need to import British regulars, but its graduates would be prepared for civil as well as military employment because Canada had as yet no need for large numbers of officers.

The decision to open a military college was not unattended by difficulties. The unfamiliar character of the college to suit the special requirements peculiar to Canada raised a technical problem in the choice of a suitably qualified Commandant – a problem that was complicated by the Canadian Government’s refusal to offer a sufficiently attractive emolument. On 9 July 1874, Carnarvon urged Dufferin to send him more precise details “as to the Principal or Governor of the new Military School.” “What for instance will be the nature and duration of the course of instruction,” he asked, “what the probable number passing through the school every year – what the educational and military staff, and what is the standard of instruction contemplated.” If it was proposed to educate only for the “ordinary” branches of the Army, then a high-class garrison instructor would probably suffice and he could be got for 600 pounds. But if, on the other hand, “high scientific attainments were to be looked to, it would be extremely difficult with the means allowed by the Canadian Government “to get the proper man.” Over the next twelvemonth, Carnarvon experienced “extraordinary difficulty” in securing a suitable Royal Engineer Commandant. The real difficulty was one of money. “Where an officer is of distinction or has a clear career open to him in England the inducement to leave this country must be considerable.” Such inducement was not forthcoming, and “one after another they have declined my proposals.” It would be useless to send out an indifferent man, “and men of real merit and power are not easily persuaded.” This intolerable situation was finally cleared up when Mackenzie consented to raise the offered pay to 3500 pounds per annum. Within months, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Osborne Hewett, Royal Engineers, accepted the appointment as the first Commandant of the Canadian military college.

Difficulties, however, were not at an end. The concession to grant Hewett regimental rather than “attached” or “half-pay” was coupled with the “virtually prohibitory” condition that it was to be allowed for only two years and did not extent to his assistants. There was little likelihood therefore of forming a permanent cadre of professors, and Carnarvon complained bitterly to the Duke of Cambridge, expressing “much apprehension as to the prospects of the proposed Military School” and regretting “that a scheme of very large proportions, of great imperial value, and calculated…ultimately to save the country money and men and grave risk” should fail through such “technical objections.”

A final complication concerned Hewett himself. Ever since his arrival, Dufferin confided to Carnarvon on 7 January 1876, “he has done nothing but worry and annoy Mackenzie, and write foolish letters to the General and the Ministers…Since then he has written still more foolish letters not to my Secretary, but to the General, and result is he has received a rebuff which will probably induce him to resign.” He was “one of those clever fellows who seems completely lacking in common sense…and seems to be perpetually preoccupied with a silly egoism…I fear we shall have to get rid of him.” Smyth’s letter calling upon Hewett to resign, however, had evoked a sufficiently satisfactory reply inducing the Minister of Militia to give Hewett a second chance. It was a second chance that the Canadian Government could ill-afford to deny – for replacements for Hewett were all too rare. Dufferin was still not “very hopeful” about the arrangement and doubted whether Hewett would last. On the other hand, he had “now had a pretty severe lesson, and perhaps we shall get on belter.” These latter hopes were justified, and for some reason or none in particular, Hewett remained Commandant throughout the crucial formative years of the college until 1886.

There can be little doubt that the creation of the military college was seen by Dufferin, Carnarvon and the War Office as a chance to restore British influence in Canadian military affairs. In spite of its nominal conformity to North American practice and the exigencies of local Canadian conditions in the structure of its curriculum, the college was wholly British in administration and professoriat, studied British strategic and tactical manuals and subscribed to British military periodicals. At no time did R.M.C. contemplate adopting the dialectic pedagogical approach that characterised the teaching methods at West Point, Annapolis and St. Cyr. Moreover, it is clear that the British military authorities looked upon R.M.C. as a further means of subtly implanting in Canadian political, military and national life a stiffening of British professionalism and esprit de corps that had been so large a function of the departed garrisons. On 2 June 1876, the day after the opening of the college, Selby Smyth wrote to the Duke of Cambridge, warning him that he expected to require for the following year two more professors, preferably Royal Engineer or Royal Artillery. “I am only too glad to gather by slow degrees more British officers into this Country. It is an unpopular step, as the cry is Canada for the Canadians.” Whether the British establishment was increased or not, Smyth feared the military college was “rather too ambitious a scheme in advance of the conditions and wants of the Country. Without a standing Army, these men will come, well educated, out of this establishment, with no prospect of military nor any other employment.” But this was a question four years distant.

In the meantime, the British authorities in Canada looked upon the Military College with marked approval. “I have just had the satisfaction of visiting the Military School at Kingston,” Dufferin wrote the Duke of Cambridge on 15 October 1877: “All that I saw there was so excellent and full of promise, and bore such evidence of the zeal and activity with which Colonel Hewett is fostering the Institution…In the first place the situation of the College is admirable, healthy, secluded, close to a fortress, and almost entirely surrounded by water suitable for bathing, sailing, and aquatic exercises. The young men themselves went through their drills with great spirit and alertness, and I have reason to know are delighted with the new life to which they have been introduced. What is perhaps even more important is that their parents and the public generally have come to regard the College with the greatest favour, and the sons of some of the principal people in the Dominion are either already there or anxious to come.”

“There are few countries,” wrote Colonel Hewett in his first official report of 1878, “whose national history has not been affected to an important degree by their Military Colleges, either as complete organizations, or by their cadets individually, and in a country young but rapidly increasing in power and aspirations, such as Canada, the influence of her Military College cannot be other than especially great and beneficial.

“The Royal Military College of Canada is the only institution in which her sons are brought together under Dominion auspices from all her widely separated provinces, with their more or less divergent interests and blood.

“The ties of comradeship springing from daily intercourse and common pursuits during four years of the most impressionable period of life, cannot fail to create in the cadets a strong national instinct rising above provincialism, while, from the associations of the institution, the appreciation of the even greater citizenship of the British Empire is strengthened.

In spite of this initial popular enthusiasm and the potential long-term benefits for Canadian prosperity and security, as well as for increased imperial military cooperation, the immediate problem confronting the College administrators was what sort of employment could be found for the first graduating class. The question was admirably and lucidly presented to the Duke of Cambridge by the new Governor-General, the Marquis of Lorne, in a private letter of 6 June 1879. It is of sufficient interest and importance to be quoted in full:

“I have delayed writing to Your Royal Highness on any Militia subject because I wished first to see the Military College at Kingston, and I hear from Sir Edward Selby Smyth and Colonel Hewett what were its chief wants. More money is of course the chief want, as it is with everything and almost everybody here, and the remedy can only gradually be found and applied, as the School is more appreciated by the Dominion at large. The Buildings are very good and answer admirably. The officers want another wing for the cadets which will I have no doubt be provided in time. There are over 70 cadets, most of the Provinces of the Dominion being well represented among them, the French population of Quebec being the sole exception, but good hopes are entertained that during the next year some French boys will be sent, especially now that an Abbe has been put on the examining Board, no good thing in the eyes of fervent Lower Canadians being possible without an Abbe somewhere in the organization. Small as is the staff of professors it is really marvellous what they have been able to accomplish during the three years of existence of the College. The Cadets are admirably drilled and instructed. An excellent tone and spirit prevails among them. They look as strong as horses, and work very hard at all the military instruction given at Woolwich and Sandhurst. They are now being taught Civil Engineering in addition to their other studies.

The question which must cause anxiety is how these young officers are to be employed in the future, after their four years’ course of study is completed. Many – probably more than half of them will return to civil life – or rather begin a civil career, as so many do who pass through West Point, the Military Academy of the United States. But others will be desirous to keep to soldiering. There are no paid officers as in England maintained at the headquarters of the Militia Battalions. It is possible, although it is doubtful, that two or three Militia Battalions will in future years be embodied, and that these Cadets may with them obtain appointments. Their civil engineering studies will help them to get employment in civil life, but there is some danger that if a proportion of military appointments be not found for them that the country may question the utility of paying what seems to the M.P.’s here, the large sum of £70 000 for the education of military officers for whom they are not willing to find places by the creation of more paid military appointments. There is no doubt that it would much help to main this valuable military school, were the excellence of the Instruction given by Colonel Hewett and his officers recognised at home.

Could this be done by the granting of a certain number of commissions in the Imperial Army to the Kingston Cadets?

I will not dwell on the political value of such a recognition of Canada, but there is another reason which may be urged in favour of such a proposal, and that is this: namely that a great deal of jealousy is shown in Canada of the appointment of any Imperial Officers to commands involving the drawing of Canadian pay. Canadians think these appointments should all be reserved for themselves. It would much help to get rid of this feeling were it possible to point to the possession in the Imperial army of commissions by Canadian youths. The authorities at Kingston are ready to be tried by any tests, to submit to any inspection. Indeed they would be anxious that these should be most stringent, and the only thing wherein it would be necessary to make any difference between a Kingston and a Woolwich Cadet would be in the place that the examination would be held as it would be too expensive to send the candidates away from Kingston, or at all events further than Halifax.”

Lorne at the same time enclosed a memorandum on the subject by Colonel Hewett. Hewett believed that granting Canadians commissions in the Imperial Army would unquestionably benefit Canada and the Military College, but it should also benefit Great Britain and the Empire. He thought it “would ameliorate the childish, but nevertheless strong jealousy which undoubtedly exists of any officer who is, or ever has been, connected with the Imperial service, or at any rate render it impossible for this feeling to take action in any extreme form such as rejection of all Imperial control or assistance.” He was confident it “would form a tie between the Mother Country and Canada, more general and wide than is quite obvious as the result of apparently so small a link.” But there was another aspect to the problem. He maintained that the Commandant and Staff at the Royal Military College should be Imperial, and indeed necessity would compel this situation to prevail for some years. So long as it did, the quality of cadets seeking Imperial commissions could be guaranteed. But these conditions could not last, and the War Office should therefore protect the quality of its entrants by arrogating to itself the right of refusal. On 9 August 1879, the Duke of Cambridge, after further consultations with Sir John A. Macdonald, informed Lord Lorne that the War Office agreed to offer Imperial commissions to graduates of the Canadian Military College on these terms. Thus was inaugurated a practice that lasted until World War 2.

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