A Semi-Autonomous Defence (1871-1898)

The Value of the Militia

Rural Corps Problems

Officers, 6th Regiment of Cavalry 'Duke of Connaught's Royal Canadian Hussars', circa 1891

Caption: Officers, 6th Regiment of Cavalry 'Duke of Connaught's Royal Canadian Hussars', circa 1891

The problems of the rural corps were immense. A battalion could comprise several companies separated from one another by 30 or 50 kilometres of badly marked road, which made it all but impossible to assemble the battalion except for the annual camp. In 1869, for example, the Rimouski Provisional Battalion was formed of five companies, including one in Matane, 100 kilometres from Rimouski over an almost impassable road. The company captains thus played a cardinal role in their organizations. They were the ones who recruited their men, often with a blend of charm and half-truths that made it virtually impossible to impose military discipline. Indeed, the recruiter's popularity was often of greater importance than his military skills. The Act left the responsibility for training in the hands of commanding officers, but on occasion these men would "still sign today [1874] a certificate of competency for themselves." 11 Naturally, they were paid to deliver training: $40 in the infantry and cavalry and up to $200 for field artillery. In the towns, an allocation for each battery or company trained would be paid to the brigade or battalion commanders. This explains the large numbers of companies, each with very few members: at $25 per company per year to the commanding officer, plus the $40 paid to the company captain, no one was interested in seeing them disappear. Not surprisingly, this led to all sorts of problems. After inspecting Montreal's 65th Battalion in December 1873, Lieutenant-Colonel A.C. Lotbinière-Harwood noted that it was "impossible to give merit points. Target shooting has not been adequately practised ... the 65th Battalion has used only a very small number of cartridges." 12 To obtain its funds, a unit had to pass inspection. In the countryside, the men were hastily assembled, after which their captains went to some surprise location, often a barn or a cave, and brought out the weapons, which were hurriedly shined up at the last moment. The inspecting officer, who was placed in a difficult position, would recommend payment, "which he basically knew was undeserved." 13 But if he "[is] concerned about his duty, looks at the guns, finds them rusty inside and has a malfunctioning firing mechanism stripped, he is told that if he is that particular, volunteer corps will never be maintained." Disillusioned, D'Orsonnens added that the people who hurled these criticisms at inspectors were "legally qualified officers who fully intend, with the government's allocation, to spend as little as possible to maintain our arms; they generally take few pains to drill and train our soldiers." 14

Only a few of them went through the military schools, which, it must be admitted, did not automatically qualify them as instructors able to convey their expertise, particularly to men they had often coaxed into enlisting. Moreover, a number of men who did attend military school were content to pocket their completion bonus and disappear. According to Jean-Yves Gravel, who has thoroughly examined this issue, approximately 75 percent of Non-Permanent Militia officers in the mid-1870s knew practically nothing of military matters. After 1883 the situation did show considerable improvement, but this did little to make the units more effective. The fact is that urban units were expected to train twice a week from 7 pm to 10 pm during the two or three months prior to annual inspection. There was also a firing day and one or two parades in conjunction with religious services. In practice, men were often recruited at the last minute, so that a number of volunteers had not even been sworn in when the annual inspection finally took place. When the degree of disorganization was too great, the unit would be denied the right to exercise, and its officers and men would accordingly not be paid. Thus many companies and even battalions would disappear for a few years before coming back to life under the vigorous hand of an ambitious new commanding officer.

Additional Images

Officer, privates and piper, 5th Royal Scots of Canada, circa 1891