A Semi-Autonomous Defence (1871-1898)

The Value of the Militia

Training Camps

Officer and gunner, 1st Halifax Brigade of Garrison Artillery, 1891

Caption: Officer and gunner, 1st Halifax Brigade of Garrison Artillery, 1891

In addition to training at the unit level, training was provided in the camps. Following passage of the Act of 1868, there was a strong movement in this direction. But since budgets had remained more or less static and expenses had mounted due to, among other things, the formation of A and B batteries in 1871, some activities had to be cut. For example, between 1 July 1873 and 30 June 1874 units were obliged to train in their own headquarters rather than in the brigades and camps as had been the case since 1868, prompting remarks that they had begun where they ought to have left off. In theory, they trained for 16 days, with at least three hours set aside each day. For the rest of the 1870s, conditions would not be favourable for the large assemblies that were useful mainly to the rural corps.

Even when a camp was held, how much value did it actually have? Following the 6th Military District's 1872 camp, one of the largest camps held prior to the 20th century, Lieutenant-Colonel Lotbinière-Harwood wrote to his superior that, despite the camp's success, "it is my duty to inform you that most of the present volunteer corps could barely rely on two thirds of their strength in the event of immediate necessity, and in more than one locality it would not be prudent, because of the transient population, to rely on even half of the enrolment." 15 The situation was often worse than this report would lead us to understand. Indeed the company rolls often included people absent due to illness or for other reasons. The absentees, who were relatively high in number, received the same pay as attendees, which resulted in skewed camp statistics, not to mention what it did to morale. For example, in 1882 the Quebec City district reported that 1,706 militiamen had been trained when only 1,049 had attended; the discrepancy amounted to 657 men, or 38 percent. The results for the country as a whole were not much better. Brigade majors were allotted $8 for every company reporting and were therefore reluctant to dismiss companies with fewer than 30 men in the field. In 1870 one particular battalion reported 363 men trained out of 125 present. Although this sort of abuse became less widespread after 1878, with the introduction of fixed salaries for staff officers, the gap between the number of men attending the camps and the number trained would remain wide until the end of the century.

If, at the very minimum, the three-year term of service had actually applied, "trained" militiamen would have been of some use in subsequent years. However, these militiamen really served only one year before defecting for various reasons. Towns and cities would see the recruitment of a highly mobile worker population. In the countryside a corps leader eager to maintain his political relationships and his popularity with his men would do nothing about a three-year contract being abandoned after one year of service.

Gravel has compiled revealing figures for the year 1880 (see Table 3). Yet 1880 was a "good" year. It is estimated that between 1876 and 1898 an average of 18,500 soldiers were trained annually. This figure must be tempered somewhat to account for the exceptions-men who were paid but not trained. In the urban battalions these included musicians and buglers, signalmen, ambulance men and a prodigious number of NCOs who did nothing. In the rural battalions they included officers' servants, grooms, waiters, cooks and so on. In actual fact, training was being provided to approximately 14,000 men a year.

In any case, "the general orders governing [camps] ... are minor masterpieces of planning and foresight," Lieutenant-Colonel d'Orsonnens cynically reported. 16 In fact floods of directives were issued relating to camp organization, transportation, the type of training to be provided, and discipline - for example, on matters of dress (no civilian dress), leave and evening passes.

Ultimately, what is most shocking about the entire system is that the country's defence relied heavily on the rural units, and these were the weakest of all. In 1891 the General Officer Commanding, Major-General Ivor Herbert, again reported: "The training of rural units is very shaky, but their organization is even more so." 17 And the measures taken were not always effective. Accordingly, between 15 and 26 September 1891 the 7th District assembled its units at Rimouski instead of Lévis. This meant that the Trois-Rivières and Lévis battalions, among others, had to travel dozens of kilometres further than necessary. In addition, the site selected at Rimouski was less suitable than the Lévis site. However, the Lower St Lawrence battalions were better served in terms of proximity.

Additional Images

Officer, 2nd Battalion, Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, 1891
Volunteer Strength and Trained Militiamen in 1880
Lieutenant, 4th Regiment of Cavalry, circa 1880-1890