20th Century, Institutions

RMC a Century Ago

RMC circa 1920. Library and Archives Canada. (click image to go to source)

Throughout my time as a Queen’s student, I’ve sometimes forgotten that there are other institutions of higher education in Kingston. (Didn’t Queen’s have a mantra in the 60s that went, “Queen’s is the ONLY university”?) Except I’m being serious. While I sometimes forget about St. Lawrence College and its significant student population, I especially forget about that collection of buildings, over there in the distance across the Cataraqui River… Oh, right. It’s RMC.

This is perhaps not especially strange because RMC rarely makes the headlines in the paper, if you know what I mean, and you’re lucky to catch a rare glimpse of a cadet around town. (I retract this statement. I’ve had like seven come into my work recently.) It’s also on Point Frederick, physically separated from the city centre in a way that Queen’s isn’t. I used to go there quite often when I was younger, mostly for archaeology camp in the summer, but haven’t been back since I was fifteen.

My recognition of RMC was rekindled several months ago when I came across an article about its activities during the First World War. Since the blog was getting pretty war-heavy at the time I decided to file the topic away for a while, but now I think it’s been long enough that I can blow off the dust. So this is the last (?) of my unplanned series of posts on First World War activities in Kingston and the area. (The others are here, here, and here. Sorry, this stuff just falls into my lap.) The last two are about Queen’s students and there is some overlapping material.

The Canadian government began discussing the creation of a military college to provide officers for the Canadian (and also British) army in 1869. However, what eventually became the Royal Military College of Canada didn’t open until 1876, after Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie got things moving and finalized the decision. It was designed to be an all-arms school with a curriculum centred on math and engineering, which was chiefly based on the principles of West Point in the U.S.

To staff the Royal Military College, the War Office in London would send a colonel and other experienced officers in the British army to serve as commandant and faculty. Only a few posts were held by Canadian officers – Canada’s military was simply too small and inexperienced to provide the necessary goods, and civilians could fill any further gaps in the staff. Prospective cadets had to pass a series of mandatory and optional exams for admission (though a mark of only 33% was needed!) and spent four, or later three, years in the course before graduating.

However, this all changed dramatically upon declaration of war in 1914. Firstly, nearly all the British faculty at RMC was recalled for active service, including the commandant, Colonel R.L. Carleton. By the beginning of 1915, there were only three British faculty members left at RMC, including the new acting commandant, Major C.N. Perreau. Soon, the Canadian officers began to leave. Then, the civilian instructors took up commissions. All the while, RMC had been steadily hemorrhaging cadets who would rather join the army straightaway than wait to graduate.

While Perreau (soon to be colonel and permanent commandant of RMC) faced an enrollment shortage, the army faced an officer shortage: junior officers leading troops frequently became casualties in battle. In January 1915 RMC went canvassing for cadets, with the offer of relaxing the entrance requirements for new recruits. This was done the next winter too, and eventually the course length at RMC was knocked down to barely over a year. So what were young men put through during their brief stint as officer cadets in Kingston?

Cadets marching along King Street c. 1916. Clifford M. Johnston/Library and Archives Canada. (click image to go to source)

The curriculum in 1914 put most emphasis on “civilian” subjects (e.g. Math, English) with the rest divided equally between military subjects and “practical” subjects (e.g. gym class, signalling, musketry). Education in spoken and written French was essential, and all kinds of sports were highly encouraged. But the boys at RMC sometimes faced an extra hurdle, as can be seen in the case of Howard Beverley Thorburn, a rather rakish teenage cadet who wrote home on September 8, 1915 after his first week in Kingston:

There is something very important I have to tell you but for goodness sake do not mention a word. . . . I think it is being hushed up. The first week up here was awful! We were slammed around and made to do menial duties and all the rest of it. We took it all right as we thought it was coming to us but after a while we learnt that a recruit coming in the first week has that week off and cannot be made to do other things than his duties. The fellows who were here had most of them come in just last Christmas and so were still really recruits. They lost their heads completely and went too far. […] Last week on account of us not getting enough sleep about ten fellows fainted and hardly a drill passed without someone keeling over.

Thorburn and his comrades were subject to a brutal hazing which had apparently been “more or less the custom” at RMC. Hazing was against regulations, and Perreau held an inquiry which resulted in two senior students being reduced in rank. However, the matter was short-lived, and by the next fall Thorburn was already preparing to graduate as an officer with the British Royal Field Artillery.

While the ranks received mass-produced uniforms upon enlisting, officers had to buy their own. Thorburn decided to head across the causeway (oh wait, the causeway as such wasn’t there yet… but you know what I mean) to see what was available in Kingston. A few of the places to go for officers coming out of RMC were Livingston’s, a tailor; Crawford and Walsh, another tailor; and Johnston’s, a shoemaker, whose boots were apparently so good that people wrote back from the front lines for them. Basically a whole new mini-wardrobe was required, and could include a cap, boots, shirts and collars, a jacket and overcoat, plus pants and breeches. According to the Bank of Canada inflation calculator, the whole outfit would cost something like $2,500 today! Too bad these expensive uniforms deteriorated as time went on in the trenches; though during battle, officers were actually instructed to wear the same uniform as the men to reduce enemy targeting.

The well turned-out officer, three ways. Canada Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada. (click image to go to source)

Although RMC graduates were scattered throughout the Canadian, Australian, British, and Indian armies, they remembered their roots. Second Lieutenant Thorburn, though he complained tongue-in-cheek that life at the front was “as cold as it used to be at R.M.C.” ran into fellow graduates several times and enjoyed meeting them. RMC graduated 396 officers during the First World War, and among pre-war graduates, virtually everyone that could serve, did.

Of course, RMC also educated some soldiers distinguished in the First World War, such as the obvious example, Billy Bishop (who dropped out in 1914) and Major-General William Bridges (incidentally, another drop-out) who commanded the Australian Imperial Force until he was killed at Gallipoli.

Additionally, the organizational changes that RMC was forced into during the First World War were to have an impact on the future of the school. The higher percentage of civilian faculty remained a constant after the war, allowing for a more well-rounded curriculum, and the staff would never again be dominated by British transplants. This can be seen in the appointing of Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Macdonell, former commander of the Canadian First Division, as the new commandant. (March 5, 2015 update – just to clarify, Macdonell was not the first Canadian commandant of RMC; Edward Thornton Taylor, appointed in 1905, was.)

And now, by way of closing – I’ve been working on this post for like a week and can’t think of a good conclusion – I will leave you with this photo of Macdonell at RMC, pretending to write something for the photographer. Thank you for reading!

Macdonell during his time as commandant. Canada Dept. of the Interior/Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3218802. (click image to go to source)

Sources

Godefroy, Andrew B. “The Royal Military College of Canada and the Education of Officers for the Great War.” Canadian Military History 18.4 (Autumn 2009).

Howard Beverley Thorburn Collection, Canadian Letters and Images Project. Note: this is an old website and several of the links either don’t work or take you to different places. The “Copyright” link notably doesn’t work, but I can only assume these materials are okay to reproduce.

Thorburn details his uniform-shopping trip in his October 15, 1916 letter. Here is the Bank of Canada inflation calculator so you can do a price comparison!

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