Andrew McNaughton

Andrew McNaughton

BORN: Moosomin, North-West Territories • 25 February 1887

DIED: Montebello, Quebec • 11 July 1966

Men loved Andy McNaughton. No soldier in this century was so admired by those Canadians he served with and led; no general rose so high and fell so far. And yet, despite losing his overseas command, McNaughton was able to turn himself into the indis¬ pensable man by constructing wholly new careers for himself as politician, diplomat, and stout warrior for Canada on international boards and continental commissions.

McNaughton’s father ran a trading post in the still-rough country that had been fought over during the Riel Rebellion. There was enough money—and enough concern for education—for Andy to be sent off to Bishop’s College School in Quebec when he was thirteen.

He did well there and at McGill University, where he studied electrical engineering, completed his master’s degree in 1912, and joined the teaching faculty. Two years later, just before the outbreak of war, McNaughton set up his own engineering practice.

The Great War put paid to that. A militia artillery major, newly married, McNaughton went overseas as a battery commander in the first contin¬ gent. He had a good war, escaping death though being twice wounded, fathering three children on leaves to visit his wife in England, and rising rapidly in rank.

By 1916 his specialty was counterbattery work, the location and destruction of enemy artillery, a task he undertook with scientific zeal and great success.By 1918 Brigadier-General McNaughton commanded the Canadian Corps’ heavy artillery, and he used his guns “to pay the price of victory…in shells, and not in the lives of men.” Intelligent, confident, sure of the value of the scientifically trained in battle, McNaughton was at the peak of his powers.

With the peace, he joined the Permanent Force. He took staff courses in England, commanded on the West Coast, and in 1929, at the age of forty-two, became chief of the General Staff, Canada’s top soldier. McNaughton’s rise had been meteoric, but the Depression forced him to rely on strata¬ gems to keep the army alive.

To help deal with the huge numbers of out-of-work men roaming the country, he devised a scheme to use unemployed men to construct a mili¬ tary infrastructure across the land. Labouring for a pittance, the “Royal Twenty-Centers” became a breeding ground for revolution, and McNaughton became a political liability.

In the dying days of R.B. Bennett’s regime, he was shunted off to lead the National Research Council. At his insistence, he was on secondment from the army, so he retained “the chance of coming back in emergency if required.”

The emergency arrived in 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland. Mackenzie King gave McNaughton command of the 1st Canadian Division, writing that “no better man could be selected,” and for a time it seemed so.Popular with the troops, who liked his lack of airs, and skilful in presenting the Canadian position in discussions with the British, McNaughton was an inspiring figure compared with the Colonel Blimps who led in the dark days of the war.

Soon he was a corps commander and, in April 1942, commander ofFirst Canadian Army. To McNaughton, the Canadians were “a dagger pointing at the heart of Berlin,” and he resisted any attempts by Ottawa or London to break up the army so his men could get battle experience. By 1943 this stand had become a liability, and Ottawa insisted on sending one and eventually two divisions to Sicily and Italy.

McNaughton’s obduracy, combined with increasing doubts about his ability to train his men and his fitness as army commander, led to his ouster in late 1943, a combined operation plotted by British and Canadian generals and by J.L. Ralston, the defence minister. Andy would not get to lead his beloved army against the Hun.

Returned to Canada, the general entertained leadership offers from the Conservative Party and considered taking the post of governor general, but in November 1944 when Mackenzie King called, he eagerly became defence minister and replaced his enemy Ralston. The issue was conscription.

McNaughton, as a scientific soldier, did not believe in compulsion, but when he could not find sufficient volunteers to meet reinforcement needs at the front and he was faced with the threat of resignation by senior commanders, he had to accept conscription. Gravely damaged by the crisis, McNaughton lost a by-election in Ontario and failed to be elected in the 1945 general election. His political career, like his military career, had ended in abject failure.

Incredibly, McNaughton was undeterred and he bounced back, much to the good fortune of his country. Mackenzie King appointed him Canadian chair of the Permanent Joint Board on Defence, Canadian representative on the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, president of Ottawa’s Atomic Energy Control Board, and Canadian permanent representative at the UN.

All these posts he filled with skill and energy, and the old soldier proved a remarkably effective diplomat. In January 1950 he became a Canadian member of the International Joint Commission, a post he held for twelve years and the scene of his last battle.

McNaughton decided that the deal negotiated with the United States to develop the power of the Columbia River favoured the Americans, and he fought against it with determination, only to lose once more.Fierce in battle and argument, devoted to his country above all, McNaughton’s career as soldier and public servant was remarkable.

Born just after the North-West Rebellion, he ended as a diplomat of the nuclear era.A fine scientific mind, a powerful charismatic leader, McNaughton believed that once he had worked through an issue and taken a stand, others would automatically agree that he was right.

Unfortunately for him, unfortunately for Canada, the world didn’t work that way. It might have been better if it had, but Andy McNaughton deserves high marks for grit, determina¬ tion, intelligence, and his unswerving nationalism.