LIEUTENANT-COLONEL ALFRED BOOKER AND RIDGEWAY
by Tim Fletcher, Captain (Retired), RHLI
Let me start with a bit of background. I started my working career as a reporter, and after eight years moved into the civilian side of police work as a video producer and later a forensic video scientist. But for relevance to this conference, I was a Reserve public affairs soldier for 36 years. Perhaps in that time I came to know how the military mind works and how the leaders make decisions – at least, how the bureaucrats in uniform think and make decisions, as opposed to fighting soldiers. Yes – we still have bureaucrats in uniform, to whom rules and regulations replace thought and initiative.
Booker, I think, was one such soldier. But… was it his fault or was he just a product of his time?
To set context, let me ask a few questions of you today.
First, how many here had breakfast this morning? How many anticipate having lunch today? Dinner? How many of you have snacks in your pocket, or a bottle of water handy?
Have you ever had to fast for 12 hours before a medical test or procedure? How did you feel going without fluids and food for a half-a day? I will presume that, in that half-day span, you didn’t exert yourself too much – probably slept for most of that time?
I will further presume that in that time span, you didn’t wear heavy wool clothing in 100-degree heat, march for many miles and ride in a cattle car for many more miles; and engage in a fight for your life at the end of it, a fight for which you had little or no training.
We have a saying in the army, which is only half-joking: “I believe in the higher discipline of following the orders my superior should have given, had he known what he was doing.” And that, in a sentence, explains the strategy that Booker, Dennis and Akers used to justify Ridgeway when they conspired to ignore Peacocke’s orders, believing they had better intelligence.
But, the debacle at Ridgeway was ultimately not the fault of the private soldier from the 13th, or Queen’s Own, or any other soldier there. It was not due to the superior skill of the Fenians, most of course who were battle-hardened Civil War veterans, or at least trained soldiers. Nor was it really due to the ineptness of every military commander involved in Ridgeway.
No, the genesis of the defeat at Ridgeway has its roots not in Toronto or Hamilton, but in Quebec and the government’s obsession with the budget. The government could not decide what it wanted in the way of military forces beyond the stubborn adherence to the belief that the responsibility for Canada’s defence should be on the British government. They claimed to truly believe in the blinkered view that since Canada would do nothing to initiate hostilities with anyone, then clearly, no one would initiate hostilities with Canada. The British, on the other hand, did not have warm feelings for any colony that would not take steps in its own defence and sucked resources from the British taxpayers with little in return.
I place the blame for Ridgeway squarely on the Canadian politicians of the day, and to a lesser extent on the Canadian population itself as supportive of the politician’s attempts to stifle military spending. It is long past due to get past the military aspect of Ridgeway and onto the political aspect, where the blame truly resides.
But this in no way excuses the incredible ineptness of every military commander involved in Ridgeway right from Major-General Napier in Toronto, to Colonel Peacocke in Niagara to Lt.-Col. Booker at Ridgeway. They did not understand logistics and therefore did not understand the business of warfare.
Ever since the first caveman picked up a stone and set out looking for the guy in the next cave, it has been understood that food and water were essential to life. Sun-Tzu knew that “The line between disorder and order lies in logistics”. He wrote that about 512 BCE, and it has been repeated by every successful military commander since then. 1
Frederick the Great, who died in 1786, noted that, “Without supplies no army is brave, and a great general who is hungry is not a hero for long.” 2
General Omar N. Bradley, perhaps the top American officer of World War 2, made famous a long-known military truism when he said “Amateurs talk tactics; professionals know logistics”. 3
Lt.-Gen. Fred Franks, who commanded the American Army 7th Corps during Desert Storm, was even more succinct: “Forget logistics, you lose.”4
Clearly, logistics is the dominant art of warfare. An army without supplies cannot fight, no matter how strategically or tactically skilled its commanders are.
Most hunters know that you can’t spend a day in the woods without food and water. Most people heading to work for the day bring a lunch. Canadian militiamen in the war of 1812 carried supplies. It had been reinforced on at least a couple of occasions in the 1830s in Canada. The British Army “professionals” in Canada – even those without combat experience – should have known that. Yet nearly everyone involved at Ridgeway took to the field apparently without the slightest inkling that they would need food and water. Not all of them were even smart enough to ensure they had enough ammunition, even with the advance knowledge of Fenian intentions and previous alarms.
In an article in Canadian Defence Quarterly 5 published about 1912 about the Fenian Raids, Colonel C.F. Hamilton noted “… For example, on June 1, Colonel Peacocke, knowing that about 1,500 men were coming from Hamilton and St. Catharines to join him, telegraphed that they bring with them a supply of cooked provisions, so as to be able to move as soon as they joined him; the reinforcements arrived at 4:40 a.m. on June 2, without the cooked provisions owing to the lack of haversacks; this caused a delay for breakfast, and Peacocke could not begin his march until 7 a.m. instead of the earlier hour which he had planned. The men had few or no water-bottles and suffered agonies from thirst; they had no camp cooking utensils and ate their food without plates, knives or forks. Many of them, with the cheerful irresponsibility which is the peculiar property of the private soldier, regular or irregular, went to the front without a change of underclothing and were suffered to do so. The majority of them wore boots which crippled them. The Cavalry Volunteers took the field without picket ropes, with ordinary hunting saddles, without carbines, and with revolvers whose shooting powers were the subject of grave doubt. The superior officers were unprovided with maps. Yet there had been constant alarms since 1864, and the Fenian Brotherhood had been threatening invasion since 1865. …” 6
Even after the battle, the military – both Canadian and British – could not get it right. In the same article, Col. Hamilton wrote, “… There was no commissariat service worthy of the name for several days, and the country’s troops were relieved from destitution by by the charity of civilian Relief Committees. The troops sent from Toronto on June 1 were on June 4 relieved from actual lack of food by the arrival of a trainload of supplies with their fellow-townsmen had collected on the previous day and dispatched to Fort Erie.” 7
Hamilton writer Alexander Somerville, in the preface to his admittedly biased account of the battle, wrote, “…an adjourned meeting from Saturday was held in the Court House. A committee of the principal ladies and gentlemen of the city was there to arrange for sending provisions, medicines, surgical appliances, medical gentlemen and nurses to the front.” While some of Somerville’s writings were monetarily influenced by Major Skinner’s cabal of mutinous officers, much of his account is contemporary and not disputed. 8
The train in 1866 was a common mode of transportation for both goods and people. It was heavily used for both. The civic leaders of Hamilton and Toronto knew the troops needed foot and water and arranged to send supplies to the front by train. Yet, General Napier in Toronto had not managed to think of using the train to supply his troops, only to move them. In truth, given the facts, he never even thought at all about supplying his troops until much later, perhaps assuming that they would somehow magically appear. He really was useless for any military purpose. So, why would we expect any more of a militia lieutenant-colonel with far less experience and no true training for warfare?
Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Booker, overall commander of the Militia garrison in Hamilton and commanding officer of the 13th Battalion, was not a warrior. Despite being double-hatted in his military duties, and having been a soldier since 1851, he was little better prepared for war in 1866 than when he enrolled in the Militia 15 years earlier.
He was an auctioneer in his civilian life. Societal attitudes towards militia service were changing in the Victorian era – at least as far as the officers were concerned. A successful businessman in Canada in those days could be more successful through holding a military commission, and Booker was a successful businessman. As an officer holding successively higher rank, he became progressively more haughty and elitist. In those days, lieutenant-colonels might condescend to converse with majors and senior captains, but certainly not with the soldiers they commanded. They were the betters of these soldiers in a society – even in the colonies – that was highly stratified. They commanded but did not necessarily lead.
Booker’s true character was perhaps revealed in his choice of hobbies. When he wasn’t posing in his uniform at society balls, or conducting business, he loved to perform ventriloquism and give puppet shows to his friends, family and neighbourhood children (Semper Paratus, pg 32). I think at heart he was a gentle man but with a large ego – not qualities designed to make him a great military leader or even a good military leader. When you couple that with the fact that the militia system employed in Canada at that time was designed solely and only to produce semi-competent military administrators but only mediocre military leaders, 9 you can see the scope of the problem.
I will delve into this in order to set context.
The 1855 Militia Act of the United Province of Canada laid out pretty much everything needed to organize and maintain a military force in garrison and in the field.10 Even Canadian soldiers – at least some of them - could grasp the essentials of military service in the field, although almost certainly it was really drafted by one or more of the British officers in Canada at the time – someone with good field experience. No Canadian soldier of the day would have had any relevant experience although you would think simple common sense would dictate critical procedures.
Booker was commissioned ensign in the 1st Wentworth Militia in 1851 and so would have been familiar with this legislation – the duties it imposed and the authorities it granted. He was 27 at the time – old enough to have some life experience outside of the uniform.11
In 1853 he transferred as 2nd Captain of the 1st Hamilton Independent Artillery Company, which he claims to have helped outfit. He was well-off at this time in his auctioneering business and could have afforded to do this. In 1855 he was gazetted captain and officer commanding of the Volunteer Militia Battery of Artillery in Hamilton, which he organized under the free-booting system of creating militia units in vogue at that time. He may have had guns cast locally for this battery. Casting artillery is a very specialized field and if made locally, almost certainly would have been unsafe to fire with actual round shot. Thus, they would have been purely ceremonial in nature, suitable for basic training only. If not made locally, he would have been using old War of 1812 guns as the British Army of the day was not supplying field artillery to the militia, at least not in Hamilton. In that case, these old field pieces would again almost certainly have been unsafe to use and thus again only decorative or ceremonial in value.
Booker was promoted major in 1857 to command the many volunteer – which were termed “active” militia at the time – diverse and independent infantry and artillery companies in the Hamilton area which were all commanded by captains. In 1858 he was promoted lieutenant-colonel and named in overall command of the volunteer – or active – forces in Hamilton. This was strictly an administrative position and did not imply in any sense actual command of a brigade or a field command. It was essentially a sinecure, with minimal duties beyond being essentially a simple conduit of orders from General Napier in Toronto. On 15 June 1861, he was also appointed a staff officer to be the liaison between the local volunteers and the British troops garrisoned in Hamilton – at the time, primarily the 16th and 47th Regiments of Foot. On 27 January 1865 he was appointed Commanding Officer of the 13th Battalion and a year and a half later he led them into battle.
Booker actively lobbied for these positions and used any influence he may have had with local political authorities, including the 13th’s first commanding officer, Isaac Buchanan, as well as any military connections. He may have genuinely wanted to be a soldier and certainly liked being a soldier, but clearly, in my opinion, these were social moves. He had more influence in Hamilton as a leading military figure than as an auctioneer. He wanted to be important and to be seen to be important, although privately, Buchanan noted, “…as to there ever being a great military organization under him, the thing is absurd.”12
The connection with the local British regiments would have potentially been a very valuable position, offering the opportunity to learn from “the professionals” – the trained British officers in Hamilton. Even if they hadn’t seen action, their training would have been far more comprehensive, in an army with far more resources available including engineers and commissariat – although these latter formations were not available in Niagara to Peacocke or other military commanders. Booker would undoubtedly have enjoyed the affiliation, but if he did take advantage of it – and there is no record that he did – he didn’t actually learn from it.
The point of all this is that Booker was undoubtedly very current with all Militia regulations, which were almost totally administrative in nature, geared to learning drill movements and what the legislation termed the “internal economy” of a battalion. This simply meant the ability to administer the funds of the unit, knowledge of courts-martial and military law, and so on. It did nothing whatsoever to provide for proper field maneuvers or even training for the field.13
The drill being taught – often by a retired British Army NCO – did include “skirmishing”, but in no way were these taught under field conditions, including firing muskets even with blank ammunition. After 1862, the Government of the Province of Canada even paid the wages of British Army NCO’s seconded to the various battalions as drill instructors – a measure of how desperate conditions had become, even though this was to be a temporary measure, until the officers trained at the Militia schools could take over.
The training did not – could not – match that given to a British regular. Just for the Enfield Pattern 1853 rifled musket, the regulars were drilled constantly until every single movement – and there are 23 of them required to fire just one round - was ingrained – almost part of their genetic makeup. This was an essential skill for a professional soldier so that no matter how tired, hungry and thirsty they were, no matter how many casualties they took, no matter what, they could be relied upon to load and fire and keep on loading and firing. This took hours and hours of numb, repetitive drill, including dry, blank and ball ammunition in sun, snow and rain, until the soldier became an automaton.
In the militia, this time was simply not available to the soldiers. The government did not provide funds sufficient to cover this kind of intensive drill for every soldier. They had barely enough money to teach the soldiers - as we still say today - how to walk and chew gum at the same time – in other words, to look pretty on parade. If it were not for the enthusiasm of volunteer drill societies, the pressures applied by some influential people in different communities, and great pressure applied by Britain itself as it deployed its soldiers around the world, I am convinced the governments in Canada would not have set aside any money for military purposes. They would have continued to rely on Mother Britain for defence.
The drill instructors that the government did agree to fund were to train the soldiers in marching, of course, but also in rifle drill, as the Canadian militia had been fortunate enough to receive the same weapons as the British army. Thousands of muskets were shipped over at the time of the Trent affair, along with an influx of regular regiments that the British could ill afford to spare. But the drill was almost all “dry” – that is, without any ammunition. Training even with blank was discouraged – ammunition cost money, after all. But it could be done, and a fortunate few had done so.
Training with blank could be done in any number of places – the drill hall in Hamilton had a large field adjacent to it - but training with ball ammunition necessitated a visit to a range on the outskirts of town, which even at that time was a few miles to the south, above the escarpment. It may have required a train ride (with subsequent expense) or more likely having the soldiers march to the range, which required time. It could not be done on the usual training week-night, and training at a “camp” on a weekend was nearly unheard of. The “social soldiers” of the day did not attempt this very often, and indeed, the training records show that almost NONE of the 13th Battalion had ever fired ball ammunition, and less than one-third had even fired blank.
Most firing of ball ammunition was done by a dedicated few, at local target practice and at the larger national matches sanctioned and organized by Militia Headquarters in Montreal. These offered prizes and medals. The theory was that the competitors could then go back home and pass on their skills. In practice, though, this almost never happened, as the “shooting fraternity” was almost a closed society within the militia, as just about the only means a soldier could earn merit and glory for himself and by extension, his unit. The 13th Regiment, in fact, was already known in its brief history for producing good shooters, unusual in a “city” regiment.
Therefore, the rank and file soldiers were unused to the actual practice of loading except by dry drills, and certainly unused to the effect of firing full loads with ball. They did not practice the ability to react to orders under fire, and the effect of taking casualties. The muskets of the day produced horrendous recoil, great clouds of smoke, and large amounts of noise. They required large spaces if ball ammunition was to be used. Moving a battalion to such a rural location required a great deal of transport or time and used up a great amount of resources.
Even those who had fired had only done so under controlled range conditions, firing at carefully-prescribed targets. Target practice was encouraged but in reality, only carried out by those few enthusiasts in a battalion. The COs had a vested interest in this because having crack shots made them look good. The results were made part of the official record and reported to the government in the Sessional Papers of each year in great detail, complete with lists of prizes. The local papers also reported at great length on these competitions – but of course, this was about all they had to report concerning their local military unit other than in the society columns.
What all this meant, really, was that everyone in the system contrived with all their might to avoid anything that resembled preparation for any army’s râison d’être – warfare. Such training was expensive, inconvenient, and uncomfortable, and did not form any part of a regiment’s evaluation. And, if you don’t expect to go to war – why bother?
Sure, the Trent affair in 1859 provided a short-lived alarm 14 but Mother England sent over a huge number of troops to Canada for that – the largest single draft they had ever sent, including during the War of 1812. True, the citizens of the Province of Canada, and the maritime colonies, volunteered in large numbers as well - although their motives are suspect 15. The government made a haphazard attempt to clothe, equip and train them, but within months all the hastily-enrolled volunteers, with no prospect of imminent action and finding themselves still expected to show up at the local armouries, disappeared as quickly as they had come. Military matters faded back to the usual social routine and political bickering. British Army commanders and advisors in Canada drew the appropriate lessons from the affair, but again, Canadian politicians refused to see what was right in front of their eyes. After all, Mother Britain had come to their rescue yet again – why would the future be any different?
The 1855 Militia Act did include the authority for military officers, when on a campaign, to requisition what they needed from the local population, and included the proper form for doing so. 16 Booker, with four years’ experience by then, and already gazetted a Captain, must have had knowledge of this Act because under it, he organized his first independent command.
This act clearly stated the authority for a military commander in an emergency to have a Justice of the Peace issue a warrant entitling the commander to billet his soldiers locally, and to obtain carriages, horses, trains boats and engines at the prevailing rates. Presumably this also meant food. Subsequent acts amending this original bill do not seem to have countermanded these authorities.
Even if Napier in Toronto had his staff – such as it was - organize everything, Booker almost certainly had to be aware of these regulations. He commanded the Second Administrative Battalion on the Niagara Frontier in 1865 during a period of heightened tension with the United States over the Trent Affair. 17 Someone had to make local arrangements and that had to be Booker or one of his small staff – a lieutenant and an ensign.
The 1855 Act also set the basis of professionalism in the active Militia. It said there should be an assistant quartermaster-general who was to know the area, maps, communications, and so on. Again, clearly, someone who knew what they were doing drafted those words, but people who did not know what they were doing appeared to have started ignoring them almost immediately. This may be been because the money to carry out the direction given was not there, but also because no one expected to actually have to fight. They perceived no credible threat from anywhere, including the United States and made no pretense of being prepared for the unexpected.
Maps were available, and were not expensive. Local guides could have easily been found – but weren’t, although this was more Peacock’s problem than Booker’s. Food could have been procured easily before leaving Hamilton – but wasn’t. Tin water bottles could have been procured locally – Booker had the means and money – but weren’t. Haversacks – seemingly a vital part of a soldier’s kit – were simply cloth bags with a shoulder strap. Nothing could have been easier or cheaper to make – yet none of the soldiers at Ridgeway seemed to have one.
Soldiers could have been allowed to fire their rifles with live ammunition – the Sessional Papers for 1865 reveal the government had more than six million rounds of ammunition in stock, more than 200 rounds per soldier – but the units either weren’t allowed to access this or more likely their leaders couldn’t be bothered. We know by now that few of the militiamen at Ridgeway had ever fired a live round. So, why did the government have six million rounds in stock? Maybe the manufacturer was a crony of some politician, or paid kickbacks, or – well, perhaps we’ll never know. What we DO know is that some units, deemed inefficient at drill, were deprived of ammunition as punishment by their British Army inspectors rather than forcing the commanders to actually train their men.
From this, we can see it is clear that the Canadian militia was mostly a paper force that looked good in uniform but were not a credit to that uniform in terms of being a combat force. They didn’t have much in the way of war-like equipment, and seldom used the little that they had. They were a parade-ground army, pure and simple. It was Britain’s job to provide the actual combat forces for Canada, according to the thinking of Canadian politicians, and if Britain wouldn’t do it – well, no harm done because Canada did not face any threat anyway.
While everyone knew of the Fenians, and anti-Fenian fever was periodically aroused when it suited someone’s purpose (i.e.: to keep Catholics under control), no one really took them seriously. It was well-known to the government that many of the Fenian societies and “cells” consisted of Civil War-trained soldiers, yet the public perception that the Fenians were simply hapless Irish drunks and sub-humans persisted. The government, hoping to avoid expense, did not contradict this. Even after they called the militia out twice to face what they felt might be an incipient threat, they did very little to ensure that the militia was actually ready to face an armed foe. They paid the wages of the soldiers called out – and that was no inconsiderable sum for the time – but balked at providing proper equipment. They wanted their cake – keeping the budget low – but wanted to eat it too – they wanted to show they had military acumen. But you can’t suck and blow at the same time, and at Ridgeway, that old aphorism was proven true.
In Semper Paratus, the 1970’s history of today’s Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, it is noted that the Regiment was called to duty in the spring of 1866, as a Fenian attack was expected on March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day. The history goes on to state, “While March 17 came and went without any exciting developments, the period of active service served to keep the Battalion in shape and permitted a generous amount of basic training in just about everything except, unfortunately, the practical business of field tactics and of using its weapons.” 18
While Sir John A. Macdonald acknowledged the need for Canada to assume a much greater role in her own defence – an acknowledgement which felled his government and so took some courage to admit – he still would not admit Canada faced a threat. As part of the parliamentary debate, the Hon. A.T. Galt, speaking for the government, spoke of the need to have 100,000 stand of arms on hand to equip the regular and sedentary militia. But, he said, it was expected the Imperial Government would supply these because “If difficulty arose with with the United States so as to imperil the safety of Canada, it must arise as a consequence of imperial policy as distinguished from colonial policy.” 19
They missed the point, of course. Regardless of why or how Canada might face a threat, it would still face a threat! The only possible source of that threat was the USA, and the USA was far closer to Canada than Britain. Meeting the threat would require “forces in being” – that is, a standing army or an army that could mobilize readily and effectively. But simply by stating that Canada would never do anything on its own to imperil its safety, Canadian politicians absolved themselves of having to do anything about it. Despite the fact that Britain was actively withdrawing its soldiers to use elsewhere – notably the Crimea – Canada continued to state that Canadian defence was a British problem. Despite the fact that Canadian politicians were agitating for greater control over their own affairs, what they apparently really meant was greater control over those things that didn’t cost them much money. Defence was not one of those things. Defence was simply a pork barrel by which friends of the government could be rewarded with contracts or commissions – or both. This is the political and military environment under which Booker grew up.
Perhaps in his secret dreams, Booker envisioned being a heroic figure in combat, surrounded by powder smoke, giving orders to breathless subordinates who would carry out his commands with soldiers fighting at bayonet point to win ultimate victory, with medals and presentation swords for all – especially Booker. But in practise, Booker was a society poser who looked good on parade but had minimal practical military experience. Yet the 13th Battalion was deemed an “efficient” battalion.
The Militia Act of 1864 act outlined what would constitute an “Efficient Battalion”. It said companies should have had 24 drills of an hour and half each in the preceding year, and the battalion should have six battalion drills, in order to qualify for their annual payment 20. But nowhere did it say these had to be field drills.
Despite this and previous militia acts, which set out sometimes in excruciating detail how the militia was to be governed, armed and trained, the militia – sedentary and active – was in a deplorable condition. This was well-known to the press of the day, to the politicians, and even to the foreign press such as the New York Times, which commented with tongue firmly in cheek after reading the 1864 Militia Report. 21. If the New York Times knew this, the Fenians certainly knew this.
But gradually, painfully, and under duress, things did begin to improve. Perhaps the Trent affair did leave an aftertaste.
Sir John A. Macdonald’s successor, John Sandfield Macdonald, knew the Militia had to change, but campaigned on the status quo and against Sir John A’s militia bill simply to defeat his political rival. As a sop, however, he agreed to the establishment of Militia schools, staffed by regular British officers belonging to garrison battalions, who would train Canadian Militia officers who in turn would train their soldiers. With hindsight 150 years later, I wonder if that was a fateful decision. It lead to Booker “qualifying” for his 1st class Militia certificate and probably contributed to his false sense of competence.
The Militia Regulations laid out in the Sessional Papers of the Province of Canada for 1864 established the Militia Schools in Toronto (at Fort York) and Quebec. Attendance was in theory mandatory for any officer aspiring for promotion to either company or battalion command. The courses were to be three months long and there was a long list of rules for the cadets attending, as they were called.
But there was an “out” – a loophole. Responding to political pressure, it was recognized that the rural, or county, battalion officers, who were primarily employed in agriculture – mainly farmers – could not take the summer off to attend these schools. Toronto and Quebec were out of reach for most of them. Therefore, there was a provision that an officer could instead sit an exam based on experience and private study. But the loophole didn’t say that ONLY rural battalion officers could do this – ANY officer could.
“Arguing that testing military knowledge and expertise, however acquired, was his sole object, (Premier) Sandfield Macdonald withdrew the provision demanding three months’ attendance at the schools and substituted the simple requirement that officer candidates pass the final exam set by the British staff. If they could do this without leaving home until the last few days of a course, so much the better.” 22
The incentive to attend was having room and board supplied, I suppose, or if the cadet felt they couldn’t pass the final exams without attending. This course would have been ideal for a young university student, for example – just as it is today – or the scion of a wealthy family who wanted him out of the way for awhile.
However, if you were more senior, and held a job or trade where a three-month absence would not be tolerated, and you felt lucky or confident, you could simply sit an exam. If you wished, you could study at home. One of the books used for study would have undoubtedly been the pocket edition of the authorized book of Field Exercises and Evolutions of Infantry used by Imperial (British) troops. The Government of the Province of Canada bought 2,000 copies of this manual and provided them at cost to volunteer officers. 23 This book would have provided the core of knowledge for anyone aspiring to take the 2nd and 1st class militia certificates – which, as mentioned, in no way qualified an officer for field duty.
It appears this was the route taken by Booker. A successful auctioneer, he could not afford to lose three months’ business. I think perhaps he also felt that he could not be away from his military responsibilities that long, lest he be replaced by someone else. It is clear to me that Booker was insecure in his military roles, the more so following taking command of the 13th over other officers who actually served in the 13th, and knowing their active dislike of him. Thus, Booker did not take the three-month course but merely sat the exam and presumably collected the $50.00 awarded to those who passed. He is not on any attendance list for these schools 24. “He was examined by a board of three Imperial officers and granted his 1st Class Certificate…”, entitling him to command a battalion. It is possible that this was the first such certificate granted at least from the Toronto school and possibly the first ever. 25
Therefore, it is certain that Booker really had no professional military training. It was all “on the job” experience, coupled with whatever independent study he had undertaken – for example, acquiring and reading copies of the various militia acts.
The militia school courses merely taught an expanded curriculum of drill, military law - especially courts-martial - and battalion administration. They taught nothing of war whatsoever. The “cadets” as they were called, drilled platoons of their fellow cadets – not even a company, let alone a battalion, of rank-and-file soldiers, and certainly not under field conditions. In other words, it taught merely peacetime garrison soldiering.
The school in Toronto taught within the confines of Fort York, and while the grounds were expansive in their day, they were not set up for simulating a field of encounter, nor big enough for even a battalion to engage in proper skirmishing. It was a garrison camp, designed for a battalion under administrative conditions. There is no record at all of the cadets undertaking live firing, for example.
There was a camp of instruction for graduate cadets combined with British regulars at La Prairie, Quebec, under the command of Colonel Garnet Wolseley in 1865. This apparently was a fairly good camp as far as it went 26 – but Booker, not being a graduate of the school in Toronto, did not attend so far as we know and thus derived no advantage from it. More importantly, therefore, neither did his soldiers.
Booker’s collapse in the aftermath of Ridgeway would have had many contributing causes. There is ample evidence to show that this was simply because he was overwhelmed by the scope of his post-battle responsibilities, few of which he had training for. However, I believe a key fact was – to him – that his soldiers had run away from an active battlefield. Not that they had been defeated - soldiers can be defeated – but that they had run away while under his command. He had lost face and to Booker – a society poser – face was everything.
While in action, he was too busy to think of this. But after – that was when things began to sink in. He had no tentage, no food, no water, no staff officers and no support. With no training in that area to fall back on, he did nothing except retreat back to something familiar – his home in Hamilton. There, with a bit of rest, food and water, and time to think, his ego allowed him to believe he could salvage an already-lost situation and he incredibly returned to Port Colborne thinking to merely resume command where he left off. Had he not abandoned the field – and his soldiers - post-battle, he might well have survived the situation as did all his contemporaries – including Akers, the British regular who connived with Booker and Dennis to subvert Peacock’s orders and who was promoted major in 1870 - I suppose it was appropriate that it was effective as of April 1st - and who was a full colonel in 1886. 27
There is no doubt that Booker was not a coward – there is no evidence to support this despite the efforts of his brother officers in the 13th to cast him in that light. Unlike Dennis, who was a coward who ran away but survived due to his political skills, Booker could not salvage his career. Major Skinner – who did no better than Booker and who actually was ultimately responsible for the 13th at Ridgeway while Booker commanded the brigade – was no more than a bitter opportunist who used Booker’s misfortune to elevate himself to the command of the 13th which he felt was rightly his all along.
Booker was the holder of a 1st-class militia certificate – Skinner was not and never did formally qualify for his rank or appointment even under the loose rules of the day. Did he feel that such an accomplishment was beneath him? That command was something he had a right to, rather than having earned? As a poser, perhaps he feared he would fail the exam? All of the above? I don’t know but that is what I suspect. History does not tell us more. The Militia headquarters in Quebec permitted Skinner to take command although technically, he should have obtained his first-class certificate before this was allowed. 28
Skinner, as the senior major and deputy commanding officer of the 13th, had the responsibility of taking the administrative workload off Booker’s shoulders even before they left the armoury. Booker, once he reached Port Colborne and assumed command of the small brigade, had much wider responsibilities than battalion command. As the holder of a semi-independent command, he moved to a position of formulating and giving orders for combat beyond the confines of his own regiment. He was unqualified for this job, but demanded it as his right as being senior to Lt.-Col. Dennis. There’s that ego again – not that Dennis was any better qualified.
Skinner, having been given command of the 13th temporarily by Booker, failed to get food and water for his soldiers, and did not get proper transport for supplies. Booker had scrounged transport to send “surplus” ammunition to the rear but no one – including Skinner - thought to bring food and water forward to the soldiers. Skinner did not ensure proper rest for his soldiers, did not ensure by hook or by crook that they were equipped with canteens or some kind of water container, and haversacks – in short, when faced with his first test of combat, he too failed. He too was an administrative soldier, not a combat soldier.
In my opinion, he may have deliberately sabotaged Booker at Ridgeway, at the expense of his own soldiers, by not exerting himself to look after his soldiers so that Booker would get the blame. Skinner was a backstabber from the moment Buchanan was given command of the 13th, disobedient to orders and subversive of discipline. He carried this conduct forward against Booker 29 and got away with it.
The 13th Battalion, however, did prosper reasonably in the admittedly undemanding period post-Ridgeway, under Skinner. He commanded for an incredible 20 years, almost unheard of even then. But he never commanded again in combat, so we never get a picture of the real man other than his actions at Ridgeway – where, as we have already stated, he did no better than Booker.
Skinner never even had to train his soldiers for combat. The government engaged in a few half-hearted measures, such as the occasional field camp of a week or two’s duration; did buy some additional gear such as haversacks, packs and maybe even canteens although I have found no evidence of that. But they did not establish a commissariat, a field engineer capability or even a medical capability. Available pay was cut to even fewer training days. In other words, they followed the usual Canadian way – survive a campaign by the skin of its teeth, engage in a round of mutual back-slapping, and cut the budget. It took decades to agree to issue even a medal acknowledging the Fenian Raids, and to provide benefits to veterans. Does this sound familiar?
A permanent corps was not even established until 1883, three years before Skinner finally gave up the command of the 13th Battalion. The soldiers hired under that plan were only expected to train the militia, and not engage in combat training themselves, although how it was expected they could train the Militia if they themselves were not so trained and practiced is beyond me. The point is, that even 20 years after Ridgeway, hardly anything had changed in the Canadian militia. Booker would have felt quite at home.
Booker’s real failing was not his lack of battlefield experience or his lack of knowledge of sustaining a force in the field. He was hardly unique in that regard, yet none of his contemporaries had the same reaction post-battle. No, it was in the area of politics. Booker was not a “hail, well-met” backslapper. He was not a “joiner”. He did not have an easy manner with his military contemporaries – he seemed to relate better to children - and most of his brother officers in the 13th wanted little do with him. Although he was the senior officer in Hamilton, he was still in Hamilton, far-removed from the corridors of power in Toronto where Napier was, or Quebec.
Dennis, on the other hand, was such a person, and was “tight” with most of the senior Toronto crowd and those at Militia headquarters in Quebec. Lt.-Col. Dennison did not like him and the officers of the Queen’s Own resented him thoroughly, but he dealt with higher levels of command and lower-level dislike didn’t bother or affect him at all. His connections saved him after Ridgeway and he prospered, even after his conduct later in the first campaign against Riel, where he again was an incompetent coward in the field.
Booker, after Ridgeway, found himself isolated and alone. A hasty court of inquiry cleared him of all charges of cowardice and incompetence (although we know that the court was almost certainly secretly ordered to do so by the government in order to protect Sir John A and his ministers), but he resigned his command in August and left Hamilton as a broken man 30. His fellow officers had ruined him. It was a mutiny in all but name. He was allowed to retire with his rank intact, and his superiors did not technically require him to resign, but popular opinion, inflamed by the lurid accounts of the day, forced him out.
Booker moved to Montreal with his family – wife Eliza Ann Pettit and at least some of his children including Alfred Jr - and resumed his trade as an auctioneer. But his heart wasn’t in it. He died in 1871, aged just 47. No records I could find show the cause of death but I venture to say he just lost the will to live. When depressed, even minor ailments can be magnified, or perhaps he just made a quick end of things – I don’t know. I believe he would be diagnosed with PTSD today. But regardless of cause, it could be argued that he was the last casualty of Ridgeway.
END NOTES1. http://www.military-quotes.com/forum/logistics-quotes-t511.html
2. Regimental Rogue, downloaded from Facebook 12 Mar 2015
5. Canadian Defence Quarterly article… The Canadian Militia: The Fenian Raids Colonel C.F. Hamilton (published after 1912) United Publishers, New York
7. Ibid, p.6
8. Alexander Somerville, Narrative of the Fenian Invasion of Canada, 1866, Hamilton, C.W.
9. Sessional Papers of the Province of Canada 1864
11.Geo. Mainer, “BOOKER, ALFRED (1824-71),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed January 15, 2016, (Hereafter Geo. Mainer, DCB) http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/booker_alfred_1824_71_10E.html.
12. Brereton Greenhous, Kingsley Brown Sr., and Kingsley Brown Jr.: Semper Paratus: The History of The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, Hamilton, ON, RHLI Historical Association, pg 33 (Hereafter, SP)
13. The Canadian Way of War: ed: Bernd Horn, Grodzinski – A Modicum of War, pg 116, Dundurn Press 2006
14. “Junius Jr” – A Review of the Militia Policy of the Present Administration 1863 – Pg 4 – (Col. George Denison)
15. Junius, Ibid, pg 13
16. Militia Act 1855, paras LXXVI-LXXXIV
17. Shelagh Whitaker, The Fighting Rileys, Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies, the RHLI Regimental Senate, Hamilton, ON, 2012, pg 19 (Hereafter TFR)
18. SP, pg 46
19. Captain Ernest J. Chambers, The Canadian Militia – A History of the Origin and Development of the Force –1907 pg. 67
20. 27 Victoria Sessional Papers (No. 13) A. 1864 – “Efficient Battalions paras 1-2
21. www.nytimes.com/1864/03/20/news/the-militia-of-canada.html Published 20 Mar 1864 and downloaded January 23, 2016
22. Stephen J. Harris, Canadian Brass, U of T Press 1988, p.16
23. Sessional papers of the Parliament of of the Province of Canada, v.21 No. 5 1863 – Sessional Paper # 15 – report signed by Deputy Adjutants-General A. De Salaberry, Lt.-Col. and Walker Powell, Lt.-Col. 10 Feb 1863.
24. Telephone conversation with Library and Archives Canada, Richie Allen, researcher, 27 Apr 2016
25. Geo. Mainer, DCB, and Militia General Order No. 1, 22 Dec 1863, as referred to in the Sessional Papers of the Province of Canada, February 1863, Pg 544
26. SP, Pg 31 - Lt.-Gen. Sir John Michel, GOC British North America, to Duke of Cambridge
27. Colburn's United Service Magazine and Naval and Military Journal, Volume 41
28. Militia General Order 1, Headquarters, Quebec, 25th February 1864 – De Salaberry, Lt.-Colonel, DAGM Lower Canada & Walker Powell, Lt.-Colonel, DAGM Upper Canada
29. SP, pp. 27-28
30. TFR, pg 43
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