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Book Reviews

Book cover:The Politics of Command ~ Lieutenant-General A.G.L. McNaughton and the Canadian Army, 1939-1943

The Politics of Command ~ Lieutenant-General A.G.L. McNaughton and the Canadian Army, 1939-1943, by John Nelson Rickard

Reviewed by Daniel Gosselin

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The Politics of Command ~ Lieutenant-General A.G.L. McNaughton and the Canadian Army, 1939-1943
by John Nelson Rickard
Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2010
366 pages, $46.95 ISBN: 978-1-4426-4002-3

Reviewed by Daniel Gosselin

Canadian military historian Jack L. Granatstein lamented years ago, that “… the process of revisionism of history of the prewar and wartime eras has been slow in Canada. The professional historians have tended to accept the party line, laid out by Charles Stacey and his disciples (of whom I would be one).”1 This statement is not surprising, considering the shadow that military historians, such as C.P. Stacey, G.W. L. Nicholson, Desmond Morton, and Granatstein cast over the military history of this country.

Canada’s most influential military histories were written in the 1960s and 1970s. Since the mid-1980s, the historiography of the First and Second World Wars has exploded, with literally hundreds of books being published. In the past decade, a number of historians have picked up Granatstein’s challenge, offering fresh perspectives and new interpretations on Canada’s military accomplishments, and publishing several well-researched military history works, adding to the body of knowledge on Canada’s role in the wars of the 20th Century. Such is John Nelson Rickard’s The Politics of Command, a recently published work that reassesses Lieutenant-General A.G.L. (Andy) McNaughton’s failure as Commander of the First Canadian Army during the Second World War. With this impressive work, Rickard takes dead aim at some of the earlier interpretations of McNaughton made by Stacey, Granatstein, and others.

Rickard, now a captain with the Lord Strathcona’s Horse Regiment, joined the Canadian Forces (CF) a few years after starting his doctorate at the University of New Brunswick. The book stems from his dissertation, which he completed in 2006 while serving regimental duties in the CF. Extensively researched from an impressive variety of sources (the endnotes and the bibliography alone amount to over 100 pages of the book), The Politics of Command is superbly written, and, unlike some dry history tomes, it is a very pleasant, animated read. The evidence presented clearly demonstrates that Rickard has a masterful understanding of the themes discussed.

In 1939, the government recalled McNaughton from his position of President of the National Research Council (NRC) to take command of the Canadian division that the government was planning to send overseas. McNaughton had previously served as the Chief of the General Staff (CGS) for seven years, retiring from the military in 1935 to assume the helm position at the NRC. As division commander, McNaughton would also be the senior Canadian national commander deploying overseas, and the position was important enough for Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to interview McNaughton personally. As it materialized, King was sufficiently impressed with McNaughton’s understanding of Canada’s war effort priorities to select him over other serving officers. The prime minister did not have any interest in or knowledge of the conduct of the war, but he was obsessed with the spectre of a conscription crisis such as that which had occurred in 1917, and which had divided the country. With McNaughton in charge, Mackenzie King reasoned, there was little risk of divergence between the military objectives and the government’s national war policy.

By 1943, as the senior Canadian military officer in England, McNaughton had acquired significant powers, both with respect to organization and administration of the Canadian contribution (which grew from a division, to a corps, and, ultimately, to an army), and to commitment of forces to operations with the British, if McNaughton assessed that the prospect of success justified the risks involved. With the exception of Hong Kong and Dieppe, the Canadian Army as a formation saw no combat action during the first three years of the war, and thus, the Canadian Army’s activities in London between 1939 and 1943 were quasi-political, including regular policy dealings with the British War Office. As a national commander, McNaughton was greatly influential in the development of Canada’s national military policy overseas, having demanding responsibilities, ranging from forming and training the Army in England for an eventual deployment on the continent, to negotiating all arrangements with the War Office, to deciding when to commit Canadian troops to operations, and under what command and control arrangements that would occur. McNaughton was clearly the most dominant personality of the overseas war effort until his removal from command in late 1943.

In The Politics of Command, Rickard takes three main lines of investigation to assess why McNaughton failed as a senior Canadian national commander, revisiting the principal arguments put forward by historians over the years to explain his failure. First is the argument that it was McNaughton’s obstinacy and obsession with keeping the Canadian Army together for an eventual cross-Channel invasion on the continent, and, in doing so, undermining any effort to employ parts of the Army under British command in action elsewhere against the enemy in the early years of the war. Historians have also argued that McNaughton’s inexperience and military incompetence as an operational commander, which had surfaced in March 1943 during the massive army-level field exercise Spartan, contributed to the British military leadership conspiring to get him replaced, preferably by a British commander. Finally, McNaughton’s abrasive and inflexible personality led to feuds and poor relations with key Canadian and British figures, and this was attributed as a key contributor to his removal from command in December 1943.

As the author states in the introduction to the book, much of the analysis presented in The Politics of Command is about assessing McNaughton’s personal relations with his peers and superiors. Instead of relying upon earlier historical accounts, which have placed less weight on the impact that personalities played in exaggerating the professional and individual differences between the principal actors, Rickard sought a clear understanding of the character and motives of the key players that interacted with McNaughton, and eventually forced him from command.

McNaughton had known for years many of the key British senior commanders and Canadian political figures, from either his previous experience during the First World War, or from his military career in Ottawa. For instance, McNaughton and Alan Brooke, who would become the Chief of the Imperial General Staff in December 1941, knew each other from the First World War, when they both served concurrently on the staff of the Canadian Corps in 1917. Ten years later, they were together again, as classmates this time, attending the first Imperial Defence College course conducted in London, at which time McNaughton advanced in a major paper ideas and principles for the future employment of Canadian forces in cooperation with British formations. Minister of Defence James Ralston was also a veteran of the First World War, and during his first tenure as Minister of Defence in the late- 1920s, he had recommended McNaughton for the CGS position. However, by 1940, there existed a deep distrust between Ralston and McNaughton, and this animosity would contribute to Ralston supporting Brooke in forcing McNaughton from command.

Through his nuanced analysis, Rickard’s argument provides a radically different historical interpretation of McNaughton as a senior national commander between 1939 and 1943. Moreover, Rickard convincingly demonstrates that judgments by McNaughton’s peers – namely, Brooke, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, Lieutenant-General Kenneth Stuart, (the Canadian CGS), and Minister Ralston, on his unwillingness to see the Canadian Army divided, and on his military competence as a combatant commander – were greatly coloured by the effects of his dominant personality and by his earlier relationships. Rickard asserts that McNaughton’s performance during Spartan had been quite acceptable, as assessed by the exercise’s principal referee. He also highlights how McNaughton was routinely seeking ways to get Canadian troops engaged in battle, including the deployment of a division to the Mediterranean. (The book includes a useful appendix listing all allied operations involving Canadians). Earlier interpretations of his performance as a senior commander had perhaps placed too much emphasis upon the assessment of Brooke, who, in turn, influenced Stuart and Ralston in having McNaughton sacked. Rickard adds significant and relevant context to earlier historical interpretations of McNaughton’s obstinacy with keeping the Canadian Army intact for employment in a European invasion.

Canada’s military legacy is a history of subordination of command of military forces, particularly during the conflicts of the first half of the 20th Century, when Canada always participated as a ‘junior partner’ with British forces. Canadian senior national officers such as McNaughton have performed their responsibilities as part of multinational coalition operations, having to answer to two masters: first, to the Canadian government for protecting Canadian interests and for the safety and welfare of the troops, and second, to the British and the allied chain of command for military operations. The dual accountability, resulting from being an operational commander and from the obligation of discharging national responsibilities, often caused Canadian commanders to have to deal in areas where “military affairs and diplomacy mingle,” as Stacey once wrote, making it a complicated – and certainly more delicate – environment to perform their functions. There can be no doubt that McNaughton understood this complex environment very well. Commanding for two masters is difficult at the best of times, but it became impossible for McNaughton in December 1943 when both masters, the Canadian government, and the British military leadership, wanted him out. Ultimately, he had no choice but to ask Prime Minister Mackenzie King to remove him from command.

Despite this unceremonious dismissal, McNaughton’s command of the Canadian Army overseas between 1939 and late 1943 was greatly influential in shaping Canada’s contribution to the final 18 months of the war. The Politics of Command is an important work that corrects erroneous perceptions about McNaughton, and it casts new light upon one of the most pivotal and enigmatic Canadian general officers that served during a critical period for Canada.

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Major-General Daniel Gosselin, CMM, CD, is the Commander of the Canadian Defence Academy. He is currently completing his doctorate in history at Queens University, studying command and civil-military relations in war.


  1. J.L. Granatstein, “Commentary,” in Norman Hillmer et al, (eds.), A Country of Limitations: Canada and the World in 1939 (Ottawa: Canadian Committee for the History of the Second World War, 1996), p. 288.

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