Established in 1909 as Camp Sewell, the military training grounds were renamed Camp Hughes in honour of Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence, Maj.-Gen. Sam Hughes, in 1915. Mostly forgotten, the camp, located 10 kilometres west of Carberry and 132 kilometres from Winnipeg, was recently designated a national heritage site by federal Environment Minister Peter Kent.
Camp Hughes remained in use until 1933 when it was dismantled and the buildings were moved to nearby Camp Shilo. After being abandoned, the camp’s memory was faintly kept alive by a few dedicated groups and individuals who observed the deterioration of what was once one of the nation’s most important military facilities. The Military Historical Society of Manitoba began lobbying both levels of senior government in 1988 to save the camp from oblivion. On April 18, 1994, a plaque was erected, designating it as a Manitoba provincial heritage site. Eighteen years later, the federal government finally recognized its national significance.
More than 38,000 troops of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, primarily from Manitoba and Saskatchewan, trained at Camp Hughes. In 1916, when 27,754 troops were trained there, Camp Hughes could boast that it was Manitoba’s second largest city, complete with six movie theatres, numerous retail outlets, a hospital, a large in-ground heated swimming pool, photo studios, a post office, a prison, as well as numerous other buildings. The troops themselves were housed in white bell-shaped tents located around the central camp. Training was suspended in 1917 and 1918 when the numbers of enlistments began to decline.
What made Camp Hughes so important to Canada’s war effort was a 10-kilometre-long trench system accurately designed to the same depth and width as those on frontlines in France and Belgium. Veterans returning from the Western Front also provided invaluable instructions on the latest trench warfare techniques and weapons.
Among the relics of Camp Hughes, the trench system remains essentially intac to a depth of a couple of centimetres to a couple of metres, and is the only First World War trench system extant in North America.
Yet, besides the trenches, a cemetery and an abandoned rifle range, there is little else remaining to tell how important the camp was to Canadian success during the First World War.
Being ably prepared before going overseas, the trainees from Camp Hughes played significant roles in battles such as the Easter attack on Vimy Ridge, the 1917 battle that “witnessed the birth of a nation,” according to Brig-Gen. Alexander Ross who commanded a battalion during the attack.
“There it lay, facing Canadian lines — a low, seven-mile escarpment of sullen grey, rising softly from the plain below,” wrote author Pierre Berton in his book Vimy when describing what confronted the Canadians on Easter Monday 1917, “rising softly from the plain below, a monotonous spine of mud, churned into a froth of shellfire, devoid of grass or foliage, lacking colour or detail, every inch of its slippery surface pitted or pulverized by two years of constant pounding. At first glance it didn’t seem very imposing, but those who knew its history and looked ahead to that moment when they must plough forward ... toward that ragged crest aflame with gunfire, it took on an aura both dark and sinister.”
Our soldiers who took on the “dark and sinister” ridge were said to have entered the battle as colonials, but emerged with a new sense of nationhood, succeeding when so many others had failed. During the years of bitter fighting since the start of the war, tens of thousands of French and British troops perished at the approaches to 135-metre-high Vimy Ridge.
Using new and imaginative tactics, a strategy emerged that within three days allowed Canadian soldiers to accomplish what others had failed to do in three years. In fact, by mid-day April 9, three of the four Canadian divisions engaged in the battle reached their objectives.
The difference between Canadian and British troops, who were used to a rigid class and command structure, was that the Canadians were flexible in their tactics and they were well-trained, well-led and driven by a commitment to learning, according to Brig.-Gen. William Griesbach who was with the 1st Brigade at Vimy.
Most of the tactics had been tried piecemeal by other armies, but it was the Canadians under British General Sir Julian Byng who combined past lessons into a overall strategy. Sir Arthur Currie, the second-in-command during the attack (he made a report to Byng of new tactics that should be employed), was typical of the Canadians who fought in the war — he had been a school teacher and a real estate agent. He also had no combat experience other than serving as a “Saturday Soldier” in the Canadian militia.
Young men in their late-teens or early-20s benefited later in the war from the lessons learned at the numerous camps back home, such as Camp Hughes.
“This is Good Friday, and I am spending the day girding myself for action. For our Easter Sunday, with peace on earth and good will towards men, I take part in the greatest battle in Canada’s history ... So this is to say farewell in case I go down,” wrote Lieut. Gregory Clark to his father.
Unlike so many others, Clark, awarded the Military Cross for his bravery during the assault on Vimy Ridge, survived the war.
In a war where success was measured by mere metres, the Canadians at Vimy Ridge had advanced a staggering 4,095 metres — the greatest Allied advance to that point.
“I am glad to say that I was through it, as it will be one of the biggest things in Canadian history,” wrote Medical officer Harold McGill to his fiancee.
The victory at Vimy Ridge was called by a Paris newspaper, “Canada’s Easter gift to France.” In gratitude, the French in 1922 would donate the 91-hectares at Vimy Ridge in perpetuity to Canada.
The victory was costly. The Canadian army suffered 3,598 dead and 7,004 wounded.
Amos William Mayse, who enlisted at Emerson, Manitoba, and also survived the war, wrote to his wife, Betty, after the battle: “There are few — very few of the 222nd (Battalion based in Winnipeg) left ... Mr. Malloy & Mr. Farr both killed at Vimy Ridge. Mr. Malloy was lieut. of my platoon at Camp Hughes ... Most of our 222nd boys (trained at Camp Hughes) took part in the fighting at Vimy Ridge, it was certainly a great day for the Canadians.”