Dismissal of Col. J.J. Craig of the 153rd caused controversy

The name of John J. Craig of Fergus is not well known today, but between 1890 and 1920 he was one of the best known men in Wellington County.

Craig served as the public school inspector for Wellington County for many years, and ran the model schools that trained dozens of teachers in the late 19th century. He served as MPP for the old riding of Wellington East from 1905 to 1911. He was active with the volunteer militia, and with the formation of the 153rd Battalion at the beginning of World War I, he was appointed the commanding officer at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

In May of 1916 the 153rd Battalion, after training locally in small groups in several towns and villages around the county, was called up for active service and training at London. Most towns had farewell ceremonies for their enlisted men, featuring a parade, speeches, and a dinner. Fergus had such an event on May 25.

Col. Craig delivered a stirring speech that afternoon. As was his manner, he was blunt to the point of offending some people. He was proud of Fergus for its level of enlistment, he told the crowd. He then castigated many of the municipalities in Wellington for their low levels of enlistment, which had left the 153rd short some 300 men of its authorized strength.

J.J. Craig had always been outspoken. His bluntness had cost him the East Wellington seat in 1911. He enjoyed a drink and didn’t care who knew about it. He strongly opposed prohibition, an unwise policy in Fergus for anyone with political ambitions in those years. Some people hinted that Craig boozed to excess. As a military officer, he tried to run his own show, ignoring or countermanding orders from his superiors.

Craig’s Fergus speech would be the last he would make as commander of the 153rd. Six days later, on the evening of May 31, he was removed form his position. Col. Craig had accompanied the 153rd Battalion to London and marched with them into camp. That was his last official duty.

Earlier that day, prior to boarding their train at Guelph, there was a small ceremony. Col. Craig was furious at the size and of the crowd – he counted an even 20 people – and he told the Guelph newspapers that he “was very much dissatisfied with the reception accorded in the Royal City.”

The next evening, the first day of June, Craig was back in Guelph.

A small party of friends met him at the Grand Trunk station, and accompanied him across the street for a supper at the Royal Hotel. A Guelph Herald reporter interviewed him there. Craig did not seem at all worried at his dismissal. He claimed that “parties in Guelph” had initiated a vendetta against him, and that he would easily clear himself of any and all charges and complaints.

Craig said that he had received a phone call several days earlier telling him that he was relieved of his command, but no one else at London was aware of that fact, and that he had yet to receive official notification or an explanation of what the charges were against him. In the interim, he had continued as commander. He strongly criticized senior officers for their manner of conducting their affairs.

When asked if he knew where the complaints originated, Col. Craig did not hesitate to mention names. He pointed his finger at Alderman Westoby of Guelph, who was secretary of the county Recruiting League, and T.J. Hannigan, who had made a special trip to London in late April to lodge complaints.

It would appear that the two Guelph men believed that Craig was incompetent and inept as a recruiter. They were able to convince senior officers in London of the merits of their charges, and after those officers visited Guelph to make inquiries, they recommended that the Colonel be relieved of his command. This was not Col. Craig’s first confrontation with superior officers. Two years earlier he had been relieved as commanding officer of the Guelph-based 30th Regiment. “London headquarters is actuated by pure vindictiveness,” Craig told the Herald reporter who struggled to write down every word.

Col. Craig was especially livid because his superiors appeared to have decided on his dismissal a month earlier, but waited until the 153rd was at London because they feared an angry reaction if the men were still in Wellington County. He was ready to declare his own personal war: “I am going to fight it to the finish and will demand that the charges against me be fully and publicly investigated,” he said to conclude the interview. “You can take it from me that the end is not yet, but I decline to state what steps I shall take in the matter.”

In later interviews, Alderman Westoby would not comment on the matter, but T.J. Hannigan told reporters that he “had not made any charges against Lieut. Col. Craig.” He did not explain why he had made the special trip to London.

J.J. Craig’s very public battle with his superiors did nothing to help his case or to hasten his  restoration to the command of the 153rd. During a war, the army could not tolerated a loose cannon such as he had become.

The press took up Craig’s case. He made excellent copy, and was always happy to provide a provocative quote to them. Col. Craig continued his campaign against the city of Guelph, claiming that many people there wanted a Guelph man to command the Battalion, and that in their frustration they conducted a campaign to undermine him and the 153rd at every possible opportunity.

Determined to defuse the controversy, officials in Ottawa at first refused to comment on the matter. Sam Hughes, the controversial Minister of Militia, issued a one-sentence press release: “Col. Craig has resigned.”

To anyone in southern Ontario who had read a daily newspaper during the previous week that statement was laughable. When reporters pressed Hughes for more details of the case against Craig, he replied, “The Colonel knows all about it, and I should prefer that any statement should come from him.”

The statement from Hughes added further interest to the case, and reinforced Craig’s claim that Hughes and senior military people were covering something up. Over the following week J.J. Craig kept the issue alive with his statements to the press, expressing his determination to absolve himself of any and all charges and innuendo against himself.

On June 11 Craig sent a telegram to Sam Hughes, the Minister of Militia and Defence, claiming that he had been told nothing about the complaints against himself. All he knew was that he had been summarily dismissed. He once again asked for a full investigation, with witnesses to testify under oath.

“There isn’t a man in Canada whose being throbs with a spark of justice who will not conclude that I am being unfairly dealt with,” he told Hughes. At the same time as he sent the message to Hughes, Craig telegraphed copies to the major daily newspapers in Ontario and as far as Montreal. This time Hughes didn’t snap at the bait. He made no reply.

Next week: Col. J.J. Craig continues his campaign to regain the command of the 153rd Battalion through the summer of 1916.


Stephen Thorning