The old lion: Sam Steele and the Canadian Expeditionary Force

Samuel Benfield Steele is perhaps best known for his role in the North West Mounted Police and the development of Western Canada. Steele was involved in the Canadian campaign to drive Sitting Bull back to the United States after the defeat of General Custer, and fought the Cree at Frenchman’s Butte during the North West Rebellion. 

By the outbreak of the war, Steele was 63 years old and a veteran of the Boer War, as well as one of the leading figures in the development of a Western Canadian militia. He was put forward for Canadian divisional command by Sir Sam Hughes in December 1914, after the minister professed himself to be impressed by Steele’s organisation of over 5 000 western militia members for war, but thought to be too old by Kitchener and thus passed over for full command on the Western Front.

Image above: Samuel Benfield [Sam] Steele and Captain A. E. Shaw, The Lord Strathcona’s Horse. C1914 [Alberta]. Collections CCGW/CCGG.

Instead, Steele was given command of the Canadian 2nd Division in England, with the understanding that his command would pass to another when the division left for France. During Steele’s time in England, he was verbally given assurance of his full command of “all Canadians in England” by Lord Kitchener after command of the division had been passed to General R.E.W. Turner. However, there was considerable confusion about who actually held the position and Steele found himself in conflict with Brigadier General John Carson, a close friend of Sam Hughes, and Brigadier J.C. McDougall, who had held the position before it was given by Kitchener to Steele.

As each jockeyed for position, Steele found himself pushed more and more to the periphery, particularly as his age advanced. He was given the choice to return to Canada as a recruiting officer, which he refused, and subsequently had his position in the Canadian army removed entirely in 1916, leaving Steele with only the British promotion given to him by Kitchener.

Steele continued to work with the British until the end of the war, at which point he made an application to travel back to Canada that was refused on grounds that troop transport was more important. Steele died in Putney on 30 January 1919, after contacting influenza. He was buried, at his request, Winnipeg six months later; his family never returned to live in Canada.

Our photograph shows Steele in happier days while riding with Captain A.E. Shaw of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse, the militia unit that Steele commanded during the Boer War.


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