READMAN, ONÉSIME, militia officer and army officer; b. 4 June 1877 in Saint-Urbain, Que., son of John Redman, a blacksmith, and Laure Martineau; m. 31 Jan. 1911 Valérie Bourassa in Saint-Joseph-de-la-Pointe-de-Lévy, Que., and they had one daughter; d. 19 March 1920 at Notre-Dame Hospital in Montreal.
Onésime Readman is remembered because his life illustrates some of the difficulties and misfortunes associated with recruiting in Canada during World War I. Readman enlisted at the age of 17 in the non-permanent active militia: on 10 Nov. 1894 he joined the 81st (Portneuf) Battalion of Infantry as a second lieutenant. He was adjutant of the unit with the rank of lieutenant when it was disbanded in 1901. His name then did not figure on the militia list until he was posted to the 4th Regiment (Chasseurs Canadiens) in 1903 as a captain. He was promoted major on 5 June 1909 and was given command of the regiment on 8 March 1914 with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.
On 6 Aug. 1914, three days after Germany declared war on France, Readman volunteered for service, and he was sent to England as an officer attached to the 12th Infantry Battalion in the first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He returned to Canada in December after military authorities put him on the list of surplus officers, and he was discharged on the 11th. By March 1915 he had settled in Lauzon (Lévis) and was calling himself a manufacturer. Then he joined the Quebec City detachment of the 41st Infantry Battalion, which was under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Louis-Henri Archambault. He served as a company commander in this unit until August, but could not go with the battalion to England because of illness.
Instead of relying on militia regiments as would be the practice in World War II, Hughes had decided to create new infantry units numbered from 1 to 258. Fourteen of these would be French-speaking; the first, set up in October 1914, was the 22nd Infantry Battalion. Readman was authorized on 17 Dec. 1915 to recruit throughout the province of Quebec for his battalion, the 167th, but he never managed to fill its ranks. Other francophone battalions were forming at the same time and after the first four months of 1916 recruiting was increasingly difficult.
It is not known how many volunteers enlisted in the 167th. Readman claimed to have recruited some 1,100 men, but the figure is likely inflated since, on the evidence, the unit never reached 600. The authorities pulled three small detachments of 30 men or fewer from the battalion; one was sent to Bermuda as reinforcement for the 163rd Infantry Battalion, organized by Olivar Asselin*, and the other two went to England. Furthermore, 144 soldiers and non-commissioned officers were transferred to the 189th, which was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Philippe-Auguste Piuze. Of the men enlisted by Readman, 144 served at the front with the 22nd.
Readman himself would prove incapable of adequately managing his battalion. The report of the medical officer who inspected the drill hall in Lévis on 12 Nov. 1916 called attention to the general lack of cleanliness at the site, and the battalion’s books revealed numerous irregularities which led to the dismissal of its second-in-command the following year. Colonel Arthur Mignault*, one of the main people responsible for the creation of the 22nd Battalion, recommended the 167th be transformed into the recruiting depot for Quebec City. This step was taken on 15 Jan. 1917, and Readman, who had been relieved of his duties the month before, was integrated into Mignault’s team of recruiters. The group’s efforts failed miserably. Readman was discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force on 15 June, as was Mignault in October. Taken to court in April 1918 on 67 counts of malversation, Readman was acquitted. His numerous appeals to the Department of Militia and Defence and to Prime Minister Sir Robert Laird Borden* seeking compensation for the expenses he had incurred in raising his battalion seem to have led nowhere. One is tempted to think that Readman’s troubles contributed to his premature death on 19 March 1920.
It is easy to be critical of the 167th Battalion’s commander. Readman certainly fell prey to his ambition and his appetite for power and honours. He was also a poor administrator, but circumstances did not help. From the moment Readman was named head of the battalion, the commander of Military District No.5, Brigadier-General Alfred-Octave Fages, made clear his opposition to formation of the unit, not hesitating to communicate his opinion officially to the minister of militia and defence. He never accepted the battalion’s establishment, and his attitude rendered the task of setting it up more difficult for Readman, whom he knew. Undoubtedly Readman would not have obtained command of an Expeditionary Force battalion if Hughes had followed military custom and consulted Fages before proceeding to create the 167th. Furthermore, as Readman freely admitted, he was a supporter of the Conservative party. It is a good question whether Hughes would have approved the formation of the unit if its founder had not had links with the party and had not received the backing of Blondin. World War I gave rise to all sorts of unusual situations and Sam Hughes, in his eagerness to have a finger in every pie without considering the responsibilities of superior officers, was one of those most accountable for the oddities. Moreover, the Department of Militia and Defence had neither the infrastructure nor the means of financial and administrative control to prevent, or at least minimize, mistakes and reprehensible actions. The minister encouraged abuses by giving battalion commanders carte blanche to recruit their units and by counting on some to assume the costs involved; he also took enormous risks in authorizing men he knew little or not at all to form battalions.
Onésime Readman was one such individual. He did not have the qualities to lead a battalion. From any perspective, the success of the Canadian Expeditionary Force clearly rested on fragile foundations in certain ways. It was the unshakeable will of a nation being formed which enabled it to triumph over many obstacles.
NA, Headquarters file for Lieutenant-Colonel Onésime Readman; RG 150, Acc. 1992–93/166, box 8126. L’Événement, 16 avril 1918. J.-P. Gagnon, Le 22e bataillon (canadien-français), 1914–1919; étude socio-militaire (Québec et Ottawa, 1986).