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016 Sir Robert Borden and his hurry with half a million

Sir Robert Borden

Sir Robert Borden

Loyal Canada turns out to be a nation

It is Sunday 11 October 1914. It is the sixteenth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Belgian army digs itself in behind the river Yser.

Ghent and Lille fall into the hands of the Germans, while the British march into Ypres.

The Germans attack near Diksmuide.

The trial against Gavrilo Princip, suspected of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and his comrades begins.

German troops under the command of August von Mackensen approach Warsaw, but have to retreat under Russian pressure.

Austrian troops in Galicia also get into reverse.

In South Africa military criminal law is officially enforced.

The Adriatic port of Kotor is blasted by an allied fleet.

The Japanese start their attack on Qingdao, Germany’s colony in China.

The first soldiers from New Zealand set sail for Europe, followed the day after by an Australian contingent.

And the Canadian Expeditionary Force already takes up quarters in the South English port of Plymouth, to the satisfaction of the Canadian Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden.

When war breaks out in Europe, the Canadian government is panic-stricken. What if their soldiers arrive late? It is Ottawa’s conviction, too, that the war over there will be over before Christmas. And this while the Canadians still have to prepare their soldiers in a hastily knocked up bootcamp.

Sir Robert Borden, Prime Minister of Canada, decides not to have a full training in that case. He prematurely sends his expeditionary force to England. Canada must and shall make a contribution to crush the tyranny. There are plenty of volunteers. They are queuing up to serve the motherland. Conscription? Not necessary. The millionaire Andrew Hamilton Gault provides 100,000 dollars for the formation of an infantry battalion. It will be called Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Gault himself will join the fight until the day that he loses his left leg.

Who are these 22,000 Canadian fanatics who set foot on English soil on 11 October 1914? They are mainly Britons who have emigrated to Canada. The group of English speaking native Canadians is not so big, while the French speaking Canadians from Quebec show less gusto to do military service for the British empire.

The war itself has drawn heavily on the relations between the various communities in a mixed Canada. Most distressing are the ups-and-downs of the so-called enemy aliens, mainly Ukrainians from the double monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Out of distrust Robert Borden’s government interns thousands of Ukrainians in camps, where they are forced to labour. Tens of thousands of others lose their jobs and have to report to the police regularly. Not until 2008 will the Canadian government express regret about this exclusion policy by filling a memorial fund with dollars. Please note that the 100 Canadian dollar bill carries the image of Sir Robert Borden.

The war easily survives Christmas 1914. Urged by Borden more and more Canadians will report at the front. In July 1915 there are over 150,000, in October of the same year 250,000 and in January 1916 half a milllion, the number promised by Borden. Half a million is an enormous number on a population of around eight million.

Yet national enthusiasm for the war will appear to be inversely proportional to the increase in the number of troops. Therefore Borden sees himself obliged to introduce military service in 1917 after all. The Canadian troops, too, pay a high price during the big allied offensive in that war year. According to Borden reinforcements are badly needed, or else he fears the day that hundreds of thousands – or what is left of them – return home with ‘resentment and even rage’ in their hearts, because they have been abandoned. Being a conservative Borden has to forge a union with the liberals. But resistance in society is tough. Especially from Quebec protest is rising. Canada has a Conscription Crisis with 1 April 1918 as an all-time low. Four people are mortally wounded when the army opens fire at a crowd of protesters in Quebec.

Borden’s loyalty is all the more appreciated in Westminster. Robert Laird Borden, originally from Nova Scotia, is a lawyer by profession. Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister during the second half of the war, calls him ‘the very quintessence of common sense’. Borden proves himself to be a stable factor, who puts policy before politics and the country, or rather the empire, before his party.

In 1914 Canada is one of the five dominions joined to the British empire. The others are Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Newfoundland, which will not be merged into Canada until 1949. The term dominion replaced colony seven years before the war to ratify the large degree of self-government of the five. It mainly concerns domestic politics, which in general is a lot more progressive than in the motherland itself. New Zealand for example already has universal suffrage for men and women in 1893.

Most foreign relations of the dominions are dealt with through London, but Canada already enters into trade agreements before the war and also starts its own foreign office as early as 1909. Because of the war this line of gaining independence is continued at an accelerated pace. During the First World War it is especially the Canadian Robert Borden who on behalf of the dominions urges to confer and participate. January 1916 he writes his famous Toy Automata Letter: ‘It can hardly be expected that we shall put 400,000 or 500,000 men in the field and willingly accept the position of having no more voice and receiving no more consideration than if we were toy automata.’

As new recruits the Canadians set off for the battlefields of the Old World in October 1914. As experienced soldiers they  led the way in the battle far into 1918. What Gallipoli becomes to the Australians and New Zealanders, the test of their heroism, Vimy Ridge will always be so for the Canadian troops. Where Gallipoli, however, turned into a heroic fiasco for the men from down under, Vimy Ridge will go into Canadian history as a classic example of a successful military operation, a brilliant amalgam of planning, innovation, training, fire power and self-sacrifice.

Between 9 and 12 April 1917 four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Army succeed in blowing the Germans off the ridge at Vimy in northern France. The price the Canadians have to pay is high: 3,598 killed on a total number of around 60,000 deaths at the end of the war. At the highest point of Vimy Ridge the Canadians will erect their biggest memorial after the war. It has taken eleven years to build the Canadian National Vimy Memorial when it is unveiled in 1936 by Edward VIII, the king who will give up his crown within a year for the woman of his dreams.

In 2003 the Canadian government declared 9 April Vimy Ridge Day. Thus for patriots Vimy has grown into the top where Canada as a nation left the colonial era behind. The chauvinist claim on Vimy can be nuanced by highlighting the British contribution to the operation. Vimy Ridge was no more than the opening gambit of the Battle of Arras, which from a German perspective had sooner ended in a draw than a defeat. But these are marginal notes that leave the legend in Canada untouched.

Just listen to this piece of prose which has been taken from a Canadian website. ‘Progress was slow and painful, but the Canadians went on into desperate, hand-to-hand conflict with bulldog persistence. It was impossible to drive them back: foot by foot, yard by yard, they broke through the enemy line. Long before the day was closed, Vimy Ridge was won and Canada’s imperishable fame was established in the eyes of the world. Too much glory cannot be given to those who won that terrible conflict.’

If the First World War formed the labour pains of the Canadian nation, Sir Robert Borden was the obstetrician. The question is whether Canada’s First Nations really wanted the child. A relatively large number of original inhabitants, Aboriginals, went into the trenches for the British Empire, something that is frequently overlooked. Indians, Inuit or Eskimos, but also the Métis, the half-breeds, have all made their contributions.

Francis Pegahmagabow, member of the Ojibwa nation, was a first-class sniper. Here and there he is known as the deadliest sniper from the allied camp. It is said that he killed 378 Germans and took another 300 prisoner. Legend has it that at night he went into no man’s land all alone. He would lie there motionless like a corpse, sometimes for days on end, waiting for an unguarded moment of a German. In post-war white Canada Francis Pegahmagabow could not get a job despite his many decorations. His old country was still the reservation, where solace could be found in alcohol.

Canada did not only contribute flesh and blood to the Great War. The Canadian war industry was working at full speed. Canada supplied an abundance of ships, wood, aircraft engines, locomotives, chemical products, food and above all ammunition. This demanded compensation which Borden received. The Imperial War Cabinet and the Imperial War Conference saw the light in the third year of the Great War. To the full satisfaction of Borden the British empire was in conference. ‘After all they are not fighting for us, but with us’, said Lloyd George about the dominions. In the final days of the war the British Prime Minister nevertheless aroused the wrath of Borden and of his Australian colleague Billy Hughes, by fixing an armistice with the Germans without consultation.

Sir Robert Borden, already knighted in 1914, sat out the entire war, just as the other two prime ministers of British dominions, William Massey of New Zealand and Louis Botha of South Africa. But also after the war Borden lay in wait. When in 1919 no chair was available for Canada at the peace talks in Paris, the prime minister of Canada claimed one. His signature also resulted in Canada taking a place in the League of Nations as an independent country. He squarely supported the Fourteen Points of the American president Woodrow Wilson and also showed willingness to intervene in the Russian civil war by assigning Canadian troops to the White army.

In 1920 Sir Robert Borden could conclude his political life after being prime minister for nine years. He gave account in his memoirs. It can be considered a crucial failure in his term of office that he did not manage to smooth off the rough edges of the bilingualism in his country. The French-English contrast also split his own Conservative party.

When he died in 1937 at the age of 82, the British Commonwealth said farewell to perhaps a not very charismatic statesman, for whom the political game did not have much appeal. But the motherland could not have wished for a more loyal vassal in its scariest hours than Sir Robert Borden, whose integrity and sincerity only few people doubted.

Next week: Käthe Kollwitz

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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