After tragic occurrences, we’re used to political leaders making a stop or two at hospitals to have their pictures taken with the afflicted. But how about a prime minister visiting 52 hospitals, speaking to wounded and dying soldiers individually at each, taking notes from them for their Canadian families back home?
This is what Sir Robert Borden, arguably Canada’s most underrated prime minister, did in Europe in the summer of 1915. It was early in the war, that horrific conflict that is stupidly called the Great War. Rather than spending the bulk of his time in posh hotels and dining with royalty, Borden was determined to see every stricken Canadian soldier in England and France, no matter how long it took.
Borden is the Conservatives’ one great war leader. He is the prime minister today’s party, fixated as it is on military history, should be showcasing, since this is the centennial of the year the war began. Instead, John Diefenbaker gets more attention.
Borden went personally to the hurt and dying, more than 1,000 in all. Having led Canada into the war, he felt he owed them as much. “I was inspired,” he wrote in his memoirs, “by the astonishing courage with which my fellow countrymen bore their sufferings, inspired also by the warmth of their reception, by their attempt to rise in their beds to greet me. In many cases, it was difficult to restrain my tears when I knew that some boy, brave to the very last, could not recover.”
The Nova Scotia Tory, never a self-promoter, went about the visits quietly. They exhausted him emotionally. Lying in bed, flashbacks to the hospital scenes prevented him sleeping.
When he returned to Canada, his outlook had changed. In a letter to our high commissioner to London, Sir George Perley, Borden wrote: “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.” He recalled a conversation with a top British cabinet minister who spoke to him about lack of materiel, but lamented that “the chief shortage was of brains.”
That kind of shortage, the kind that saw British generals ordering thousands from the trenches to charge to their deaths for advances of a few metres, was hardly to be welcomed. Borden’s understanding of the carnage, of the major role his countrymen played in the war compared to others, emboldened him to take a resolute stance in demanding Canadian autonomy within the British empire. The days of London dictating Canadian foreign policy like it was a two-bit colony were numbered.
Borden helped convince prime minister David Lloyd George (who later described Borden as “the quintessence of common sense”) to establish an Imperial war cabinet to include the Canadian and other Commonwealth leaders. At the Paris Peace Conference, Borden declared that Canada would not tamely submit to seeing countries like Cuba, Panama and Ecuador with higher station. He gained separate membership in the League of Nations, prompting South African leader Jan Smuts to tell him: “You and I have transformed the structure of the British Empire.”
To be sure, his prosecution of the war had its share of missteps and bad judgments. But as historian Michael Bliss has written, Borden has “a compelling claim to be the father of Canada’s effective independence.” Mr. Bliss and others rank him the best Tory prime minister of the 20th century.
He is deserving of much more recognition as we recall that century-old war – and not just from the Conservative Party.