Canadians in World War One
The Rt. Hon. Sir Robert Laird Borden, Prime Minister of Canada
March 1918, 20th century
This artefact belongs to : © National Archives of Canada
The prime minister Robert Borden gave Canada a great sense of nationalism when he said Canada will give half a million troops to the war effort. Not only that but his great enthusiasm to win the war boosted the morale of all of Canada.
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Keys to History
More than most Canadians Sir Robert Borden, a Nova Scotian Conservative and prime minister since 1911, believed in Canada's close, loyal and equal status within the British Empire. War in 1914 was a challenge to Canadians to do their utmost. In August 1915 Borden finally visited Britain. He was appalled. British ministers were on holiday, many of them shooting grouse in Scotland. Only one, David Lloyd George, the Minister of Munitions, was hard at work. Apart from him Britain's wartime government lacked Borden's most prized virtue: "earnestness". That meant effort wasted and what was worse, young lives needlessly lost. He saw the waste, since he spent every spare minute visiting the hospital wards with their terrible human wreckage.
Borden could say nothing of his awful discovery without destroying morale. What could he do? He returned to Canada dismayed but dedicated. Immediately he boosted the country's commitment of soldiers to 250,000, a goal that would easily be met and aroused little interest. He thought harder. In 1916 the British would begin conscription. What Canada had that the British already lacked was manpower. In his New Year's statement on January 1st,1916, Borden would stretch Canada's war effort to breaking point. Out of only eight million Canadians, half a million would become soldiers. No British dominion could do more!
Patriotic speeches were cheap in 1914, but Borden usually meant what he said and he went out of his way to meet the men who had suffered in the war, the wounded in hospitals. He said they strengthened his will to fight the war to the end. Many other Canadians lost interest in the war and wanted it over. In Borden's view, they were not "earnest".
Borden had been an anti-Confederate as a young man and was converted by the emotion of seeing men from his province going west to fight Riel in 1885. His Halifax Program in 1906 called for honest, efficient government, and an end to patronage and political favours. Once free of his old Conservative party in 1917, he actually implemented many of the reforms he had wanted.
Borden made his pledge of 500,000 men at the start of 1916, the year in which many believed that the British would finally win the war. They were wrong. It would last until November 1918.
Borden was a big, stolid, seemingly unemotional man whose hair and moustache went white during the wartime years. A poor boy, he educated himself from his earnings as a teacher, became one of Nova Scotia's most respected lawyers, entered politics and became Conservative leader in 1900.