Tuesday, February 5, 2013 |
From the book:
Borden hobnobbed comfortably with politicians and royalty, but he was equally anxious to visit his soldiers. His attendance at parades and reviews, however, failed signally to electrify the troops. One Canadian general remarked, "Sir Robert Borden was here yesterday--he is too ponderous for soldiers." He was more genuine when visiting the wounded, and tried to meet and talk to as many as he could in the limited time available, visiting an astounding fifty-two separate hospitals. Throughout these testing visits, he was shaken by the young lads putting on brave faces and smiling as they tried to rise from their beds to greet him. He met amputees and men who would never recover from their injuries. Borden said later, "it was the most deeply-moving experience of all my life." This terrible war was laying waste to the best and brightest of the Dominion; Borden brooded on the thought and wondered if anything good could come of such horrendous bloodletting.
"I had gone from pillar to post, from one member of the British government to another, for the purpose of obtaining definite information as to when the British Empire would be in a position to throw its whole strength into the War," Borden wrote in his memoirs. He encountered vagueness wherever he went. Borden was bewildered as to why the forces on the Western Front were stalemated and unable to advance except through the crippling loss of men from shot and shell. He wanted answers but he did not get them. The British were themselves unsure when new armies would be raised, trained, and ready for battle, and when enough artillery shells and heavy guns would be available to break the deadlock. Sometime in 1916, everyone hoped.
Borden regarded this vague forecast to be uninspiring and unconvincing, and he pondered how he could continue to plead and cajole Canadians to do their bit for the war when he had so little sense as to how or when it would be won.
In early September 1915, Sir Robert embarked on the return journey to Canada. He spent hours staring out at the ocean from the upper deck of the ship as he contemplated the war, its strain on the country, and his own eroding health. The trip to Britain had been important: he had met with his imperial political counterparts and visited the brave and broken in hospital. He quickly developed an intimate bond with the "boys" in the hospitals, and their inspirational "triumph of the spirit over the dull pain and monotony of long, weary months." He was too old to fight, but he would not abandon those who served in his place. Yet as part of his nation's sacrifice, Sir Robert Borden, the once-fervent imperialist, increasingly felt that Canada needed more in return for its gut-wrenching contribution to victory. Borden had told an audience in London that, with Canada's heavy involvement, a new commonwealth of "self-governing Dominions" was being forged. The war would provide Canada with greater autonomy within the British Empire. Yet he was haunted by the question: how much was autonomy worth when measured in the blood of Canadians?
Excerpted from Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King, and Canada's World Wars. Copyright © 2012 Tim Cook. Published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.