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Valour (Vol. 11, No. 4)

Revue Militaire Canadienne Vol. 11, No. 4

Book Reviews

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A Knight in Politics: A Biography of Sir Frederick Borden

by Carman Miller

Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010 430 pages, $49.95 ISBN 978-0-7735-3730-9

Reviewed by John MacFarlane

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Sir Frederick Borden (1847-1917) was Canada's longest-appointed minister of defence. Serving under Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier from 1896 to 1911, he led Canada's armed forces through the South African War, and shaped the expansion and modernization of the country's military during a period of imperial reorganization, preparing it for service as a national force in the First World War. The largest Canadian Forces (CF) base, just northwest of Toronto, carries his name, as does a village 64 kilometres southeast of Saskatoon.

Unfortunately, history has not been kind to Sir Frederick. Many assume that Camp Borden, and Borden, Saskatchewan, were named to honour his Conservative cousin, Sir Robert Borden, Prime Minister from 1911 to 1920. Contemporaries criticized his weakness for wine and women, as well as his controversial overlapping of private business interests and public responsibilities. John Buchan’s rapid but influential 1924 biography of Governor General Lord Minto (1898-1904) credits military reforms of the period to British general officers commanding the Canadian militia, notably the General Officer Commanding (GOC) Major-General E.T.H. Hutton (whose self-promotion did much to encourage the distortion), and also Lord Dundonald. More recently, Richard Preston and Desmond Morton have portrayed Borden as a “… reforming, committed, informed public servant, a competent administrator with a well-defined agenda, the catalyst for a military renaissance who presided over ‘the greatest peacetime expansion and modernization of Canada’s military forces.’”

Carman Miller’s excellent work allows us to more completely understand and appreciate Borden’s contribution. Instead of glossing over personal controversies of his subject, Miller skilfully reveals how the complex “symbiotic relationship” between Borden’s business and political interests was fused. Times were very different; political-business dealings, that today might make even Karl Heinz Schreiber and Brian Mulroney blush, were common. Trained as a medical doctor in Canning, Nova Scotia, Borden became an important member of the community where his family had deep roots. Aided by inheritance and marriage, as well as the ability to use his opportunities well, he invested in ships, land, and other aspects of the regional economy. He took particular interest in the local militia. Miller seizes the opportunity in this biography to present, not only the life of one man, but also his society, and how each affected the other.

Although still a physician, Borden, by 1896, had become more occupied with business activities than medicine, when the Liberal victory led him to focus more upon politics. He had been first elected to Parliament at the age of 27 in 1874, the same year as his colleague and personal friend, a young Wilfrid Laurier, who was 33 at the time. Both shared similar interests and vision for the country that included pragmatic, inclusive approaches to controversial questions of the time related to economics, religion, language, and regions. Laurier selected Borden as Minister of Defence, and over the next fifteen years, the MP for King’s, Nova Scotia, devoted much attention to a growing department. Miller presents vividly  that growth by noting the budget for Defence grew sevenfold over Borden’s fifteen years, ultimately  to account for nearly 10 percent of the government’s overall budget—which had increased only ‘2.3 fold’ during the same period.

Carman Miller is perhaps best known to students of Canadian military history for his classic account of Canada’s first war of the 20th Century, Painting the Map Red: Canada and the South African War, 1899-1902. The Miller database of Canadians involved in that war, available at Library and Archives Canada, is invaluable. A Knight in Politics will not be the first source for those studying Canadians in that war, but there is excellent information on Borden’s role; his motives, key decisions, relationships, and personal reactions—notably upon learning of the loss of his only son, Harold.

The famous clash he had with Major-General Hutton is also described in detail. Seeking greater control over political decisions since his arrival in Canada in August 1898, Hutton, encouraged by his friend, Governor General Lord Minto, used the war to further his agenda before being dismissed, in the words of Miller, underestimating “Borden’s political skills, his standing within the cabinet, and his friendship with Laurier…In retrospect, Hutton’s dismissal proved an important turning point in Borden’s ministerial career. It established his authority in his department and earned him the respect of his cabinet colleagues as well as that of some of his former detractors…”

The major part of the book, and its most important contribution, is the account of the significant reform of Canada’s armed forces under Borden. The South African War had accelerated the desire of many Canadians to develop as a separate nation; most sought imperial cooperation, but not integration. Borden announced that the Empire was “… no longer a power with dependencies, but a power made up of several nations,” and realized the importance of self-defence in this evolution. A greater attempt to produce and use Canadian equipment was one consequence, which mostly yielded good results, despite the experience of the Ross rifle.

Borden’s reforms, often described as being focused on the country’s militia, relied upon a vastly different, and larger, permanent force. The experience in South Africa led to the creation of several specific service units in the following years (medical, engineer, signals, army service, ordnance, army pay, veterinary, and postal). Of course, 1910 witnessed the birth Canada’s navy, and the taking over of the British garrisons at Halifax and Esquimalt. Miller correctly emphasizes the importance of Borden’s insistence upon professionalism during this period of rapid change and growth: removing military appointments and promotions from partisan politics, developing military education and training institutions, while maintaining public support.

Well researched and written, A Knight in Politics was deservingly short-listed for the 2011 J.W. Dafoe Prize. The work provides a fascinating look at Borden, the man, and his turbulent times, both of which significantly influenced the Canadian military, not only as it entered the First World War, but to this day.

John MacFarlane is a historian at the Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence. He co-authored, with William Johnston, William Rawling, and Richard Gimblett, The Seabound Coast: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Navy, 1867-1939, and is currently working on the official history of Canadian observers in Indochina, 1954-1973.


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