Marching as to War

How two unlikely prime ministers steered Canada through the great 20th-century battles.

Is Canada a warrior nation or a peaceable kingdom?

Few authors are better qualified than Tim Cook to answer a question that has become a part of the national discourse ever since the current government was first elected in 2006.

An internationally acclaimed, award-winning historian at the Canadian War Museum, Cook is one of Canada’s best at integrating the academic expertise of the traditional researcher with the literary flare of the successful novelist. This rare combination allows him to bring a level of reason to what has become an emotional, and unfortunately confrontational, public debate.

He does so, however inadvertently, in Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King and Canada’s World Wars, a study that demonstrates that one need not be a natural warrior to exhibit the warrior spirit.

Unlike Cook’s previous work, Warlords does not break significantly new analytical or interpretive ground. Its stated purpose is fundamentally different: to bring two of Canada’s most transformative prime ministers, Sir Robert Laird Borden and William Lyon Mackenzie King, some of the popular attention that they deserve as national leaders during the First and Second World Wars.

This is not a comparative biography; Borden’s story is told, then King’s, and Cook makes only minimal efforts to link them together explicitly. Warlords—note that Cook never calls the prime ministers warriors—therefore takes the form of a political history of Canada’s wartime experience in the first half of the 20th century as depicted through the thoughts and actions of the men who shaped, more than any others at the time, the nature of the Canadian state and the Canadian international person.

Robert Laird Borden was, as Cook describes him in his first chapter, an unlikely leader. Neither particularly partisan by instinct nor enthralled by the “ritual verbal exchanges” among “the blowhards in Parliament,” he came to politics, and then to the leadership of the Conservative Party, very much by accident.

Borden had established a successful law practice under the tutelage of the prominent Conservative Sir Charles Tupper, when, in 1896, Tupper asked him to run for office. He agreed, but only out of a sense of duty. Nonetheless, after his unexpected election and then re-election during consecutive Liberal landslides, Borden earned sufficient respect among party members to merit an offer of the leadership. He accepted, on a temporary basis, but with no real alternatives in sight, he guided the recovery of the Conservative party through its electoral defeats in 1904 and 1908 and finally into power in 1911.

In spite of his ultimate success, Borden remained suspicious of the nature of the political game. Such a lack of partisan inclinations served him well when Canada found itself at war with Germany in 1914. Borden united the country behind a brutal conflict that it had no part in starting and that was unlikely to reach its shores. And he did so with no idea of how much Canada, and Canadians, would change because of it.

Cook’s account of Borden’s experience as a wartime prime minister is comprehensive, yet utterly accessible. By using his personal story as a window into the broader Canadian wartime experience, Cook exposes the reader to conflict, passion and intrigue that is all too uncommon in historical scholarship.

Why, for example, was Borden so tolerant of the antics of Sir Sam Hughes, his first minister of militia and defence?

Much to the chagrin of his military officials, Hughes arranged his own promotion to the rank of lieutenant (three star) general; in 1914, he replaced Canada’s wartime mobilization plan with a new, ad hoc and chaotic process; and his penchant for privileging his Conservative friends in the awarding of wartime contracts ran counter to his prime minister’s expressed guidance.

But Hughes also successfully created a wartime munitions industry from scratch, and his confidence and self-assuredness were needed by a prime minister who was no wartime expert.

Drawing from his own previously published research, Cook demonstrates how firing Hughes too soon would have deprived the government of the know-how and experience of a trusted colleague who could not easily be replaced, especially since Prime Minister Borden was less than confident in the advice of his chief of the general staff. So Borden allowed Hughes to remain in Cabinet for longer than many of his colleagues would have hoped, firing him only when his partisan antics threatened the credibility of the government and nearly created an internal revolt.

Cook is more critical of how little Borden appreciated the extraordinary cost of the second battle of Ypres in 1915. It took the prime minister close to a week even to acknowledge in his diary a conflict that resulted in over 6,000 often gruesome Canadian casualties, many of which were caused by exposure to chlorine gas.

The bitter realities of war, Cook illustrates, eventually force governments to ask difficult questions. How much democracy is too much, for example, when political delays might cost Canadians overseas their lives? Warlords describes how Borden’s cabinet was gradually superseded in importance by a smaller group of advisors and the prime minister’s own best judgement as the war grew longer. Indeed, three years into the conflict, one senior Cabinet minister wrote in his diary: “Why will he not consult with any of us? … We could help him I think.”

It is clear, then, that the Robert Borden who led Canada and managed the Canadian contribution to war in 1917 was not the same man who had assumed leadership of the Conservative Party in 1901. Having determined that complete victory was critical to Canada’s development as a soon-to-be independent country, he manipulated, bullied, and coerced Parliament into approving a series of laws that allowed him and his new Union government to introduce conscription for overseas service and ensure that Canada played a constructive role in the war until its end.

Notable among his legislative changes was the Military Voters Act, which allowed soldiers, including underaged ones, to choose whether to allocate their vote to a particular member of Parliament or just to a political party. (The party could then apply the vote to a riding of its choice.) Even more disturbing was the Wartime Elections Act, which disenfranchised approximately 50,000 immigrants from enemy countries, along with any Canadians who had received exemptions from conscription.

The results of Borden’s efforts, including his repeated use of closure to secure the passage of his wartime agenda, created new challenges. As Cook explains: “The overseas forces were carving out a name for Canada, but the disgraceful election made it much harder to hide the naked truth that the war was tearing Canada apart.”

Although Cook concludes that Borden’s controversial decisions were necessary—the safety and security of Canadians abroad were paramount—his account of the prime minister’s impact is hardly hagiographic. When Borden retired as prime minister, Canada was divided—farmers (who sought exemptions from conscription) versus soldiers, workers versus employers, francophones versus anglophones—too many Canadian veterans were struggling to deal with experiences overseas from which they would never recover, and the government was saddled with a national debt that would be difficult to repay.

These paradoxical images—a country that was increasingly independent but horribly fragmented, victorious yet in great pain, economically prosperous but also facing unprecedented fiscal challenges—set the context for the arrival of Canada’s next warlord: William Lyon Mackenzie King.

King could not help but be shaped by Canada’s First World War experience, and while Cook’s editorial decision to limit direct comparisons between the two prime ministers is disappointing at times, readers will still contemplate the latter half of the book with Borden in mind.

William Lyon Mackenzie King was all too familiar with paradox when he became leader of the Liberal Party in 1919 and then prime minister in 1921. The grandson of the infamous rebel William Lyon Mackenzie, King was both an anglophile and a Canadian nationalist. Convinced that support in Quebec was critical to his party’s political fortunes, he nonetheless spoke little French nor tried to increase his fluency. In spite of his impeccable pedigree in education (he held five university degrees), King tended to base significant policy decisions on his instincts. And although he is widely regarded as Canada’s premier political tactician, King brought Canada into the Second World War woefully, or, in Cook’s words, “criminally,” unprepared.

The military’s equipment, where it existed, was largely obsolete. The defence budget was so paltry that it amounted to less than the government was spending on pensions and medical care for Canadian veterans. And even after King had concluded that the war was coming and that his country’s ability to defend itself was “wholly inadequate and ineffective,” he delayed taking serious action.

Canadians were not ready for battle in 1939, but Mackenzie King’s Canada was united and otherwise well looked after. Conscious of his own personal strengths and weaknesses, the prime minister empowered his Quebec lieutenant, Ernest Lapointe, to act as the government’s voice in French Canada; he enabled organizational superman C.D. Howe to lead the economic and industrial war effort; and, in time, he entrusted the dedicated and talented J.L. Ilsley to manage the nation’s finances.

Although Cook acknowledges King’s effectiveness as Canada’s head of government, he cannot help but disdain him as a person. The prime minister was, he writes, “fussy and fastidious, selfish and self-absorbed, a natural blamer who shifted responsibility onto others and then complained of how he had been let down—all the while whining that he was unassisted, unappreciated, and standing alone against the storm.”

What King shared most prominently with Borden was unshakeable confidence in the justness of his actions. But whereas Borden’s overwhelming commitment to his war was based on principles, King’s was on his partisan conviction that Canada’s interests during the second global conflict could only be truly served under his, and the Liberal Party’s, political leadership.

As a result, King’s focus was always domestic. His efforts to keep Canadians united came at the great expense of influence on the world stage, and Cook chides him constantly for abdicating his responsibility to demonstrate leadership, or at least to exert Canada’s deserved influence internationally.

For instance, Mackenzie King had no impact on the timing of the Allies’ decision in 1944 to invade Europe, even though one of the five divisions involved was Canadian. That the Canadian military was among the most capable in the world makes King’s lack of influence even more astounding.

Cook also documents and contextualizes King’s spirituality, an understandable focus given the expected demographics of Warlords’ readership. Older generations of Canadians grew up with stories of what historian C.P. Stacey once called King’s double life. For younger readers, however, such detailed consideration will be excessive: most of them know so little about Canada’s political past that they are unaware of the (unconvincing) allegations that King made government policy based on the advice he received through a series of seances.

King’s dilemma with regards to conscription for overseas service, a policy that he initially promised never to enact but then did in 1944, is treated with the same analytical sophistication as is Borden’s. Cook’s attention to detail makes clear the visceral challenge faced by a prime minister caught between the ever-increasing military demands of the war effort and intense national divisions over Canada’s external obligations.

He concludes that imposing conscription was the right decision, even if the prime minister’s reasoning was questionable. Canada’s soldiers abroad were stretched too thin and the lack of reinforcements was resulting in excessive casualties. King, however, was perennially focused on ensuring that any legislation that compelled Canadians to serve abroad would not harm the Liberals’ electoral prospects in French Canada. He only introduced conscription when he felt certain that his party could withstand the inevitable political fallout in Quebec.

Warlords ends as thoughtfully as it begins. There is no question that Borden and King were flawed leaders, but both made the right decisions at the right times. Prime Minister Borden was the internationalist—a firm believer that the effective resolution of a global crisis had to take precedence over domestic priorities. Prime Minister King was the opposite—forever fearful that a national unity crisis caused by a foreign policy decision would divide the country.

Both nonetheless left Canada a more significant player on the international stage than it had been when they took office. And Canada changed more under their wartime leadership than it likely did during any other period in the country’s history.

The First World War saw Canada emerge from its colonial shell. Capable of representing itself with dignity both on the battlefield and in the corridors of international organizations, it was finally ready to assume full independence from Great Britain on the world stage. Thirty years later, Canadians became globally engaged internationalists, willing to contribute their good offices to the preservation of the world order.

Twice, in a matter of just 30 years, the peaceable kingdom transformed itself into an effective warrior nation, suggesting, at least to this author, that branding Canada as one or the other deprives us of an appreciation of the difficult challenges—be they personal, political or material—of state survival in the modern world.

Tim Cook should be applauded for this well-written, well-researched and provocative book. Not only is Warlords great political history; it is also a thoughtful contribution to a broader national dialogue on citizenship and identity.