BORDEN MACKENZIE KING AND CANADA'S WORLD WARS
Two portraits flank the doors leading into Canada's House of Commons: Sir Robert Borden to the left and W.L.M. King to the right. While each man appears flatteringly stern, wise, and charismatic, it is the portrait plaques that are of particular interest. Borden's caption reads: "World War I War Leader, 1914–1918," while King's caption is similar: "World War II War Leader, 1939–1945." No other dates are given.
Perhaps that definition makes sense for Borden, who did little of note before the war; it does not ring true for King, Canada's longest serving prime minister. Yet in both cases world wars shaped their careers and legacies. They ushered in massive government changes: income tax, health care, and conscription; changes to society through industrialization, enfranchisement, and patriotic unpaid labour; and they raised enormous armed forces from a civilian base.
Warlords is a fast-paced narrative that humanizes the war effort through the eyes of the prime ministers. Set against how our senior politicians governed themselves and the nation during these difficult times, it offers an invaluable perspective of war and war leaders.
he man who led Canada during the Great War came from
the village of Grand Pré, Kings County, Nova Scotia. Born
on June 26, 1854, into a loving if not wealthy family, Robert
Laird Borden was anchored to his community. After he left to find
success, he often looked back on Grand Pré with affection: “In all
my journeyings throughout Canada and elsewhere in the world,
I have yet to see any spot more beautiful than that which is still
enshrined in my earliest memories.”1
Such thoughts may not have preoccupied the younger Borden. Robert was an intense and serious youth, rarely known to joke or play games. While he helped his father, Andrew, work the farm, neither were men of the soil, and Robert admitted that he never mastered “the mysteries of building a load of hay,” and found hoeing vegetables “extremely disagreeable” and the sawing of cordwood for winter fires “unpleasurable.”2 He resented the work, partly because it took him away from his studies.
Robert’s mother, Eunice, was an avid reader, and there were rousing discussions of literature and politics in the house. Such talk stimulated the boy, and his parents often found him next to the fireplace reading late into the night, embers smudging his books and clothes. The emerging scholar was so dedicated to his studies that he drew up charts to schedule his day more effectively, which elicited some jibes from his normally compassionate mother. His younger brother, not nearly as gentle, teased him about the schedules that allotted time to reading, study, and even bathroom breaks. It is not surprising that Robert did well in school. He taught himself Latin and Greek, but was drawn to the law, which was a good fit considering his nature. The Bordens, however, could not afford to send him off to university, and he seemed destined to be a small-town teacher, a profession he had already entered at the tender age of fourteen.3
Although he liked the title “The Professor,” bestowed on him by students in one of the single-room schools where he taught, Robert understood that teaching in rural Nova Scotia would leave him with few opportunities for advancement, either professionally or socially.4 So in 1874 he began four years of...
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Tim Cook is the Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum, as well as an adjunct professor at Carleton University. His books have won numerous awards, including the 2009 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction for Shock Troops. He lives in Ottawa with his family.