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  • A Knight in Politics: A Biography of Sir Frederick Borden
  • Desmond Morton
A Knight in Politics: A Biography of Sir Frederick Borden. Carmen Miller. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010. Pp. 432, $49.95

In illustrations of Sir Wilfrid Laurier's Cabinet, Sir Frederick Borden is the tall, bald man with luxurious mutton-chop whiskers. In such photos, he usually stands near the back, as befits a Canadian defence minister in an era seldom hitherto associated with dramatic military reforms. Yet, as Carman Miller insists, this is the same Borden who extracted a ten-fold increase in Canada's defence spending from his colleagues, who transformed Canada's volunteer militia from an amateur auxiliary to our British defenders. Indeed, it was so inefficient they had discreetly decided not to show up if the Venezuela crisis of 1895-6 turned into an American invasion.

By creating and financing a Canadian army with a staff and medical, transport, signals, and other services as vital in war as the infantry, cavalry, and artillery they served, Fred Borden quietly but irreversibly created the foundation for the Canadian armies of 1914- 18 and 1939-45. Having sacrificed his own beloved son Harold to the [End Page 361] 1899-1903 war in South Africa, Borden was the conscious architect of a war machine that would cost more than a hundred thousand Canadian lives in two world wars. He was also a consistent and eloquent advocate for a Canadian navy — the issue that helped end Laurier's fifteen-year reign.

In the summer of 1967, my new wife and I spent part of our honeymoon in the Nova Scotia archives, reading and taking notes on Miller's first work on Sir Frederick Borden, an MA thesis for Dalhousie University that focused on Borden's struggles with colleagues, Conservatives, and the exasperating British general, Edward Hutton, who assumed that he was both the agent of British imperial policy and the ruler of Canada's defences. Miller's MA thesis made a major contribution to my own PhD thesis for the University of London, and I have often wondered why it was never published.

A Knight in Politics is a powerful answer. It begins with a brilliant socio-economic analysis of Borden's Nova Scotia constituency of King's County, and how Borden built a fortune that, modest by some standards, far exceeded anything even a Harvard-trained doctor could possibly earn in his lifetime. With its Boer War focus, Miller's thesis left me with the impression that the death of his only son Harold in the South African War had ended his father's search for a place in history. Certainly Sir Fred's own archives went into an eclipse after his sole male heir was gone. However, far from abandoning his role as a military reformer, Borden continued with a steely determination, lubricated by such forgiving patience that, ultimately, both Sam Hughes and Lord Minto became admiring allies.

Sir Fred's chief accomplishment was to give Canada an army that befitted a British Empire of sovereign partners. It would be, Borden insisted, an army that could be effectively integrated into a British field force, as Canada's infantry, artillery batteries, mounted rifles, and field hospital had been in South Africa. Canadian staff officers would learn their military doctrine at Camberley, Woolwich, and on active service; British officers would pass on their experience and expertise to the staff of the commands and divisions Borden created to restructure a dozen military districts into an organization better adapted to the actual defence of Canada. Borden became Laurier's chief backer in Parliament and in imperial conferences for an autonomous Canadian navy, even after his chief substituted Montreal for Halifax as Canada's centre for warship construction.

Important for its recognition of Borden's major contribution to our twentieth-century military history, the book places the central figure in [End Page 362] the political, commercial, and economic context of a fast-changing Canada — perhaps Miller's greatest contribution to young historians venturing into biography. Similarly valuable is Miller's effort to identify Sir Fred with the ideological goals of Victorian gentry as eager for recognition...


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