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Banner: First Among EqualsRobert Laird Borden banner

Speech before the Canadian Club of Halifax, December 18, 1914


Those upon whom the duty of directing public affairs has fallen during the past four months are sensible of the tremendous responsibilities imposed by the appalling conflict which has been forced upon our Empire. They have been sustained and cheered by the support and co-operation of the whole nation. lt has not always been possible to make haste as rapidly as some would desire, but we have understood the earnestness of those who sometimes have felt constrained to urge that greater expedition should be made in sending aid to the Empire's armies.

My native province, in common with the whole Dominion, has nobly responded to the call of duty. Under the laws of Canada, our citizens may be called out to defend our own territory, but cannot be required to go beyond the seas except for the defence of Canada itself. There has not been, there will not be, compulsion or conscription. Freely and voluntarily the manhood of Canada stands ready to fight beyond the seas in this just quarrel for the Empire and its liberties. With 8,000 men engaged in garrison and outpost duty, 33,000 beyond the seas and 50,000 under arms in Canada, as many more waiting for the opportunity to enlist, and tens of thousands training in Home Guards and similar military organizations, the races which make up the population of this Dominion have shown that they are not decadent. This province has furnished a force of nearly 3,000 men for garrison and outpost duty, besides a thousand now beyond the seas in the first Expeditionary Force and another thousand now enrolled and eagerly awaiting the opportunity to go forward. Including Home Guards and other unofficial military organizations, about 120,000 Canadians are now under arms. Remember, however, that Germany's military strength can hardly be measured. The entire nation is trained to arms and her preparation for war is on a scale which it is almost impossible to estimate. Our Empire is under the temporary disadvantage of lacking such organization, and preparation on a tremendous scale is now necessary. We have been obliged to undertake it since war broke out, and it is essential and even vital to hold the enemy in check while it is being provided. I have reason to believe that the results achieved by the Allied armies for that purpose are considered satisfactory by those best qualified to judge. It would be not only unjust, cruel, and useless, but positively fatal to the success of our arms that troops should be sent into the fighting line without thorough training, necessary equipment and effective organization; and this cannot be accomplished within a brief period. No effort is being spared in Canada or elsewhere in the Empire to effect its accomplishment. There is every reason to anticipate that before many weeks our forces on Salisbury Plain will be in the fighting line, where they will discharge their duty with credit to themselves and to this Dominion. The record of South Africa inspires us with that just confidence. As soon as they are ordered to the front, a second Expeditionary Force will go forward. Thereupon, the force training in Canada will immediately be reculted to its present strength and men now waiting to enlist will thus be given their opportunity. I fix no limit on the force we shall send forward, for no man can predict with confidence what the ultimate need may be. The preservation of our Empire is worth fighting for, and Canada is prepared to send all that are necessary.

I have said that we lack military preparation on a great scale, and the reason is obvious. Our Empire has been trained in the paths of peace and the best safeguard of its existence has been found in our Navy. The British naval forces, with the powerful assistance of the allied navies, have been able not only to muzzle effectively the chief naval forces of Germany in the North Sea, but also to keep such command of the ocean as to prevent either dangerous raids or prolonged and serious interruption of commerce. Without that assistance, the task would have been infinitely more difficult, and perhaps impossible. We realize only imperfectly the immensity of the oceans and the extreme difficulty of overtaking and disposing of swift and powerful cruisers carrying out a systematic plan of raiding and marauding. There have been disasters which must always be anticipated in war. Our tribute is due to Admiral Cradock and those who went down with him, among them four young Canadians, fighting to the last against overwhelming odds. That defeat has since been amply wiped out.

Information has already been given in Parliament respecting certain steps taken by the Government during the months immediately preceding the outbreak of war, and these may be of interest to you at the moment. The Committee of Imperial Defence, as at present constituted, was established in 1904. It consists of the Prime Minister of Great Britain and of such persons as he may summon to attend it. Practically all members of the British cabinet attend its deliberations fom time to time, and usually the more important members of the Cabinet are present. In addition to these, naval and military experts and technical officers of the various departments concerned are in attendance when required. The results of the Committee's labours are embodied in a "War Book", which sets forth in great detail necessary measures to be taken upon the outbreak of war and carefully considered arrangements for carrying out these measures without delay or confusion. The work of the Committee is largely carried on by sub-committees, which are often constituted in part by persons who are not members of the general committee and who are selected for their special knowIedge of a particular subject. Among the permanent sub-committees is one called "The Oversea Defence Committee", which gives particular attention to matters affecting the defence of the Overseas Dominions.

There had been no committee in Canada charged with the same duties; and conditions made it desirable that we should be prepared for grave events which might transpire without much warning. All the innumerable contingencies arising out of war cannot be provided for; but reasonable foresight and effective preparation can guard against many of them. In addition to well-considered arrangements for the necessary mobilization of military force to defend our territory, there are many matters for which systematic and careful preparation should obviously be made in advance. The precautions which must be taken against possible surprise attack when relations with another power have become strained; the censorship of submarine cable and wireless telegraph messages: the detention of enemy ships, both public and private; the detention of British ships laden with contraband of war; necessary measures to prohibit the export of warlike stores required for our own forces and to prevent the export of any such stores for the use of the enemy; the arrest of merchant ships which are intended for conversion into warships, and of cable and other ships specially useful to the enemy; the closing of certain wireless telegraph stations and the supervision and guarding of those kept open; the preparation of secret codes and cyphers for communication of intelligence; arrangements for the transport of troops by land and by sea to guard important points; the erection of necessary additional fortifications; the establishing and buoying of war channels in important harbors; the provision of necessary patrol and lookout ships; the examination of vessels entering port and the establishment of regulations respecting their entrance and departure; regulations for the prevention of espionage and to ensure the safety of fortifications, arsenals, military and naval depots and dockyards; the preparation in advance of all the necessary Orders-in-Council and reguIations, including instructions to hundreds of officers; the preparation and transmission to important officials of sealed directions to be opened only in the event of war; and generally the co-ordination of all the activities of the various Departments of the Government so that there might be no confusion through overlapping and no disaster through omission; all this required, and it had to receive, protracted, unremitting and laborious consideration and attention in advance if we were to be reasonably prepared. Early in January of the present year I directed a conference of the deputy heads of the various Departments of the Government and instructed them to undertake the necessary preparation and to report to me from time to time. The Conference consisted of the Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs, the Governor-General's Military Secretary, the Deputy Minister of Militia and Defence, the Deputy Minister of the Naval Service, the Deputy Minister of Justice, the Commissioner of Customs, the Deputy Minister of Marine and Fisheries, the Deputy Postmaster-General, and the Deputy Minister of Railways and Canals, with the Director of Military Operations, Major Gordon Hall, and the Director of Gunnery, Lieut. R. M. Stevens, as Joint Secretaries. The work commenced in January, and necessary arrangements were practically completed during July. Every Department of the Government was instructed to develop its own line of action in detail, and the whole was subsequently co-ordinated and incorporated into one scheme, indicating the course to be followed by the Government as a whole upon the outbreak of war. The labours of the Committee resulted in the preparation of a "War Book", which was completed only a few weeks before this appalling struggle began. It is impossible to overestimate the advantage which resulted from the steps thus taken. While war was impending and when it broke out, measures which were immediately and urgently necessary were taken instantly and with an entire absence of confusion. Each detail had been worked out with precision and every necessary step had been arranged in advance. All details of preparation, arrangement and instruction had been systematically compiled into the "War Book", which co-ordinated the activities of the several Departments and rendered possible an effective co-operation with the Imperial authorities, which otherwise would have been exceedingly difficult if not largely impracticable. The work of the Committee was most efficiently performed, and the thanks of the country are due to all its members, especially to the Joint Secretaries, Major Gordon Hall and Lieut. Stevens.

The German people have been taught that war is a national duty and indeed a necessity of national development. According to their view, other nations had been spreading their power and influence throughout the world while the German people were engrossed in the higher considerations of philosophy and religion, so that now the German Empire must win by the sword that which it had omitted to secure before the German race was consoIidated under Prussian dominance. Their most influential writers treat all proposals to establish international courts of arbitration as designed to prevent the legitimate expansion of their Empire. In the introduction to one of his latest works, General Bernhardi, in speaking of international arbitration, uses this language:

"We Germans, therefore, must not be deceived by such official efforts to maintain the peace. Arbitration courts must evidently always consider the existing judicial and territorial rights. For a rising State, which has not yet attained the position due to it, which is in urgent need of colonial expansion, and can only accomplish it chiefly at the cost of others, these treaties therefore augur ill at once as being apt to prevent a rearrangement of power."

And again:

"If we wish to gain the position in the world that is due to us, we must rely on our sword, renounce all weakly visions of peace, and eye the dangers surrounding us with resolute and unflinching courage."

And again:

"Every State would sin against itself if it did not employ its power when the right moment has arrived."

And again:

"Germany's further development as a world-power is possible only after a final settlement with England."

Especially, the German people have been taught that the British Empire stands in their way and must be dealt with at an opportune moment as Denmark, Austria and France were in turn overthrown. Germany is, beyond question, the greatest military power in the world. The organized military forces of our Empire are absolutely insignificant in comparison; but the conditions of our existence make it necessary that Great Britain should be, beyond question, the greatest naval power. The ocean pathways are the veins and arteries of the Empire, and when these are cut or obstructed it cannot continue to exist. Naval power is not in the least essential to the national existence of Germany, yet she has proclaimed that her future is on the sea. What that betokens may be gathered from her past upon land. Notwithstanding every attempt by British statesmen to bring about a better understanding, Germany has carried out persistently and defiantly a policy which was openly put forward and heralded as a challenge to British naval power.

The Prussian military oligarchy dominates Germany, and the people have become obsessed with the religion of valour and the doctrine that might is the highest and indeed the only right. Public opinion, as we understand it, is a force almost unknown and hardly realized there. There is practically no public opinion other than the Government's opinion. Moreover, a nation that has been consolidated through war and that has been continuously victorious in its wars for more than fifty years and has astonished the world by its military prowess, a nation whose people have never experienced the horrors of invasion to which they have subjected other countries, probably becomes intoxicated with the idea of continued victory. A salutary lesson will assuredly be learned by the German people before the sword is sheathed in this struggle. We realize that a great task has been forced upon our Empire, but it has not been Iightly undertaken. Canada, in common with the other Dominions, will do her part in seeing that it is properly and throughly performed.

This appalling war could undoubtedly have been avoided if Germany had consented to the mediation which Sir Edward Grey so earnestly urged and in which all the powers except Germany were prepared to participate. At the very outset, Belgium, a small State possessing no considerable military strength, desiring merely to remain unmolested, and having absolutely no interest in the quarreI, was ruthlessly invaded by Germany and forced into war. There was no possible alternative; if Belgium resisted the German armies which invaded her territories she became involved in war with Germany; if she permitted German armies to pass unhindered through her territories for the purpose of attacking France, she necessarily became involved in war with France. The valor and heroism of the Belgian army have excited the admiration of the world, as the undeserved sufferings of the Belgian people have commanded its profound sympathy.

After Great Britain had asked from Germany the assurance which both Prussia and France had given in 1870, and which France gave in 1914, that Belgian neutrality would not be violated, inasmuch as it was guaranteed by all the great powers of Europe, contemptuous reference was made by the German Chancellor to the treaty as a "scrap of paper". That cynical and even degenerate conception reverts to standards which are beyond the limits of recorded history. Under such a misconception of public right and international duty, how is it possible for nations to deal with each other? Three thousand years ago it was considered disgraceful that a nation should violate its solemn engagements. The fundamental principle upon which the internal organization and the external relations of each nation are based is the honourable fulfilment of engagements and pledges and the assurance that they will be so fulfilled. The constitution of many countries is but a "scrap of paper". Our laws are recorded in "scraps of paper". The dealings of mankind are carried on by "scraps of paper". All our commercial fabric is founded on "scraps of paper". From Magna Carta to the British North America Act, our rights and liberties have been safeguarded by "scraps of paper". In short, the thought and the achievement of all the centuries is embodied in "scraps of paper". When terms of peace come to be considered, the Prussian cynicism touching treaty obligations must not be forgotten.

Amid all the horror and welter of this worldwide conflict we may yet discern hope for the future. It will arouse, I hope, the conscience of all the nations to bring about concerted action for the reduction of armaments and for the placing of the whole world upon what one might term a peace footing. Upon this continent there is a boundary line of nearly four thousand miles between this country and the great kindred nation to the South. That boundary is unguarded and unfortified as between the two nations, and we sleep securely without thought of war or invasion. The proposal to commemorate our Century of Peace has commanded the approval of the people and Government of Canada, and I trust it will be worthily realized.

And since this struggle began, one cannot but perceive an awakened national spirit and consciousness in this Dominion. In a young and rapidly developing country such as this, the aspirations of material prosperity are bound to impose themselves very strongly upon the imagination. To those who held aloft the lamp of idealism it sometimes seemed that the clamour of the market place, the din of the factory, and the rush of the locomotive had absorbed the minds of the people. But when the day came which searched their spirit, Canadians did not fail to remember that there is something greater than material prosperity and something greater than even life itself. The wonderful and beautiful spirit of mutual helpfulness, of desire to aid, the spirit of self-sacrifice, of patriotism of devotion, which in these latter months has inspired the Canadian people from ocean to ocean will leave an enduring mark upon our national life. It has dissolved prejudice and curbed discord and dissension. And who of you will not do reverence to the courage, the devotion and the patriotism of the women of Canada; those who with undaunted hearts but tear-dimmed eyes have seen husband, son or brother go forth to battle; those who in a thousand missions of aid and of mercy are unwearying in their infinite labours of love? Who of you will not say with me, God bless the women of Canada!

The British Empire, as presently constituted, is a very recent creation or rather evolution. The British Islands, which constitute the metropolitan state of the Empire, have no written constitution and the overseas Dominions are governed under an apparent confusion of statutes, charters, conventions and understandings. To those who do not comprehend the governing principle which pervades all this seeming confusion, the Empire seems to have no logical right to exist at all; and naturally they regard it as decadent and look for disunion and weakness in the hour of trial. But the principle of autonomous self-government, applied wherever conditions permit and to the greatest extent that they would permit, has been and is its great cardinal feature. There has been no weakness and no disunion, because the unity and strength of the Empire are securely founded upon its liberties, wherein alone enduring strength is found. Thus the dominions of the Empire, united by the tie of a common allegiance and of a common ideal, present today an unbroken front.

In this country we are a peace loving people, and great tasks lie before us in the peaceful development of our resources. We have no lasting quarrel with the German people, who have great qualities and whose achievements in every important sphere of human progress are conspicuous, although they are temporarily misled by the militarism of Prussia; but we will fight to the death against the vain attempt of an arrogant militarist oligarchy to impose upon the world its ideals of force and violence and to achieve its unworthy purpose by "blood and iron".


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Source: Borden, Robert Laird. Canada at war: speeches by the Rt. Hon. Sir Robert Laird Borden before Canadian Club. [Ottawa?: Office of the Prime Minister?], 1914. Pages 17-24.


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