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Banner: First Among EqualsRobert Laird Borden banner

Speech before the House of Commons, May 18, 1917


[page] 1539

. . .

Sir ROBERT BORDEN: In Great Britain I visited eight camps in all: Shorncliffe, Crowborough, Shoreham, Seaford, Witley, Bramshott, Hastings, and in Windsor Great Park, a camp of the Canadian Forestry Corps. I found the men in good spirits, in good physical condition, and undergoing careful and effective training ; at least it seemed to me excellent. I visited hospitals in Great Britain and France, and everywhere I found our men receiving, so far as I could see, the best of attention. I did not hear a complaint from any man in hospital, except from one man who complained to me that the Germans were not fighting fairly, because, he said, �when the Canadians climbed the Vimy ridge, the Germans did not stand up to them, but ran away instead of fighting like men.� I deemed it not only my duty, but my very great honour and privilege, to utilize every spare moment in seeing our men in the hospitals ; and I saw only two men from Vimy ridge who did not smile with great satisfaction when I spoke of their having driven the Germans back. Those men could not smile with their lips by reason of their wounds, but they did smile with their eyes. Let me say to the members of this House and to the people of this country that no man wanting inspiration, determination or courage as to his duty in this war could go to any better place than the hospitals in which our Canadian boys are to be found. Their patience, pluck and cheerfulness are simply wonderful. I saw some of those who are near and dear to members of this House in one of the London hospitals after that fight, the brother of one hon. member and the son of another, and I can tell those members that those young men were in fine form, in splendid spirit, proud and happy to have rendered the great service to their country which they were able to accomplish when the Vimy ridge was captured.

There is another thing that should be mentioned, and that is the very, very great kindness of the British people to all our Canadian troops. I have been among them in camps and hospitals and elsewhere, and there was hardly a place I visited where I did not find visitors at the hospitals giving great care and attention to our wounded. The troops themselves realize with the greatest possible gratitude and appreciation the kindness and attention of all those among whom they are thrown, and I know the people of this country, when they realize it in the same way, will be inspired with the same sense of gratitude.

Certain representations have been made to me and also to the overseas authorities from time to time that the Canadian troops contract drinking habits while overseas. I made it my special business to inquire as to that. I inquired of General Turner, General Steele, and of General Child of the War Office, who has to deal with such matters, and I shall place their reports upon the Table afterwards, I shall not stop to read them now. It is enough to say that these reports indicate that such representations are almost absolutely without foundation. The Canadian troops are not addicted to the habit of drunkenness. It was represented to me by General Steele, in whose word I have absolute confidence, that there is less drinking among the Canadian troops than among any other troops in the United Kingdom, and I thoroughly believe that. Drinking is almost at a minimum. I think General Steele said that three men per thousand per week in the area under his command had been brought up on such a charge during a particular period, and that was a fair average. General Steele said that he believed it was better to utilize the wet canteen than to permit the men to go to public houses near at hand. When troops go to the canteen they are necessarily under discipline and supervision. If there is no wet canteen, and the men go

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out to the public houses  --  and you cannot very well prevent them  --  they are not under the same discipline or supervision, and almost all the difficulty has arisen in that way, and not through the wet canteen. So far as general war conditions are concerned  --  I am sorry to have had to trespass so long on the attention of the House, but I am dealing with an important subject, and some of these matters that seem trivial may yet be of interest  --  all realize that there were great developments during our visit to Great Britain. We started almost immediately after the submarine campaign commenced, and while we were there the fortunes of war in many theatres of operations were very largely in favour of the Allied nations. There was a great victory in Mesopotamia. The offensive was assumed with marked success by the British armies in France and substantial advances were made. But I hope that hon. gentlemen in looking at the map will realize that the territory won by the offensive which commenced this spring is only an insignificant part of the Allied territory that is still held by the Germans. The overwhelming power of our artillery impressed me as very much greater in the fighting this spring than it was on the Somme. But a great struggle still lies before us in this war; that is the message I bring back to you from Great Britain and from the front. A great struggle lies before us, and I cannot put that before you more forcibly than by stating that at the commencement of this spring�s campaign Germany put in the field 1,000,000 more men than she put in the field last spring. The organization of the man-power of that nation has been wonderful. Awful as are the barbarities and methods which she has perpetrated and used, one cannot but admit that the organization of the national life of that country throws into the field absolutely the full power of the nation.

Sir SAM HUGHES: Does that 1,000,000 include troops of other nations besides Germany, or Germans only?

Sir ROBERT BORDEN: It includes Germans only. Germany has managed so to organize her national life that she was able to put in the field at the commencement of this spring's campaign 1,000,000 more men than she put in the field at the commencement of her campaign last spring. That is the information that was given to me, and which I think it is my duty to place before the House, in order that the conditions at the front may be realized and understood.

Now, I desire to speak with discretion and moderation in these matters, but I cannot too strongly emphasize my belief that a great effort still lies before the Allied nations if we are going to win this war, and it is absolutely inconceivable to me that we should not win this war. The unsettled political conditions in Russia undoubtedly have handicapped the effort on the eastern front, and thus enabled Germany to make a greater effort on the western front.

Against these considerations there is the fact that a great kindred and neighbouring nation has entered into the war on the Allied side, the United States of America. That important event, which took place during our absence, must exercise a tremendous effect not only upon the issue of this war, but upon the future of the world. The fact that citizens of the United States are to fight side by side with the soldiers of our Empire cannot but have a splendid influence on the future of the two nations. Although the relations of the two countries have been good for many years, this notable event must do much to wipe out certain memories, and I know that the Canadian forces at the front will be delighted to fight side by side with those from the great republic to the south. There are in the Canadian Expeditionary Force more than 9,000 men who give their next of kin as resident in the United States of America. I do not say that all these men have come directly from the United States ; some of them may have emigrated to this country, leaving their relatives, or next of kin, on the other side of the line; but 9,000 who were undoubtedly born in the allegiance of the United States are now fighting in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

But although the United States has entered this war, we do not know how long it will be before the tremendous power of that nation can be translated into military effort. It cannot be done in a few weeks; it cannot be done fully in a few months. We know that from our own experience; the British Government know it from their experience, and, therefore, it must not lead to any relaxation of effort on the part of the Empire, or on the part of any of the Allied nations.

I pause to say a few words about the submarine campaign. Perhaps its seriousness may not be realized by those who have not been brought closely in touch with events from week to week, and with confidential information which has been made available to those who have attended the Imperial War Cabinet.

[page] 1541

I believe it will be met; I believe there is enough determination, enough resourcefulness, enough self-denial, and enough courage on the part of this Empire to meet it and to defeat it. But I would not be doing my duty if I did not emphasize its seriousness. I need not do more, in order to emphasize Germany's confidence in this campaign than to say this  --  that in order to carry it on she risked war with the United States of America. That indicates her belief that the submarine war would bring the struggle to a conclusion before the United States could throw effectively its power into this contest. That is what she is trying to do now. The losses in ships have been very serious indeed, and some of the losses of late have taken place under conditions which I cannot mention to the House, but which are sufficiently grave. The cry of Lloyd George  --  when he made his great speech in the Guild-hall, was this: What we need in this war is ships, and then more ships, and then more ships still. It is the belief of the Germans that they can protract the war on the western front until their submarine campaign has made it necessary for Great Britain to accept terms of peace to which none of us would listen to for a moment at present. As I have said, I do not believe Germany's attempt will succeed, but it will require courage, resolution, energy, self-denial and resourcefulness on the part of the people of the United Kingdom, and of the Dominions, if that attempt is to end in failure.

I have no confident hope that the war will end this year. Any conjecture as to the time when it will end is almost valueless. The effectiveness of Russia's efforts on the eastern front, and the speed with which the power of the United States can be thrown into this struggle, will be great, if not determining factors.

Now, as to our efforts in this war  --  and here I approach a subject of great gravity and seriousness, and, I hope, with a full sense of the responsibility that devolves upon myself and upon my colleagues, and not only upon us but upon the members of this Parliament and the people of this country. We have four Canadian divisions at the front. For the immediate future there are sufficient reinforcements. But four divisions cannot be maintained without thorough provision for future requirements. If these reinforcements are not supplied, what will be the consequence? The consequence will be that the four divisions will dwindle down to three, the three will dwindle to two, and Canada�s efforts, so splendid in this war, can bring himself to consider with toleration or seriousness any suggestion for the relaxation of our efforts. The months immediately before us may be decisive. They may be decisive even if the war should not end this year. Germany is bringing into play during the present season the last ounce of her manhood. What have we done in this war? We have sent 326,000 men overseas in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Including reservists in British and Allied armies, and men enlisted for naval defence, 360,000 men at least have left the shores of Canada. It is a great effort, but greater still is needed. Hitherto, we have depended upon voluntary enlistment. I myself stated to Parliament that nothing but voluntary enlistment was proposed by the Government. But I return to Canada impressed at once with the extreme gravity of the situation, and with a sense of responsibility for our further effort at the most critical period of war. It is apparent to me that the voluntary system will not yield further substantial results. I hoped that it would. The Government have made every effort within its power, so far as I can judge. If any effective effort to stimulate voluntary recruiting still remains to be made I should like to know what it is. The people have co-operated with the Government in a most splendid manner along the line of voluntary enlistment. Men and women alike have interested themselves in filling up the ranks of regiments that were organized. Everything possible has been done, it seems to me, in the way of voluntary enlistment.

All citizens are liable to military service for the defence of their country, and I conceive that the battle for Canadian liberty and autonomy is being fought to-day on the plains of France and of Belgium. There are other places besides the soil of a country itself where the battle for its liberties and its institutions can be fought; and I venture to think that, if this war should end in defeat, Canada, in all the years to come, would be under the shadow of German military domination. That is the very lowest at which we can put it. I believe that this fact cannot be gainsaid.

Now, the question arises as to what is our duty. I repeat once more, a great responsi-

[page] 1542

bility rests upon those who are entrusted with the administration of public affairs. But they are not fit to be trusted with that transcendent duty if they shrink from any responsibility which the occasion calls for. If the cause for which we fight is what we believe it to be, if the issues involved are those which have been repeatedly declared by all our public men and in all the press of Canada, I believe the time has come when the authority of the state should be invoked to provide reinforcements necessary to sustain the gallant men at the front who have held the line for months, who have proved themselves more than a match for the best troops that the enemy could send against them, and who are fighting in France and Belgium that Canada may live in the future. No one who has not seen the positions which our men have taken, whether at Vimy Ridge, at Courcellette, or elsewhere, can realize the magnitude of the task that is before them, or the splendid courage and resourcefulness which its accomplishment demands. Nor can any one realize the conditions under which war is being carried on. I have been somewhat in the midst of things at the front, yet I feel that I cannot realize what the life in the trenches means, though I know that I can realize it better than those who have not been as near to the front as I have been. I bring back to the people of Canada from these men a message that they need our help, that they need to be supported, that they need to be sustained, that reinforcements must be sent to them. Thousands of them have made the supreme sacrifice for our liberty and preservation. Common gratitude, apart from all other considerations, should bring the whole force of this nation behind them. I have promised, in so far as I am concerned, that this help shall be given. I should feel myself unworthy of the responsibility devolving upon me if I did not fulfil that pledge. I bring a message from them, yes, a message also from the men in the hospitals, who have come back from the very valley of the shadow of death, many of them maimed for life. I saw one of them who had lost both legs pretty well up to the hip and he was as bright, as cheerful, as brave, and as confident of the future as any one of the members of this House  --  a splendid, brave, boy. But, is there not some other message? Is there not a call to us from those who have passed beyond the shadow into the light of perfect day, from those who have fallen in France and in Belgium, from those who have died that Canada may live  --  is there not a call to us that their sacrifice shall not be in vain?

I have had to take all these matters into consideration and I have given them my most earnest attention. I realize that the responsibility is a serious one but I do not shrink from it. Therefore, it is my duty to announce to the House that early proposals will be made on the part of the Government to provide, by compulsory military enlistment on a selective basis, such reinforcements as may be necessary to maintain the Canadian army to-day in the field as one of the finest fighting units of the Empire. The number of men required will not be less than 50,000 and will probably be 100,000. These proposals have been formulated in part and they will be presented to the House with the greatest expedition that circumstances will permit. I hope that when they are submitted all the members of the House will receive them with a full sense of the greatness of the issue involved in this war, with a deep realization of the sacrifice that we have already made, of the purpose for which it has been made, and with a firm determination on our part that in this great struggle we will do our duty whatever it may be, to the very end.


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Source: Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada. 12th Parliament, 7th Session (January 18, 1917: September 20, 1917). Ottawa: J. de Labroquerie Taché, 1918. Pages 1523-1568.


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