|Colonel Allison Hart Borden|
Borden’s initial impulse was to pursue a career in law. After spending the summer in the employ of a Halifax law firm, he enrolled at Dalhousie University in the autumn of 1903, but within a year abandoned the courtroom in favour of the battlefield. On October 26, 1904, he officially resigned his militia commission and the following day enlisted with the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR) at Stanley Barracks, Toronto, ON, with the commissioned rank of Lieutenant.
Within two years of his enlistment, Borden was appointed Adjutant of the RCR’s Halifax detachment. Promoted to the rank of Captain on August 1, 1907, he married Grace Beatrice Silliker, a native of Amherst, NS, before year’s end. The newlyweds established residence in the Officers’ Quarters, Wellington Barracks, Halifax. The following year, Borden assumed command of a Company and served as a musketry instructor at the annual summer militia training camps.
During the winter of 1908-09, Borden assumed the duties of Instructor in Physical Training and Inspector of Cadet Corps for the province of Nova Scotia. In 1910, he was appointed Deputy Assistant Adjutant General for Physical Training in Public Schools. By that time, he and Grace had relocated to a private residence on Larch Street, Halifax. The following year, Borden assumed responsibility for the “general supervision” of physical and military training in the province’s public schools.
By the end of 1911, Borden had met the requirements for admission to Staff College, Camberley, England, placing first among three Canadian candidates in the qualifying examination. He departed for overseas in mid-October 1912 and successfully passed the examination for promotion to the rank of Major before year’s end. The only remaining requirement for advancement was completion of the Staff College’s program of studies.
While all went smoothly during Borden’s first year at Camberley, he fell ill shortly after commencing his second year courses. Diagnosed with rheumatic fever and endocarditis—inflammation of the inner layer of the heart—he was forced to abandon his studies and returned to Canada in July 1914. Borden was placed on sick leave for the duration of the year. The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 eliminated any possibility of returning to Camberley.
Deemed fit for light duty in January 1915, Borden was appointed Deputy Assistant Adjutant and Quarter Master General at Halifax Citadel three months later. The position included a promotion to the rank of temporary Major in late May 1915, an advancement that was made permanent the following month.
As the summer progressed, Major Borden returned to full military duties. Meanwhile, the war overseas entered its second year and recruitment at home continued. Having already dispatched the 25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) to England in May 1915, the province recruited the 40th Battalion (Halifax Rifles) and provided the majority of soldiers for the 64th Battalion (Maritime Provinces) before summer’s end. On September 14, 1915, the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) became the third provincial unit authorized by the Canadian government.
Military authorities selected Major Borden as the unit’s Commanding Officer (CO), a position that resulted in a promotion to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. The unit was recruited to full strength within one month of its formation, a response that prompted the Canadian government to authorize the formation of the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade in January 1916, with Lt. Col. Borden as its CO. The recently authorized 193rd Battalion was assigned to the Brigade’s ranks, along with two newly created units—the 185th (Cape Breton Highlanders) and 219th (South Shore & Annapolis Valley) Battalions—and the 85th Battalion.
The Brigade’s formation delayed the 85th’s overseas departure by more than one year. The unit trained at Halifax throughout the winter of 1915-16. Lt. Col. Borden actively participated in the 193rd and 219th Battalion’s early 1916 recruitment campaigns. In late May 1916, the 85th relocated to Camp Aldershot for a summer of drill alongside its three Brigade mates.
While the Highland Brigade anticipated an autumn overseas departure, Borden sailed for England on September 12, 1916, with plans to join the RCR on the front lines for a preparatory tour of the trenches. As matters unfolded, the Brigade arrived overseas in mid-October, before arrangements for Borden’s RCR posting were made. He departed for France on October 28 and joined the RCR in the field three days later.
For the next three weeks, Lt. Col. Borden completed a regular rotation with the RCR in sectors near Arras, France. Slightly wounded in the thigh by artillery fire on November 20, he returned to England shortly afterward, only to find the Highland Brigade in perilous circumstances.
Significant casualties incurred during the Canadian Corps’ deployment at the Somme in September and October 1916 created a pressing need for reinforcements in the field. In response, military authorities assembled a large reinforcement draft from the Highland Brigade’s ranks in early December and decided that two of its battalions—the 193rd and 219th—would be dissolved early the following year and their soldiers re-assigned to the 85th, 185th and 17th Reserve Battalions, the latter designated to provide reinforcements for Nova Scotian infantry units at the front.
In response to the Brigade’s dissolution, Lt. Col. E. C. Phinney, who assumed command of the 85th following Borden’s appointment as Highland Brigade CO, “volunteered to revert in favour of his old chief.” On February 10, 1917, Borden officially resumed command of the 85th Battalion as it proceeded to France.
Upon arriving in the forward area, the inexperienced unit’s officers and “other ranks” served instructional tours in the trenches with experienced units. As the Canadian Corps prepared for its first major assignment of the year—an attack on Vimy Ridge—military authorities attached the 85th to the 11th Brigade, where it would complete various “working” tasks during the assault. While his soldiers were not expected to see combat, Borden nevertheless insisted that all ranks complete the same rigorous preparatory training as their Brigade mates, a decision that proved fortuitous.
The 11th Brigade faced the Canadian Corps’ most challenging assignment at Vimy Ridge—the capture of Hill 145, the feature’s highest elevation. Well defended by several strongpoints along its slopes, the location was largely unaffected by the massive artillery bombardment launched in the early hours of April 9, 1917. As a result, the attacking units were pinned down in No Man’s Land, unable to complete their assignment. Meanwhile, other Canadian units to their right successfully secured their sectors of the ridge as the day progressed.
By mid-afternoon, military commanders recognized the precarious situation on Hill 145’s slopes. If the location was not secured by nightfall, German forces could launch a counter-attack along the flank and dislodge Canadian units from the ridge. In response, Canadian authorities instructed Borden to prepare two of his Companies—C and D—for combat. The soldiers were outfitted with the required equipment, made their way through Tottenham Tunnel into the jumping-off trenches, and went over the top toward German positions shortly after 6:00 pm, without the benefit of artillery support.
To their credit, the inexperienced officers and men maintained their formation as they proceeded up the ridge and succeeded in securing Hill 145’s western slopes before nightfall. The following day, their remaining 85th comrades joined them atop the newly captured ridge as Canadian units removed the last pockets of German soldiers from its eastern slope. The battalion’s remarkable debut at Vimy Ridge earned it the nickname, “The Never Fails.”
Before month’s end, the 85th was attached to the 4th Division’s 12th Brigade and commenced a regular rotation in the line. By early summer, however, the strain of five months’ service in the forward area began to take a toll on 38-year-old Lt. Col. Borden’s health. On July 10, he received a welcome 10-day leave to England, as his wife Grace had relocated to London shortly after the Highland Brigade’s overseas arrival.
Within days, Borden fell ill with tonsillitis. Hospitalized until month’s end, doctors noted that his heart was slightly enlarged and that there was also a “systolic heart murmur” in two heart valves. As a result, Borden was placed on sick leave until August 31 and did not rejoin the 85th in France until mid-September. Barely one month later, the unit made its way northward to Staple, France, near the Belgian border, as its personnel prepared for their next major assignment—the second stage of the Canadian Corps’ attack on Passchendaele Ridge, near Ypres, Belgium.
On the evening of October 28, the 85th’s personnel made the long trip into the line under extremely difficult conditions. Once in position, Borden made his way into the forward positions to assess the situation, despite fierce enemy machine gun and rifle fire, actions for which he later received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). On the morning of October 30, the 85th went over the top toward its objective—a collection of German defences clustered at a location known as Vienna Cottage. Despite facing the fiercest combat conditions since arriving on the continent, its soldiers successfully captured their objective and established a new front line beyond the location.
The toll on the 85th’s personnel, however, was significant. The battalion suffered its worst combat losses of the war at Passchendaele. The 18 officer and 371 “other rank” casualties represented more than 50 % of the soldiers in the line during the tour and included over 60 fatalities. Lt. Col. Borden’s health was also affected. Slightly gassed during the long march into the line, and exhausted by the trek entering and leaving the battlefield, he “found his heart troublesome” and “could not walk as fast as previously.”
Borden nevertheless continued his routine duties, making a two-day trip to London in mid-November. Shortly after his return to France, however, the strain of service once again impacted his health. Before month’s end, he was admitted to hospital for treatment of pneumonia. Discharged after nine days, Borden received a two-week leave to England on December 11 and rejoined the 85th in France before year’s end.
During his absence, the unit had returned to sectors near Lens, France, where it served regular rotations throughout the winter of 1917-18. While the area was not targeted during the massive German “spring offensive” launched on March 21, 1918, the 85th’s soldiers joined other Canadian units in preparing for a possible German assault. Although no such attack materialized, the soldiers remained vigilant into the following month.
On April 1, 1918, Lt. Col. Borden’s health issues resurfaced. Admitted to field ambulance for treatment of “disordered action of the heart,” he was discharged the following day and returned to duty. Before month’s end, however, he experienced a dramatic increase in body temperature, accompanied by a severe headache and aching muscles. The condition, commonly known as “trench fever,” resulted in his admission to hospital at Camiers, France, on April 26. Before month’s end, he was invalided to England and admitted to a London hospital.
While subsequent tests indicated no major health crisis, the recurring incidents meant that Lt. Col. Borden’s time at the front had come to an end. On May 10, 1918, he officially relinquished his command of the 85th to Major J. L. Ralston, his second-in-command. One month later, a Medical Board concluded that Borden was “permanently unfit [for] any [overseas] service” and recommended that he return to Canada.
Discharged from medical care on July 24, 1918, Borden and his wife made their way to New York, NY, by ship and travelled by train to Halifax. On August 26, Borden was officially “struck off [the] strength” of the 85th Battalion and placed on indefinite sick leave. By early December, he was deemed fit for “light duty in Canada” and assumed the duties of Assistant Adjutant General, Military District No. 6, and Quartermaster at Halifax early the following month. While Lt. Col. Borden experienced a minor episode with kidney stones in mid-March 1919, his health was otherwise stable.
Borden settled into his administrative duties, officially resuming his service with the Permanent Force of Canada on May 20, 1920. Three months later, he was officially confirmed in the rank of Brevet Colonel, retroactive to December 1, 1919. Before year’s end. Borden and his wife relocated to Winnipeg, MB, where he assumed the position of General Staff Officer (GSO) for Military District No. 10. By the spring of 1924, the couple had relocated to Toronto, where Borden commanded Military District No. 2.
By January 1925, health issues led Borden’s superiors to question his ability to fulfil his GSO duties. He experienced shortness of breath after exertion and his mitral and aortic heart valves were not functioning properly. A formal Medical Board convened the following month recommended “that this officer be retired from the service as medically unfit.” As a result, Borden was granted a four-month leave, with pay and allowance, commencing on March 1. Four months later—July 1, 1925—Colonel Colonel Allison Hart Borden officially retired from military service.
Colonel Borden and Grace returned to Kentville and settled into civilian life. In 1931, Borden’s alma mater, Mount Allison University, awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Divinity degree, in recognition of his service to his province and country. Colonial Allison Hart Borden passed away at Kentville, NS, on July 19, 1932, following a brief illness. Only 54 years of age at the time of his death, he was laid to rest in the Borden family’s Hillaton Cemetery plot.