Wandering around the Base Borden Military Museum’s main building is an exercise in time travel — every step takes you closer to the battlefields where Canadians fought and sometimes died.
Admittedly, that sounds a little gruesome, but at this time of year, it’s a keen reminder of the sacrifices thousands of Canadians made for freedom.
Go down one aisle and you’ll find a field kitchen that was used overseas by the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War. A kitchen on wheels, it was essential to feeding the troops.
Head down another and you’ll come face to face with the behemoth Second World War-era Ram tank, a 32-ton beast that carried a crew of five and was outfitted with a six-pound (the weight of the explosive shell that was fired from it) main barrel and one machine gun.
A few steps farther and you’ll see exactly how cramped life in a tank could be. There’s a T-55 East German battle tank that had part of its shell removed so Canadian troops could learn what was inside and how best to disable one.
“The main focus of the museum is the history of Base Borden, the units that served here, for the time they were at Base Borden,” said Andrew Gregory, director of the museum. “The impact on the Canadian military is much greater than people realize.”
According the book, Camp Borden: A Century of Service, Camp Borden has been a part of the Canadian military landscape since 1916, when Sir Sam Hughes, minister of defence and militia at the time, visited the area around Angus on May 7, 1916, and decided, on the spot, the best site for the camp would be in the Township of Essa. Four days later, on May 11, 1916, the Government of Canada approved the $174,183.32 it would cost to appropriate the land.
Construction began in earnest, and on July 11, 1916, Camp Borden officially opened.
By the end of the First World War, about 300,000 soldiers had been trained at Borden.
More than half of the soldiers who served in the First and Second World Wars received training at Camp Borden. The name was changed to Canadian Forces Base Borden to reflect the unification of the Royal Canadian Air Force with the Canadian Navy and Canadian Army on Feb. 1, 1968.
The museum, founded in 1970, is an amalgamation of many unit museums. It has two locations on base. The main museum is located at 27 Ram St. and features an impressive collection of military vehicles and military rifles and assault weapons. The Hangar 11 Air Annex, on Hangar Road, explores the birth of air training in Canada into the Cold War.
The hangar is closed for renovations in preparation for the 100th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Air Force on April 1, 2024.
Last year, more than 10,000 people visited the museum, down from pre-pandemic levels but rebounding quite well, Gregory said. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.
Gregory, who holds a PhD in modern British history with a focus on military history, said Borden’s history speaks to the larger contribution Canada made in the defence of peace and democracy in the 20th and 21st centuries.
“I think Canadians are unaware of Canada’s enormous contribution in the First World War, Second World War, Korean War and the Cold War,” he said. “One in 10 persons in Canada (was) in uniform in the First and Second World Wars. This is mind boggling, and most of this participation was voluntary.”
He said the 800,000 military pattern trucks (a wheeled vehicle built to military specifications) Canada built in the Second World War was a war-winning contribution. He also pointed out Canada’s outsized participation carried on into the Cold War.
“The size of our armed forces allowed us to maintain very significant forces in Europe, while at the same time contributing to peacekeeping missions,” he said.
Those missions included the United Nations Emergency Force I in the Suez Canal zone and the Gaza Strip in 1956, the Congo Crisis in 1960, and UNEF II at the Suez Canal and, later, the Sinai Peninsula in 1974.
Gregory considers the museum’s collection “one of the richest” in the country.
While he is talking about the intrinsic and historic value of the collection, it’s also worth a substantial sum of money to collectors, if they could get their hands on it.
For example, when you walk into the main display hall in the main museum, one of the first things you see are ancient Harley-Davidson and Triumph motorcycles — the transportation choice of the military police, or Provost Corps as it was known up to 1968.
Three of them are lined up — uniformly, of course — and they’re magnificent, if you’re into that sort of thing.
On display with the motorcycles is a wooden crate that’s never been opened. Inside it is a 1957 500-cc Triumph TRW motorcycle — untouched and perfectly preserved.
It’s a motorcycle collector’s dream.
One just like it, in its original crate, sold at a California auction in 2010 for US$34,500. Conservative estimates suggest it would fetch US$50,000 today — about C$70,000.
“There are many highlights in the museum’s collection,” he said. “We have a 504K (a biplane) in Hangar 11. The 504K was Canada’s training plane for the whole of the 1920s. Many of Canada’s fighter aces in the Battle of Britain trained at Borden.”
In fact, 58 per cent of all pilots trained in Canada in the First World War were trained at Borden.
Back at the main museum, Gregory makes special note of the Ram tank — Canada’s contribution to tank design in the Second World War.
“This tank was the principal training tool for most Royal Canadian Armoured Corps men. We have an M17 light tank used to train Canadian tankers before the arrival of the Ram. Both these tanks underpinned the armored corps’ success in the Italian campaign and the Northwest Europe campaign in the Second World War,” he said.
“I could go on for longer because, even though I have been here for three years, I am discovering little and big treasures all the time.”