Lieutenant Colonel Donald Sutherland, D.S.O.
52nd, 71st, 74th, & 160th Battalions
A man that can fight, a fighter who’s fought,
A man to whom danger to self counts for naught,
A man all the way with a conduct sheet clean,
As a man and a soldier our Colonel’s beloved.
A man; Colonel Sutherland, that’s whom I mean.
(Lieut. L. Young, 71st Bn. “Our Colonel,” Bruce in Khaki, 12 Oct 1917, 2)
Born on 3 December 1879, Donald Matheson Sutherland was a Norwich County physician, militia officer in the 24th Grey Horse and member of Loyal Orange Lodge No. 999. In September 1914, he enlisted as a captain with the 1st Battalion. Wounded during the second battle of Ypres on 24 April 1915, he was invalided to Canada. After raising the 71st Battalion from Woodstock, he again embarked for England in April 1916.
Following the disappearance and presumed death of Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Walter Hay of the 52nd Battalion in June 1916, Sutherland, then temporary commander of the 74th, was selected as his replacement. On 19 September, Sutherland received a serious thru-and-thru gunshot wound to his back, which smashed the third lumbar vertebrae. Invalided for a second time, he was granted convalescence leave in Canada. Upon returning home, the local Conservative party association nominated the war hero as the federal candidate for Oxford North in the event of a wartime election.
Although advised that his services were no longer required overseas, Sutherland covertly sailed back to England without any authorization to do so. When he landed in May 1917, confused Canadian military authorities tried to figure out how and why Sutherland had come back.
Sutherland justified his actions claiming that by spring 1917 he had felt fit for service. He therefore had decided to return to duty on his own initiative. With two more months of leave, he determined that he would seek a post in England or return to Canada before the leave expired. Sutherland avoided being reprimanded due to the intervention of Major General Garnet Hughes who stated that the colonel’s services were “urgently required” as commander of the 160th Battalion. By early spring 1918, Sutherland was however back in France with the 52nd Battalion.
Meanwhile in Canada, Sutherland’s absence affected the fall 1917 election campaign in Oxford North. Learning about the Union government coalition, Sutherland offered to withdraw as the Conservative candidate in favour of Ontario Liberal leader Newton Rowell. Instead, local Liberal and Conservative leaders selected the incumbent MP Edward Walter Nesbitt, who was ambivalent on conscription. Feeling that Nesbitt would not serve the interests of ordinary soldiers, Sutherland accepted the nomination of the Great War Veteran’s Association.
In the 17 December result, Sutherland narrowly lost to Nesbitt by less than 800 votes. The soldier vote made the difference. Among returned soldiers, they tied at 59. However, since overseas soldier ballots listed only the parties and not the candidates’ names, any vote for the Government went to Nesbitt. He received 569 votes to 104 for the soldier-candidate.
Once elected, Nesbitt dismissed his opponent, “He was not a cripple any more than I was or half as much as I was, so far as that is concerned. He went back to England, not to France… I have no doubt that he was doing the best he could for himself in England, and I do not blame him for that; that is his privilege.”
After demobilization in 1919, Sutherland explained the controversy over the election, claiming that Nesbitt had stabbed Prime Minister Borden “right straight in the back.” In 1925, he was elected Conservative MP for Oxford North (1925—1926, 1930—1935). He served as Minister of Defence in the R. B. Bennett Government.
Sutherland died on 4 June 1970 at the age of ninety.
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