Brig. Gen. MacBrien

Brigadier General James H. MacBrien
12th Canadian Infantry Brigade

The ending of war involves the most fundamental modification of the whole structure of society, and can only be brought about by a reversal of the general method of human life and the general method of nature which up to this time has been manifested in the survival of the fittest. I think that until we see a complete change of heart in human society we should prepare our sons to fight and quickly organize that they may have as chance of success. The league of nations as a means of definitely preventing war is about as likely to succeed as a proposal to abolish hunger and death.

(Maj. Gen. MacBrien in the Weekly Albertan, 1 Dec 1920, 2)

Born in Myrtle, Ontario on 30 June 1878, James Howden MacBrien was a North-West Mount Police constable when he joined the South African Constabulary during the Boer War. A few years after he returned to Canada, he was commissioned in the Royal Canadian Dragoons in 1910. In September 1914, he joined the 1st Canadian Division headquarters as a staff officer at the rank of lieutenant colonel. Two years later he replaced Lord Brooke in command of the 12th Infantry Brigade.

Known to command from the frontlines, he was wounded at Vimy Ridge but remained on duty. He suffered a gunshot wound on 29 September 1918 but was back in command of the 12th Brigade in just one month. By the end of the war, MacBrien had received the Distinguished Service Order and Bar and was six-times mentioned in dispatches. The citation for his 1919 Companion of the Order of the Bath read in part:

No praise is too high for the skill displayed by this officer in handling his Brigade in the recent operations in front of Amiens and the more difficult fighting in front of Arras. The high example set by him has reflected throughout his Command in a marked degree and has resulted in a thoroughly efficient and well disciplined Brigade.

In August 1919, he was appointed Chief of General Staff for the overseas forces and on return to Ottawa in August 1920 became Chief of General Staff for the Canadian Army. Calling himself “Canada’s chief insurance agent,” MacBrien advocated preparation and patriotism in case of future conflicts. He told a group of veterans, “You all know what war is and will therefore do all you can to prevent it.”

In a 1921 speech, he explained, “I pray for no more wars, but even at the present time warfare is being carried on by six nations. I am of the opinion the government in the past has been too economical in dealing with military preparedness.” He argued that the League of Nations needed to be “backed by the British Empire with an adequate soldier citizen defence force.” He retired from the military in 1927 and strongly advocated investment in commercial aviation.

In 1931, he returned to his Mountie roots when he was appointed Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He died in office on 5 March 1938.


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