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Who was Sir Isaac Brock? Brief biography a timely account

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The Astonishing General

The Life and Legacy of Sir Isaac Brock

By Wesley B. Turner

Dundurn, 369 pages, $35

IN Winnipeg's West End, there is a public school named after Isaac Brock. Indeed, Brock is commemorated in place names and monuments throughout Canada.

So who was Brock? The curious reader can find the answer in this brief but engaging biography by Wesley Turner, a retired Ontario historian.

Brock's fame derives from his role in the War of 1812, a conflict between Britain and the United States, much of which was contested on Canadian soil. Brock was a British major-general who commanded Upper Canada's military and also served as head of its civil government.

On Oct. 13, 1812, Brock was killed at the Battle of Queenston Heights while leading his troops in a counter-attack against an invading American force.

He was immediately revered by his compatriots as a hero. Turner thinks that this veneration was "astonishing" (hence the title of his biography), given that Brock only lived to fight in the War of 1812 for less than five months.

But was the glorification of Brock really so astonishing? He was arguably the most prominent member of Upper Canadian society as both military commander and civil administrator, and he died at the front of his army when he could have sought a safer position to oversee the battle. It seems entirely reasonable and appropriate that he was seen as a great Canadian hero, and his fame should endure as long as there is a Canada.

Brock was born in 1769 on the British island of Guernsey, part of the Channel Islands. His family was upper class, with a tradition of service in the military. Brock joined the British army at the age of 15.

In 1802, Brock was stationed in Canada, performing primarily administrative duties, until the outbreak of hostilities with the United States in 1812.

There are two interesting themes in Turner's narrative: Brock's style of leadership, and his strategic thinking.

Brock as commander enforced traditional British army discipline. He preferred to maintain discipline rather than seek popularity. But he was not a martinet.

Brock was concerned with, and sought to promote, the well-being of the troops under his command. He took steps to ensure that they were properly housed.

"Brock was an officer who gave some thought to the lives that soldiers led," Turner writes, "and who tried to find ways of improving their lot."

Tensions with the Americans in the early 19th century, culminating in war, obliged Brock to think strategically about the defence of Canada. In this matter, he differed with Sir George Prevost, governor-in-chief of British North America.

Prevost favoured a cautious, defensive approach to war with the United States. He argued that Americans were deeply divided over the war, and that a British invasion would have the unfortunate effect of uniting American opinion.

Brock, on the other hand, advocated bold action, audacity, taking the war to the enemy. Such a tack, he maintained, would delay a conquest of Upper Canada and enhance Upper Canadian morale.

Brock implemented this aggressive strategy in his capture of Fort Detroit in August 1812.

With the approaching 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, this biography is a timely account of the life of the most celebrated participant in that conflict on the Canadian side.

Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 30, 2011 J7

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