Sir Donald Alexander Macdonald

His connection with Hughes may have stood in the way of his getting the overseas position, in spite of Prime Minister Robert Borden’s support.

Sir Donald Alexander Macdonald, militia and army officer; b. 31 Oct. 1845 in Cornwall, Upper Canada, son of Alexander Eugene Macdonald and Grace Mackay Taylor; m. 2 May 1876 Mary Richardson, daughter of Hugh Richardson, in Ottawa, and they had a daughter; d. there 4 May 1920.

Donald Macdonald was educated in local schools before entering the 2nd Cornwall Volunteer Militia Rifle Company as an ensign in 1863. Having become a lieutenant two years later and captain commanding the company in 1866, in 1869 he was appointed adjutant of the 59th (Stormont and Glengarry) Battalion of Infantry, and he received his majority in 1871. His early career spanned an eventful period in Canadian military history, and included service during the Fenian raids of 1866 and the Red River expedition of 1870 (where he served as adjutant to one of the battalions), and staff duties in Toronto during the North-West rebellion of 1885 as a lieutenant-colonel, his rank since 1877.

In 1874 Macdonald had entered the stores branch of the Department of Militia and Defence as a clerk. From 1875 to 1877 he was a clerk in the office of Adjutant General Walker Powell, and in 1878 he transferred to the accounts branch. “A shrewd Ottawa manipulator,” according to historian Desmond Morton, Macdonald was appointed chief superintendent of stores in 1896, a year when Militia and Defence faced one of its periodic crises. Although his department was partly to blame, he complained in its defence that military staff not only never furnished details about their requirements but also failed to warn civilian officials when shipments were due. In 1900 he was promoted colonel, and he was responsible for equipping the contingents Canada sent to the South African War. Appointed director general of the newly formed Ordnance Stores Corps in 1903, the next year Macdonald became quartermaster general, a position that made him third in seniority of the four military and three civilian members of the Militia Council.

Promoted brigadier-general in 1908 and major-general in 1912 as part of the policy of the minister of militia, Samuel Hughes”, to improve the status of Canadian officers, Macdonald echoed his patron’s views and supported the minister’s attempt to gain a major-generalship of his own. As a “special favourite of Hughes,” as Morton describes him, Macdonald had the responsibility of equipping the first Canadian formations raised in World War I. This task was not easy, including as it did the purchase, stockpiling, and shipment of vast quantities of ammunition, uniforms, small arms, and the other accoutrements of a modern army. That Canada and the quartermaster general’s branch were not ready for war was made evident by the need to have the British re-equip the first contingent soon after its arrival in the United Kingdom.

Macdonald’s responsibilities were somewhat lessened when the overseas ministry began functioning in December 1916 with its own quartermaster general to look to equipping Canada’s forces in Britain, France, and Belgium. His connection with Hughes may well have stood in the way of his getting the overseas position, in spite of Prime Minister Sir Robert Laird Borden’s support. He continued as quartermaster general in Canada until 31 Oct. 1917 and retired from active service in January 1918 with a knighthood.

Macdonald’s career helps shed light on the society that was the Canadian militia of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Personal loyalties played a large role in determining an officer’s career, with knowledge of tactics, administration, and logistics a somewhat lesser priority. Given that the militia was more a social grouping than a military organization, this emphasis was perhaps appropriate.

—Text by William Rawling, “MACDONALD, Sir DONALD ALEXANDER,,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 2, 2016. For this article's bibliography and other related information, visit Dictionary of Canadian Biography online.