Burns remained in the army after the war, and his career advanced steadily. He studied at the School of Military Engineering at Chatham in 1920, served as an instructor at the Canadian Royal Military College (1924–1926), was assigned to the Geographic Section of the General Staff (1931–1936), and attended the Staff College at Quetta (1928–1929). He was promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel in 1935. Burns was a prolific writer, authoring numerous articles in the Canadian Defence Quarterly and H. L. Mencken's American Mercury.
When World War II began in Europe, Burns was studying at the Imperial Defence College. He was assigned from there to the General Staff under Brigadier General Henry Crerar at Canadian Military Headquarters, London. When Crerar was posted as chief of the Canadian General Staff, Burns accompanied him as special assistant and then became assistant deputy chief of the General Staff. He was posted as the brigadier general staff with the Canadian Corps in Britain in February 1941. Burns was then promoted to brigadier and took command of a brigade in the 4th Canadian Armoured Division. He then commanded the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division and the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, being promoted to major general in January 1944. He took command of the I Canadian Corps in Italy in March 1944.
Burns's first task was to pierce the Hitler Line across the Liri Valley. The May 1944 attack started out well. But casualties soon began to mount, and movement was hampered both by inexperience at lower levels of command and by traffic jams. Burns received the blame and was rated poorly by Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese, commanding the British Eighth Army. Burns's leadership style made his subordinates uncomfortable, including his dismissal of suggestions and use of sarcasm, as well as his preoccupation with trivial matters of troop dress and discipline.
In August and September 1944, the I Canadian Corps played a major role in breaking the Gothic Line, for which Burns received much praise. This success did not save him, however, and when the advance stalled in the mud, the old complaints resurfaced. Lieutenant General Charles Foulkes replaced him in November 1944.
Burns served the rest of the war commanding all Canadian rear-area units with 21st Army Group. After the war, he worked with the Department of Veterans Affairs until 1954, when he took command of the UN Truce Supervisory Organization operating along the Israeli-Arab borders. Burns was promoted to lieutenant general in 1958 and retired the following year. He died at Manotick, Ontario, on 13 September 1985.
Britton W. MacDonald
Burns, E. L. M. General Mud: Memoirs of Two World Wars. Toronto, Canada: Clarke, Irwin, 1970.; Granatstein, J. L. The Generals: The Canadian Army's Senior Commanders in the Second World War. Toronto, Canada: Stoddart, 1993.