Born at Quebec, he was educated at Bishop’s College School, Lennoxville, and at the Royal Military college of Canada and was commissioned a Provisional Lieutenant on 29 October 1889.
In March 1898, Captain Burstall served with the Yukon Field Force, arriving at Wrangell on 6 May. The arduous 400-mile trip to Fort Selkirk was completed by 11 September followed by the short trip to Dawson City.
Captain Burstall served with the 2nd (Special Service) Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment in South Africa, seeing action in Orange Free State and the Transvall in 1900. Subsequently he was seconded to the South African Constabulary until May 1902 where he was twice Mentioned-in-Dispatches and appointed Brevet Major.
He served with the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (RCHA) from May 1907 until May 1911 where, in May 1908, he was promoted Lieutenant-Colonel. After leaving the RCHA and until the outbreak of the First World War, he commanded the Royal Canadian Artillery (RCA) and held the appointments of: Inspector of Horse, Field and Heavy Artillery, Commandant Royal School of Artillery and Officer Commanding Royal Canadian Coastal Artillery, Quebec. Lieutenant-Colonel Burstall’s technical gunnery abilities and his insistence on the highest standards during training would save countless lives in the cataclysm soon to come.
On 1 September 1914, Lieutenant-Colonel Burstall was appointed to command the artillery of the Canadian Expeditionary Force which was assembled and training at Valcartier. On 1 October, after a short, intensive training period, the guns, horses and men of the Canadian Contingent departed for the Great War.
Training continued on the Salisbury Plain; Lieutenant-Colonel Burstall was everywhere, demanding excellence in equitation, ranging, fire discipline, entrenching and camouflage. Under his command the Canadian Divisional Artillery embarked for France on 7 February 1915; the entire formation was ashore by the 16th thereby gaining the distinction of being the only fighting formation to arrive in France as a single entity. At 10:15 on the morning of 2 March, the 1st Battery, 1st Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery fired the first Canadian artillery round, opening a new era for the Canadian Army.
On 1 September he was promoted Colonel and appointed Brevet Brigadier-General.
On 15 June the Canadians began preliminary arrangement for the assault on two strong points opposite Fivenchy-les-la Bassée. Under Brigadier-General Burstall’s direction, these arrangements would stand as a model for future operations of the Canadian Corps. They included the employment of 18-pounders fitted with armour plating deployed into forward most trenches where, at ranges of between 75 and 3000 yards, they smashed enemy strong points.
Brigadier-General Burstall was appointed General Officer Commanding Royal Artillery, First Canadian Corps on 13 September 1915, a newly created appointment. His preparations for the Mount Sorrel counter-attack included a ten-hour bombardment of Hill 60 and Sanctuary Wood – his gunners were accurate and effective. In this fire plan the first smoke screen was incorporated. Fired by Stokes Trench Mortars, the screen was effective and would soon become a regular function of field artillery.
On 15 December 1916 he was promoted Major-General and appointed to command the 2nd Canadian Division, an appointment he held until early 1919.
After his return to Canada on 31 May 1919, he was appointed to the General List and was promoted Lieutenant-General on 15 August 1920; he subsequently served as Quartermaster General and Inspector General.
After a distinguished career, he retired in October 1923. His innovation, training techniques and practical use of the Canadian Guns set the stage for the significant advances made by the next generation of Canadian Artillerymen.