08 August 2007

Newfoundland and the Great War: the beginnings

On August 7, 1914, the Newfoundland cabinet met at Government House in an extraordinary session prompted by the outbreak of war with Germany on August 4.

Britain was at war and while the Dominion of Newfoundland was also at war, the shape and character of its participation was entirely a matter for the Newfoundland government to decide.

An outline defence scheme had been developed in 1907 calling for creation of a local militia based on the local sectarian cadet corps and non-sectarian groups like the Legion of Frontiersmen. The original version of the idea dated from the Boer War, but an earlier Newfoundland government had declined participation in that conflict.

In these warm days of summer, it is hard to imagine that 93 years ago our ancestors were embroiled in what would become known as the First World War.

For Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, Beaumont Hamel - or rather the popular imagining of it - has been seared into many a brain, but little attention is paid either by scholars or by the wider public to Newfoundland and Labrador in the Great War.

Space doesn't permit a detailed discussion here, but it is useful to just look back at some key dates.

Britain issued a general warning to the colonies and Dominions on July 25, ordering that they adopt the precautionary stage of the war plan that each had prepared after 1907. Draft orders in council lay waiting - in Newfoundland, in the floor safe of the Colonial Undersecretary - for everything from the imposition of censorship to rationing. All that needed to be filled in on each order was the date and the name of the enemy country.

In Newfoundland, the government directed a paramilitary group called the Legion of Frontiersmen to guard important government buildings. They took up posts at the Waldegrave Battery on the south side of St. John's harbour, at the telegraph station at Admiralty House in what would become Mount Pearl, and at the main post office on the west end of Water Street in St. John's.

When cabinet met that warm summer's night, they had in their hands letters from the heads of each of the sectarian cadet corps offering their members and former members to form a local volunteer contingent for overseas service. Popular opinion lay solidly behind the raising of a volunteer unit, especially among the St. John's establishment. Volunteers from the sectarian youth groups was actually part of the government's defence scheme, so the decision was relatively simple.

Cabinet decided to offer them, along with volunteers of the local Royal Navy reserve division. The government sent their offer to London through the Governor in a telegram sent on August 8.  They offered the sailors from the Royal Naval Reserve Division the Newfoundland government created in 1902 as their defence force.

In addition,  the government offered to raise 500 volunteers out of the local paramilitary brigades run by the churches. This was consistent with government policy in the 1907 defence scheme.  The government supplied the boys brigades - as they were known in Britain - with obsolete rifles, slings, and bayonets purchased from the British Government.

The British wasted no time accepting the offer of soldiers for the land war, doing so by telegram the next day. They advised that further instructions would follow about the sailors. In the event, the sailors were the first to leave Newfoundland. They formed part of the crew of HMCS Niobe, a vessel many had sailed on before during their annual training cruises after the local reserve division was organized during the Bond administration. As an aside, according to some accounts, Sir Robert hand-picked the men who took part in the first training cruise in 1900, their passage on the railway paid for by the Newfoundland government all the way to St. John's where they embarked on a Royal Naval cruiser of the North American squadron.

There is more to the story of the opening days of the Great War, but for now, that gets us quickly up to a fateful decision. Almost a century later, the details have largely been forgotten, but the Great War proved to have a lasting effect on Newfoundland society.

But that fateful decision, one that led to Gallipoli, Beaumont Hamel and Monchy Le Preux was taken by a cabinet made up entirely of elected Newfoundlanders when they met 93 years ago today.


Revised August 2019