07 August 2013

Newfoundland and the start of the Great War #nlpoli

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One. 

There’s no sign of any commemorations or other events to mark the occasion, but undoubtedly there will be plenty.  Your humble e-scribbler is working to finish off a major paper that’s been in the works for far too long.  It builds on some original research into Newfoundland’s involvement and pre-war defence policy.

August 7th is the anniversary of the decision by the Newfoundland cabinet on what shape the country’s participation would take.  What follows is a revamped version of a post from 2007 on the same occasion.

The Outbreak of War

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.

As part of imperial defence planning, the Newfoundland government developed a defence scheme ain the years following the Boer War.  The plan called for the creation of a local militia that would draw its members from the local sectarian cadet corps such as the Methodist Guards, the Church Lads’ Brigade, and the Catholic Cadet Corps, as well as non-sectarian groups like the Legion of Frontiersmen.


This photo shows officers from the first 500 volunteers in the Newfoundland Regiment, September 1914.  The different uniforms show the different cadet corps that made up the regiment.  Of note, the officer seated second from the left in the photo wears the uniform of the Legion of Frontiersmen.  The officer standing third from the right in the third row wears the glengarry headdress, doublet, and kilt of the Newfoundland Highlanders, a Presbyterian cadet corps from St. Andrew’s Church  (the Kirk) in St. John’s. 

The seated man in a bowler hat is Sir Edward Morris, prime minister of Newfoundland from 1909 to 1917. His cabinet met on August 7 to determination how the country was participate in the war.  In the centre of the photo is Governor Sir Walter Davidson.  Made out to be a dictator by some after the war,  Davidson was never anything of the sort.

The earliest version of this plan emerged during the Boer War (1899-1902) but the Newfoundland government had decided against participating in that war as other British colonies and dominions had.  The same youth organizations existed in other parts of the empire and in Britain they also turned out large numbers of volunteers in the early stages of mobilization during the war.  Newfoundland was the only part of the empire that actually built its defence plans on the paramilitary cadet units. In fact, from 1907 until the outbreak of war,  the Newfoundland government supplied the cadet movements across the island with working rifles, scabbards, bayonets and other basic military equipment.

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 of implementation and the name of the enemy country.

In Newfoundland, The Legion of Frontiersmen provided guards on key government buildings at the start of war.  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 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 in 1914, the members 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, especially in St, John’s, lay solidly behind the raising of a volunteer militia unit.

Cabinet decided to offer them, along with volunteers from the local Royal Navy reserve division. News of government’s decision went to  London by telegram on August 8. 

The British wasted no time accepting the offer of soldiers for the land war, doing so by return telegram the next day. They advised the Newfoundland government that further instructions would follow about the sailors.

In the event, the sailors were the first wartime volunteers to leave Newfoundland. They formed part of the crew of HMCS Niobe, a Canadian warship many had sailed on before during annual training cruises after the local reserve division was organized during Sir Robert Bond’s first administration (1900-1909). Sir Robert hand-picked the men who took part in the first training cruise in 1900, their passage paid for by the Newfoundland government all the way to St. John's where they embarked on a Royal Navy cruiser of the North American squadron.

The government spent the rest of August preparing draft legislation for a wartime emergency session including the law that would create a Newfoundland militia.  Out of that militia would come the regiment that fought with distinction and tragedy from Gallipoli to Courtrai.

Almost a century later, many have forgotten the details, but the Great War had a lasting effect on Newfoundland society. The war debt would eventually add to the burden that brought down democratic government in the country almost 20 years later.

But the decision that led to Gallipoli, Beaumont Hamel, and Monchy Le Preux came from a cabinet made up entirely of elected Newfoundlanders. 

They met 99 years ago today.