The Duke of Connaught, Governor General of Canada and uncle of King George, visited St. John’s in the middle of July, 1914. During his visit, he officially opened a new park in St. John’s and inspected the paramilitary groups that formed the basis of Newfoundland’s defence plan in the event of war, of just the sort that was on the horizon in July 1914.
As part of imperial defence preparations in the decade and a half before, the Newfoundland government had participated like all the parts of the British empire. At the 1909 Imperial Conference, Sir Edward Morris had committed officially to organize soldiers for local defence and potentially service in addition to the Royal Naval Reserve division created around the time of the Boer War at the turn of the century and maintained by the Newfoundland government at a cost of 3,000 pounds sterling annually ever since.
The Newfoundland force would draw its men from the paramilitary brigades like the Legion of Frontiersmen, the Armed Lads’ Brigade in Twillingate, King Edward brigade in Harbour Grace, and the religious groups like the Church Lads’ Brigade, the Catholic Cadet Corps, the Methodist Guards, and the Newfoundland Highlanders, representing the Presbyterian Church.
In the event, the British government signalled the imperial governments to adopted the precautionary stage of the country’s defence plan on July 29, 1914. Newfoundland did so. The Admiralty mobilized the Royal Navy the same day and on July 30, the governor in St. John’s formally forwarded a telegram to the commanding officer of the naval reserve division in St. John’s to “hold in readiness” for a call-out. That word came at 4:00 AM local time on August 2, in a message sent through official channels in the name of the secretary of state fro colonies (Harcourt) to the governors of colonies with naval reservists.
The British government declared war on Germany on August 4th and so Newfoundland was at war. It was left to the Newfoundland government, though, to determine the shape of the Newfoundland participation. The Newfoundland cabinet met on August 7th and advised the British government by telegram the following day that it would offer a total of 1,000 men for the Royal Naval Reserve The telegram, formally sent by the Governor to the Secretary of State for Colonies, offered 500 soldiers with what the government described as “efficient local brigade training” for overseas service and proposed to raise a local defence force that would serve as the basis for subsequent recruiting. The British reply was swift: hold off on the sailors for now, the reply telegram said, in effect, but send the soldiers as quickly as possible.
A century after the outbreak of the war and despite a resurgence of popular and academic interest over the past decade in Newfoundland’s participation in the war, the interpretation of the country’s involvement in the war remains that:
- the Newfoundland government was unprepared for war in 1914, and
- that the Governor dictated the government’s response.
Mike O’Brien’s “Out of a clear blue sky” (2007) and Chris Miller’s “The right course, the best course, the only course” (2009) take this view. This is essentially the same interpretation of events laid down in Nicholson’s “official history” the Newfoundland Regiment, published in 1964.
It is clear from government records after the 1909 imperial conference in London that Morris’ administration committed to a mobilization along the lines originally suggested in 1899 by the Governor during the Boer War. Among other signs of the commitment, there are numerous purchases of obsolete rifles, bayonets and scabbard frogs by the Newfoundland government for the various paramilitary brigades. Most were obsolete Martini-Henry’s but at the outbreak of war the St. John’s rifle club had some Short Magazine Lee-Enfields, the standard British service rifle.
We’ll get back to this story in August with more details and notes on the sources for this information about the country’s defence policy in the years before the start of the war. Your humble e-scribbler researched this 20 years ago and presented the results only once, at a conference. It’s time to make it more widely available.
The story of government policy and war administration itself is important since the same authors who believe in the lack of preparation and Davidson’s dictatorship also incorrectly contend that the group organized to administer the war effort – the Newfoundland Patriotic Association – was, to use O’Brien’s phrase, “outside the purview of responsible government.”
For now, though, let’s just look at the early recruiting efforts. Recruiting for the overseas contingent started in August 21 and lasted into September. About 880 men volunteered by the early part of September but as Miller notes, the medical officers rejected about 360 men - about 41% - on the basis of a medical examination. The chief reason for rejection was that the men were undersized. The numbers for the end of September were 970 men enrolled but only 565 actually training at Pleasantville. That amounts to about 42% rejected for medical reasons.
To put that in perspective, official reports to the Secretary of State for Colonies a month earlier reported only five percent of men had been rejected at that point as being medically unfit. Miller describes the recruitment for a second contingent in December 1914 yielded 607 men “enrolled” but only 170 deemed medically fit for service. They needed 250.
Those rejection rates – especially 72% for the second contingent - cannot be readily explained by the notion that the bulk of the men were hard at work and that the volunteers represented only the country’s sick, lame , and lazy of the country. After all, the initial rush of recruiting came from men who left their jobs in the rush of patriotic fervour. They were just like their counterparts in Britain, Canada, and other parts of the Empire. What’s more, the Royal Naval Reserve, successfully recruited young men, most of whom came from the outports. The majority of the first recruits for the army, though, were from St. John’s. Something else was at work in producing those high rejection rates, and that was public health.
Miller notes that the standard applied by the recruiting committee was 5 feet 4.5 inches, with a chest expansion of 35.5 inches and a weight of 140 pounds. There are other indications that Cluny Macpherson, the medical officer who conducted the examinations, used a Royal Navy Blue Book as the standard. The navy used a smaller minimum size than the army did for recruits: 5 ft 2 in and a 34 inch chest.
No matter which of these standards one accepts, the fact remains that the medical officer rejected strikingly large numbers of volunteers based on their small stature. This is not merely a matter of what Miller calls “unrealistic” expectations. It is a clear indication of the overall health of the country’s population.
The British had quite clearly expected that the volunteers both from home and overseas would be fine examples of the strapping “British race.” In the event, though, both the British and newfoundland government’s very quickly reduced their minimum standards in order to meet the recruiting targets.
In Britain, the army in 1914 met the product of a century of British urban industrialization. Coal smoke and poverty did not produce a race of giants. In Newfoundland, the government met its people, who were very much the product of privation and physical and mental hardship.
You can get a confirmation of that generally poor public health in Newfoundland, by the way, in health research done in the country. Two papers published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1912 and 1914, for example, described the prevalence in beriberi – caused by a thiamine deficiency - in the country. Other research published in the 1920s and 1930s noted similar public health issues.
The most striking documented evidence of public health in Newfoundland came from an international team that conducted research before the introduction of specially fortified flour by the Commission Government in 1944 and again about four years later. They published their findings in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association.
As the researchers reported, the crude mortality rate in Newfoundland in the early 1940s was higher than in Ontario. Infant mortality - as good an indicator of public health as anything – was 111 per thousand in 1943 compared to the Canadian average of 56. The rate of death from tuberculosis was 144 per 100,000 in Newfoundland in the 1940s compared to 41 and 42, respectively for Canada and the United States for the same time.
A century after those young men volunteered to fight, we are starting four years of commemorations of their war. If we are to honour them properly, we should see them as they were and see clearly what they did, not what we perceive that they were or what they did. Their reality, like the men themselves, came in all shapes and sizes.