02 July 2015

The Great War and Newfoundland Political Memory #nlpoli

“It is sobering to think,”  historian Sean Cadigan wrote in the Telegram on Tuesday, “that the memory of the casualties of war has been used partially for later political purposes for almost a century.”

Cadigan was recounting the history of the ceremony on July 1 that started in 1917 to mark the anniversary of the battle in which hundreds of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians died in a few short minutes.

It is possible that, in the process of "remembering," we may be in danger of forgetting the real aspirations of the men of 1916 when we gather on Memorial Day tomorrow.

Of course, Cadigan had no trouble using the corpses at Beaumont Hamel for his own purpose and that is where we begin.

For Cadigan, what happened a century ago was a class struggle between the townie merchants who “dominated” the noble baymen. The latter were  staunchly defended by their sainted hero, William Coaker.

After the war, Cadigan argues, Coaker wanted better education and better government services.  The elites met Coaker with “bitter opposition”  preferring to present the fallen as defenders of “free markets.”  

The resulting poisoning of the political atmosphere contributed greatly to the suspension of responsible government in the early 1930s.

Cadigan’s view is really nothing more than an ideological framework that imposes an interpretation on the past.  It’s fundamentally no different than the other versions of our history that Cadigan would condemn as being false while his, presumably, is true to the “real aspirations” of the victims of free markets.

The version Cadigan offers in his recent book Death on two fronts is slightly different.  In it,  Coaker is the sole voice against a military contingent.  The country cannot afford it.   Others preach unity.  The country is militarily unprepared because of its chronic poverty.  The British governor, Walter Davidson, takes advantage of the patriotic sentiment in the country at the start of the war and pushes the country to send both sailors and soldiers to war.

Prime Minister Edward Morris supports the governor’s idea.  For Morris, the war is a distraction from local events.  Davidson was autocratic and arrogant.  He concocted the idea of an appointed committee to oversee the war effort.  Coaker opposed the idea as undemocratic

What Cadigan offers is a version of pre-war history that emerged initially in the 1920s. It took full flower in the 1960s and 1970s among Newfoundland historians and political scientists.  Sid Noel’s 1972 history of Newfoundland’s politics before 1934, for example, presents the patriotic association much as Cadigan does.

While that version neatly absolves the Newfoundlanders of any responsibility for the war and its financial and human costs,  it is itself nothing more than a fanciful re-imagining of the country’s war effort.  We shouldn’t be surprised that this version of events – in which Newfoundlanders are victims or stooges-  carried through the collapse of self-government in 1934.  After all, the war debt was a huge component of the total debt that broke the country.

The victim theme fit tidily with the anti-British sentiment that grew up during the Commission Government and that transferred whole to the anti-Confederate cause after 1949.  Newfoundland academics of the 1960s fell in love with the story of the Newfoundland colony exploited first by Britain and then by Canadian capitalism. This story of Newfoundland the victim was the soul of the “nationalist” argument to which Cadigan refers in the latter part of his Telegram commentary.

What Cadigan offers us is really little more than the same old “nationalist” version of Newfoundland history with the class struggle twist.  In this interpretation, the war, 1934, and Confederation form an unholy trinity of foreign exploitation of Newfoundland.  The foreign capitalists/imperialists are aided by their local quislings like Morris. The British governor dragooned the country into the war and left it with a crippling debt and horrendous casualties.  That debt led to the financial ruin of the country and to the loss of self-government.  Eventually, the perfidious British capitalists sold out poor Newfoundland to her new masters, the Canadians, under whose yoke we remain today.

It’s a compelling story but it is, fundamentally, a story.  What that version misses is that Walter Davidson did not do anything.  What the elected government did in 1914 had already been decided long before Davidson arrived in Newfoundland in 1913.  Davidson’s self-congratulatory diary entries are deceptive to the unwary or to those who are happy to see a story they wanted to see.

The next time you are reading something like Cadigan’s book, note the very limited number of sources on which the conventional, “nationalist” interpretation is based.  Take a look, too,  at the footnotes in any of the academic works Cadigan cites and you will be struck by the tendency of all of them to rely on the same secondary sources that rely, themselves, on a limited range of contemporary documents.

When it comes to the First World War,  both professional and amateur historians alike have tended to the view that the war started in August 1914 and ended in November 1918. They have ignored Newfoundland’s imperial relations before the war and none have looked at the government’s own administration of the war effort at all.  None of them seem to pay attention to the legal and constitutional structure.  They say things like “the government” passed a piece of legislation. None of them seem to understand how the cabinet functioned.

Even historians familiar with cadet movements elsewhere have managed to present the Newfoundland story without noticing the glaringly obvious parallels between the “muscular Christianity” of the British or Canadian religious cadets and their Newfoundland contemporaries.

Newfoundland was not unprepared for war in 1914, no matter how often people repeat the same tale..  Robert Bond’s administration formed the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve Division as the country’s defence force in 1902. For three years before that,  as a member of another administration, Bond had negotiated with the Royal Navy about the creation of the force. Under a 10 year agreement signed just after the end of the Boer War,  Newfoundland  paid about $17,000 a year for the force and the British provided a core of officers and senior non-commissioned officers to lead them.

By 1907, Bond’s  administration had committed the government to raise a land contingent in the event of war. The volunteer force would come from local paramilitary groups in the same way that the British, Canadians, and others used similar groups as a source of recruits. 

Bond’s successor  - Ned Morris - reaffirmed the commitment  to the volunteer force scheme in 1909 and again in 1911. Morris’ administration also expanded a practice dating back to the 1890s.  The government armed the sectarian and non-sectarian youth brigades with obsolete rifles and bayonets purchased from the British.

The initial offer of military and naval aid sent by the governor on behalf of the government in August 1914 came at the end of a meeting of the whole of the executive council.  That is,  the entire cabinet met with the governor. They agreed to the accepted government policy, set the better part of a decade earlier.

The telegram offered sailors, firstly and fore mostly, since the naval reserve division was the heart of the country’s defence policy. It added the 500 soldiers “with efficient local brigade training” as the second offer because that was government policy as well.  The order was not an accident. What the cabinet could not know, at that point was how may men might come forward.  They offered 500 figuring they could get at least that many.

They also could not know that the British would accept the offer of soldiers and tell the Newfoundlanders to hold off on the sailors.  A couple of weeks later, the British accepted the government’s offer of a thousand sailors. Cadigan incorrectly attributes this decision to the British Admiralty.  It was a decision of the cabinet in Newfoundland to offer the thousand sailors.  The British accepted the offer:  they did not order it.  They could not do so, legally.

Had the British been able to legally order the Newfoundland government to create defence forces, they would not have suffered through the bitter disagreement from 1899 to 1901 over the need for a local military force.  The governor pushed a scheme.  The cabinet flatly rejected it time and again.  At the climax of the showdown in 1901, the governor finally  - stupidly - wrote to Morris, who was justice minister in Bond’s first administration.  The governor encouraged Morris to go to the press and tell them of what he considered to be the government’s flagrant disregard for the public’s safety.

The letter precipitated a constitutional crisis with the cabinet demanding to see internal correspondence of the colonial office. Bond accused the British of plotting to change the Newfoundland constitution and revert the country to the direct control of London. The crisis passed with the premature withdrawal by the British of the governor.  They replaced him with the less abrasive Cavendish Boyle.  In 1904,  the Newfoundland government picked Boyle’s successor.

The patriotic committee was essentially the same type of administrative organization that sprang up in cities across the Empire at the start of the Great War.  The crush of volunteers overwhelmed the available government bureaucracy in August and September 1914 in places with large numbers of public servants.  In Newfoundland, where the civil service was notoriously small and underpaid,  the country had no one to cope with the hundreds of volunteers.

The patriotic committee also provided the government with a political way to manage any controversy over the war.  By making the war a genuinely non-partisan and non-sectarian affair,  Morris and his colleagues understood that Davidson’s notion would minimise the chance that an opposition politician would use the war for his own political aggrandisement. 

Make no mistake, though:  the committee had no authority to anything beyond fill out forms and run the local training.  Morris and his cabinet colleagues put Davidson in charge of the thing to keep the committee free of local political intrigue.  Davidson did not get to dictate.  Rather he was a figurehead required to report to the elected House of Assembly each year on the committee’s operations.

Davidson was less a governor/dictator as some have had it and more like the country’s most senior civil servant. Davidson went down into the “hurly-burley” of department work, as Morris later commended him, because it was a role Davidson was accustomed to.  He was, after all, a civil servant. The politicians of Newfoundland were politicians accustomed to giving orders and dealing with Davidson’s boss not as an inferior but as ministers of the Crown and head of government.

Take as a good illustration the short-lived talk, in October 1914,  by the the governor and some local supporters  of the need a local defence battalion of 500 force to protect against a potential German invasion.  In a frank letter to Davidson,  Morris dismissed the idea flatly.  There will be no defence force, Morris told the government. Cabinet has decided.  Either you can tell them as chair of the patriotic committee or I can tell them as prime minister but the supporters of a further local defence contingent beyond the regiment would have to be told flatly their idea was not on.  This is hardly the image Cadigan and others present of the relationship between Morris and Davidson but it is precisely the one they had.

Letters in the meagre surviving records of the prime minister’s office show that while Davidson busied himself with the bureaucratic-level administration of the local war effort, Morris dealt with the country’s strategic problems. One of those was finances.  He received daily reports on the state of the global markets from local managers of the major banks.  The country had to try and float loans to cover its war commitments.  The availability of money and the interest rates to be charged were sensitive matters.

One of the earliest challenges Morris faced was the seizure of Newfoundland fish bound for Spain and Portugal at Liverpool.  Under British war regulations, no food could leave the country even in trans-shipment.  The result was that Newfoundland’s economy took a severe blow in the first weeks and months of the war at a time when the country needed money most. 

Money matters dogged the government in the first months of the war.  The governor petitioned cabinet to pay the regimental paymaster housing allowance to cover the costs of living on the economy  in London, as opposed to living in British barracks. The governor sought a modest one pound sterling per day for the man who would be, in effect, the country’s financial agent in London. Cabinet initially approved the amount but within a week rescinded the decision. They could not afford it.

So severe was the government’s financial problems that the first 500 soldiers were barely overseas a couple of months when  the cabinet had to review its commitment to cover the cost of boot and button polish for soldiers. The colonial secretary,  the most senior cabinet member after the prime minister, tried to get the British to cover the cost of these incidentals once the soldiers went overseas.

By the time the second contingent left the country in the winter of 1915, finances were no better.  Morris wrote the governor that he was concerned the total cost of the war effort was already double the $250,000 the cabinet had originally forecast. 

It is not merely possible, it is very much the case that in the name of “remembering”,  too many prominent Newfoundlanders have forgotten the real experience of the men and women of Newfoundland a century ago. 

As it turns out, Sean Cadigan,  a professional historian no less, is just offering up more of the same old stuff.

-srbp-