03 July 2015

Through a glass, darkly #nlpoli

Imagine that Newfoundland history is enclosed inside a gigantic room.  Inside the room everything is pitch black.

Every now and again,  someone opens the door and goes inside the room to take a look at an event somewhere in the past.  They don’t have much in the way of light to help them see.  When they get to whatever spot they are looking for, they take a picture and bring out with them to tell the rest of us the story of what they saw in the dark room.

If you had hundreds or even dozens of people going in and out of the room,  after a while you might build up a really clear picture of all the stuff inside.  Unfortunately,  only a few people have gone in.  Some of them have come out with nothing more than sketches.  Some of them brought cameras and a couple had the sense to get short movies.

For anyone who wants to understand what happened in our collective past, you can see what kind of a problem there is.  Not only have we only had a handful of people go in, a lot of them go to the same place over and over again.  In some cases,  people interested in the local history don’t even go into the room  any more. They just describe to us the sketches and out-of-focus snapshots taken by others.

Beaumont Hamel is a good example of that.  The natural tragedy of the event emits a sort of glow all its own in that large darkened room.  When you go  through the door, you can make out the shape of it from quite far away.  That’s one of the reasons why so many people interested in Newfoundland in the First World War go to the spot.  The other reason is that they have heard stories about it from others. Whatever the reason,  Beaumont Hamel draws them in.

In the darkness of the room, the brightness of the glow that comes from Beaumont Hamel tends to affect how people see the stuff around it.  Stare at the tragedy and you can become blind to other events. Look away and what you see around it – before and after along the time line – are lots of shadows that distort how the other events look.

Let’s leave the metaphor but keep its image.

What we understand of Newfoundland in the Great War is based mainly on three sources.  No worthwhile account of the subject can go without a reference to GWL Nicholson’s history of the Newfoundland battalion in the war.  Written a half century after the events,  the fact that The fighting Newfoundlander remains the bedrock text is a testament to Nicholson’s skill as a writer and researcher.

To be sure, though,  Nichol wrote an account of the soldiers with a small section on the sailors who fought in the war.  He did not produce an official history of Newfoundland’s involvement in the war, as much as some historians have mistakenly presented it as such.  What happened within the government  - and mostly importantly why it happened - is missing entirely.  This is almost certainly a function of the fact that Nicholson was too late to interview most of the key players and what records there were had largely disappeared.

The second most commonly cited work is Patricia Ruth O’Brien’s masters thesis on the Newfoundland Patriotic Association.  This is the civilian organization that administered recruiting and training. O’Brien’s thesis from the early 1980s remains the only academic account of wartime administration.

The third frequently cited work is Sid Noel’s 1971 political history of Newfoundland up to 1934.  it is an accessible survey of a long period.  It’s section on the First World War reflects the academic interpretation of Newfoundland history that had emerged in the 1960s.  These were the first professional historians to go into the dark room in any numbers at all and the impressions they brought out influenced what O’Brien and others have written.

Those three sources have given the three core points that describe what people generally believe about the war:

  • Newfoundland was a colony, ruled by the British.
  • The governor was a dictator.  He made all the decisions  - including the commitment of soldiers and sailors - and the Newfoundlanders meekly and dutifully followed along with his wishes.
  • The governor effected his dictatorship through the patriotic association, which was a government outside the constitution, as Noel would have it.

The problem with this argument is that it is at odds with actual events.

Newfoundland was self-governing colony.  It gained self-government in 1855, slightly later than the other North American colonies but somewhat ahead of the African and south Pacific ones.  The essence of self-government was that the Imperial government controlled  foreign relations while everything else was the responsibility of the local government.

While Newfoundland went to war with the rest of the empire in August 1914 once the British said so,  the shape of the country’s commitment was entirely up to the Newfoundlanders.  This was just as it had been in 1899 when the Newfoundlanders, alone among the self-governing colonies, did not send troops to South Africa.

The British did not meekly accept the Newfoundland decision.  The governor pressured the cabinet aggressively about the creation of a local defence force.  Ultimately, the British lost the confrontation.  They were forced to withdraw the governor and replace him with another, less abrasive fellow in 1901.

Four years later,  the self-governing colonies were faced with a proposal to create an imperial council that would co-ordinate the defence forces of the empire.  The subject was on the agenda for the 1907s imperial conference.  Newfoundland, like the other colonies actually gave its formal opinion before that.  What is most interesting here is that both Newfoundland and Canada presented exactly the same response.

Both countries rejected the imperial council.because it threatened to impinge on the ability of the elected government to determine the shape and character of its involvement in any future conflict.  This argument is most often attributed to Canada alone since its representatives made the point at the imperial conference. 

The theme of Canadian sovereignty has also been a popular one among Canadian historians.  Newfoundland historians, or those interested in Newfoundland history have shown no interest in the topic.  Hence, they have not gone looking for it.  But the official Newfoundland response to the imperial council proposal is  a matter of record.

Neither Canada nor Newfoundland quarrel with the idea that once the empire was at war, they were at war.  What they reserved, separately, was the right to decide for themselves what form the participation would take. 

Newfoundland's contribution to imperial defence in 1905 was the sailors of the reserve division.  This was consistent with the British emphasis on imperial naval defence to counter the Germans.  It was also consistent with what Newfoundland could readily provide.

By the time they got to 1914, the Newfoundlanders had made extra additional commitments both in response to the changing international situation and to the popular sentiment that supported participation in imperial defence.    The newfoundland government would have had a very hard time changing those commitments in 1914.

The popular sentiment in Newfoundland was no different than anywhere else across the British empire in 1914.  The country had a duty to support the war against Germany. They had several hundred young men eager to do their bit.  Popular sentiment pushed the government along the path it had already started along.

The government led by Prime Minister Edward Morris  had little choice in the late summer of 1914 but to manage the popular sentiment and the war effort as best they could. The challenge for Morris was:

  • to meet the commitments he and his predecessor had made,
  • to keep the country together,
  • to avoid giving his local political opponents any ammunition against him, and
  • to avoid bankrupting the country in the process.

The patriotic committee gave them a good tool to do that and Governor Walter Davidson Davidson showed his own sound political judgment by recommending it.  But make no mistake:  Morris and the cabinet were in charge.  Morris and his cabinet colleagues controlled the purse strings and that is ultimately the power they exercised at every juncture.

We would be mistaken if we believed that the local politicians were empty vessels, quislings or stooges.  Morris had been a minister in administrations dating back to the 90s.  Robert Bond,  Morris’ predecessor had a similar long career.  He had fought with the British as they had shot two trade deals out from under him.  In 1894,  Bond had pledged his personal fortune to secure a loan that kept the government solvent amid a financial collapse of the local banks. They may have come from a small country but these were not the small men of the stories told by some of the people who have come out of the dark room of Newfoundland’s past and seen very little at all.

-srbp-