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Newfoundland and the First World War [1917]



[Canadian Annual Review , 1917; for the full citation, see the end of the text]


The Island of Newfoundland , like New Zealand , was recognized as a Dominion in official title during 191'7 and its War record certainly merited the compliment. Sir W. E. Davidson, who since 1913 had been the successful Governor of the Island was appointed to New South Wales in October and his successor was Sir Charles Alexander Harris, K.C.M.G., C.B., C.V.O., who for a number of years had been associated with the Colonial Office. In politics Newfoundland went through the same experience as Canada and Australia and formed a Coalition Government. Sir Edward Morris still remained the strongest personality in the local political world; he had been a member of its Government for 15 years and Premier since 1909; but new problems and conditions required new men and the closer co-operation of parties. The Premier saw this and endeavoured to bring them together-not an easy task in a country where party feeling and personal prejudices ran high and were often bitter in the extreme. In the House of Assembly, with a membership of 36, the Government held 9.1 seats and the Opposition 15, but the latter claimed that a majority of the votes at the last Elections had been cast for them-a result due to the fact that the Fishermen's Union Party, a new organization which had sprung to life in the northern districts, swept nine constituencies by enormous majorities, and now were supporting the Opposition.


Another Election was due and was claimed to be very undesirable in War-time; but the Opposition, under Dr. Wm. Lloyd and W. F. Coaker of the Fishermen's Party, did not accept this view, demanded an Election, and strenuously fought the proposal to extend the duration of the Legislature by special Act. Early in July a deadlock developed in the business of Parliament and the Government could not even pass its Revenue bills. Finally on Aug. 16 the Premier announced that all parties had come to a war agreement, that permission had been obtained from the Imperial Government to increase the Cabinet from 9 to 12, that a Bill would be presented and passed, extending the life of the Legislature for one year and legalizing the seats of new Ministers without bye-elections, that Hon. S. D. Blandford, Hon. C. H. Emerson and Hon. R. K. Bishop had resigned their positions to facilitate the reorganization and that the new National Cabinet would be as follows:




Prime Minister

Rt. Hon. Sir Edward Morris

Minister of Finance

Hon. Michael P. Cashin

Minister of Militia and Defence

Hon. John R. Bennett

Colonial Secretary

Hon. R. A. Squires, K.C.

Without Portfolio

Hon. M. P. Gibbs

Without Portfolio

Hon. John C. Crosbie





Minister of Justice

Hon. William F. Lloyd

Minister of Agriculture

Hon. Walter Halfyard

Without Portfolio

Hon. William F. Coaker

Without Portfolio

Hon. J. Augustus Clift

Without Portfolio

Hon. A. E. Hickman

Without Portfolio

Hon. William J. Ellis



Win. Woodford (Government) was Minister of Public Works and John Stone (Opposition) Minister of Marine and Fisheries, without seats in the Cabinet. A Cabinet Committee, composed of Messrs. Coaker, Crosbie and Hickman, was at once appointed to deal with the difficult matter of shipping and tonnage. A Commission appointed by the late Government to look into the High Cost of Living had embodied another issue by reporting on July 10 that as to one standard grade of pork alone "we find that from Jan. 1 to the middle of May the price as imported varied only from about $32 to $34, while the average selling price in the market for the same period rose from about $33 to $44, showing that whereas the cost of the article only increased $2 in about four months, the price to the consumer advanced about $10." Many millions of profit were made by this means.


In the Legislature a crisis arose at the end of August by the Upper House or Council rejecting the Profits Tax Bill, introduced and carried in the Assembly by the new Government. It aimed at checking the evil indicated above and levied a tax (not retroactive) of 20°0 on all business profits in excess of $3,000. It not being constitutional to reconsider Bills, the Legislature closed, and again convened in an Extraordinary Session. On recommendation of the National Cabinet the Governor appointed four new members of the Council who at once voted in favour of the Profits Tax Bill, which thereupon became law. During the main Session a number of local Acts were passed, including the inauguration of Daylight Saving, the enactment of War Pensions and provision for a Board of Pension Commissioners, the creation of a Militia Department, the appointment of a Food Control Board, the enactment of a Currency Act creating a coinage similar to that of Canada, and a Loan Act for $3,000,000. Another Act was unanimously passed defining and restricting the powers of the Upper House and reserving money bills in particular to the House of Assembly.


Meanwhile Prohibition had gone into force on Jan. 1, 1917 , and it stopped the import, manufacture or sale of intoxicating liquors of every kind within the Colony, except for medicinal, manufacturing, or sacramental purposes, and not excepting a long list of patent medicines which were specifically banned. A public Controller in St. John's and physicians or magistrates elsewhere were the custodians. of supplies legally permitted. At the end of the year the handicap upon revenue involved in this policy had been met and the Revenue was found for the calendar year to total $4,442,476 or $25,867 more than in 1916. The Food Control Board, appointed in August, consisted of Hon. P. T. McGrath, M.L.C., as Chairman, Henry Le Messurier, Deputy Minister of Customs, and George Grimes, M.L.A. In September Hon. J. R. Bennett, the new Minister of Militia, visited Toronto, Ottawa and other points for the purpose of looking into Canada's Militia system, recruiting methods, conscription conditions, etc.


The Island Colony already had done much along recruiting and other War lines. Out of a population of 240,000, and up to the beginning of 1917, there had been sent overseas 2,810 soldiers and 1,638 sailors while 459 of the former and 83 of the latter were under training at St. John's - a total of 4,990 men. Of these there had been 930 permanent casualties. During 1917 the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, which had done such excellent service in Gallipoli and on the Somme, further distinguished itself, while Sir Edward Morris on May 1 received through the Colonial Secretary a despatch from General Allenby, then commanding a Division in France, stating that during recent fighting: "The Newfoundlanders did gallant work in repelling very heavy counter-attacks by the Germans. Their casualties were high, but they showed splendid staunchness and fought like heroes." The London Times correspondent on Sept. 3 wrote that:


In proportion to their numbers there are no troops in the Army which have earned for themselves a finer reputation than the Newfoundlanders. This year at Arras , beyond Monchy, they behaved magnificently. Once more in the recent fighting here they have done superbly. It was in the advance beyond Steenbeek, when they were among the troops whose task was to cross some 500 yards of what is known as Floating Swamp to attack a strong fortified position with concrete defences on the farther side. Floating Swamp is the name for a quaking morass which gives no foothold anywhere, but heaves and oozes and bubbles to unknown depths as you wade through it. The swamp was a fearsome thing to breast, and it was swept by machine-gun fire, which, however, spluttered blindly through our barrage. Behind it they went doggedly on in the grey of the early morning, wading, stumbling, forcing a way as best they could. Those who were badly hit sank into the dreadful ooze. Some lightly wounded went on after their comrades or made their painful way back. But the rest went on, and, mud from head to toe, with only their rifles held above their heads still dry, panting and almost worn out, on the heels of the barrage they rushed the German fort. There was a short burst of wild fighting, and the fort was theirs after as fine an exhibition of mere physical endurance as men have often been called on to show.


Newfoundland suffered from the War in various ways. Many of her ships were torpedoed, her fast, six-hour boat service between Sydney , C.B., and Port aux Basques, was discontinued, the water journey between shore and shore became ten hours long. No lights were allowed upon the streets of St. John's and in many other ways the Island felt far more the pressure of war than any place in Canada . Dependent as she was on other countries for many of her supplies the shortage of shipping was keenly felt, while hard coal was run up to $20 a ton. Red Cross work was continuous and Lady David­son gave up every available bit of Government House for the pur­pose while gifts of money and material went to Great Britain and many of the Allies, and the Patriotic Association aided recruiting, organized training, financed regimental undertakings, and expended $3,000,000 in these things and the care of soldiers' families or the education of returned soldiers.


Source : J. Castell HOPKINS , " Newfoundland and the First World War", in The Canadian Annual Review of Public Affairs, 1917, Toronto, 1918, The Canadian Annual Review Limited, pp. 187-190.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College