Newfoundland and Labrador In The First World War

The Politics of War

Newfoundland entered the First World War with Sir Edward Morris as prime minister. His People's Party had been re-elected to the House of Assembly in 1913, but its majority had dropped from 10 seats to five and it had only won 41 per cent of the popular vote. Morris was in a weak political position.

Sir Edward Morris
Sir Edward Morris
Born in St. John's, he was first elected to the House of Assembly in 1885. He served as Prime Minister from 1909-1917.
Courtesy of the Rooms Provincial Archives Division (VA-33-59), St. John's, NL.

He faced formidable opposition from the Liberal and Union Parties, and had to govern a society that was deeply divided along religious (Anglican/ Roman Catholic/ Methodist), class (merchant/ fisherman), and geographical (St. John's/ outport) lines. The People's Party was strongest in southern Newfoundland and the Avalon Peninsula. It was supported by Roman Catholic voters and the powerful Water Street merchants.

But to effectively administer the war effort, Morris needed the support of both opposition parties and the three church leaders, which would be difficult to obtain in the political and social climate of the time.

Newfoundland Patriotic Association

In deciding how Newfoundland might participate in the war, Morris was greatly influenced by the governor, Sir Walter Davidson. Before coming to Newfoundland in 1913, Davidson had served at the crown colonies of Ceylon, Transvaal, and the Seychelles Islands. He had little experience with the system of responsible government in place at Newfoundland and was distasteful of partisan politics. He believed that the governor should play a direct role in state administration and wanted to take an active, rather than symbolic, role in administering the war effort.

Sir Walter Edward Davidson (1859-1923)
Sir Walter Edward Davidson (1859-1923), n.d.
Davidson was Newfoundland Governor from 1913-1917.
From the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, I (1981), p. 595. Print. Original source unknown.

Davidson's willingness to contribute, combined with Morris's tenuous hold on power, made the two men question the benefits of forming a state-run military department. If the government administered the war effort, then there would be more debate in the House of Assembly and possibly more public controversy for Morris to deal with. It would also mean that Davidson would have little sway over key decisions.

Instead, the two men decided to create an extra-parliamentary, non-denominational association. The Newfoundland Patriotic Association (NPA) formed on August 17, 1914 with Davidson as its head. Its members included key Liberal politicians, prominent merchants, newspaper editors, city councillors, Supreme Court judges, and officials from the major denominations, including Catholic Archbishop M. F. Howley and Church of England Bishop Llewellyn Jones.

Notably absent was William Coaker, leader of the Fishermen's Protective Union (FPU) and its political wing, the Union Party. Eight of the Union Party's nine candidates had won seats in the 1913 general election, including Coaker in Bonavista Bay. The party represented working class interests and was strongest in Protestant outport districts on Newfoundland's northeast coast. There was significant tension between the Union Party and the governing People's Party.

Sir William Coaker
Sir William Coaker
From Richard Hibbs, ed., Who's Who In and From Newfoundland 1930, 2nd ed. (St. John's, NL: R. Hibbs, 1930) 65.

Davidson and Morris had appointed Coaker to the NPA's first 55 members on August 13, 1914, but the FPU leader appears to have only attended one meeting, in December 1914. Instead, Coaker became one of the few early dissenting voices to the NPA. Although a supporter of Newfoundland's war effort in general, Coaker argued that the government was ignoring its responsibilities by allowing a private association to oversee military matters. He also believed that the dominion should focus its recruiting efforts on the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve, rather than create a much more expensive regiment.

Nonetheless, the NPA had the support of the Liberal and People's Parties, the major denominations, the mercantile elite, and the St. John's community in general. It assumed responsibility for administering the dominion's war effort in August 1914 and remained in that role for the next three years.

The NPA formed various committees and sub-committees to administer different aspects of the war effort, such as recruitment, training, officer selection, and finance. Any major decisions that the committees made had to be approved at the NPA's general meetings, and then endorsed by Morris, on behalf of the government, and the Liberal leader, on behalf of the combined Opposition (which included the Union Party).

The first year and a half went by relatively smoothly. Recruiting efforts were a success and the NPA was able to unite different political parties and religious groups under a common cause. But the war lasted far longer than anyone anticipated and administrating the dominion's role in it proved to be unexpectedly complex.

NPA Struggling to Meet Obligations

By 1916, the NPA was struggling to meet its obligations and facing growing criticism from the press, returning soldiers, and the public in general. The Regiment sustained staggering losses in July 1916 and again in October. The NPA could not find enough new volunteers to keep pace with casualties. By January 1917, conscription was openly discussed.

A flaw in the NPA's recruiting strategy was its treatment of outport areas. In February 1916, enlistment rates reportedly varied from a high of 1 out of every 36 persons in St. John's to a low of 1 out of 329 in the Bay de Verde district. Many city newspapers and NPA members wrongly dismissed this as outport apathy. They failed to recognize that significant economic and geographic barriers prevented rural residents from enlisting.

Rural households depended on the seasonal cod fisheries for their livelihoods and most could not spare their men for the war effort. The NPA failed to put in place any economic aid that would make it possible for rural men to leave their homes without plunging their families into poverty. The association also maintained a far weaker presence in rural areas than it did in St. John's, which further undermined recruiting efforts.

Training Ground at Pleasantville, St. John's, ca. 1914
Training Ground at Pleasantville, St. John's, ca. 1914
Courtesy of the Rooms Provincial Archives Division (VA 37-15.1), St. John's, NL.

Dissatisfaction surrounding the selection of Regiment officers, a responsibility of the NPA's powerful Standing Committee, was also an issue. Many believed that the NPA was not awarding the commissions fairly and that it was favouring St. John's men over outport men, Protestants over Catholics, and the sons of the well-off at the expense of those from the working class. More damaging still, inexperienced new recruits who came from prominent families were receiving commissions at the expense of experienced men in the field. Journalist P. T. McGrath, himself a highly visible member of the NPA and a Morris supporter, aired these and other grievances in the legislature in July 1917.

Profiteering Merchants

The failure of the St. John's commercial establishment to live up to its moral obligations with respect to trade was another controversial issue. The Newfoundland economy depended on shipping, but St. John's merchants began selling off steel vessels at a substantial profit in 1915. Shortages of coal, flour, salt, and other supplies followed.

As consumer prices rose, it was widely believed that the Water Street merchants were using their control over the import, wholesale, and retail trades to obtain the highest possible margin of profit. Coaker was one of the most vocal critics of what he called the profiteering merchants. "If the public knew the one half of what is going on in official circles the past few months, they would stand appalled," he wrote in the Mail and Advocate on March 1, 1916. "They have been asked to contribute to collections for patriotic purposes. They have been asked to make many sacrifices which they have done with true British spirit. But in return for all this they find themselves at the mercy of a ring of commercial grafters."

The press was also critical. In February 1916, the Evening Telegram ran a series of editorials calling upon the government to act. It suggested that the dominion fix freight rates and introduce an excess profits tax to past and future sales, the proceeds of which could go to the war effort. The Daily News criticized the merchants in an editorial on March 16, 1916, claiming that they engaged in "the kind of patriotism that pays."

In May 1917, Morris appointed a High Cost of Living Commission to investigate the allegations of profiteering against the merchants. It released a series of six reports, which confirmed suspicions that merchants were artificially inflating prices. For example, its report on flour, released in June 1917, found that dealers had hoarded flour supplies and charged unreasonably high prices. Merchants were making profits of between $1.50 and $4 per barrel, instead of the normal profit of $0.50. They had made at least $600,000 in excess earnings and the commissioners could find no reason to justify such large rate increases.

The reports only added to the controversies that the government had to deal with. The commission's findings sparked calls for the conscription of wealth, while the collapse in recruiting sparked calls for the conscription of men. A growing dissatisfaction with the NPA in general put pressure on the government to play a larger role in administering the war effort.

Public confidence in the People's Party was also sagging. Its hands-off approach to the war effort had made the party seem weak and ineffective, while its close ties to the merchant class had made it seem dishonest. An election was due in the fall of 1917 and the party's defeat seemed likely.

National Government

Morris decided to create a coalition National Government in July 1917 and Davidson agreed to extend the legislative term, making a fall election unnecessary. The new executive consisted of six representatives from the People's Party, and six from the combined opposition (four Liberals and two members of the Union Party). The move restored some of the harmony of the early war years by uniting the three political parties under a single coalition government. Morris retired from politics at the end of the year, and Liberal Leader William Lloyd replaced him as prime minister.

Sir William F. Lloyd
Sir William F. Lloyd
Liberal Leader William Lloyd replaced Morris as prime minister.
From Richard Hibbs, ed., Who's Who In and From Newfoundland 1930, 2nd ed. (St. John's, NL: R. Hibbs, 1930) 55.

The new government worked quickly to address the problems that had plagued Newfoundland politics since 1916. In response to the calls for conscription of wealth, it introduced a business profits tax in 1917 and an income tax in 1918. It also created a wartime Ministry of Shipping and a Food Control Board.

In response to the problems with the NPA, it created a Department of Militia to direct the war effort. It also passed the Military Service Act on May 11, 1918, which brought conscription into effect (although the war ended before any of the conscripted troops went into active service).

Sir John R. Bennett
Sir John R. Bennett
Bennett headed the Department of Militia from 1917 until the end of the war.
From Richard Hibbs, ed., Who's Who In and From Newfoundland 1930, 2nd ed. (St. John's, NL: R. Hibbs, 1930) 243.

Debate surrounding conscription, however, was divisive and undermined the cohesiveness of the National Government. It was particularly damaging to Coaker and his Union Party. Coaker was a key member of the National Government and reluctantly agreed to join the other parties in supporting conscription. The move drove a wedge between him and his outport supporters, who strongly opposed conscription.

Other problems also weakened the coalition government. After Morris's departure in December 1917, several members of the People's Party, including Richard Squires, abruptly broke ranks to form the nucleus of an opposition. Resistance also came from outside the House of Assembly. The new Catholic Archbishop, Edward Patrick Roche, was strongly opposed to Coaker and his Union Party, which placed a great strain on the government's cohesion.

Sir Richard Squires
Sir Richard Squires
From Richard Hibbs, ed., Who's Who In and From Newfoundland 1930, 2nd ed. (St. John's, NL: R. Hibbs, 1930) 53.

By the time the war ended on November 11, 1918, the National Government had a tenuous hold on power. It finally collapsed six months later, when finance minister Michael Cashin successfully introduced a no-confidence motion. The governor invited Cashin to form an interim administration, which governed until a general election on November 3, 1919 put Richard Squires and his Liberal Reform Party in office.

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Revised by Jenny Higgins, April 2015
First World War Bibliography