World War Wednesdays: Newfoundland and Wartime
As a separate colony of Great Britain at the time of the outbreak of the First World War, the general sentiment in Newfoundland was enthusiastic towards involvement in the conflict. In accordance with this, the Newfoundland Regiment was expanded, along with the merchant marine (private ships used for war purposes as a separate branch from the navy).
In addition to this contribution, the Voluntary Aid Detachment was created to send female nurses and healthcare workers overseas to hospitals in France and England. Some of these volunteers also served directly in the trenches.
Men who did not qualify for enlistment into the forces were recruited to become part of the Newfoundland Forestry Corps. This group worked in British industry to help sustain the war effort.
The Royal Newfoundland Regiment will forever be remembered as the territory’s greatest contribution and one of the largest prices paid in the entirety of the First World War. The Regiment recruited men aged nineteen to thirty-six, and was nicknamed the “Blue Puttees” after their unique uniform. In October 1914, ‘The First Five Hundred’ Newfoundlanders sailed out of St. John’s. The Battle of Beaumont-Hamel in July of 1916 is where the “Blue Puttees” earned their fateful place in history. 801 men went into battle, and by the next day only 68 had returned. This massive slaughter was a major blow not only to the Regiment itself, but also to the people of Newfoundland, who in the matter of just one day had lost a significant portion of a generation of young men.
By war’s end, Newfoundland’s debt had been increased by $35 million, most of which had come from the decision to raise, equip, and train their own overseas regiment. In the final chapter of the conflict, there had also been political controversy regarding conscription. During the war, the railway had expanded, which incurred another major debt of $1.7 million, prompting the government to take control but with a continued loss of money. In the 1920s, Newfoundland began borrowing heavily from foreign investors in order to diversify the economy, but this required a costly improvement of existing roads and utilities. By the 1929 stock market crash and beginning of the Great Depression, railway spending had accounted for two-thirds of Newfoundland’s $80 million national debt.
With disastrous results, the Great Depression coincided with the loss of an international market for dried cod due to advances in refrigeration techniques. The fishery, a major component of Newfoundland’s economy, suffered heavy losses. By 1933, the debt owed had reached $100 million. Government relief existed in the form of small food rations of only half of a person’s nutritional needs, owed to a fear of the government that the ‘dole’ would make people stop working and reliant on assistance. To keep the costs even of this basic program down, the government closely policed dole applicants with a system of officers who had sweeping powers, which resulted in riots. At that time, Great Britain began fearing that the chaos could negatively affect the Commonwealth, so it considered intervening more actively in Newfoundland politics. In the 1933 Newfoundland Commission, British Lord Amuleree stated that the problems were due to Newfoundland’s irresponsibility, and recommended a direct British takeover. On 16 February, 1934, Newfoundland ceased to be a self-governing nation, and the Commission Government was sworn in. This government entailed:
v Seven appointed people from the British government
v No elections to be held and no legislation passed
v An undemocratic structure which was out-of-touch with the public
v The establishment of the Newfoundland Ranger Force to enforce the law and provide the Commission with information in rural districts
By the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, military spending and improved export prices improved conditions for Newfoundland. As was the case for many nations at the time, the unfortunate circumstances which launched them into another state of war also served to alleviate the effects of major economic crisis. Newfoundland had finally become self-sufficient, even to the point of actually lending money to Britain independently.
After the war, during which time Newfoundland had proven itself to once again be capable of functioning on its own, there became the question of what would replace the Commission system. In 1948, Newfoundlanders voted to become part of Canada, and the confederation became effective in 1949. After enduring a harrowing chapter of the first half of the twentieth century, the story of Newfoundland would then be interwoven into the greater story of Canada.
Thanks for reading,