Sea to Sea Power

The centuries of naval struggle that shaped Canada’s development

When compared with the history of the Canadian army, it is unlikely that many of us have given much thought to the equally long past of Canada’s navy. How was the evolution of this branch of Canada’s military different from the other branches, and how did this evolution affect the development of Canada’s coasts? Although ostensibly a history of the main naval establishments on the country’s east and west coasts, Bryan Elson’s Canada’s Bastions of Empire: Halifax, Victoria and the Royal Navy 1749–1918 has a much broader tale to tell. In it Elson—a former Royal Canadian Navy officer, and currently a director of the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust in Halifax—fleshes out the complicated and ever changing foreign and domestic situations that shaped Canada’s role as a naval presence up to the modern day.

His story begins in 1749 with Halifax’s founding as a naval base to challenge the French fortress of Louisbourg. The Royal Navy quickly realized that it required more than simply a good anchorage. Maintenance and supply services were required to sustain its presence, and before long fortifications were constructed to guard the whole. Here begins one of Elson’s persistent themes. The navy needed secure land bases from which to operate, but had no interest in defending them, a role that fell to the army, but with the navy always dominant, given that its importance in defending Britain’s well-being was seen as paramount.

The Seven Years War soon after Halifax’s founding left Britain master of North America, until the United States emerged as a new potential enemy. Although the threat posed by this upstart continued to grow, the Americans were not strong enough to make an attempt on Halifax. Nor was the tiny U.S. Navy able to threaten the Royal Navy’s dominance of the seas. During the War of 1812, Halifax served as the main base for Britain’s blockade of the entire east coast of the United States—a powerful cause for the growing sentiment within the U.S. that the Americas should be off limits to European powers, as expressed in the Monroe Doctrine. The Americans lacked the power to institute this doctrine, but any infringement might have been the cause of war. Elson is skilled at contextualizing the tensions between Britain and the U.S. during this period when, even in times of peace, there was always a threat of war.

By the middle of the 19th century, tensions arose not only with the U.S. but also with Russia, a country with which Britain had just ended the Crimean War. Against this backdrop, in 1858 the navy began to develop a base at Esquimalt in British Columbia. This meant Britain had bases on both of North America’s coasts from which the Royal Navy could protect imperial interests. One of Elson’s main purposes in this book is to explain the importance of each facility to the developing cities that grew up around them. For both Halifax and Victoria, the presence of the army and navy was a massive financial boost.

But at the same time Britain’s continual placement of its imperial interests ahead of Canada’s caused considerable Canadian dissatisfaction. In every negotiation between Britain and the U.S. over North American border and trade issues, British North America seemed to come out the loser. The countervailing shifts in American and British power during this time, and Britain’s struggle to maintain a global empire, were reasons for this trend. It was becoming increasingly clear that war with the United States was something that Britain—let alone British North America—could ill afford to contemplate. Throughout the later part of the 19th century each new crisis caused a flurry of activity in both Halifax and Victoria, as long neglected defences were improved and updated.

The American Civil War further elevated British-American tensions. The perceived threat of growing American power in the war’s aftermath was one of the key reasons for the creation of Canada. Still, while Confederation created responsible self-government within the component provinces, it did not extend to decisions over foreign affairs, these still being the prerogative of the mother country. Britain was able to begin repatriating its troops from many of its strongholds in British North America, however, supposedly to be replaced by Canadians. Elson skillfully navigates the issues surrounding Canada’s woefully inadequate ability to provide for its own defence. Ever since the War of 1812, a mythology had evolved that local militia units were all that was required to defend the country. Ironically, the same delusions had been a popularly held belief in the United States during its earlier history. Successive governments in Canada found ways to avoid making the necessary expenditures to create an effective military. The Fenian incursions between 1866 and 1871 dramatically demonstrated how imperfect the defence preparations were. Britain realized that the two naval establishments on both coasts were too important to imperial interests to turn over to the inept handling of the Canadian government. In any case, and mercifully for Canada, as the century drew to a close, war with the United States was becoming less and less likely.

Meanwhile the pace of technological change was accelerating. Weapons that had been mainstays for generations were becoming obsolete overnight, and keeping up with these advances proved expensive. Not only was Canada reluctant to provide the necessary military manpower, it also steadfastly avoided approving the needed funds for upgrading the defences on both coasts, which left it to Britain to shoulder the burden. There was a reciprocal obligation created by Britain’s defence of Canada, and that was that Canada was required to provide resources to defend the empire. It must have seemed unlikely to many that the puny contributions that Canada would be able to provide could be of much use to the mother country. Rebellions in western Canada had been successfully put down by the militia, reinforcing the anti-regular army bias. Only through imperial pressure did Canada gradually create a professional military. By the time of the Boer War Canada’s military, although tiny, performed well, yet a great deal of work still needed to be done.

Britain’s fortresses on the two coasts had not been called on very heavily in the later part of the 19th century, but international pressures in the early years of the 20th century would change all that. The base at Esquimalt was responsible for patrolling the entire west coast of the Americas, an enormous task. Japan had risen to become a formidable naval power in the east. Fortunately, its navy had been trained by Britain and, although there were conflicting national interests in the Pacific, Japan’s real rival was Russia, so an alliance was struck.

With Canada’s continued growth, new problems developed. Tens of thousands of European immigrants flooded Halifax on their way to settle the prairies. In British Columbia the situation was different. Here many of the immigrants came from China, Japan and India, their settlement actively discouraged by an overtly racist government policy. Tensions ran high. Elson handles the social issues of the times with the same sure hand that he displays in dealing with military and naval matters. He does not shy away from the shabbier aspects of Canada’s history as he casts a light on the development of the west. For example, Japan could provide patrol vessels to protect Canada’s coast as long as their nationals did not expect to become citizens of the Dominion.

Elson traces the roots of the defence problem in early 20th-century Canada by examining the political philosophies of the Liberal and Conservative governments. The Liberals under Laurier favoured a “made in Canada” policy whereby ships would be built and run by Canadians. The Conservative approach was to send money directly to Britain and have them produce the materials for the navy. Either approach could have worked, except that changing governments made sure that the money was never available for either to succeed. Canada neither developed its own ships nor paid to have them built in England.

In 1910 the Canadian government purchased two warships, the light cruiser Rainbow for the West Coast and the Niobe for the East Coast. Unfortunately, neither vessel was up to latest design standards, with accelerated technological advances now forcing both vessels into obsolescence. Nor was that the extent of the problems facing the newly minted Royal Canadian Navy. In 1911 the Niobe ran aground, causing sufficient damage to keep the vessel in dry dock for 16 months. She would not sail again for three years. Proponents of the imperial policy gleefully focused on the shortcomings of the made-in-Canada approach. Clearly, it was better to let Britain run things and Canadians would simply supply people.

These vessels, of course, needed support facilities and thus the establishments on both coasts needed serious upgrading. In addition, the Canadian army and militia were now shouldering the responsibility for the defence of these fortresses. To that end, they had become more and more accomplished in their performance. The gunners in the coastal batteries proved to be highly proficient at their jobs. Of course, that would only matter if either base was attacked. This, as it turned out, never happened. Morale among the garrisons suffered, while events soon propelled Canada into a conflict it was ill prepared for.

With the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, cascading alliances soon had all the major powers arrayed against each other. Since Britain was at war, Canada automatically was as well. Our infant navy was woefully unprepared. Elson describes in detail the attempts of the government to recruit for the service leading up to the war and how desperately unsuccessful they were. Now Canada was a belligerent, with virtually no tools, in the greatest war ever seen.

The core command of the Royal Canadian Navy came from British officers transferred to Canadian service. Their experience was essential since local efforts had produced such limited results. The navy’s job would be to patrol and protect both coasts of North and South America from the depredations of German raiders. The Imperial German navy had grown rapidly during the later part of the 19th century and early years of the 20th, in an attempt to outstrip British sea power. Although Britain still retained the lead, its edge was shrinking quickly. There was no question that the former colonies would be required to bolster the war effort. Even tiny New Zealand could boast a battleship. Canada’s naval contribution looked pitiful. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of the coastal fortresses was rapidly improved. Defence plans were put into action quickly and successfully. The sad reality for the sailors who manned these facilities was that they were never tested. Elson describes in detail not only the layout of the defences of each fortress but the psychological difficulties their garrisons encountered as a result of inaction.

Meanwhile, patrolling of both coasts was an urgent priority. Powerful German ships, more than capable of destroying anything the Canadian navy could put up against them, were known to be at large on the oceans. It became of paramount importance to increase the size of the naval establishment. One such incident involved the purchase of a privately owned American yacht and its conversion into a small warship armed with a three-pounder gun and two 14-inch torpedo tubes. Because it went against American neutrality laws, this purchase had to be conducted in clandestine circumstances. In any case, its value to the navy was far more psychological than practical. Similarly, Canada was able to acquire two American-built submarines originally destined for the Chilean navy but mired in contractual problems. Although it turned out that the boats had design problems, their implied threat was probably a major deterrent against German activities along the British Columbian coast. Interestingly, this acquisition was the brainchild of B.C. premier Sir Richard McBride. He had no authorization whatsoever from the Canadian government to make the purchase, which only highlights the unfocused and regional nature of Canadian defence policy during this period.

Without a doubt, the Royal Navy’s presence on both coasts of Canada enabled it to operate effectively against Germany. Canadian staffing of these facilities freed up British personnel for other duties thus making a meaningful contribution to the imperial war effort. Compared to Canada’s contributions on land, its maritime efforts were small; however, the groundwork was laid for the much greater contributions to come during the Second World War.

Bastions of Empire is an excellent source for anyone interested in Canada’s maritime history. Throughout Elson maintains an easy readable style that reveals much about a little-known corner of Canada’s past. Nor is this history without contemporary relevance. In an era when naval procurement decisions can elicit strong passions, as well as considerable controversy, it is useful to be able to place these decisions in the longue durée of Canada’s maritime past. Doing so helps us realize that the debates of today are hardly without precedent. And this history also shows us that in the realm of naval preparations, a good working rule is that it is probably best always to expect the unexpected.