July 24, 2015

Finest Hour 166, Winter 2015

Page 30


This review originally appeared in The Northern Mariner and is re-printed with kind permission.

Martin Thornton, Churchill, Borden and Anglo-Canadian Naval Relations, 1911-14, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. £50.00

2024 International Churchill Conference

Join us for the 41st International Churchill Conference. London | October 2024

churchill borden image Canadian naval policy has seldom generated much interest in Great Britain, with the notable exception of the Naval Aid Bill introduced to the Canadian House of Commons by Robert Borden’s Conservative government in the autumn of 1912. This legislation was intended to provide for the construction, in British shipyards, of three new “dreadnought” battleships for Britain’s Royal Navy. The naval race with Germany was placing considerable strain on British finances at this time, and the possibility that Canada might alleviate some of the burden was warmly welcomed by the British Admiralty, and especially the young First Lord, Winston S. Churchill. Behind the scenes, the up-and-coming British cabinet minister worked closely with the more senior Dominion prime minister, supplying him with information and documents to persuade Canadians that Britain urgently needed their aid. Borden’s Naval Aid Bill was highly controversial, however, and was ultimately rejected by the Canadian senate, where the Liberal Party commanded a solid majority.

These events have typically been treated either as a colourful episode in Canadian political history or as a minor distraction in the development of prewar British naval policy. This volume is the first attempt to give equal weight to events on both sides of the Atlantic, an approach that allows the author to explore the close collaboration that developed between Borden and Churchill. The two politicians corresponded regularly during this period and a strong degree of mutual trust appears to have developed. Borden was clearly impressed by Churchill’s arguments for a Canadian contribution to bolster the Royal Navy, a policy that had the added benefit, from Borden’s perspective, of upsetting the plans of his predecessor, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, to develop an autonomous Canadian navy. Churchill, on the other hand, was grateful for Borden’s efforts and was willing to take political risks on his behalf. The most obvious challenge faced by the First Lord was to make the case that Britain faced a genuine naval emergency without creating a panic in Britain or suggesting that his own preparations had been inadequate.

Thornton’s efforts to provide a mid-Atlantic perspective on this episode achieve mixed results. The book’s strength is its treatment of the Canadian side of the story, and in particular the author’s skilful dissection of the highly-charged debates over naval policy in the Canadian Parliament. Borden’s case for the contribution of ships to the British navy and a more centralised imperial defence policy ran into strong opposition from many quarters, including French Canadians and nationalists who preferred the development of a distinctly Canadian naval service that would remain under Ottawa’s control. Despite the best efforts of both Borden and Churchill, many remained skeptical of the idea that Britain faced a naval emergency. Moreover, Churchill’s attempts to support Borden were not always successful. Many Canadians were offended by the First Lord’s observations that the Canadian shipbuilding industry was not up to the task of building dreadnoughts, and that the vessels could be built more economically in British shipyards.

The book pays far less attention to the British side of the story, and provides only the most superficial treatment of British naval policy. The bibliography, for example, contains just a single file from the Admiralty records in Britain’s National Archives. This is a serious shortcoming. Thornton is seemingly unaware of the complexity of Admiralty policy in the years before the outbreak of war, and consequently fails to understand Churchill’s motives. The First Lord’s commitment to obtaining Canadian dreadnoughts was not, as Thornton implies, motivated simply by the need to keep up with Germany. In the summer of 1912, the British Cabinet made a momentous decision to compete against both Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary. Churchill was not unduly alarmed by the naval balance in the North Sea: the “emergency” he contemplated was Britain’s declining margins in the Mediterranean Sea, which could only be met if the dominions were able and willing to put dreadnoughts at Britain’s disposal. Similarly, Thornton is unable to place Churchill’s Canadian policies in the context of his evolving views on imperial naval defence, and therefore cannot explain important developments like the proposal to assign the Canadian dreadnoughts to a mobile “Imperial Squadron.”

It should also be noted that the book has little to say about Anglo-Canadian naval relations after the Senate’s rejection of Borden’s Naval Aid Bill in May 1913. This is unfortunate, since the fate of the Canadian dreadnoughts continued to be an important issue for Churchill, especially during the British Cabinet crisis over the 1914 naval estimates. Thornton mistakenly suggests that Churchill felt he might need to resign over the failure of the Canadian government to supply three new dreadnoughts. It is true that Churchill came close to resigning in January 1914, but for different reasons. The British cabinet threatened to cancel the construction of new British battleships, which would have made a mockery of Churchill’s public claims that Britain required urgent aid from the Dominions to bolster its strength in capital ships. This would have been humiliating for Churchill, and would have caused Borden considerable discomfort as well. The First Lord promptly enlisted Borden’s aid, but the Canadian Prime Minister’s role in the resolution of this crisis receives no attention here. Nor does the author explore how Borden’s failure to deliver Canadian dreadnoughts forced the British to reshape their naval policy on the eve of the First World War.

This book fails to deliver everything the title promises, but the Canadian subject matter is generally well handled. Whether it represents good value for money is another matter. The text, excluding appendices, runs to only 136 pages, which hardly seems to justify the publisher’s hefty price tag.

Christopher M. Bell teaches history at Dalhousie University.

A tribute, join us




Get the Churchill Bulletin delivered to your inbox once a month.