It Began with Barbara…

Halifax author Bryan Elson explains the spark that ignited the idea for his latest book
An Interview with Bryan Elson, author of Canada’s Bastions of Empire: Halifax, Victoria and the Royal Navy, 1749-1918

 Local author Bryan Elson explains the spark that ignited the idea for his latest book

“I was dipping into Barbara Tuchman’s monumental classic, The Guns of August, about the outbreak and the first month of the First World War, when it suddenly came to me: ‘Here’s an idea that might be developed for Halifax; looking at the city in 1914, in particular the major expansions of the navy and the city’s fortifications as a result of the war,” explains Byran Elson, speaking of where his book, Canada’s Bastions of Empire: Halifax, Victoria and the Royal Navy, 1749-1918, began.

“I approached my publisher, Jim Lorimer at Formac, who immediately recognized the significance of the topic,” Elson goes on. “But he suggested a key addition: develop the theme to include the West Coast, which experienced many of the same issues as we did on this coast. I did that, and I think the book is all the better for it.”

Canada's Bastions of EmpireA Saskatchewan boy who had never seen the ocean before he joined the navy, Bryan Elson completed a 37-year naval career, with service on both coasts, before he retired in 1989. He served in various ships and submarines, including as executive officer of the destroyer HMCS Skeena and the supply ship HMCS Protecteur, as well as command of the destroyer HMCS Fraser. Shore postings included jobs in Esquimalt, Toronto and Halifax. His last appointment was as commander of CFB Halifax.

I sat down with Elson recently to talk with him about the writing of Canada’s Bastions of Empire. 

How did the addition of the situation on the West Coast change the book?

First of all, the book became very much the story of two places instead of one; in fact the only locations in the country where an actual enemy threat existed during the war. This meant that in addition to the balance I already had to achieve between naval and army developments, I also had to achieve a balance between the two coasts.

From your original idea to the finished book, how much did your concept change?

I discovered that as I put together the story of the two naval bases and their associated forts—and don’t forget that the fortifications were there to protect the navy and only incidentally to protect Halifax and Victoria—I was telling the history of British North America during the 19th century in relation to its only potential enemy, the United States. I also found that it was impossible to understand the development of the two naval bases and their forts unless I explained the very real threat of American expansionism. The finished product is not quite the book I started out to write, as the geopolitical aspect assumed more importance as I progressed through the story.

U.S. expansionism figures quite prominently in your book.

Yes, and of necessity. Let’s not forget that during the 19th century the story of the U.S. is one of an expanding empire, of buying or taking vast swaths of territory from France, Spain, Mexico and Russia. By the end of this expansionist era, the only part of the continent that did not belong to the Americans was Canada.

Yet when war came, it wasn’t with the Americans.

That’s right; it was with Germany. But many of the preparations for the defence of Halifax and Esquimalt were already in place in accordance with a long-standing plan.

You’ve put a lot of detail into the book; how time consuming and difficult was it to research this story?

I started the research in the summer of 2012. Locally there was a lot of information available on the navy and the army at The Public Archives of Nova Scotia, on the navy at the Maritime Command Museum and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and on the army from local reserve units and for the fortifications from the Friends of McNabs Island. I made one all-too-brief trip to the West Coast, where the Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum and the Municipality of Esquimalt Archives were great sources. Additionally, the regimental museum of the 5th Field Regiment Royal Canadian Artillery was particularly useful.

Bastions follows your two previous books of historical non-fiction, Nelson’s Yankee Captain in 2008 and First to Die in 2010.  What’s next?

Nothing is finalized yet, but I’ve been researching a particular aspect of the search for the lost Franklin Expedition involving a Nova Scotia connection.

Canada’s Bastions of Empire: Halifax, Victoria and the Royal Navy, 1749-1918 is published by Formac and sells for $29.95. According to Elson, “It will certainly come as a surprise to many readers, who probably never realized what armed camps Halifax and Victoria were during the First World War.”

Written By

John Boileau lives near Halifax and writes historical non-fiction, especially military history. He has written eleven books and more than 450 magazine and newspaper articles. His latest book is Old Enough to Fight, Canada’s Boy Soldiers in the First World War, co-authored with Dan Black.

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