John Cunningham Reviews Tales Peopled with Local Personalities of Distant Germanic Origin During First World War

The vote on whether military service should be mandatory created its own localized pocket of division within Lunenburg County
Gerry Hallowell in Sicily

Although he was born on a farm near Port Hope, Ontario, and reached the pinnacle of his career as senior editor of history at the University of Toronto Press, Gerald Hallowell has captured the community and seafaring spirit of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, in wartime. As British as the King, which was recently shortlisted for an Atlantic Book Award, tells of the offshore German U-Boat sinking of fishing schooners sailing from Nova Scotia shores. The tales are peopled with local personalities of distant Germanic origin.

Subtitled Lunenburg County During the First World War, Hallowell’s book takes aim at the aura of suspicion, bordering on paranoia, surrounding locals with German sounding names, although their families had been residents of Lunenburg County since 1753. Lunenburg County’s Atlantic Ocean-facing coastline left it exposed to danger of attack by German warships, and later, as technology advanced, by submarines. “It was one of the few points in Canada” that was visited by U-Boats, said war veteran and politician JW Margeson in retrospect.

There were cases where fishing and freight-carrying schooners had been sent to the bottom, their crews set adrift in dories far from land. “Our fleet now on the banks (the fishing grounds of The Grand Banks of Newfoundland) is liable to be attacked and sunk to the bottom,” the Bridgewater Bulletin warned on August 13, 1918.

Eight days before, a German submarine crew boarded and placed a bomb aboard the Newfoundland vessel Gladys M. Hollett, off West Ironbound Island. TheNelson A, a Yarmouth-based schooner returning home from a fishing trip in the summer of 1918, had been sent to the ocean bottom off Shelburne. It was the first vessel to be sunk off the Nova Scotia coast. Its crew safely reached Lockporte.

In that climate of war, rumours were rampant as people imagined German spies in every barn or shed. In the Chester area, a Swiss immigrant, now believed to have been German, was highly-suspect for spending his time painting shoreline landscapes. “Has the wartime created a demand for Nova Scotia coast scenery?” asked the Halifax Herald. No, it was speculated, he was signalling to offshore enemy vessels and gaining information to relay to the “many spies” that were surely in Halifax.

In what was believed to have been a battle for survival of the civilized world that could only be won by men of courage and honour, rigidly partisan local newspapers went so far as assaulting the character of a Tory politician already serving as a volunteer commissioned officer of the First World War. The Halifax Herald praised Joseph Margeson, local Tory candidate in the 1917 federal election, as “the Empire’s gain on the Battlefields of Europe,” but Lunenburg’s Liberal-biased Progress-Enterprise described him as a “featherbed soldier,” saying his job as paymaster was “not of itself extremely hazardous.”

The 1917 election is often described as the most divisive in Canadian history, and is generally thought of as having driven a wedge between Quebec and the rest of Canada. The vote on whether military service should be mandatory created its own localized pocket of division within Lunenburg County. While Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden had formed a Tory-Liberal coalition party to facilitate approval of conscription, Lunenburg Mayor and Member of Parliament William Duff defied the trend and ran as a Liberal. “A vote for Duff means desertion of our soldiers in France,” said the Bridgewater Bulletin. When Duff won, The Bulletin commented: “A new partnership – Lunenburg County and Berlin.”

Lunenburg County fishermen – who contributed greatly to the nation’s food supply – had maintained their work was as important to the war effort and just as dangerous as that of conscripted soldiers. There were minor skirmishes on the wharves of Lunenburg as military policemen waited for men who had left draft cards at home hoping all would be forgotten by the time they returned to port.

In these times of bitter newspaper wars, the Halifax Herald delighted in writing that since “the local weekly” is “the only mental pablum” of “some fishermen,” they have not learned of “the power and might of the British Empire with its principles of Justice, Liberty and Brotherhood.”

The Tory Bridgewater Bulletin took the view that those men should not have been condemned because they could not see “the difference between living under the good old Union Jack and the muddy German flag with its horrible bars sinister.”

But as Gerald Hallowell points out, the German settlers who arrived in Lunenburg in 1753 were invited there by King George II of Britain, who also ruled Hanover, Germany. It was his descendant, King George the V, who ruled Britain during The First World War. Hence, Lunenburg County’s families of German-origin were, as the book title suggests, as British as the king.  

Written By

John Cunningham is a retired journalist and amateur military historian whose latest book "Where Duty Lies, a New Brunswick Soldier in the Trenches of World War I" was the winner of the 2019 Democracy 250 Atlantic Book Award for Historical Writing.

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