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What Are Justifiable Risks?

03 Oct

Sir Robert Borden watching practice with live ...

Sir Robert Borden watching practice with live bombs. [Bramshott, April, 1917] (Photo credit: BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives)

Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, and Prime Minister Borden had already promised to send a Canadian army.  It was something of a miracle that the first contingent of 33,000 men was ready to sail from Quebec on October 3, 1914.

The incredible Minister of Militia (see my post February 13: And The Lion – See It Cowers) was largely responsible.  He had many critics, but said:  “My critics will stop their yelping as a puppy-dog chasing an express train gives up its job as a useless task.”  He was the express train.  Sir Sam, as he became, personally supervised the embarkation from Quebec of 33,000 men and 7,000 horses.  The horses would not walk the gangplank to get into the ships, so they had to be lifted on board in slings.  Sir Sam was a great man for getting things done in a hurry, but when the first convoy sailed, 800 horses and nearly 5,000 tons of ammunition and supplies had been left behind.

There were thirty troop transport ships escorted by three battleships and six cruisers, most of them twenty years old.  As there was great danger from German submarines and surface raiders, the landing point in Britain was changed several times while the convoy was crossing the Atlantic.  It arrived at Plymouth on October 14 and was met by General Alderson, commander of the Canadian forces, who had preceded them.

The British naval officer in charge of the escort was Admiral Wemyss.  As soon as the troops were landed safely, he went to the Admiralty in London.  Wemyss was boiling mad.  In his opinion, the convoy had been a dreadful risk.  If the first Canadian contingent had suffered heavy casualties at sea, what would have been the effect on troops coming to Britain from other parts of the Commonwealth?  The senior officer replied, “Oh you must take some risks in wartime,” but Wemyss replied, “Only justifiable risks.”

Wemyss felt it would have been safer if the ships had sailed on their own, not bunched together, with the sea lanes protected as much as possible by the warships.   Many ship captains felt the same way in World War II.

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