Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

P.T. McGrath's 1918 Account of "Newfoundland's Part in the Great War"

Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

P.T. McGrath's 1918 Account of "Newfoundland's Part in the Great War"

Article excerpt


On 2 February 1918, in response to a request from London for "the Collection of materials as a basis for Articles on the Dominions and the War," Governor Sir Charles Alexander Harris of Newfoundland forwarded to Secretary of State for the Colonies Walter Long the narrative of the history of Newfoundland's participation in the Great War, which is printed below (The Rooms, Provincial Archives Division, St. John's, GN1/1/7, box 27). The author of this document, which was accompanied by photographs, was the prominent journalist and public figure P.T. McGrath, who wrote from the perspective of a true believer in the British Empire and a staunch supporter of the colony's military effort. His drum-and-trumpet narrative is succinct and comprehensive and, almost a century after it was written, can still be read with profit--hence its publication here. In editing the document, we have silently corrected obvious errors; dropped archaic language and understanding; adjusted spelling, capitalization, format, and punctuation; and added italics and explanatory words as required, in the interest of easy reading.

McGrath, whose given names were Patrick Thomas, was born in St. John's on 16 December 1868 and was educated by the Irish Christian Brothers. (1) Despite leaving school at age 14 and being afflicted with a nervous tremor and partial paralysis, he quickly climbed to the top in the highly charged and intensely combative Newfoundland newspaper world. Politically, he was a strong supporter of Robert Bond (premier 1900-1909) and, following a break with Bond, of Edward Morris (premier 1909-1918). In May 1912, in a series of scathing articles in the St. John's Evening Chronicle, he turned the full force of his considerable literary ability on William Ford Coaker and the Fishermens Protective Union, an organization Coaker had launched in 1908 that had quickly become a force to be reckoned with in Newfoundland politics. (2) In 1912 also, McGrath was named to the Legislative Council of Newfoundland and from 1916 to 1920 was President of that body.

His contributions to the war effort were numerous and exemplified the outlook of the Newfoundland Roman Catholic elite of Irish descent, who seized on the conflict to consolidate their position in colonial society by parading their loyalty. (3) McGrath was honorary secretary of the Newfoundland Patriotic Fund, finance secretary of the Newfoundland Regiment formed in 1914, and the first chairman of the War Pensions Board, an organization he had worked to get started. In 1917, he was named to a committee, eventually known as the "War History Committee," formed by the Patriotic Association of Newfoundland, the body that directed the country's war effort. (4) In 1918, in honour of his wartime service, McGrath was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. During the 1920s, he did the research that formed the basis of Newfoundland's winning case in the Labrador boundary dispute with Canada, a matter settled by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1927.

In January 1928, McGrath torpedoed the publication of a draft history of Newfoundland's 1914-18 war effort by the British writer Frederick Arthur McKenzie. (5) This work had been commissioned by the Newfoundland government but in McGrath's view did not do justice to the subject: omitting much, padding more, and being riddled with error. What McGrath wanted was a history that covered "all our activities" and formed "a real record for all time of the part Newfoundland [had] played, on sea and on land, abroad and at home, in the great struggle." (6) His own 1918 narrative of wartime events pointed in this direction but the larger work he imagined was never written.

Sir Patrick McGrath died in St. John's on 14 June 1929. His extensive papers on the Labrador boundary are in the holdings of The Rooms, Provincial Archives Division, St. John's (MG 8). When the Health Sciences Centre officially opened in the provincial capital on 26 October 1978, the building was dedicated to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador and to the memory of McGrath, who is described on a plaque there as "Publisher" and "Patriot. …

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