Throughout July 1914, as Europe lurched towards war, Haligonians waited. The Royal Review of the fleet, held July 20, 1914 included 59 battleships, for the first time seaplanes from the newly formed Royal Naval Air Service, and took over seven hours to pass the royal yacht, HMY Alexandra. When Britain declared war two weeks, later Halifax looked to the Royal Navy for protection, even though naval dockyards were now property of the infant Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).
The RCN was in a sorry state. The navy formed in 1910 and by 1913-14 the naval budget was estimated at $1 million—but the tiny service managed to expend less than $600,000. The Royal Navy College of Canada (RNCC), located in Halifax, graduated only 21 midshipmen in its first class (1913). The Canadian fleet consisted of two Diadem-class cruisers, cast off from the RN. Out-gunned and out-classed by more modern ships, the vessels were barely seaworthy. HMCS Rainbow was stationed at Esquimalt on Vancouver Island while HMCS Niobe called Halifax home.
When Niobe arrived in Halifax on October 22, 1910 the Halifax Herald greeted its arrival as an event of global significance: “It proclaims to the whole British Empire that Canada is willing and proud to provide as rapidly as circumstances will permit for her local naval defence and to safeguard her share in the commerce and trade of the Empire…” The Chronicle swooned: “Here where we have been bred to the ocean, and have for a century and more been associated with the fleet which keeps and guards the sea, we welcome the Niobe in no perfunctory way.”
A few months later, Niobe struck a shoal off Cape Sable Island and the dream of an RCN stationed in Halifax also ran aground. “The repair work on Niobe was not completed until December 1912,” the official history reports and, “until the First World War, Niobe stayed in port, training the remaining men in an atmosphere of discouragement and futility.” The Niobe was not ready for duty until the first day of September and did not receive her first operational assignment until October 22.
During August 1914, as a wave of patriotic fervour swept the nation, Halifax remained fixed on the RN. Specifically Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock was scheduled to arrive aboard HMS Suffolk. He was to rendezvous with HMS Good Hope sailing from Portsmouth and transfer his command to the Good Hope. Later the Herald recalled, “when this cruiser steamed up Halifax harbour on August 14 her crew lined the deck and with the ship’s band paying patriotic airs she was the object of interest to those on the waterfront.”
Good Hope was an armoured cruiser launched in 1902 that had been the fastest cruiser in the RN at the time. A dozen years later it was under-armoured, under-gunned and powered by reciprocating steam engines not the newest, turbines. When Good Hope arrived in Halifax it was discovered that an Admiralty clerical error had seen it ship out short four midshipmen. Seven RCN mids were serving on Suffolk, and four were chosen to accompany Cradock. Cradock personally selected William Palmer, first in the RNCC’s first graduating class, and Arthur Silver, former Cadet Captain, while Malcolm Cann and Victor Hatheway were chosen by lot.
Two were from Halifax. Palmer was the son of a sergeant-major in the Royal Canadian Engineers a component of the small Canadian permanent force, stationed in Halifax. Silver’s father was Captain Harry St. Clare Silver, prominent Halifax businessman and Riel Rebellion (1885) veteran. Hatheway had been born in Granville and Cann was from Yarmouth. They were all Nova Scotians. The Herald’s headline was exultant, “Brave Halifax Lads Eager to Strike for Canada and the Empire.”
The change of flagship was disrupted and occurred at sea, not accompanied by pomp and circumstance, in Halifax Harbour, perhaps a portend of things to come. Cradock and everyone who accompanied him, including the four Nova Scotians, had set themselves on an inexorable path.
Initially, Good Hope patrolled off of New York in response to rumours that German liners in the port were armed and planning to flee for Germany. In the fall ,it proceeded south around Cape Horn into the South Pacific seeking the East Asiatic Squadron of the Kriegsmarine.
Despite being out-gunned and out-ranged Craddock engaged the German ships. The sunset was also working against him. As the sun set behind the British ships they were highlighted on the horizon while the German ships faded into the sunset’s gloom. The first shot from the armoured cruiser SMS Scharnhorst’s 21-centimetre gun destroyed the Good Hope’s forward turret. An hour later the Good Hope exploded and sank with all hands after a second shot struck the ship and ignited a secondary explosion. The RCN had suffered its first casualties, tragically Halifax had seen two promising young men killed and Canada had lost the first of more than 65,000 to die in the “war to end all wars.”