The Turkish incident that changed Canada’s destiny

RALPH ALLEN October 21 1961

The Turkish incident that changed Canada’s destiny

RALPH ALLEN October 21 1961

The Turkish incident that changed Canada’s destiny



The best of Ralph Allen’s remarkable new book,


Of all the events that have helped shape Canada’s political destiny few have been more significant and none more nearly forgotten than the Chanak Incident of 1922. It led to the ruin of one of Canada’s most brilliant politicians and threatened briefly to get Canada involved in what surely would have been one of the most lunatic wars of all time. It also led the country finally and irretrievably away from the lingering notion that when Britain was at war, wherever and for whatever reason, Canada was also at war.

The first two years of the alleged peace of 1918 saw' the start or continuation of at least twenty-five separate wars, most of them small ones to be sure. One was still smoldering in Turkey in the fall of 1922.

Theoretically Germany’s total defeat in 1918 had also meant the total defeat of what was left of the old Ottoman Empire. Theoretically this was confirmed when the Allies dictated a treaty which put them in control of the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosporus. Standing thus astride both banks of the great and vital moat between Europe and Asia Minor—commanding the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, within a short cruiser run of Suez—Britain, France and Italy had all they wanted in that part of the world.

But 1 urkey’s neighbor and recent enemy, Greece, wanted more. The Greek government claimed and a Great Power commission gave it the two great strategic areas of Gallipoli and Smyrna.

Io see that the Greek occupation was carried out as painlessly as possible and to supervise the disarmament of its own troops, the Turkish government at Constantinople sent a brilliant young officer named Mustapha Kemal across the Straits to the interior of Asia Minor. Once safely out of range of the Allied warships and the thin screen of Allied soldiers along the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, Kemal ordered 80,000 Turkish soldiers to remain in uniform. Fie formed a “government” of his own and announced his intention of fighting on until the Greeks were driven out and Constantinople itself was free.

A year of stalemate followed, punctuated by the massacre of Turks by Greeks and Greeks by lurks. France signed a separate peace with Kemal. Italy began losing interest in the whole affair. A few French and Italian troops remained with a contingent of British in the garrison at Chanak, on the Dardanelles.

Between the British and the rebellious Kemal there was only the Greek occupation army in Smyrna.

On August 26, 1922, Kemal threw his army into an all-out attack against the hapless Greeks. In two weeks the Greeks were crushed and the ancient capital of Smyrna burned. As the Turkish army paused among the flames the hopelessly outnumbered Allied garrison at Chanak was trapped. The only immediate defense for the Dardanelles was a fifteen-monthold proclamation setting up a strip of neutral zones beside the Straits. Since it had never been recognized by Kemal there was no certainty that he would recognize neutrality now'.

Up to this point the Canadian government had had no communication on the new crisis whatever. Then, on September 15, London sent urgent secret cables to the four British domin-

ions asking them to participate in the defense of Constantinople and the Straits.

This sudden four-alarm call to arms was not nearly so startling as the manner in which it w'as announced. Even before the official appeal reached Ottaw'a that redoubtable man of action, Winston Churchill, had released a press statement in his capacity as Colonial Secretary. The statement had Prime Minister Lloyd George’s blessing and the Associated Press dispatch that reached Canada read as follows: “London: Great Britain has invited Canada and the other British dominions to be represented by contingents in the British force taking part in an effective defense of the neutral zone in the Near East, it was authoritatively reported today. The semi-official announcement of the invitation to the dominions said that they had been invited to participate in the defense of those interests for which they had already made enormous sacrifices.”

This was far more than a diplomatic news leak; it was a tidal wave. Leaving aside the shattering prospect of another war so soon after that of 1914-18, it resurrected old, vexed and basic questions that were supposed to be already settled. Was London still making foreign policy unilaterally and arbitrarily for the Empire? Were the dominions still expected to fight blindly in defense of decisions made at Westminster with or without their consent or knowledge?

The answer had been a staunch and unanimous “No!” in the comradely, chastening days of the war, the Imperial War Conference and Versailles. Now it appeared, in London’s view, to have reverted to the slants quo ante “Yes!” Moreover, in case of hesitation by the political leaders of the dominions, London apparently felt it proper to appeal over their heads to their people.

Mackenzie King read the story in the newspapers several hours before Winston Churchill’s official appeal for help arrived in his office. By then New Zealand had already received its cable from Churchill and replied with an offer to send troops at once; this was in the papers too. To King the whole enterprise reeked of imperial arrogance and bluster and he lost no time in committing his thoughts to the diary: “1 confess it annoyed me. It is drafted designedly to play the imperial game, to test out centralization vs. autonomy as regards European wars. ... I have thought out my plans. . . . No contingent will go without parliament being summoned in first instance. ... I shall not commit myself one way or the other, but keep the responsibility for prit. 1 do not believe prit, would sanction the sending of a contingent. The French Canadians will be opposed. I believe most if not all our members in Ont. and the maritime provinces will be opposed. I am not so sure of B. C. I feel confident the Progressives will be opposed almost to a man. It is the time now to bring them into the Government ... to strengthen us in our attitude of refusing to send a contingent without sanction of prit. . . . New Zealand has offered a contingent—naturally she looks to the Br. Navy for everything. Australia will probably follow her example. I doubt if S. Africa will. I feel sure she won’t. I am sure the people of Canada are against participation in this European war.”

At the same time King cabled Lloyd George protesting the premature press release. But public opinion was CONTINUED ON PAGE 38

continued from page 28

British leaders thought that King was merely dense. Meighen knew better

already afire. For the next ten days the country resounded with exhortations to war and prayers for peace. Clergymen cried for preparations to mobilize. Militia depots were crowded with volunteers. The Red Cross and the Salvation Army offered to reorganize their wartime services. The Liberal Toronto Globe declared, taut-lipped: “If the Turk attacks Constantinople he attacks Canada.” The Conservative Montreal Star spoke for the ours-not-to-reasonwhy faction: “If the British government, with its special sources of information, decided that a firm stand must be taken on the Dardanelles, it would be an act of mad and egotistic folly for a journal or government 3,000 miles away to set up a different view." Some papers and public speakers thought no decision could be taken until the Canadian government had more information. Others, such as the Toronto Star, laid the whole affair to “propagandists,” and Le Droit of Ottawa felt Canada’s duty was to refuse Britain’s request.

During the first full day of the crisis the Canadian cabinet met almost continuously. King’s attitude hardened almost by the hour and the cabinet followed his lead unquestioningly. No Canadian troops would be offered until Parliament’s consent had been asked, and Parliament’s consent would not be asked until the cabinet itself was ready to make a recommendation.

Lloyd George cabled again: “The attitude of Canada at this moment is of great importance. We do not ask for any immediate decision to send troops. Were large reinforcements to prove necessary we should immediately summon Parliament here and should notify you of our decision to do so at once. It is presumably not necessary for you to summon Parliament till then and we hope that it may not be necessary at all. A definite statement however that Canada will stand by the Empire in the event of terms of Armistice being broken will do much to ensure maintenance of peace.”

King replied coldly: “We have not found it necessary to reassert the loyalty of Canada to the British Empire. . . . Should it become necessary to summon Parliament, Canada, by decision of its Parliament, will so act as to carry out the full duty of the Canadian people.” He still refused to budge after a further appeal from Winston Churchill to join in “a quiet but decisive demonstration that the British Empire is not to be threatened or bluffed.”

It seems evident from the painstaking, persevering way in which Lloyd George and Churchill sought to elicit a declaration of unquestioning support from the Canadian prime minister that they mistook his stubbornness for mere density. Arthur Meighen, the Canadian leader of the opposition, knew King too well, and from too far back, to make the same mistake. He recognized that for all the fencing over diplomatic niceties something much deeper was involved: by some wild freak of history, his tiresome little college friend and now his bitterest enemy. Rex King, had been placed in a position to influence the whole future course of Empire. I iule Rex, in his mealy-mouthed way — as Meighen saw it — might do that indispensable institution untold harm unless someone headed him off.

Since parliament was not in session, Meighen had to make his views heard from the public platform. At Belleville, Ont., five days after the dispatch of the first appeal for aid from London, he announced sternly: “This being a grave question of foreign policy, it is the duty of

every good citizen to give the government every opportunity to live up to the sterling aspirations of the British Empire. I am giving them that opportunity.”

When this Jovian ultimatum was unanswered after three days, Meighen made another speech in Toronto. This time his ordinance rang out as resoundingly as a six-gun salute: "When Britain’s message came, then Canada should have said: ‘Ready, aye, ready: we stand by you.’”

The Chanak crisis died down as quickly as it had erupted. Mustapha Kemal’s Turkish troops moved into the neutral zone and found themselves separated from the British garrison only by a slender barricade of barbed wire. A process of spontaneous decombustion set in as the commanders on the ground and their political superiors in Angora, London and Paris realized they were no more than a few feet and a single pistol shot from another war. Another peace conference was speedily arranged on conditions acceptable to all the key parties except the Sultan of Turkey and the King of Greece, each of whom fled into exile.

This "Oriental imbroglio,” as it was disdainfully described by the French-Canadian nationalist and isolationist Henri Bourassa, proved to be a bench mark in the evolution of Canada’s foreign policy. It suggested a far sharper line between the basic positions of King and Meighen than that which actually existed, but it did show that the line was there. Meighen’s simple and long - to - be - remembered “Ready, aye, ready!” represented an attitude toward the Empire far less watchful and independent than his predecessor, Sir Robert Borden, had helped Jan Smuts of South Africa to

devise. King’s frigid correctness toward Great Britain implied an indifference more pronounced than he actually felt.

Nevertheless the affair in Turkey did offer a point from which it can be seen that the events surrounding it were all part of the same landscape, hewed in the same contours. The Conservatives were what might have been described as federal imperialists. The arrangement between the mother country and the dominions that would have suited them best would have been not unlike that undertaken between the provinces and Canada by the British North America Act. Each member would have full control of its own domestic affairs. They would all act together in foreign affairs with Britain acknowledged to be—Borden had used the phrase approvingly, with no hint of Orwellian irony— first among equals.

King was an isolationist before Chanak and he remained an isolationist up to and most of the way through 1939. He and his party saw precisely eye to eye with the Conservatives on the need to avoid imperial commitments on matters in which they were not consulted. But they differed on the means. King feared that by asking to be consulted he would become automatically involved. He wanted to be consulted only when his country was involved already.

Perhaps there was no anti-British bias in this attitude. King might have been equally suspicious of too much imperial solidarity if the Empire to which his country belonged had been a Roman Empire, a Mandarin Empire, or a North American Empire. He was as wary of foreign entanglements, in his own way, as Henry

Canada’s words would be remembered: “We live in a fireproof house far from inflammable materials”

Cabot Lodge or Henri Bourassa. Had it been otherwise he could never have obtained power or kept it, for as a Liberal, an anticonscriptionist and the successor to Laurier his own most indispensable entanglement was a highly domestic one with Quebec and its sixty-five parliamentary seats.

He was even more cautious toward the League of Nations than toward the Empire. He never paid more than lip service to the League, and when the time came he helped in its destruction. That occurred much later, but in the early 1920s alone he compiled a considerable record of skepticism toward collective security. While King was still leader of the opposition he recoiled from a suggestion that Canada accept a mandate over Armenia, whose people were being exterminated by the Russians on one side and the Turks on the other. (The United States, given a similar opportunity, turned its back on Armenia too.)

King had nothing to say for the League of Nations in his campaign for office in 1921 and he had nothing of importance to say for it afterward. He was asked to be a delegate at the League’s Assembly. He declined. He was asked to take the presidency of the League’s parallel arm, the International Labor Conference. He declined. His chosen deputy. Senator Raoul Dandurand rose at Geneva to announce his prime minister’s stand on world security: "We live in a fireproof house far from inflammable materials.”

King, as had Borden and Meighen before him, tried to water down Article Ten of the League of Nations Covenant, the clause that could send any signatory to war "in case of threat or danger of aggression.” He repudiated the Treaty of Sèvres, a non-League settlement which preceded the trouble in Turkey. He made certain that Canada did not become a party to the new treaty at Lausanne or to the more important Locarno pact involving France and Germany. The treaty in which he took most pride and personal interest during the early twenties concerned, by a lamentable accident, not mighty principles or the sweeping destiny of nations—but halibut. This occurred in March 1923, when King

arranged for a member of his cabinet to sign an agreement on fisheries with the United States; up to then the British ambassador had acted as Canada’s signing power.

It was in the same year that King himself went to London to put an end to the Borden-Smuts dream of a centralized empire. Odd and illogical things had happened since Borden of Canada and Smuts of South Africa sold the Welshman, Lloyd George, on a new unity beneath the Union Jack. Less than a decade before it had been unthinkable that Canada, South Africa and Wales should all be heard and heeded with something like equal respect in the councils of His Majesty. Now it was not only granted that they should be heard and heeded; it was desired. And so, having won the right to be listened to, Canada decided not to speak. King turned away from Westminster with as much determination as he had turned away at the time of Chanak.

His basic position was best summarized in a memo from one of his chief advisers at the conference, O. D. Skelton. Skelton was referring to one of the many attempts to set up some kind of main authority or consulting body.

"This proposal (Skelton wrote from London) is simply another variant of the endless schemes for establishing a central government here. Parliament or Council or Secretariat, it matters not, so long as the machinery of control can somehow be established in London. ... It may be that the 'permanent organization’ will be pictured as a mere statistical and fact-finding body, but on such wide questions, questions of policy, it could not be merely this even to start and would soon develop into something much more active and executive. It would commit us to a central review of every important economic activity of our government, and would for example give good ground for intervention if we proposed a reciprocity arrangement with the U. S. It is superfluous because each government has access to all the material facts and can collect and judge them; if then common action is desired, that can be effected between the governments concerned.”

King almost certainly would have arrived at this position with or without advice. The way he acted on it is described in a diary entry of November 5, 1923:

“At three o’clock there was a secret session of what purported to be the Prime Ministers. . . . Lord Curzon explained that the conference was for the purpose of considering the statement ... on foreign policy. ... It was really an effort to commit the conference to a common foreign policy and I had a most difficult and unpleasant hour or two strongly opposing many of the paragraphs that were inserted. I

protested against our assuming the rights of a cabinet in the determination of foreign policy and maintained that at most we could give advice on matters on which we were fully informed and concerning which we were prepared to accept responsibility.

“I pointed out that we had, in a communication to the Foreign Office, refused to recognize the telegraph despatches which were sent to us as giving us any real opportunity of discussion or shaping foreign policy and that we had refused to regard their acceptance as more than for

purposes of information. ... I protested . . . against the Government’s foreign policy. ... I protested strongly against trying to shape the affairs of Europe. ... I pointed out that it might be necessary for the Government to consider ... an invitation to subsequent conferences if their purpose was to have the Dominions committed to matters over which their Parliaments had no control. ... I succeeded by absolutely refusing to sanction certain of the Clauses. ... 1 was very outspoken and perhaps too much so.”

King, the most careful and maidenly of

men, had reached an unprecedented peak of anger. He outraged everybody. Lord Curzon said that he was “obstinate and stupid.” Jan Christian Smuts looked him in the eye and only twinkling slightly announced: “Mackenzie King, you are a very terrible person.”

King took these remarks as compliments. It will never be possible to make anything like an objective appraisal of this astonishing man and his career until his official, semiofficial and private papers are opened to objective inspection. But according to his official biographer the diplomatic pressures to which King was subjected in London were aggravated by far more attractive social pressures. “He is,” noted an opposition Member of Parliament in the Canadian House of Commons, “a young prime minister and Shakespeare says something about the temptations of 'silken dalliance.’ There is a silken dalliance in the drawing rooms of London.”

King, almost certainly still a virgin and a terrified one at that, was half hypnotized

by the scent and rustle of the drawing rooms. One of his private secretaries predicted in high alarm that “extraordinary pressure” would be brought on him but from “unsuspected directions too.” “Beware.” the secretary warned a colleague, “lest your knight be unhorsed.”

King himself, after sifting hundreds of social invitations and accepting a large number of them, made this summary for his future guidance:

"Were I attending another Conference 1 should refrain wholly from accepting any luncheon engagements and would make it a point to retire early in the evening. The irregularity of meals, lack of exercise and numerous engagements have made extremely difficult the thought and care which should have been given to the Conference itself.”

Whatever other pitfalls lurked, the wary isolationist King did avoid the first traps of Chanak. Meighen on the other hand, leaped from one mistake into another.

In 1925. after Chanak, Meighen tried to repair his fortunes with the anti-imperialists and particularly with Quebec. He had never had anything to expect but disaster in the ancient province, where his record, under Sir Robert Borden, as sponsor of conscription was remembered with abiding bitterness. In the 1925 election, when he carried the country, he and his party returned only four members of Quebec's sixty-five.

Two months later Meighen entered a by-election in Quebec. It was in the riding ot Bagot. far in enemy country up the Saguenay on the Baie des Ha! Ha!

Meighen prepared himself by making what was. in effect, a complete repudiation of his Chanak speech. Canada should not be Ready, Aye, Ready for any future wars of Britain. In an address he made for the first time at Hamilton, he urged that before Canada sent any more men to fight abroad there should be a plebiscite.

Then he went off to the lovely Baie des Ha! Ha! There he made dozens of speeches. Most of these were at assemblees contradictoires at which both or all candidates meet, usually several times an evening, and the chairman holds a watch and allows each speaker three minutes. Meighen made an astonishingly strong showing, easily strong enough to erase the canard that he was afraid to show his face in Quebec. Nevertheless his candidate was soundly defeated.

He had, however, committed one of the great errors of Canadian politics. Mackenzie King, who made a practice of pacifying and courting everyone, could never have made it. But Meighen was now in wrong with the anti-imperialists for the Chanak speech and as much in wrong with the Imperialists for the Hamilton speech. Inconsistency in the shrewd and palpably deft King was something the voters could forgive. But they could not forgive the same thing in Meighen, tall and upright, the very figure of rectitude.

In the next general election Meighen fought brilliantly. He could alw'ays outtalk King and he outtalked him again on the hustings. In theory he tore his little former college friend apart: King's constitutional manoeuvre against the governor-general, Lord Byng. was "a work of guile: it w'as a plant; it was a piece of verbal chicanery; it was a wily, sinister artifice to take advantage of men untrained in legal reasoning; it was. in plain language, a fraud.” King had tried to hang on to the premiership "like a lobster with lockjaw.”

But with sixty of Quebec’s sixty-five seats. King won the country easily, one hundred and sixteen to ninety-one. There w-ere also more than thirty farmers and Progressives who could be counted on for support in a pinch.

Meighen was now' finished as a major political figure. His party held a convention in Winnipeg and, although Meighen made it clear he was not seeking a renomination as leader, it was equally clear that he would have had little chance of getting it. Howard Ferguson, premier of Ontario and probably, next to Meighen himself, the most influential member of the party, strode to the platform in the Amphitheatre Rink and, amid an almost deafening hubbub, denounced his leader roundly for the Hamilton speech. "Inappropriate and inadvisable . . . the grossest kind of violation of unity in Canada . . . if the convention chooses to endorse Mr. Meighen I would dissociate myself entirely from the activities. . . .”

Meighen was nominated but refused to allow his name to stand. Richard Bedford Bennett, a long-standing rival of his, was chosen leader of the party on the second ballot. Thus Meighen, for all major purposes, passed into his country’s history as one of the great parliamentarians of all time, gifted with rare lucidity and logic, a magnificent speaking voice and the presence to match it, but without much skill at fighting windmills.

The far-off confusion of Chanak had at last completed the political wreckage of an extraordinary man. it

This is the final instalment in Maclean’s of Ralph Allen’s book ORDEAL BY FIRE, which will be published October 20 by Doubleday Canada Ltd.