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Posted on Feb 15, 2011 in Books and Movies

First to Die – Book Review

By Duncan Rice

First to Die: The First Canadian Navy Casualties in the First World War. Bryan Elson. Formac Publishing Company Limited 2010. 96 pages. Paperback. $24.95.

The book covers the operations led by the Royal Navy’s Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock and Germany’s Vice-Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee.

First to Die is much more than the title indicates. Although its story of the first four Canadian Navy casualties in World War I is an excellent and deserved tribute, the book is much broader in its scope. The four midshipmen serve as a vehicle for discussing larger events around them.

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The book begins by reprinting an advertisement for the first intake of officers into the Royal Naval College of Canada (RNCC). Bryan Elson describes the RNCC as "embryonic;" it must therefore draw from the British naval tradition, including the British system of boarding schools. The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) converts a Royal Navy hospital in the Halifax dockyard for this purpose. The RNCC opens in 1911 without ceremony, accepting 21 cadets between the ages of 14 and 16. Elson generously calls this a modest beginning.

The book quickly demonstrates that the lives of the RCN cadets do not occur in a political vacuum. The debate over "colony or nation" is important to Canada at this time, and the Naval Service Act of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s government is part of this debate. The naval arms race of the time also weights heavily. The British Admiralty prefers direct financial support from the colonies, but the Laurier government wants Canada to have its own navy.

The government also has an economic and political desire to foster Canadian shipbuilding. The Naval Service Act is a step towards building a Royal Canadian Navy. However, Canada must either build its own ships, which would take years, or purchase older ships from Great Britain. Sir Robert Borden’s Conservatives defeat Laurier in October 1911 and announce their intention to repeal the Naval Service Act because it is inadequate for the current world situation. Prime Minister Borden believes that the path to Canadian security is through direct contributions to the Royal Navy. The new conservative government of Canada believes this will give Canada influence in Great Britain’s foreign and defence policies. However, Borden fails to announce a replacement policy. The cadets finish their first year at the new RNCC in an atmosphere of change and uncertainty.

The 21 Canadian midshipmen train aboard the RN cruiser Berwick, where RN culture plays an even greater part in their development. The Canadians hold the distinction of being "snotties," slang for midshipmen. Elson points out some differences that could create friction between the Canadians and their British counterparts. For example, the RCN pays better than the RN and RN cadets begin training at a younger age.

There is also discussion of shipboard operations. Elson writes about coaling on a number of occasions and leaves no doubt as to its challenges and importance, both to ship operations and culture. There are also new technologies that must be learned. The Canadian cadets return to the RNCC for communications training because Berwick’s syllabus doesn’t include wireless operations.

Elson shows that the world is not idle while the cadets train. He explores everything from Borden’s Naval Aid Act to the assassination of Mexican president Francisco Madero in 1913 and explains the effect these had on the RNCC trainees. He outlines the positions of Great Britain, Germany, and their navies. He is blunt in his description of the RCN against this backdrop: The RCN had only two ships in the spring of 1914, neither of which was capable of steaming. He states that their training value is "nil" and Canadian naval policy is a "vacuum." While the rest of the world moves towards total war the RNCC arrives at a "dead end."

Once the war begins, the book covers the operations led by the Royal Navy’s Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock and Germany’s Vice-Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee. At this time, the Royal Canadian Navy barely exists in fact or in policy. The four midshipmen that First to Die is concerned with are selected for service aboard the HMS Good Hope, Cradock’s flagship.

As naval operations bring Cradock and von Spee closer and closer to fighting the Battle of Coronel, Elson goes into great detail about the procession towards battle and the battle itself; his already excellent writing becomes more even specific in its description of the battle. A map of the voyage to Coronel, a diagram of the battle, and diagrams from Janes Fighting Ships are also included.

At the Battle of Coronel, HMS Good Hope is sunk, resulting in the death of the four midshipmen, the first Canadian naval casualties of the Great War. The book ends with an epilogue that includes a painting done in tribute to the four lost midshipmen. It is a good counterpoint to the RNCC advertisement at the beginning of the book.

First to Die is fairly short at 96 pages, but it includes a surprising wealth of information and is well illustrated. Almost every page contains a picture, map, or diagram. It is an easy read, but it does justice to Canada’s first naval casualties and serves as an excellent primer for World War I naval warfare. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for accessible reading on Canadian naval history or WWI naval operations in general.

Duncan Rice has been an Armchair General contributor since 2005. He served briefly as a reservist with the Royal Westminster Regiment. His primary interest is Canadian military history.

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