St John's History - Twentieth Century



The first major event for Newfoundland in the new century was the First World War. The Colony of Newfoundland sent a regiment over to Europe during World War I with almost 1,000 men (outfitted and shipped at Newfoundland's cost). Their first battle was at Gallipoli (Egypt) in 1915. The next year, they fought at the battle of Beaumont Hamel, where 790 men went "over the top" to advance towards the Germans, and 710 of these were killed, wounded, or missing. Today, July 1, the day of the battle, is commemorated as a solemn day across Newfoundland. Other than that, the First World War brought prosperity based chiefly on rising demand and prices for salt codfish. But this upturn was founded on a pyramiding of credit. In 1920 there was virtually a total collapse, and by 1932 Newfoundland had exhausted her credit.

The isolation of the outport communities lead to a very rugged and independent nature of Newfoundlanders. The west coast had neither a magistrate or station a policeman on its own west coast. The northeast coast was only accessible to St John's by sea and only from June to November, when the ice blockade lifted. Few communities had doctors, priests or school. Life was primitive. New technologies started to remove Newfoundland's isolation. In 1919, Capt. Alcock and his pilot, Lieutenant A. Whitten Brown crossed the Atlantic from St. John's to Clifden, Ireland, flying 1,800 miles in 15 hours and 57 minutes. In 1921, the first long distance telephone was instituted.

Iceberg off Cape Spear
Newfoundland had great difficulty governing the 220,000 people scattered in 1,300 communities along a 6,000 mile coastal perimeter. A Royal Commission recommended a rest from party politics and a despondent people accepted the proposal and surrendered the democratic privileges for which there had been so fierce a struggle 80 years before. When the Commission of Government took office in 1934, Newfoundland had virtually no public services and not a mile of paved road in the island.

The Second World War brought economic and social revolution. While the demand for all Newfoundland's basic products increased, the establishment of the American bases (under the Lend-Lease program) was a prime factor in creating change. They had not only full-employment incomes but were exposed to the ways of the outside world. The people moved from credit to a cash economy. The newsprint industry became a major source of employment, European steelmakers could use Bell Island's iron ore economically, and the fresh fish industry raised production from three million pounds in 1939 to 40 million in 1945.

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