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Defence of Canada

The Illustrated London News, vol. 46, no. 1307, p. 269-270.

March 25, 1865


Public questions involving a known proportion of explosive elements turn up sometimes very inopportunely. One such, and an exceedingly delicate one, has just done so. The exposed, and, according to the opinion of some highly respectable authorities, the indefensible, position of Canada, in the event of war with the United States--which awful calamity may Heaven avert!--asks consideration at a very unfortunate time. It is a subject which the Government both in London and in Washington, and which the people of the United Kingdom and the people of the States, would have been glad to let remain on the shelf where it has been left unnoticed for a long course of years. Many and good reasons for avoiding, if it were possible, the discussion of it make themselves felt on both sides of the Atlantic. A turn of affairs, however, has unexpectedly thrust it upon public attention. Some practical decision in relation to it must be come to; and hence it is desirable to look it manfully in the face, to consider dispassionately its various bearings, and to do whatever sound statesmanship shall deem right to be done, in a frank, inoffensive, neighbourly spirit.

There are certain preliminaries which, we imagine, must be taken for granted. The first is, that this country would offer no obstacle to the assumption by Canada of formal, separate, independent nationality, if such should be her expressed will; nor, indeed, to the annexation of herself to the American Republic, if, through her legitimate constitutional organs, she should declare her preference for a transference of her troth. The days are long gone by since England would have thought it concerned either her interests or her honour to retain an unwilling colony. The second is, that so long as Canada wishes to preserve unbroken the tie which connects her with the British empire, England will not permit that tie to be severed by force from without. The leaders of political opinion of all parties have pronounced the opposite course incompatible with the maintenance of our national honour. The third is, that the mutual position of Canada and the United States is far different from what it was before the outbreak of the civil war. The Republic has become a formidable military Power, and, as such, inspires apprehensions which would have been groundless four years ago. In her present condition, Canada, apart from our protection, could offer no effectual resistance to an armed aggression by her neighbour; and therefore the tenour of her relations with the States would be mainly determined by the policy which the States' Government might think fit to adopt. With all the aid which England might afford her in case of a contest, her disadvantages would be many and serious. The question whether she can be rendered more secure, especially against the first brunt of a hostile invasion, seems an inevitable one. As against the military power developed by the neighbouring Republic, Canada is at present defenceless. If assailed, Canada is to be defended. How best may Canada be defended, on the understanding that England is to stand by her whenever need requires? This is the problem which is just now seeking solution.

Two plans are before the public. We shall not affect to strike a balance between their respective merits and demerits; this we prefer to leave to the judgment of our readers. All that we propose doing is to submit a general outline of each and to state as clearly as we are able the arguments by which each is supported.

Her Majesty's Government propose, on the basis of Colonel Jervois's report, to put Quebec into a defensible condition by the erection of suitable fortifications, on the consent of the Canadians to do the same for Montreal and Toronto. Any attempt to hold the entire line of frontier would, it is assumed owing to its great extent, overtask the strength of the colony and of the kingdom combined. It will not, therefore, be made. The strategical arrangement which Ministers recommend, as at once feasible and likely to prove effective, is the choice of these more vulnerable points for the purpose of making them impregnable, at least for a time. It is taken for granted that any

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invading force hurled against Canada by the United States would, in point of numbers, greatly overmatch such military force as we might permanently station in the colony, as well as any militia which the colonists could themselves raise and maintain. All that can be done at present is to secure against fearful odds the smaller army until the whole military strength of the United Kingdom could be rendered available against the aggressor. These proposed strongholds would, it is said, answer the purpose. On the approach of a hostile army too formidable to be grappled with in the open country, every soldier in Canada would be placed behind stone walls, which would counterbalance the disparity of numbers. It would be hazardous for the assailants to overrun the province, leaving these garrisons unreduced in their rear. They would be compelled, therefore, to sit down before them, and formally besiege them--an operation which would probably consume some months. Meantime this country would pour into the colony whatever amount of men it could command, and all the evil consequences of a surprise would thus be obviated.

The other plan of defence, originally sketched by Mr. Lowe in the recent debate in the Commons and since supported by the Times, is as nearly as possible the opposite of that proposed by her Majesty's Ministers. It starts from the assumption that, should war unhappily break out between this kingdom and the Western Republic, Canada would be for the former the worst possible battle-field within the whole range of her choice. As a base of operations, it would lie at a most inconvenient distance from the source of her supplies, with which, moreover, direct communication would be open only six months in the year; whereas, to the enemy it would be always accessible, being close at hand for any amount of men, commissariat, and ammunition which his exigencies might demand. While it would drain our strength to the utmost, it would give opportunity to the United States to effect the greatest possible injury at the least possible cost. It offers, for these reasons alone, precisely the ground upon which the Republic would wish the conflict to be waged, and it would be a grave strategical error for us to accept it. Our policy should rather consist in forcing the foe to employ all his available forces in distant quarters, in fastening upon his most vital points, in putting him upon the defensive, and making him feel the largest share of the sacrifices and miseries inflicted by the scourge of war.

The arguments by which this proposal is sustained, besides those which are obvious on the face of it, may be thus cursorily stated. It would enable us to withdraw at once the military force which we now maintain in the colony, which, it is alleged, is sufficiently large to engender ill-will, but not powerful enough to ensure safety. Modern artillery can speedily reduce the most solid fortifications, especially if isolated for several months together, as they would be in Canada; and the proposed fortresses, instead of proving a temporary shelter for an inferior force, would serve rather as traps in which the pick of our troops would be shut up and taken. Besides, if we once fairly commit ourselves to the scheme of defending Canada by fortifying her frontier, and involve her in a share of the undertaking, we become pledged to go through with it at any cost, and however impolitic. The works which we erect will be useless until they are armed, and, when armed, will be worse than useless without adequate garrisons. The expenditure required for them will not only be immediate, but must continue, even though peace should remain unbroken, through many years, and always on an increasing scale. We shall be sure to sink an enormous amount of treasure, which, in the event of peace, will be sheer waste, and, in the event of war, will compel us to adopt a line of defence which, above all others, we should strive to avoid.

Such are the two strategical plans now before the country, [sic] The first is in accordance with traditional ideas; the last is in bold defiance of them, The soundness of either of them will be judged of according to the habits and standards of thought most in favour with those to whose choice they are submitted. Both of them have been framed with a view to the most effectual defence of Canada, should Canada be assailed. But Canada is exposed to aggression by the American Republic alone, and the only conceivable motive for that aggression is a desire, through our province, to inflict a wound upon us. The pith of the alternative is, whether we shall cover our most vulnerable part with defensive armour, to be worn at all times, or whether we shall trust to our own weapon of offence, and to our skill in wielding it, whenever driven to do so, just how and where it will be most dreaded. Some would feel more safe under the first system, some under the last. Neither plan would afford a fair pretext for quarrel, nor, perhaps, would either present temptation. But it is urged on behalf of Mr. Lowe's suggestion that, while it would remove every possible excuse for attack, it would also convince America that, in case of the attack being made by her, she must look for the return blow where it will most painfully tell home upon her.

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