The Chanak Crisis

Turkish independence war and its impact on Canadian Autonomy

Towards the end of Turkish Independence War, after re-capturing Smyrna by the Turkish forces under Mustafa Kemal’s command headed north for Bosporus, the sea of Marmara, and the Dardanelles at Canakkale (Chanak) where the Allied garrisons were reinforced by British, French and Italian troops from Constantinople.

The British cabinet decided to resist the Turks if necessary at the Dardanelles and to ask for French and Italian help to enable the Greeks to remain in eastern Thrace. The British government also issued a request for military support from its colonies. The response from the colonies was negative (with the exception of New Zealand).

Furthermore, Italian and French forces abandoned their positions at the straits and left the British alone to face the Turks. On September 24, Kemal’s troops moved into the straits zones and refused British requests to leave. The British cabinet was divided on the matter but eventually any possible armed conflict was prevented. British General Harington, allied commander in Constantinople, kept his men from firing on Turks and warned the British cabinet against any rash adventure. The Greek fleet left Constantinople upon his request. The British finally decided to force the Greeks to withdraw behind Maritsa in Thrace. This convinced Kemal to accept the opening of Armistice talks.

The Chanak Crisis, also called Chanak Affair in September 1922 was the threatened attack by Turkish troops on British and French troops stationed near Çanakkale (Chanak) to guard the Dardanelles neutral zone. The Turkish troops had recently defeated Greek forces and recaptured İzmir (Smyrna). The handling of the crisis by the British cabinet was a major contributor to the downfall of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. In addition, it was the occasion of the Canadian government’s first assertion of diplomatic independence from Great Britain.

The British Cabinet met on September 15, 1922 and decided that British forces should maintain their positions. On the following day, in the absence of Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon, certain Cabinet ministers issued a communiqué threatening Turkey with a declaration of war by Britain and the Dominions, on the grounds that Turkey had violated the Treaty of Sevres. On 18 September, on his return to London, Curzon pointed out that this would enrage the pro-Turkish Prime Minister of France, Raymond Poincaré and left for Paris to attempt to smooth things over. Poincaré, however, had already ordered the withdrawal of the French detachment at Chanak. Curzon reached Paris on September 20, and after several angry meetings with Poincaré, reached agreement to negotiate an armistice with the Turks.

The British public were alarmed by the Chanak episode and the possibility of going to war again. It did not help that Prime Minister David Lloyd George had not fully consulted the Commonwealth prime ministers. Unlike the case eight years earlier, when World War I broke out, Canada in particular did not automatically consider itself active in the conflict. Instead, Prime Minister Mackenzie King insisted that the Canadian Parliament should decide on the course of action the country would follow. By the time the issue had been debated in the Canadian House of Commons, the threat at Chanak had passed. Nonetheless, King made his point: the Canadian Parliament would decide the role that Canada would play in external affairs and could diverge from the British government.

Lloyd George’s rashness resulted in the calling of a meeting of Conservative MPs at the Carlton Club on 19 October 1922, which passed a motion that the Conservative Party should fight the next general election as an independent party. This decision had dire ramifications for Lloyd George, as the Conservative Party made up the vast majority of the 1918-1922 post-war coalition. Indeed, they could have made up the majority government if it were not for the coalition. Lloyd George also lost the support of the influential Curzon, who considered that the Prime Minister had been manoeuvring behind his back.

Following the Carlton Club decision, the MPs voted 185 to 85 for ending the Coalition. Lloyd George resigned as Prime Minister, never to return as a major figure in party politics.



Darwin, J. G. “The Chanak Crisis and the British Cabinet,” History, Feb 1980, Vol. 65 Issue 213, pp 32-48

Dawson, Robert Macgregor. William Lyon Mackenzie King: 1874-1923 (1958) pp 401-16

The Chanak Crisis (Incident)

[The following text is cited from the book William Lyon MacKenzie King by R.MacGregor Dawson]

The Chanak incident was considered at the time of its occurrence to be of vital importance, and later developments have increased rather than diminished its significance in Empire relations. The most obvious effect was the shattering blow it dealt to the conception of one common Empire foreign policy formulated through an interchange of views between Great Britain and the Dominions

Chanak made Canadians more eager to push this argument to its conclusion: that Canada should draw up and apply its own foreign policy,

MACKENZIE KING had seized with commendable speed the opportunity offered by the Chanak crisis and the Lausanne Conference to advance the cause of Canadian autonomy, and had thereby established two valuable precedents.

Before becoming involved in this question, however, it is necessary to make a brief departure to indicate the general attitude of Canada to international and imperial affairs at this time.

The First World War  left a deep impression on the thinking of most Canadians, who were determined not to be drawn into another war, or, as they would have phrased it, another European war. They were extremely concerned of the wasted opportunities of the past few years and the accumulation of national problems which were demanding immediate action. The work of readjustment and reconstruction, the heavy debt, he unbalanced budget, the widespread discontent of which the Canadian political revolt was a symptom: these and other questions had to be settled without delay.

The more their energies and attention were awaken up with domestic affairs the more disinclined Canadians were to intervene in outside matters, which seemed by comparison far beyond the range of their legitimate interests and resources.

The fear of being involved in another war was one aspect of an isolationist sentiment which had made rapid strides in Canada since 1914. For while the First World War had simply confirmed a traditional attitude in the United States long entertained in regard to foreign affairs and “entangling alliances,” it had worked a more pro  change in Canada, which had been accustomed as a matter of course to very close relations with Great Britain.

Isolationism—hitherto a rare phenomenon in Canada outside Quebec—had now become an integral part of the opinions of a large section of English- speaking as well as French-speaking Canadians, though it was still neither so widely nor so intensely held as in the United States.

Home gestures, contrary to the adage, not only looked the best, they also eared to be incomparably safer.

Isolationism in North America rested primarily on a distrust of politics, statesmen, and ambitions, and on a conviction (despite the lesson of 1914—18) that the continent was so fortunately placed geographically that it could remain aloof from any future armed camp, thinks in terms of war.. . . We live in a fire-proof house, far from inflammable materials.”

This statement also illustrates another element in the isolationist state of mind: the feeling of moral superiority towards other nations, the assurance that North America moved on a higher plane and was not subject to the same hatreds and tensions that plagued the more unfortunate parts of the world.

Herbert Hoover gave expression to the same idea when he wrote that the United States “had developed something new in a way of life of a people . . . out of the boiling social and economic caldron of Europe, with its hates and fears, rose miasmic infections which might greatly harm or even destroy what seemed to me to be the hope of the world.”

Isolationism may have been a reflection of a naive and restricted out look, but it was none the less a most influential factor in determining the post-war approach of North America to world affairs.

One obvious manifestation of isolationism was seen in the Canadian attitude to the League of Nations. The great majority of Canadians accepted in a vague sort of way the need for all countries to meet together for the common good and for the discussion of common problems, and they were willing to take part up to that point in the League’s endeavors.

“The great thing about the League of Nations,” said Mackenzie King to Lord Robert Cecil in 1923, “ that] it is teaching all countries a common language—using language in a broad sense, of like concepts & ideas.” Canada would, nevertheless, draw the line at any risk of involvement in Europe. On the western side of the Atlantic the League was regarded as primarily a European institution, which, indeed, it was to a very great degree. Its headquarters was situated in the heart of Europe, it was preoccupied largely with European problems, it was dominated by European statesmen who were operating in a sphere of which Canadians had no experience.

The defection of the United States from the League of Nations drew the League even further away from Canadian interests and sympathies, and inevitably increased the distrust which Canadians felt for what they believed to be an alien body.

Yet another supplementary influence which increased Canadian reluctance to become involved in League activities was the belief that Canada’s new national status might thereby be placed in jeopardy. It was an odd and somewhat unexpected turn of the wheel. Canada had desired membership in the League of Nations as recognition of her nationhood, but the ink on the Covenant was scarcely dry before she began to dread the responsibilities which that membership might entail.

To bow to the dictates of Geneva at the very moment of liberation from the dictates of London was a strange way to realize self-government. It might even turn out to be a retrograde step.

Lucien Cannon, speaking in the Canadian House in 1919, declared:

“I am not in favor of England ruling this country, but I would rather be ruled by England than by Geneva. English statesmanship has always been characterized by generosity and broadmindedness in most cases; but I have very poor confidence in Brazil and in Spain, very little also in Greece, and not very much in the Kingdom of the Hedjaz.”

Mackenzie King did little to discourage this attitude to the League, although he was the type of uplifted who might have been expected to give the League his full and enthusiastic support. His academic liberal background, his zeal for peace, his interest in social and humanitarian reform, his experience in labor problems should all have predisposed him in its favor and he had an exaggerated faith in the adequacy of institutions to check force and sublimate political power.

“I am heart and soul for a League of Nations,” he wrote to an American friend in 1919, “imperfect as the beginnings of its organization must necessarily be. Both your Federation and ours grew out of conditions which were far from perfect, but which have developed a fine unity between all the parts. Why, with this example, can’t we hope for a like development between the nations of the world.”

But these were opinions without obligations. A few weeks before writing this letter he had been elected leader of the Liberal party, and as the Leader of the Opposition his attitude towards the League was one of studied neglect. He ignored the League in Parliament, and he failed to make anything of it in the election of 1921. Later when he became Prime Minister he did no more than give it the routine sup port which was due from Canada as one of its members. Inquiries were made in 1923 whether he would agree to be President of the next meeting of the International Labor Conference, but he declined, and in spite of blandishments from Lord Robert Cecil, N. W. Rowell, Sir Herbert Ames, and others he refused to attend any of the early meetings of the Assembly His plea was overwork, and it was doubt genuine; but it is equally certain that King did not desire to counter to the Canadian suspicion of the League’s activities and Foreign powers had also given some recognition to the peculiar semi- independent position of the Dominions in world affairs by accepting  their representatives at the Peace Conference, their signatures to the Peace Treaty and their membership in the League of Nations.

This progressive enhancement of the influence and prestige of the Dominions h been accomplished on the initiative and persistent exertions of Sir Robert Borden, who was strongly supported by Lloyd George and other Dominion leaders, such as Smuts and Hughes.

If the first great advance in this recent movement towards complete Canadian autonomy in foreign affairs owed much to the work of Sir Robert Borden, the second great advance owed fully as much to the work of Mackenzie King.

In 1922 this lay, of course, in the future. Stated in its broadest terms, the objective of Borden and of King was the same the emancipation of Canada from all external control in foreign affairs but their conception of how this independence was to, be exercised was quite different. Borden’s idea was that Canada would use her new power to influence the foreign policy of the Empire so that there would be a merging of national and Empire policy which would be supported by the Empire as a unit. King’s idea was that of policy would have to stand on its own feet like that of any other nation.

If Canada’s policy impinged on or concerned that of another part of the Empire, then by all means let those affected go together and work out something in common. Borden thus stressed the co-operative side of the relationship and preserved the diplomatic unity of the Empire,

King’s emphasis was on Canadian individualism with optional co-operation, a concept which inevitably threw automatic unity of the Empire into the discard.

In the summer of 1921 a conference of the British and Dominion Prime Ministers was held in London. It was a continuation of the Imperial War Cabinet meetings of 1917—18, and its members sat as equals to discuss the affairs of the Empire This “Peace Cabinet,” as it was sometimes called, was chiefly notable for its acceptance of the principle that there was to be one foreign policy for the whole Empire and that this would be determined and kept up to date by periodic meetings like the one then in session.

The policy would necessarily have to be expressed and applied through the machinery of the British Foreign Office, which would have the additional duty of keeping the Dominions fully informed in the interval between meetings of any important developments in foreign affairs. Mr. Meighen, who was the Canadian Prime Minister at this time, suggested to the Conference that special weight should be attached in these foreign relations to the views of any member who had a particular interest in certain areas, and he gave as an illustration the exceptional importance to Canada of any Empire policy which affected the United States.

The suggestion was attacked by Hughes of Australia; although when Canada at a later session opposed the continuation of the Anglo-Japanese alliance

because of its effect on American relations, her protests were heeded and the treaty was not renewed. In addition to Anglo-Japanese-American relations the conference also discussed problems in Upper Silesia, the Ruhr, Turkey, Egypt, and other countries.

The chief purpose of using the Imperial Peace Cabinet in this way was to maintain the unity and strength of the Empire in foreign affairs by admitting the Dominions as active participants in the formulation of foreign policy. It was, of course, understood that in exchange for this privilege the Dominions would join with the United Kingdom in defense of the policy so determined. Various expedients were discussed which might add to the effectiveness of the Dominions’ participation more frequent meetings of the Prime Ministers, resident Ministers from the Dominions in London, and improved communications.

Little was done, however, to carry out any of the ideas, but on the last of these problems the British Government was co-operative and reassuring. It suggested that London might send confidential information to the Dominions at short, regular intervals so that all might be informed of any changes in the current international situation.

The Prime Ministers, doubtful, but somewhat comforted, returned to their respective homes; and the Foreign Office continued to discharge its normal duties subject to the above understanding. In a little over a year the sudden appearance of the Chanak crisis dramatically challenged the practicability of the scheme with an unexpected emergency.

The treaty of peace with Turkey, known as the Treaty of Sèvres, though signed in 1920 by the Allied Powers and Turkey, had never become operative; it was not ratified by the United Kingdom and it was repudiated by the new Turkish Nationalist Government. By September, 1922, the situation around the Straits had become critical. The Turks had defeated the Greeks, and the French had withdrawn their military support from the British in that area.

The British found themselves not only diplomatically estranged from their allies, but the chief and later the sole defenders of Constantinople, Chanak, and the neutralized zone about the Straits against the advances of a victorious Turkish army.

Here was clearly an opportunity for an effective display of the diplomatic unity of the Empire. The Foreign Office could now carry out the common Empire policy and call on the Dominions to give their verbal approval and, if necessary, their armed support. But unfortunately no such policy was in existence.

No meeting of the Prime Ministers had been held since 1921, no Dominion Ministers had been posted to London for continuous consultation; and the flow of confidential in formation, promised by Lord Curzon, had omitted even to mention any critical situation in the Near East.

Undeterred by the absence of these vital prerequisites to action, the British Prime Minister, Mr. Lloyd George, sent a message on September 15 to the Dominions which outlined the situation in the Near East, reminded them of the sacrifices at Gallipoli in the recent war, and said he would “be glad to know whether Dominion Government wish to associate themselves with the action we are taking and whether they would desire to be represented by a contingent.” It concluded by stating that the announcement that all or any of the Dominions were prepared to send contingents even of moderate size would undoubtedly in itself exercise a most favorable influence on the situation and might conceivably be a potent factor in preventing actual hostilities.

In view of the total ignorance of the Canadian Government regarding the circumstances which had led to the emergency, this suggestion that it should participate in a possible war came as a complete surprise. It rapidly became a major blunder when a few hours later the British Government gave a much more provocative and emotional statement to the press.

This also described the situation in the Near East, and said that a communication had been sent to the Dominions “inviting them to be represented by contingents in the defense of interests for which they have already made enormous sacrifices and of soil which is hallowed by immortal memories of the Anzacs.”

This was the first and only intimation which the government had received from the British government of a situation in the Near East which bad reached a critical stage.” ( W.L.M.K., Can. H. of C. Debates, Feb. 1, 1923, P. 31.)

Investigation disclosed that a Foreign Office report (which was sent by post) always took at least three weeks, and usually a month, to get into the hands of the Canadian Government. On one day, August 28, 1922, eight dispatches were received, dated in London from July 17 to August 18. No reports having any bearing on the Near East situation were received during the ten days immediately preceding Lloyd George’s message. (King Papers, Memorandum by L. C. Moyer, Dec. 16, 1922.)

The order in which these two messages came to the attention of the Canadian Government made the situation infinitely worse.

Mackenzie King was in North York on Saturday, September 16, and that after noon he was asked by a newspaper reporter what response Canada, proposed to give to the British invitation to send troops to the Neat east. King, having heard nothing whatever of the message, was justifiably taken aback, but he replied cautiously that the question would have to be considered by the Cabinet. He returned to Ottawa early the next day (Sunday) and received the official message which had been delivered to his office via the Governor-General Saturday afternoon between two and three o’clock—several hours after the Canadian newspapers had carried the London press release as well as a precipitate reply from New Zealand stating that she was prepared to send troops King wrote m his diary

“…I confess it [ official message] 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 prlt— the executive regarding itself as the committee of prlt.—I do not believe prlt would sanction the sending of a contingent The French Canadians will be opposed. I believe most if not all our members in Ont. & the man me 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 pnit., . . . New Zealand has offered a contingent—naturally she looks to the Br. Navy for every thing. 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…”

King immediately cabled a complaint to Lloyd George about the press manifesto and asked how much of the official message could be made public. Two replies were received the next day (September 18) from Winston Churchill, the Colonial Secretary. The one marked “for publication” was much the same as the statement already given to the press, but the appeal or invitation had been toned down to a hope that Canada would associate herself with the proposed action.

The private dispatch stated that the original message had been directed primarily to Australia and New Zealand and gave King per mission to disclose its substance. Anything that the Canadian Government could contribute towards a sense of Empire solidarity would be of utmost value. War and hence the need for troops was unlikely, and a statement that Canada would associate herself with the position of the Allies and was willing, if necessary, to send a contingent would be sufficient.

Churchill ended by expressing his regret that notice could not have been given owing to the rapid development of the crisis. On the same day King also received word from the Canadian High Commissioner’s Office in London that the press there was on the whole antagonistic to any measures which might lead to war.

Three meetings of the Canadian Cabinet also took place on the 18th, though the replies from Churchill were not received until the evening meeting.

King wrote:

“I found all present, strongly against participation by Canada in sending of a contingent & feeling of exasperation at message having been given to press. D. D. McKenzie was for recognition of principle that when Britain is at war we are at war,—which others agreed to, with premise that it is for us to determine our part in the conflict. . . . We all agreed that to send a contingent prlt. wd have first to be summoned, it was felt that if it were necessary to summon prlt., we wd have to have a policy as to extent of participation, in other words, not to summon prlt. unless we were decided to ask prlt. to intervene. I kept out for an open mind, pending events,—we are a minority govt. . . . We sat till 1.45 again from 3 to 6.30 & again 9 till 11.15. In the evening 2 cables came from Eng., one “explaining” situation & apologizing in part for message sent as it was, other giving a message for public purposes—a greatly modified affair leaving out jingo appeal.. . . We debated long over question of giving “moral support” & approving attitude. I felt that involved whole question of participation in European wars & held back on it. Cabinet agreed in this . . . all were inclined to feel whole business an “election scheme” of Lloyd George & Co.”

From this Cabinet meeting a reply was sent to the British Govern On September 17 King had cabled to Fielding who was in Geneva with Lapointe to ascertain their opinion and to report on the seriousness of the situation. These two Ministers were at least in favor of Canada’s indicating a readiness to participate though they were reluctant to agree to a contingent without parliamentary authority. They later fell in with the Cabinet policy, but Fielding still thought the Government should be emphatic in its expression of support in the event of what he called “actual war ment/”that public opinion in Canada would demand authorization on the part of Parliament as a necessary preliminary to the despatch of a contingent.” The despatch added that the Canadian Cabinet would welcome the fullest information to shed light on the advisability of summoning Parliament to consider the situation. This cold response was so far removed from what the invitation had anticipated, as to be an unmistakable rebuff, made all the more pointed by the fact that Australia had by this time joined New Zealand in offering to send troops.’

King also gave a statement to the press to the effect that the Cabinet had received only one despatch from the British Government and that it was marked “secret”; but that the Canadian Cabinet was sure the people would demand parliamentary authorization before any troops were sent to the Near East. The Cabinet was seeking more information before it decided whether a special session should be called.

Lloyd George stubbornly returned on the following day (September 19) to his earlier request, the third effort to secure a promise of Canadian support:

“The attitude of Canada at this moment is of great importance. We do not ask for any immediate decision to send troops. Were large re-enforcements 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.”

Yet it was precisely this assurance that Mackenzie King was deter mined not to give. On September 20 he countered the request for a “definite statement that Canada will stand by the Empire” with the observation that “we have not thought it necessary to reassert the loyalty of Canada to the British Empire.”

The British Government, he continued, could “rest assured that, 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.” There was not much assurance to be derived from that promise, as Mackenzie King knew full well.

The consent of Australia, however, was accompanied by a protest concerning the British failure to consult the Dominions before making its decision. When the original message arrived in South Africa General Smuts was away and did not return for a week. He then replied that he would have to secure parliamentary approval before complying with the request.

At this point Winston Churchill cabled (also on September 20) that a special staff was being organized in the Colonial Office to keep Canada in touch with political and military developments. The first of its reports arrived in Ottawa on the same day, although it proved to be composed of one-third information and two-thirds propaganda. Once again—and for the fourth time—a promise of a contingent was sought in order to provide a “quiet but decisive demonstration that the British Empire is not to be threatened or bluffed.” Once again the plea produced no results. Dispatches from the Colonial Office dealing with the question continued for some time thereafter, but a new armistice with Turkey on September 29 removed the danger of further hostilities.

King’s response to Lloyd George’s invitation had been both emotional and rational. He recoiled from the threatened conflict which had suddenly and unaccountably appeared in the Near East and his reluctance to promise a contingent was that of any nationally conscious Canadian who instinctively objected to being dragged into a war of another’s choosing. But King’s response was based also on a set conviction that Canada was a nation and must be treated as such, and that a large element in the British Government desired to keep the Dominions in a position of actual if not nominal inferiority.

“Surely,” he wrote, all that has been said about equality of status and sovereign nations within the Empire is all of no account if at any particular moment the self-governing Dominions are to be expected, without consideration of any kind, to assume the gravest responsibility which a nation can assume, solely and wholly upon an inspired dispatch from Downing Street.”

King was also convinced that the popular feeling would be under existing circumstances strongly against another war. He likewise appreciated the possibility of turning the crisis to a good account in the cause of Liberal-Progressive relations, and saw the advantage of using Western support to forestall the criticism that the Government’s policy was solely a reflection of the isolationism and anti-Imperialism of Quebec.

The Canadian people did not disappoint him. At first they were somewhat uncertain of the reply which should be given to Mr. Lloyd George’s appeal, although there were a number of church groups whose feelings on alleged Turkish atrocities against Armenian Christians outweighed all other considerations.

These and an element with strong British sympathies clamored for immediate action. But a very large proportion of the public soon began to swing towards and approve of the Liberal position of no commitments without parliamentary authority or, in view of the fact that there was no move by the Government to summon Parliament, of no commitments at the moment. The Liberal party showed a gratifying unanimity in support of the official policy; the urban labor unions strongly endorsed it; and the Progressives appeared to be equally favorable.

The meeting of the Cabinet at which the illustarred message was first considered had given its approval (Gouin dissenting) to King’ssuggestion that Crerar should be invited to Ottawa for consultation.

The two leaders had several talks together on September 22 and 23. Crerar was in complete accord with the stand King had taken; he believed that the question of participation in European wars transcended all others in importance and that there was no difference of opinion on the subject between the Liberal East and the Progressive West. But Hudson and he both objected (as they had in the summer during the negotiations with the Liberals) to the retention of Gouinin the Cabinet; he remained a sinister figure in Progressive eyes and his presence in the Government made any union virtually impossible.

This was not King’s idea of co-operation and compromise and he re fused to push Gouin out, nor was he willing at this time to make any offer of portfolios to the Progressives. The negotiations thus reached another deadlock, and in a week or two the passing of the Near East crisis deprived any Progressive-Liberal union of urgency. The experience, however, was not without value, for it revealed, clearly and unmistakably, a large an important area where the two parties held identical views. King wrote to a prominent Liberal in Alberta:

“It [crisis] has demonstrated . . . that in matters of real fundamental concern our interest is a common one, and that unity of action is essential to secure our common end in the face of our common foe, the jingo-tory-militarist. I believe we have found the basis on which the Progressives of Western Canada may be brought into real accord with the Liberals of the Province of Quebec and other parts of the Dominion.”

Proof that King’s fear of jingo-Tory-militarists was by no means imaginary had come from several quarters. The Toronto Globe, for example, had been bitter in its attack on the Government’s attitude towards “the butchers of Armenia,” and it had praised Australia for  her swift affirmative response to the call from Great Britain.

No official Conservative pronouncement appeared, however, until Mr. Meighen at last broke silence in a public address on September 21, six days after the receipt of Mr. Lloyd George’s invitation and the same day that King and Crerar were conferring in Ottawa. He said in part:

Britain . . . sends a message to the Dominions, not a mere indifferent inquiry as to what was in the mind of Canada, but a message to see if the Dorninions were solid behind the Motherland. The exact wording of the message we do not know, but judging from the evidence that was its purport. From Australia and New Zealand the British Government got messages of co-operation in defense of the Treaty of Sèvres. . . We were a party to the Treaty of Sèvres and the trials and sacrifices that made it possible.

There is no suggestion at all that we should send armed forces across the sea. Britain merely sought a declaration of solidarity on the part of the Dominions (applause) existence of which the war has demonstrated once and for all. Let there be no dispute as to where I stand. When Britain’s message came then Canada should have said: “Beady, aye ready; we stand by you.” (Loud cheers) I hope the time has not gone by when that declaration can yet be made. If that declaration is made, then I will be at the back of the Government.

Such an attitude could be explained, it would seem, only on the assumption that Mr. Meighen thought that in following the British lead he was complying with the understanding of the 1921 Conference. But public appeals for assistance were never contemplated then or at any other time, and the Canadian request for information should have warned him that little or no consultation had preceded the original message. He should also have known that there could be no obligation on Canada to uphold the terms of a still-born treaty. The only people in Canada who would be in complete sympathy with his speech were the case-hardened Imperialists, and even they would not relish the idea that Canada could announce that she would support, Great Britain without thereby incurring any obligation to send troops if war developed.

The Conservative party had, indeed, established a precedent many years before when in 1885 the Canadian High Cornmissioner suggested to Sir John A. Macdonald that he might send troops to help the British in the Sudan. Macdonald’s refusal to be led into what he called “this wretched business” was forthright and even violent. He was not willing, he said, to have Canadian men and money sacrificed “to get Gladstone and Co. out of the hole they have plunged themselves into by their own imbecility.”



King repudiated this kind of assurance as one for which “Britain would hardly thank us,” and said that any Government which would be prepared to give it would be wholly unworthy of the trust that might be imposed in it.” W.L.M.K. to Senator G. D. Robertson, Sept. 30, 1922.

It was soon disclosed that Mackenzie King had many defenders in Great Britain who also were dismayed by the Chanak appeal. Although the British Cabinet had approved the original message, only two or three Ministers had seen the press manifesto which was chiefly the work of Lloyd George and Churchill. Lord Curzon, the Foreign Secretary, read the manifesto “with consternation.”

Mr. Bonar Law said he was amazed at the recklessness of the appeal made without any previous consultation.

Mr. Asquith described it as sounding “the double note of provocation and of panic.”

The Turkish situation proved, in fact, to be the final disagreement which broke up the Lloyd George coalition, for  it led to the defection of many Unionists and the resignation of Lloyd George on October 19, 1922. Four days later Mr. Bonar Law took office at the head of a Unionist Government.

The Chanak incident provided an interesting contrast in Canadian political leadership, though the decisions were made under somewhat different circumstances, inasmuch as King had to furnish an immediate answer while Meighen could take his time—as he did—in announcing his position.

King’s cautious approach satisfied Liberals of all persuasions; Meighen’s jingoistic appeal antagonized and probably alienated some of his Conservative following. Where King’s policy tended to bring Progressives and Labor closer to the Liberals, Meighen’s announcement tended to widen the existing gap between those groups and the Conservatives.

King’s prestige was greatly enhanced, and the country began to realize that while the Prime Minister might lack color, he possessed both courage and common sense and was not to be hurried into mistaken policies on the impulse of the moment.

The alleged necessity of consulting Parliament was his way of gaining time—to await events in Europe, to ascertain public opinion, and to give that opinion at the same time an opportunity to take shape and become stabilized—but it was also a policy, which Meighen’s reproaches and Lloyd George’s repeated requests for assurances made abundantly clear. If it turned out that Parliament had to be summoned (which was always possible) the Cabinet would have to bring down a policy for parliamentary approval and it might then have to be of a more positive nature. For the moment, however, the Cabinet considered that no case had yet been made to justify any overt action. Some time later a Progressive member of Parliament put the matter succinctly when he suggested that the crisis demanded not so much a policy of “ready, aye, ready” as one of “steady, aye, steady”—certainly a fair epitome of King’s policy at that time.

Mature consideration did not seem to improve Mr. Meighen’s sensitivity. In 1925 he went a step further and antagonized also the right-wing Conservatives by giving a speech at Hamilton on what he felt should be done if war again threatened. The Government, he said, should decide on its policy, and not only should Parliament be called promptly, but the Government’s decisions “should be submitted to the judgment of the people at a general election before troops should leave our shores.” At the time he was getting ready to make these speech representative men in the Conservative party pleaded with him not to do so; but he persisted. It was followed by an immediate cry of protest, and all over the Dominion many Conservatives were incensed at his proposals.

Two years later he rose in a Conservative national convention, and tried to justify what he had said; he was “as tenacious of his own opinions,” wrote a commentator, “as he is indifferent to the protests of his party.” The natural result was to revive the disagreement which his Hamilton speech had already caused among many Conservatives.”

The difference between Meighen’s approach to a political issue and that of Mackenzie King was drawn by Meighen himself over a decade later at a gathering of the Conservative party which was held to bid farewell to R. B. Bennett. In the course of his remarks Meighen touched on the subject of political leadership in terms which not only

“Thirty-one years passed; and Mr. Meighen was still to be found at Chanak. When the unhappy Suez crisis occurred in 1956 and Canada refused to follow the lead of the British Government, Mr. Meighen was reported as follows:

“Canada, Mr. Meighen said, should have sought without delay alignment unmistakably and strongly with Britain. ‘Prime Minister Anthony Eden, for whom I have the highest regard and respect, merits the support of the Commonwealth in his endeavor to maintain Britain’s honor and her place in world affairs,’ Mr. Meighen said. . . . While he refrained from any allusion to Prime Minister St. Laurent or External Affairs Minister Pearson, Mr. Meighen said it was his opinion that Canada might well have taken an example from Australia in its early and outspoken support of the British position.” Toronto Globe and Mail, Nov. 5, 1956. Provided a clue to his own ideas but also quite clearly indicated Mackenzie King as the villain of the Canadian scene:

In our Dominion where sections abound, a Dominion of races, of classes and of creeds, of many languages and many origins, there are times when no Prime Minister can be true to his trust to the nation he has sworn to serve, save at the temporary sacrifice of the party he is appointed to lead.

If anyone tells me that fidelity to party and fidelity to country are always compatible, or that the wisdom of mere numbers is the wisdom of heaven, then I tell him that he loves applause far more than he loves truth. Loyalty to the ballot box is not necessarily loyalty to the nation; it is not even loyalty to the multitude. Democracy has failed and fallen in many lands, and political captains in Canada must have courage to lead rather than servility to follow, if our institutions are going to survive. There must be something better than an ambition to be re-elected, or democracy will fall, even in this Dominion.

It is interesting that King and Meighen each advanced the heterogeneity of the Canadian people as a major justification of his special form of leadership. To Meighen the challenge had to be met by the formulation of some broad concept of the national interest which would transcend this diversity and in large measure obliterate it. Having formulated this concept, Meighen then invoked all the arts of rational persuasion to secure its popular acceptance. His confidence in the product of his own judgment was so profound and his advocacy so determined that the policy was open to little or no discussion, still less could it be recast or toned down in any way to meet the demands or soothe the feelings of dissenting groups or interests.


Mackenzie King also perceived in this diversity of population a challenge but a different kind of opportunity. Opposing views, as he saw it, should not be expected to undergo any rapid conversion. Such a change would come through the slow influence of sympathetic association. The emphasis should always be placed on those things which people held in common and on which they could be induced to co-operate. Shared experiences would in time lead to increased tolerance, compromise, and understanding.

Meighen’s excessive self—confidence inclined him to be somewhat contemptuous of and superior to public opinion. King’s excessive caution and search for common ground tended to make him too acquires cent and too sensitive to that opinion. Yet King was able to accomplish infinitely more. His method was the necessary approach to office, although admittedly a stronger realization of his duty to take the initiative would have added to his effectiveness. It was, of course, King’s sensitivity to existing conflicts of belief and his search for existing areas of agreement which led to Meighen’s taunts of loyalty to the ballot box and servility to public opinion. King might well reply that the best hockey player in the world is no use off the ice; that a party leader who cannot get elected and stay elected cannot govern and in due course. will destroy the party he is supposed to lead. A condition precedent to the exercise of power in a democracy as else where is to gain a place in the seats of the mighty.

To return to Chanak and its implications. Mackenzie King must not be regarded as an extreme nationalist who desired to break off the connection with Great Britain and the rest of the Empire. He was most emphatically against centralization and in favor of Canadian self government, but he was equally anxious to preserve Canadian membership in the Commonwealth. Immediately after Chanak he wrote to Violet Markham:

“You know, I think, the views I entertain as to the basis upon which the nations comprising the British Empire can be held together Anything like centralization in London, to say nothing of a direct or indirect attempt on the part of those in office at Downing Street to tell the people of the Do- minions what they should or should not do, and to dictate their duty in matters of foreign policy is certain to prove just as injurious to so-called imperial solidarity’ as any attempt at interference in questions of purely domestic concern. The membership within the British Empire means participation by the Dominions in any and every war in which Great Britain becomes involved, without consultation, conference, or agreement of any kind in advance; I can see no hope for an enduring relationship. It is for this reason that my colleagues and myself have taken the position that Parliament must decide whether or not Canada is to take part in the present war in the Far East. Indeed, any other decision would be impossible, when one considers the complexion of our Parliament.”

The Chanak incident was considered at the time of its occurrence to be of vital importance, and later developments have increased rather than diminished its significance in Empire relations. The most obvious effect was the shattering blow it dealt to the conception of one common Empire foreign policy formulated through an interchange of views between Great Britain and the Dominions.

The existing pro visions to secure this interchange had proved to be quite ineffective in coping with a sudden international crisis and the doubts raised at the Conference of 1921 had been only too well justified by events. The system had been tried and found manifestly wanting.

It might, of course, be argued that the solution was simply to introduce the much needed improvements in communications so that consultation between the British and Dominion Governments could l made effective, and thereby remove the obstacles which lay in the way of a common Empire policy.

That solution, thanks to Chanak, was no longer possible.

Whatever the feasibility of a common policy, it had now become politically unacceptable. Canada, for one, had learned her lesson, and she was very much afraid that the next time she might not come out of a crisis without finding that she was more actively com mitted. If war over remote issues was to be the result of an Empire foreign policy, most Canadians were determined to have nothing to do with it.

Indeed, many of those who had given much thought to the subject began to suspect that the consultation, no matter how perfectly organized, would not enlarge the influence and power of the Do minion, but actually diminish it. Dr. 0. D. Skelton wrote in 1923:

“A common foreign policy . . . offers a maximum of responsibility and a minimum of control. It commits a Dominion in advance to an endorsement of courses of action of which it knows little and of which it may not approve, or in which it may have little direct concern. The real way in which the Dominions may extend their power is the way in which such extension has come in the past—by reserving for their own peoples and their own parliaments the ultimate decision as to their course of action.

If the Dominions are committed to action by blank cheques given the Foreign secretary by their Prime Ministers they have sham control and real responsibility. If they are committed to action only by their own parliaments and peoples, they will have real influence and responsible control.”

Chanak therefore made Canadians more eager to push this argument to its conclusion: that Canada should draw up and apply its own foreign policy, that Great Britain should do the same, and that conferences between the two (and with other Dominions) should be held whenever necessary to iron out differences and, when advisable, to agree on common action. Mackenzie King had been feeling his way to that solution for many years; he had clearly stated his position in Parliament in 1920 and he now found his views confirmed by the problem which was precipitated by the Near East crisis.

From this proposition there flowed a corollary that the Empire would speak on foreign affairs with a number of voices, even, perhaps, conflicting voices, a practice which, if allowed, would involve a breach in the diplomatic unity of the Crown. Many British political leaders, strongly backed by the Foreign Office, were prone to dismiss this as a suggestion so fanciful that it was not worthy of serious consideration.

Events were later to prove that although this attitude might be legally correct, it was short-sighted and could not withstand for long the political pressure generated by the continuing demands of the Dominions for greater autonomy.

Moreover, the policy of allowing Parliament to decide the extent of Canadian commitments combined, as it was, with the legal principle that “when Britain is at war, Canada is at war” could lead to virtually the same result of destroying the dogma of the indivisibility of the Crown.


Mackenzie King had put before the House the lesson of Chanak as follows:

“We have felt, and feel very strongly that, if the relations between the different parts of the British Empire are to be made of an enduring character, this will only be through a full recognition of the supremacy of Parliament, and this particularly with regard to matters which may involve participation in war. It is for Parliament to decide whether or not we should participate in wars in different parts of the world, and it is neither right nor proper for any individual or for any group of individuals to take any step which in any way might limit the rights of Parliament in a matter which is of such great concern to all the people of our country.”

There was nothing new in this position, and precedents had been supplied by both the South African War and the First World War. It nevertheless had far reaching implications.

Its purpose was, of course, to avoid the awkward possibilities which might result from too strict and logical an enforcement of the legal consequences of a British declaration of war. It acknowledged a distinction between a condition of “active belligerency,” when a Dominion decided to take an active part in the war to which it we legally committed, and a condition of “passive belligerency,” when a Dominion accepted its legal status as a belligerent but took no steps to make its participation effective.

In the latter instance it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that an enemy might consider that it would be well advised to accept and recognize such a Dominion’s abstention. “Passive belligerency” thus bore a strong resemblance to neutrality, although it could lay no claim to international recognition.

The existence of two kinds of belligerency was an admission that parts of the Empire held divergent views on a matter of international interest, and within their own circle at least had agreed on different policies.

The further step to complete neutrality, with this condition recognized and accepted by all nations, was a natural development, but it could obviously not be taken so long as the British Empire continued to speak with only one formal voice in international affairs. Once the concept of the indivisible Crown was discarded and the comity of nations had accepted this, the full rights of a Dominion as a belligerent or a neutral in an Empire war would become possible. This change was to take some years to mature, but it was implicit in the issues which were raised by the Chanak crisis

The crisis in the Near East and the repudiation of the Treaty of Sèvres made a new treaty of peace imperative. Already on September 27, 1922, Mackenzie King was beginning to worry about what Canada should do “in the event of an invitation to participate” and what would be “our position” when parliament is summoned, sooner or later I think we should not participate at Peace Conference, having had nothing to do with note of Allies sent Mustapha Kemal Pasha [ Turkish leader].

The Lausanne Conference was not called until a month later, and Canada was not invited yet there was every reason to expect an invitation. Representation for the Dominions, if the precedents of the Paris and Washington* Conferences were to be of any value, should have been accorded without difficulty, and they should also have – shared in the preliminary consultations in order to observe the under standings of the 1921 Conference of Prime Ministers The British Government knew this full well and evidently expected that arrangements which it had agreed to in such summary fashion for Lausanne would meet with reproaches and criticism.

Thus when the Duke of Devonshire (the Colonial Secretary) at the end of October informed Canada of the meeting and stated that Great Britain was to be represented by two members, Lord Curzon and Sir Horace Rumbold, he also sent a confidential message saying that the British Government had tried to secure representation for the Dominions, but, owing to French objections, its effort had not been successful.’

The Dominions, however, were “to be kept informed” as the negotiations proceeded, and would “of course” be invited to sign any treaty that might result and any “separate instrument”” regulating the status of the Straits.

Once again Canada had a constitutional issue thrown in her lap.

But Canada was not looking for an issue—at least not quite on the grounds the British Government expected. King knew that the questions confronting the Lausanne Conference were of no real interest to Canada, and he felt nothing but relief at being left out. He wrote his diary

“No invitation has come to us and we have not been consulted as to procedure nor have other Dominions who are similarly treated I take no exception to course adopted. It was inevitable, but it indicates how right we are in the position we have taken. Australia & N.Z. are placed in a very invidious light. It was all to save Australian graves when the appeal for contingents was made and now Australia is not so much as invited to be represented at Conference!  I think our attitude has been justified beyond our dreams. I had expected an invitation and was dreading the refusal it might be necessary to send.”

Three days later (October 31) the Cabinet approved King’s dispatch in reply, and the comment of one Minister—”Thank God, we weren’t to be the sentiment of all present.°

It was in King’s reply that the constitutional issue was raised not on the representation itself, but on the way in which the choice and character of the representatives affected the Canadian obligations under the resulting Treaty. The position of Canada may have been novel but in essentials it was relatively simple.

First, Canada was not represented at the Conference and did not want representation.

Secondly, she did not ask to have the Treaty submitted to her for France had taken the position that if the Dominions were given representation she would demand seats for Tunis and Morocco

Thirdly, inasmuch as she was not a party to the Conference she would be bound by the Treaty only to the extent that her Parliament may decide.

MACKENZIE KING had seized with commendable speed the opportunity offered by the Chanak crisis and the Lausanne Conference to advance the cause of Canadian autonomy, and had thereby established two valuable precedents.

Should this be the model for him to follow in any future extension of Canadian powers? Should he await the appearance of suitable issues, and so undermine the Imperialist position by innovation and precedent that it would become a legal anomaly impossible to defend? Or would a better policy be for him to accept the advice of the more impatient autonomists and draft some simple but comprehensive formula, to be endorsed by Parliament, which would assert Canada’s complete control over her external as well as her internal affairs?’

At the time of the Chanak crisis he was “strongly tempted” to follow the latter alternative and make a declaration of policy on Canada’s attitude in regard to participation in war, but “on reflection” he decided instead to wait and place a resolution on the subject before Parliament early the next session. This resolution was never introduced. King was doubtless afraid to move too far in advance of public opinion. He knew that a large number of people in Ontario and the Maritime Provinces were strongly in favor of maintaining a close connection with the United Kingdom and that Quebec also might take alarm at a declaration of constitutional change without any indication of the constitutional procedures by which the change was the effected.

Any explicit formula, moreover, was certain to encounter the formidable opposition of Fielding and perhaps others in the Cabinet. These objections added to King’s own preference for a pragmatic approach to thorny problems were apparently decisive, and sweeping resolutions on autonomy were shelved in favor of a policy of steady encroachments on traditional practices.

This method by no means implied that the Canadian Government would be entirely the sport of circumstance and be compelled to await such opportunities as fate might happen to provide. If the of constitutional advance were to depend solely upon the pr9pe of. the British Government to ignore or block Canadian national aspirations, its progress might be sure, but it would be uncertain; and the development could be materially accelerated by Canada’s ‘supplying a few additional issues on its own.

Thus although Chanak was followed closely by Lausanne, the latter shared the limelight with another issue which owed its existence to a deliberate act of the Canadian Government. This was the Halibut Fisheries Treaty, and the dispute was centered on the right of Canada to conclude a commercial and political treaty with a foreign state without the intervention of the British Government.

An independent treaty-making power was one of the two prerequisites of Canada’s control over her own foreign policy, for clearly any kind of interchange between nations must be supported by the ability of the countries concerned to enter into formal agreements with one another. The other prerequisite was the establishment of diplomatic representation in foreign capitals, so that all possible information wou1d be readily available and access to foreign governments would be direct and speedy. Canada had already considered the advisability of opening a legation in Washington, but no Minister had yet been appointed. She was now to assert a greater authority in the making of treaties.

The right of the Dominions to conclude treaties with other countries ‘had been steadily increasing for many years. By the time of the out break of the First World War they had won the right to negotiate their own commercial treaties; but their control over political treaties was slight, and hence their participation in the Peace Conference (albeit as part of a British Empire delegation) marked a notable advance on all past procedures.

Even in regard to commercial treaties, the necessity of maintaining agreement between radical and conservative Liberals, and the constant effort to conciliate the Progressives had all discouraged any attempt to do more than fall back on ad hoc solutions for most questions.

All these demanded the Prime Minister’s constant attention and made the most exacting demands on his adaptability, resourcefulness, and stamina. He had also many responsibilities as Secretary of State for External Affairs. Moreover, King was still very conscious of his lack of familiarity with many public questions been so little in Parliament,” he wrote, “that most of the questions w ic come up for discussion ere are entire y new to me. I have to master them in a rough and ready, of way, and do the best I can to conceal my ignorance in debate was experiencing politician’s never-failing problem, rendered those acute by long absence from political life and the extra burden thus imposed curtailed still further his opportunities for study.



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