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We are moving well into the early part of the 20th century and we are only three decades away from the first Canadian born Governor General.
This week, we are looking at one of the most important and influential Governors General in our history, Julian Byng. He had a major impact on Canada, not just before he became Governor General but while he served in the country. In fact, the role of Governor General would alter fundamentally after he left the post.
Julian Hedworth George Byng was born on Sept. 11, 1862, the 13th and youngest child to George Stevens Byng and Harriet Elizabeth Cavendish, who was yes, related to the previous Governor General.
His father was a member of Parliament from 1830 to 1852, and was in the House of Lords from 1853 to 1886.
Like many children of prominent families, Byng would attend Eton College but would not complete his final year and would later state he was Eton’s worst scug. At the school, he was nicknamed Bungo because his older brothers were also attending and had the nicknames Byngo and Bango.
While the family was prominent enough, they did not have endless funds and when Byng wanted to enlist in the military, they family did not have the money to buy a regular military commission for a seventh son. Byng had come from a military family. His brothers were all in the army, and Byng wanted to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, who served with Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo.
To get around this, Byng decided to enlist with the local militia in 1879, becoming a second lieutenant with the Second Middlesex Militia at the age of only 16.
Before long, Byng was offered a place in the 10th Royal Hussars on the request of the future King Edward VII. It was with that regiment he would serve in the Sudan and India. He would also become close friends there with the sons of Edward, including the future King George V. Around this time he became acquainted with Lord Rowton, who worked to improve housing for skilled workers in London. Byng would often accompany him to the poorest and roughest areas of London. It was Byng that suggested that senior retired soldiers be hired to maintain order in the Rowton Houses, in a tradition that still stands.
Byng then joined the Staff College to further his military education, graduating in 1894.
During the Boer War, Byng served as a Lt. Colonel, commanding the South African Light Horse Regiment. Upon his arrival home in 1902, he married Marie Evelyn Moreton, who was the daughter of Richard Moreton, the man who was the comptroller at Rideau Hall while the Marquess of Lorne was Governor General of Canada from 1878 to 1883.
Unfortunately, the couple were unable to have children.
After his marriage, he was stationed back in India and then came home to Britain in 1904. That same year, he broke his right elbow so badly playing polo that he worried he would have to quit his military career.
In 1909, Byng was promoted to Major General and from 1910 to 1914, he commanded the British forces in Egypt.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Byng was made the commander of the Third Calvary Division and he would travel to the Western Front in 1914. He would take part in several important battles including Gallipoli.
In May of 1916, his first major interaction with Canadian history would occur when he was promoted to Lt. General and given command of the Canadian Corps. Byng was surprised to be given the command. In a message back to command, he would write quote:
“Why am I sent to the Canadians? I don’t know a Canadian.”
As the commander of the corps, Byng changed the training of the troops and the appointing of staff officers. He also provided additional training in weapons and trench warfare and allowed the corps to work together to make the Canadian soldiers a cohesive force. In his command, Byng began to notice that the Canadians felt that the British officers were detached from their concerns. To remedy this, he would appoint Canadians as staff officers.
One thing that Byng would not stand for was Samuel Hughes, the Minister of Militia. Hughes, who I covered in depth in an episode about him on Canada’s Great War, was a real piece of work and someone who saw himself as the leader of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. After Major General Malcolm Smith Mercer was killed in June 1916, Hughes ordered Byng to replace him with his own son, Garnet Burk Hughes. Byng promptly refused to do this, and appointed Brigadier General Louis James Lipsett instead.
He would write to his friend quote:
“To officer these splendid men with political protegees is to my mind little short of criminal.”
He would add quote:
“Canadians deserved and expected the best leaders available”
Thanks in part to the reforms and leadership of Byng, the Canadians would be victorious at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917.
Throughout Canada, and among the Canadian troops, Byng proved to be very popular. Those that fought under him were called Byng’s Boys and veterans would refer to themselves as such for much of their lives.
After Vimy Ridge, Byng would take on the role of commanding the Third Army
After the First World War, Byng would be promoted to General and made the Baron Byng of Vimy in recognition of his work during the war.
General V.W Odium would state of Byng quote:
“It is felt by many that the Canadian Corps owes more to General Byng than to any other one man. It is true that when General Currie took over the Corps he showed magnificent leadership and maintained a very high state of efficiency, but it was Lord Byng who originally raised it to that state.”
Over the course of his military career, he would earn several medals, and was mentioned in dispatches from 1900 to 1918 eight different times. He also received several foreign honours including the American Distinguished Service Medal and the Legion of Honour from France.
Only three years after the end of the First World War, Byng was given a new assignment, to be the Governor General of Canada. Unlike with the Duke of Devonshire, Byng’s appointment had come about thanks to consultation with the Canadian government. The Secretary of State For the Colonies, Winston Churchill, sent a list of candidates to consider for Governor General. Baron Desborough was chosen but he refused the appointment, and Prime Minister Arthur Meighen did not want the Earl of Lytton. Meighen then chose Byng, whose appointment was announced on June 3, 1921.
King George V would tell Byng quote:
“You will be just like a king in your kingdom.”
Byng would respond quote:
“Oh no, sir. More likely I shall be Byng in my Byngdom.”
Since he had served as the commander of the Canadian Corps, Byng’s appointment to the position was greeted with enthusiasm in the country.
Byng, for his part, did not know how well he would do as the Governor General. He would say to Meighen quote:
“I’ve never done anything like this, you know, and I expect I’ll make mistakes. I made some mistakes in France, but when I did the Canadians always pulled me out of the whole. That is what I am counting on here.”
On Aug. 6, 1921 in Quebec City, Byng was sworn into office.
Opposition leader William Lyon Mackenzie King would write in his diary of meeting Byng in Ottawa, quote:
“The first impressions of their Excellencies were good in every particular. The note of youth and vigour and absence of side was noticeable in Lord Byng and of naturalness and pleasantness in Lady Byng. A refreshing contrast to the heaviness of the Duke of Devonshire and the formal exclusiveness of the Duchess. I feel sure both Lord and Lady Byng are going to be most popular and acceptable.”
Meighen would say in a speech in honour of Byng quote:
“No words of mine are necessary to introduce to you or to any gathering of Canadians, nor can anything I may say enhance our appreciation of his already great service to Canada. His name is a household possession. His connection with our country is already part of our heritage.”
Byng would say in his own speech quote:
“Since we find ourselves in altered circumstances, then as soldiers we were doing our best to defend the Commonwealth, now as citizen we shall strive to maintain and advance it.”
Unlike his predecessor who dealt with a country that was heavily divided, Byng came to a country that was full of optimism as a new decade dawned.
One of the first changes that Byng made was choosing Canadians to be his aides-de-camp, specifically Canadian veterans. One aide-de-camp was Henry Willis O’Connor who served with Byng at Flanders. Another was Georges Vanier, who had lost one of his legs serving in France and who would go on to become Governor General himself. Vanier and his wife were very close with the Byngs, and Byng would be the godfather of Vanier’s third child Benedict.
Byng would only spend a short time with Meighen as Prime Minister before William Lyon Mackenzie King came to power. King would write in his diary quote:
“I believe our relations are going to be very pleasant.”
While traditionally the Governor General acted as a sovereign and British government representative, Byng refused to do the latter, feeling that the British should have a diplomat in Ottawa and Canada should have a representative in London.
In 1924, the future King Edward VIII came to Canada to tour the country and Byng would host several dinners and balls to honour his guest. While the two were friends, and Byng showed him respect, Byng did not like that Edward pursued married women in Ottawa during his visit. Byng would tell him not to return to Canada while he was the Governor General.
Like other Governors General, Byng would travel throughout the country extensively, including to the Canadian North. He would become the first Governor General to go north of the Arctic Circle and he would meet with the Inuit in remote communities.
He was especially concerned with the farmers of Canada and the difficulties that they faced.
He would say at one point quote:
“Agriculture must come before anything else, and it has to be realized that villages and towns cannot exist without production on the land. The chance for the artisan and professional man will come when the call of the land has been answered.”
Byng was known to not be pretentious. This was seen during a visit to rural Alberta when a farmer, who knew the Governor General was coming, but did not know what he looked like, asked Byng what the old bugger was like.
Byng would respond quote:
“Oh not so bad on the whole.”
He then told the man to attend the reception the next day. When he saw the farmer the next day, who now knew he was the Governor General, he said quote:
“Well, is the old bugger so bad after all?”
In July 1923, Byng and his wife went to Sydney, Nova Scotia where there was a strike of coalminers and steelworkers. The federal government warned them not to go due to the fear of violence. The couple would also refuse police protection. When they arrived, they were greeted joyously by the strikers, and the couple interacted with them and met with union workers.
The Regina Leader-Post reported quote:
“Fully ten thousand people from Sydney and surrounding towns thronged the steps of Wentworth Park tonight to witness the formal civic reception to Baron Byng of Vimy and Lady Byng…M. Ross, a striking steel worker and returned soldier, read another address on behalf of the strikers.”
Byng would help to bring about an agreement to end the strike.
He could also speak French fluently, endearing him to Quebec during a time when the province felt heavily divided from the rest of Canada.
The Montreal Gazette would write quote:
“His Excellency’s growing mastery of the French accent charmed the people and some old-timers were loud in saying that he spoke better French than Lord Grey, who was fluent linguist.”
Byng had a great love for hockey and often attended the games of the Ottawa Senators. In fact, his wife, Lady Byng, would be so shocked by the rough play of Sprague Cleghorn in a game that she would donate the Lady Byng Trophy to the NHL to be presented to the most gentlemanly player in the season. Lady Byng would also have a rock garden constructed at Rideau Hall that is still there to this day.
The lasting impact of Byng as Governor General would begin on Oct. 29, 1925 when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King lost the federal election, finishing with 101 MPs compared to the 116 MPs elected from the Conservative Party under leader Arthur Meighen. A total of 28 Progressive, Independent and Labour MPs were also elected. King was able to hold the confidence of the House of Commons by aligning with the Progressives, giving his coalition more seats.
While King worried that Byng was communicating with Britain over the manner, he was assured that he was not. King would write in his diary quote:
“Lord Byng has certainly tried to be fair and just and has been fair and just.”
Byng would tell King that he could continue on as prime minister but that he must not quote:
“At any time ask for a dissolution unless Mr. Meighen is first given a chance to show whether or not he is able to govern.”
King would agree to this.
The arrangement lasted until June 25, 1926 when he lost the confidence of the house. Prior to this, he asked Byng to call another federal election but Byng refused to do so. King immediately resigned, leaving Canada without a prime minister or government for several days. Byng then invited Meighen to form the government, while refusing the request of King to consult with the British government to resolve the situation. Byng felt that the responsibility of the issue fell to the Governor General.
Years later, King would write quote:
“I felt no difficulty over the question of the constitutional issue, and my relations thereto, but I did feel that Lord Byng’s action at the time subsequently, were far from what they should have been, and that he had allowed impressions to be spread concerning my attitude in the matter which were not right. I had never blamed him.”
In fact, King would feel that it was Lady Byng and the Conservatives, who were to blame.
Unfortunately for Meighen, he was unable to hold the confidence of the house and another election soon happened in 1926 and King was elected with a majority government.
This would become known as the King-Byng Affair and it would lead to major changes to the Governor General position and it would push Canada to have more autonomy from the United Kingdom. King felt that the refusal to call an election challenged the belief that the Dominions and the United Kingdom were equal in the Commonwealth.
Byng would later write to his friend Vanier and state quote:
“I have to await the verdict of history to prove my having adopted a wrong course, and this I do with an easy conscience that, right or wrong, I have acted in the interests of Canada and implicated no one else in my decision.”
In 1926, the Balfour Declaration was supported by King at the Imperial Conference, which clarified the role of the Governor General. It made it clear that the Governor General was not a representative of the British government but the Canadian government, acting on the advice of the prime minister.
Since Byng, no Governor General has refused a prime minister’s request to dissolve Parliament.
On Aug. 5, 1926, Byng would come to the end of his term as Governor General. One of his final acts was to lay the stone for the altar of remembrance in the Memorial Chamber of the Peace Tower.
As Byng left Canada, King would write in his diary quote:
“Byng got a good send off. It was a strange sort of farewell. I was mighty glad when it was over.”
King would never forgive Lady Byng for what he saw as ill behaviour towards him. In 1935 he would write of a dream he had quote:
“This morning I dreamt I was somewhere with Lord and Lady Byng, and was walking and talking pleasantly with Lady Byng, having completely forgiven her for her ill-behaviour towards me, though I had not forgotten it.”
Byng would return to England and would become the Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police and reached the rank of field marshal in the military.
On July 26, 1930, Byng had a severe heart attack and resigned his commission from the police.
In 1932, he returned to Canada and took a cross-country tour with his wife. He also met with First World War veterans and visited Governor General Bessborough. During the visit, Lady Byng refused to talk to King, or even greet him when she arrived in Ottawa with her husband. King would write quote:
“All the others gone Lady Byng and Miss Sandford alone looking toward Byng and myself. They both shook hands very cordially and lady Byng even had a sort of kindly smile, but she is a viper and responsible for most of the wrong that has been done.”
In 1934, King met with Lord and Lady Byng again. This time he would write quote:
“I recall most plainly is that Lord Byng and his cohorts fell mostly into the background and that Lady Byng came more immediately into the foreground, like some flaming figure of wrath.”
Byng would have another heart attack in December 1934, which left him in a wheel chair for several weeks. For much of the first years of the 1930s, Byng had been in failing health.
Byng would pass away from an abdominal blockage on June 6, 1935.
The Vancouver Province reported quote:
“Death came to one of the Empire’s most dogged and gifted of fighters after a last-chance operation.”
King would write quote:
“I received the word of Lord Byng’s death. I was in despair as to how I could prepare anything for the afternoon. I felt I was wrong in having gone to the country for the night, that I should have stayed in town and rested properly there. However, I drove in, prayed for God’s help and guidance and called on dear mother and others to help me. Before beginning with the preparation of words on Lord Byng, I knelt and prayed earnestly for guidance.”
Arthur Meighen, now a Senator, stated quote:
“Canadians one and all will mourn the death of Baron Byng. This country never had a more devoted friend. In war and peace, he was a prince among men, a courageous and skillful captain in battle but an ardent champion of all that makes for peace. I have never known a finer type of manhood.”
Prime Minister R.B. Bennett would state that under Byng’s command, the Canadians stormed Vimy Ridge, which he called quote:
“One of the greatest achievements in the annals of war.”
Those who had served under Byng also expressed regret at the loss of someone they respected. John E. Holmes was a corporal with the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, who fought with Byng in 1917. He said quote:
“Known during the war by Canadians as a magnificent soldier, he was also known by us as an officer who, despite heavy responsibilities, made searching inquiry into all conditions surrounding those under his command.”
Even Garnet Hughes, the man Byng refused to appoint back in the war on the recommendation of Sam Hughes, would say quote:
“Canada has lost a great soldier and a still greater gentleman.”
With the death of Byng, all three of the Canadian Corps commanders from the First World War, Major General Alderson, Sir Arthur Currie and now, Lord Byng.
Byng has been honoured extensively throughout Canada. Mount Byng, Byng Place and two Byng Avenues are named for him. Four schools are also named for him in British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec.
Information from Macleans, CBC, War Museum, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Library and Archives Canada, Biographi, Vancouver Daily World, Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Journal, Regina Leader Post, Windsor Star, Montreal Gazette,