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Alexander Cambridge, 1st Earl of Athlone 1940, by Yousuf Karsh

After the sudden death of John Buchan, Canada was in need of a Governor General and quickly. At the time, Canada was deep in the Second World War as it emerged from The Great Depression. The man who would assume the mantle of viceroy at this chaotic time would be an ex-soldier, who was the cousin and brother-in-law to King George V, Alexander Cambridge, the first Earl of Athlone.

On April 14, 1874, Prince Alexander of Teck was born in Kensington Palace, the fourth child of Prince Francis, the Duke of Teck, and Princess Mary Adelaide, the Duchess of Teck. His mother was the granddaughter of King George III and the cousin of Queen Victoria.

As a child, and into adulthood, Cambridge was known for having a quick and short temper, who was also cautious and tactful when he needed to be.

In 1883, Cambridge and his parents fled the United Kingdom for Continental Europe due to their high debts. They would remain there for two years before returning.

As a young man, Cambridge would attend Eton College but dropped out to attend the Royal Military College. In 1894, he completed his officer’s training and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He would be promoted to lieutenant five years later.

During the Boer War, he would serve as a captain, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

In 1901, he would journey to Canada for the first time, coming with his brother-in-law and sister, the future King George V and Queen Mary.

One government official would say during the visit quote:

“He was a very fine looking man. I well remember how extremely pleasant and amiable he was at all times.”

During the visit to Canada, there were a few unfortunate incidents. During a duck hunt at Delta Marsh in Manitoba, he would become lost, which became nationwide news. Joseph Pope, who was with the royal party, would write quote:

“On their return to the lodge it was discovered that a distinguished member of the party, to wit, Prince Alexander of Teck, was missing. Lanterns were hung out and guns fired but it was not until some time after sundown that Prince Alexander arrived, none the worse for his little experience.”

At the end of October, Cambridge would have his gold watch stolen. The watch had been in the family for four generations, and was stolen from him while on a yacht during a party in Halifax Harbour, where guests included Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

On Nov. 16, 1903, he would become engaged to his second cousin, Princess Alice of Albany, the daughter of Prince Leopold. She was the niece of the Duke of Connaught, the Governor General of Canada. Together, the couple would have three children, Princess May, Prince Rupert and Prince Maurice. Maurice would only live for six months.

When the First World War broke out, Cambridge, now a major, was nominated by British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith to become the Governor General of Canada. Before this could happen, Cambridge was called up for active service and promoted to Lt. Colonel. Through the war, he would serve in various battles and would be awarded the Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George.

On Nov. 7, 1917, King George V made him the Earl of Athlone. Cambridge would be the only person to serve as the Earl of Athlone. His only son, Rupert, would die 10 days shy of his 21st birthday on April 15, 1928. This made the Earl of Athlone title the third to become extinct with the death of the first earl.

In 1919, Cambridge was promoted to the rank of colonel, and when he retired later that year he was given the honorary title of brigadier-general. Now out of the military, he would take up posts as a civilian, including chairing the Athlone Committee, which investigated the need for doctors in England. This committee would lead to the creation of new post-secondary schools for medical education.

In December 1923, Cambridge was made the Governor General of the Union of South Africa, replacing the Duke of Connaught. Cambridge was praised for treating South Africans of all backgrounds with courtesy. The Times would state quote:

“Modest and unassuming, entirely approachable, easy in his talks with every kind of man or woman whom he meets in his constant journeys through the union. No suspicion of partisan has ever attached to him.”

He would return to England in 1931, where he was made the Governor and Constable of Windsor Castle. One year later, he would become the Chancellor of the University of London, a post he would hold until 1955.

After the death of John Buchan, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King put forward the name of Cambridge to become Governor General, which he accepted. King inquired to Cambridge if he would want the position on Feb. 8, three days before Buchan died. King would write in his diary quote:

“I said to him that I had perfect confidence in him, that we all had. We all liked him and felt sure he would be able to manage satisfactorily in every way.”

King would announce the appointment only days after the March 26, 1940 election, which his party had won with a majority government. King would write in his diary that King George VI approved the appointment but stated that Cambridge could only serve for two years. Cambridge would then send a letter to King, expressing his appreciation for the appointment.

Cambridge would state in a speech quote:

“We feel we shall love Canada and hope to be worthy of the great privileges and opportunity which lie before us.”

Many were happy with the appointment. Premier John Bracken of Manitoba stated quote:

“After the visit of the King and Queen last summer, the appointment of a member of the Royal family as Governor General will be doubly welcome.”

The French newspaper Le Jour would state in an editorial quote:

“I believe I express the feeling of my compatriots of the French language in expressing a cordial welcome to the Earl of Athlone and in assuring him of our entire loyalty as Canadian citizens and British subjects.”

Coming to Canada at a time of war, their ship was forced to travel in a zig-zag pattern across the Atlantic Ocean to evade submarines. Due to the war, Cambridge was not sworn in as Governor General at his port of entry. Instead, he would be sworn in as Governor General in Ottawa. There was also secrecy in the fact Cambridge as coming to Canada. It was not until he had arrived in Halifax that the public even knew the new Governor General had landed in Canada.

In Halifax, he was welcomed by only a few dozen people but a spontaneous round of applause broke out as soon as he stepped off the boat. The Ottawa journal wrote quote:

“The Earl’s first action on Canadian soil, the solid concrete of Halifax Pier 20, was a quick acknowledgement of the hand-clapping with an affable smile and nods of the head that took in the whole group. The princess smiled with him.”

He was then taken in an RCMP car to the train, which he boarded, bound for Ottawa.

On June 21, 1940, Cambridge was sworn in as the Governor General of Canada.

The London Times would write quote:

“Lord Athlone was chosen for exactly the same reason as Mr. John Buchan, because he is the kind of man whom Canadians would like to have among them as representative of their sovereign and as a leader of their social life.”

King would write of the swearing in ceremony quote:

“I felt as I stood at the council table and heard this greeting from the King, made in the presence of members of both Houses of Parliament, my colleagues seated at the table on which I had my hand, and the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria sitting in the chair beside the Earl of Athlone at the time, that this was a great moment in my life. In one way, perhaps the most historic of any, as being the completest vindication of the whole of my grandfather’s life.”

King’s grandfather was William Lyon Mackenzie, who was the first mayor of Toronto and also led the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837.

Due to the sudden need for a Governor General, Cambridge had very little time to get to prepare to get to Canada.

The Ottawa Citizen relates quote:

“It would have been pleasant for the new Governor General to have been here for the opening of the first session of the new Parliament, about the third week of May, Mr. King remarked, but the Earl of Athlone had intimated he could not make all his necessary arrangements to reach Canada before some time in June.”

There was the question of if Cambridge could stay in Canada for his entire term. Due to the sudden nature of his appointment, and the war going on, there was the possibility he would leave before 1945. The Regina Leader Post wrote quote:

“At the moment, the Earl of Athlone feels he cannot say how long he will be able to stay in Canada. This is a time of war and he thinks it would be inadvisable to commit himself for a full term in view of all the circumstances.”

As soon as he arrived in Canada, Cambridge began to get involved in the war effort. He would travel throughout the country to raise funds for the war, and focused a lot of his attention on the troops. He would often visit troops in hospitals, as well as at training facilities. Cambridge and his wife would travel using the same train that was used by the Royal Couple during the 1939 Royal Visit. One of his first official acts was to give Royal Assent to enact a bill that mobilized all human and material resources of Canada for the prosecution of war.

Cambridge would say quote:

“I felt that at this moment of bitter trial in the history of nations, if I could in some measure contribute towards the great war effort you are making, my wholehearted service should be at Canada’s disposal.”

In the first two months he was Governor General, Cambridge would visit the headquarters of three armed forces, the National Research Council and several local factories engaged in the war effort. He would also open the No. 2 Service Flying School at the Uplands Airport, inspected many military units and went to Petawawa to observe operations.

The Victoria Times Colonist would write quote:

“Strangers in the Dominion, they have their hands full in getting to know Canada and its people, but in addition to normal duties, they have taken on the job of encouraging and stimulating the country’s war effort in every way possible.”

On March 22, 1941, he would officially launch the auxiliary war services campaign, which was broadcast nationwide over CBC Radio. He would say in the campaign opening address that he asked for the full support of Canadians because the agencies involved quote:

“Have an essential part to play in the fashioning of our fighting services into a weapon which will strike the sword of tyranny from the hands of our enemies.”

Like Governors General before him, he would meet with the Indigenous and would be given the name of Chief Rainbow by the Ojibway.

Cambridge was well known for his love of radio and enjoyed shows on CBC, especially comedies. He also always carried a large billfold in his pocket. He would tell Macleans that he did not have much money in his hands before coming to Canada and he liked the unaccustomed feel of it in his pocket.

He was also known to be an avid sports fan, and would often spend each mornings riding a horse through the grounds of Rideau Hall and the nearby paths. While his duties prevented him from watching many football games, he did try to attend games when he could.

On Nov. 8, 1940 in fact, he would take part in the opening kick-off in a game between the Ottawa Rough Riders and the Hamilton Tigers. Prior to kicking the ball, he would meet with the players of both teams to shake their hands. The Ottawa Citizen reported quote:

“When the Governor General kicked off, the new ball was encircled with the colors of the Ottawa club. After Herman converted Ottawa’s last touch, some youngster gathered the ball in and a new pigskin had to be brought into play.”

One day later, he would open Parliament for the first time where he spent half his speech talking about the situation in Europe and Asia, while paying high tribute to the spirit of the British people.

During the war, several Royal Families took refuge in Canada, including Crown Prince Olav and Crown Princess Martha of Norway, Grand Duchess Charlotte and Prince Felix of Luxembourg, King Peter of Yugoslavia and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. All would be guests frequently at Rideau Hall for dinners and events with Cambridge.

In December 1941, Winston Churchill arrived in Canada and stayed at Rideau Hall, where he presided over British Cabinet meetings through a telephone while he was in bed.

In 1943 and 1944, Cambridge played host to Winston Churchill, President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister King during the Quebec Conferences, where Allied strategies for winning the war were discussed. While Cambridge tried to remain unobtrusive during the conferences, King felt that he was being overshadowed in his own country by Cambridge and his wife during the conferences. King would be offended when Cambridge stated he was glad the Prime Minister had come along for the conference, implying his presence was not required.

In 1945, the Canadian ambassador to the United States, Lester B. Pearson, would entertain the vice-regal couple in Washington. He would write quote:

“Their natural simplicity and kindliness made them easy and welcome guests.”

He would also call Cambridge a born tourist and a very nice man.

By February 1945, Cambridge began to hint that his time as Governor General would likely be coming to an end. After handing out the Governor General’s trophy at the Renfrew Curling Club, he would say quote:

“I regret that this is the last time I shall present the trophy to your curling champions as we will be leaving your shores.”

When the Second World War ended in Europe on May 8, 1945 and in Japan on Aug. 15, Cambridge led national celebrations from Parliament Hill.

On March 21, 1946, his time as Governor General came to end, having helped guide Canada through the Second World War. His last act as Governor General would be to lay a wreath at the National War Memorial.

The Ottawa Citizen would write quote:

“With tears dimming their eyes, His Excellency the Earl of Athlone and Her Royal Highness the Princess Alice, waved farewell to Canada as they took off from Rockcliffe Airport for Washington on the first leg of a journey which will take them back to their native England.”

The Montreal Gazette would write in an editorial quote:

“There is sadness for Canadians now that the parting time has come. For the Earl of Athlone and the Princess Alice have been with the Canadian people through all the moving experiences of war. In our anxieties they have shared, in our losses they have sympathized, in our achievements they have taken pride.”

In 1953, he was appointed with Lord Alexander of Tunis as the heads of the committee to organize the coronation for his great-niece, Queen Elizabeth II.

On Jan. 16, 1957, Cambridge passed away, as the last surviving great-grandchild of King George III.

In Canada, the community of Athlone, Alberta is named for him, as is Athlone, Newfoundland and Labrador. Two schools are also named for him in Edmonton and Winnipeg.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Governor General of Canada, British Museum, Wikipedia, Library and Archives Canada, The Weekly News-Advertiser, Ottawa Journal, Victoria Times Colonist, Montreal Gazette, Calgary Albertan, Windsor Star,

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