Support Canadian History Ehx with a donation at https://www.buymeacoffee.com/craigU
We have finally come to the end of the line in terms of Governors General who came from prominent families or institutions in Britain. After this episode, we will be delving into the Governors General who were born in Canada, or spent most of their lives in Canada.
So, with that, let’s dive into the story of Harold Alexander, The First Earl of Tunis.
Alexander was born on Dec. 10, 1891 to a prominent family. He was the third son of James Alexander, the Fourth Earl of Caledon, and Lady Elizabeth Graham-Toler, the daughter of the Third Earl of Norbury.
As a young man, he would be educated at the best schools. Through his youth, he excelled at cricket, and almost chose to become an artist. In the end, he chose to attend the Royal Military College in 1910.
After graduating and earning a commission as a second lieutenant on Sept. 23, 1911, he would be promoted just over a year later to lieutenant.
Two years later, the First World War broke out and Alexander found himself as a platoon commander in the First Battalion of the Irish Guards. He would be wounded in battle and sent home, where he was given the temporary promotion of captain on Nov. 15, 1914. This was made permanent on Feb. 7, 1915.
In August 1915, he returned to the Western Front and was made an acting major and then an acting Commanding Officer of the First Battalion Irish Guards. He would see several battles, including the Battle of the Somme, where he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for leading his men in the attack amid heavy gunfire.
On Aug. 1, 1917, he was made a permanent major, and then promoted to acting Lt. Colonel.
By the end of the war, he was commanding an infantry school.
Through the war, he was loved by his men who respected him for his courage in leading them in battle. One soldier under him was Jack Kipling, the son of Rudyard Kipling. Kipling would write of his son’s commander quote:
“It is undeniable that Colonel Alexander had the gift of handling the men on the lines to which they most readily responded. His subordinates loved him, even when he fell upon them blisteringly for their shortcomings, and his men were all his own.”
In the interwar years, Alexander would remain in the military and would see postings in Latvia, Poland, India and Gibraltar, among other places.
In 1931, he married Lady Margaret Bingham, and together they would have four children together, one of which was adopted.
In March 1937, he would be appointed as an aides-de-camp for King George VI, and took part in the procession for the King’s Coronation. Watching from the rooftop of Canada House were Vincent Massey and Georges Vanier, two future Governors General.
In October 1937, he was promoted to major-general, becoming the youngest general in the British Army.
When the Second World War broke out, he would lead the First Division in France for eight months, and would help lead the successful withdrawal to Dunkirk and evacuation to England when the Germans invaded. He was the last man off the beach during Dunkirk. In 1940 and 1941, he would serve in England where his forces guarded the coast from a potential German attack. He would also be promoted to Lt. General. During this time, Winston Churchill became an admirer of Alexander and would often visit him and recommended him for top postings in the British Army.
On Jan. 1, 1942, Alexander was knighted and in February became a full general. He would then lead British forces against the Japanese where he and his men were rescued by Chinese troops after the British were encircled by the Japanese at the Battle of Yenangyaung.
After commanding forces in Burma, Alexander returned to Britain and then commanded forces in the Middle East and North Africa. The experience and patience of Alexander in North Africa would be credited with helping the field command of the United States there mature and come of age. In May 1943, the Axis forces surrendered and Alexander telegraphed Churchill to say quote:
“Sir, it is my duty to report that the Tunisian campaign is over. All enemy resistance has ceased. We are masters of the North African shores.”
The soldiers under Alexander greatly respected him. One sergeant would say quote:
“He was as cool as a trout. He never took cover when the bombing and shelling was at its height.”
Alexander operated on the creed of quote:
“A soldier must be hard and quick physically as well as mentally. The enemy will hit us hard. We must be fit enough to take his blows and return them with interest.”
At this point, Alexander took over the 15th Army Group which would launch the invasion of Sicily. After that was successful, he would help plan the Allied invasion of Italy which began on Sept. 3, 1943.
He would remain in command of the 15th Army Group until December 1944 when he was given the post of Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces Headquarters, responsible for all military operations in the Mediterranean Theatre. At this point, he had reached the rank of field marshal. He would receive the German surrender in Italy on April 29, 1945.
The Windsor Star would say of him quote:
“Lord Alexander was one of the great leaders of the war. He proved his leadership in both adversity and success. From the very first of the war, Lord Alexander could see far ahead. It was Lord Alexander who went to Burma and extricated our troops from a situation as precarious as Dunkirk. It was Lord Alexander who went to Cairo and formulated the plans to drive the Italians out of the war and the Germans out of Africa.”
In 1946, he was invited by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to become the new Governor General of Canada. At the time, he was about to become the Chief of the Imperial General Staff but Churchill said quote:
“Canada is a much more important post.”
Alexander chose to accept the post and he retired from the army.
On April 12, 1946, he was sworn in as Governor General in the Senate chambers.
King would write in his diary that day quote:
“When I met Lord Alexander, I extended to him warmest welcome to Canada and also to Lady Alexander and said how pleased we all were that he had arrived. Mentioned to him about being pleased to see him.”
Alexander told King that he was able to drive the train engine for part of the way. King would learn later that there had been a breakdown on the railroad and Alexander’s engine had to help pull the other train out.
At one point on the train journey at Campbellton, New Brunswick, Alexander and his family and dogs got out of the train for a quick stop at the station. Children from the schools in the area were having recess and they began to race to the station forcing the RCMP to hold the crowd back. The line broke and the children swarmed the vice-regal family, nearly trapping them against the train. The Ottawa Citizen described it quote:
“He stood unperturbed, smiling and waited for the crowd to part. The youngsters really screamed when the children appeared with the three now famous dogs.”
The town would dub it the Campbellton Stampede.
At the House of Commons, there was a huge crowd of people ready to greet the new Governor General. King would write quote:
“I was greatly surprised and immensely pleased when I came around from the side street to Wellington Street and saw the crowds in front of the station and the hotel, also leading up to Parliament Hill.”
The Vancouver Sun wrote of the crowds quote:
“Huge crowds of spectators gathered in brilliant sunshine to extend the capital’s first welcome to the new governor general. A round of cheering from thronged spectators greeted the vice-regal couple as their car drove up to the Parliament buildings.”
King would then write about his opinion of Alexander and his personality. He would write quote:
“I can see that Alexander will not tolerate anything that is not strictly correct. That he is right in that. I told His Excellency that I thought perhaps I had been a bit spoiled at Government House and of the close friendship I had with the different Governors and may have left most things assumed or undone that otherwise I should pay attention to.”
Alexander would say in a speech, stating after he described his taking of Rome in the Second World War, quote:
“Can you doubt then that I and my wife are proud and happy to come here with our children to make our home and to live amongst you?”
This would be the last Governor General to serve with King. Since 1921, six Governors General had been in office for at least part of the time that King was Prime Minister. In 1948, after 21 years and 154 days as prime minister, King passed away on July 22, 1950.
Alexander would say in a simple statement quote:
“Lady Alexander and I have lost a very dear friend.”
He would interrupt his west coast holiday to return to Ottawa to attend the funeral of King.
As Governor General, Alexander committed himself to travelling the country and meeting directly with Canadians through ceremonies and events. Over the course of his time as Governor General, he travelled an incredible 294,500 kilometres, averaging 49,000 kilometres per year. During one trip to the Yukon, he took a trip to the wilderness, which took two hours by motor boat, two hours by jeep and two hours of walking. The family would also visit the Calgary Stampede, ski in the Gatineau Hills and spend summers at Cape Breton.
During his visit to the Calgary Stampede in 1950, he received a square dance lesson after attending a chuckwagon dinner. One boy would ask him if he was a cowboy, Alexander would state quote:
“I didn’t have the heart to disappoint him so I said I was. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t telling a fib. The first thing I learned to ride as a boy in Ireland was a young bull calf and it never threw me. That’s more than can be said for some of those cowpunchers in Calgary.”
They would also visit the Rocky Mountains, where they were described as delighted when they saw a beaver working on a dam in Banff National Park.
Lady Alexander would say years later quote:
“Oh dear, oh dear. The things we remember and will always remember. It’s endless. Canada is like no other place in the world.”
Lord Alexander would say quote:
“About Canada you are always conscious of the bigness, the cleanness, the directness, the brightness. What we liked especially was the way the people took their time to make up their minds about us.”
Throughout his travels, he would almost always meet with veterans as a first priority, no matter the city he visited. He would also begin a serious effort to learn French so he could speak directly with French-speaking Canadians during his travels.
A lover of sports, he took part in many activities including hockey, football, golf, fishing and rugby. In 1946, he would agree to kick the opening ball at the Grey Cup. To get ready for this, he would practice at Rideau Hall so he could nail the kick in front of the fans.
The Ottawa Journal would write quote:
“The Governor General’s love of sport is well known to most followers of spectator events, particularly hockey and football.”
During a visit to northern British Columbia in 1947, he threw out the first pitch in a game between Pouce Coupe and Dawson Creek. The Edmonton Bulletin wrote quote:
“The Governor General was a long way off the plate on his first pitch. He asked for another ball. This time the batter, Joseph Corsbie, CCF member of the BC Legislature, hit it to the short stop and was thrown out at first. The ball was returned to pitcher Alexander. He promptly put it in his pocket.”
Alexander met with the Indigenous throughout Canada and was made the honourary chief of two tribes, including the Blackfoot, and he was presented with a totem pole that still stands at Rideau Hall to this day.
In 1947, Prime Minister King issued letters patent that granted the Governor General permission to exercise all the powers belonging to the monarch in respect to Canada.
In 1949, Alexander oversaw the admission of Newfoundland into Canada and he would tour the province in the summer. He would plant a tree in Bowring Park in St. John’s and state that he was overwhelmed by his reception in the community.
Alexander had a high belief in the future of Canada. During a visit to the Canadian National Exhibition in August 1949, he would state that in his travels through the country, he had seen the old spirit of enterprise displayed by pioneers had paid dividends. He would add quote:
“As I see it, you have in this huge land mass a potential wealth which is only just beginning to yield its riches. Much of it is difficult to get at and develop but as the population increases and scientific research plays its part, it is no exaggeration to say that the future wealth and greatness of Canada is assured.”
In 1950, as the acting commander-in-chief, he would oversee the deployment of Canadian soldiers to fight in the Korean War. He would review 6,000 troops at one point who were getting ready to go to Korea. He would tell them quote:
“Always remember that this struggle in Korea is against Communism. The fight will not be only in the front line when you are in actual combat, but it will go on all the time from the moment you leave these shores until you return.”
Throughout his time as Governor General, Alexander travelled abroad on official trips including to visit Harry S. Truman in Washington,. He would also visit Brazil and host several dignitaries at Rideau Hall.
In 1951, Princess Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip made their first trip to Canada. This visit was thanks to not only Lester B. Pearson, then Secretary of State, but also Alexander who was instrumental in it having happened.
Alexander would organize a square dance in the ballroom of Rideau Hall. He would also, at one point, leave the royal tour and go fishing, something he always enjoyed. It was said his favourite fish to catch were salmon and trout, which he would journey throughout Canada to find.
In his tenure as Governor General, Alexander was extremely popular. This was because of his informal attitude as Governor General, but also for his military reputation that was still fresh in the minds of many in Canada. He was also very charismatic, and he had the ability to communicate easily with regular people.
On Jan. 28, 1952, his time as Governor General came to an end, as did the stretch of Governors General who had come from England. It was time for a Canadian to take on the post, but that is the story for next episode. His time as Governor General had actually been extended by an extra year by Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, with the expectation it would end in April of 1952, but it was Winston Churchill who ended the term sooner than expected.
After he left Canada, he would take on the role of British Minister of Defence on the request of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He had given up the role of Governor General to take this new post.
He would say quote:
“I simply cannot refuse Winston.”
In the night of February 5 and 6th, King George VI would pass away and Alexander would leave Canada quietly to return to England. Canada would always be something the family loved.
His time as Governor General was described by the Red Deer Advocate quote:
“Alexander broke down many of the formalities that had attended functions at Government House and in the performance of his duties on state occasions. He wore his uniform as a field marshal of the British Army when the function required it, but preferred informality.”
During the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, he was given the honour of carrying the Sovereign’s Orb in the state procession.
In 1954, he retired from politics and from 1960 to 1965, he served as the Constable of the Tower of London. An avid painter, he would also have his work displayed in the Royal Academy. All three paintings displayed showed Canadian views. Macleans wrote quote:
“The significance of this was twofold. The obvious paintabeauty of Canada, and the fact that Canada to him had meant leisure to do what he wanted for the first time in his full and busy life. Canada was the first after-the-war home for the Alexander family. The fact in itself will always enrich their Canadian memories.”
Throughout these years, he considered Canada a second home and he would often visit the country. They would visit over the years including in 1944. In 1958, he would suffer a severe heart attack while visiting Canada and spent several weeks in hospital in Ottawa.
Macleans would write quote:
“Alexander of Tunis often plans a fishing cabin in the Laurentide Hills. Lady Alexander talks wistfully of Canadian kitchens. Young Brian only lives for the time when he’s finished with Harrow and can enter McGill. And Rose Alexander, McGill student, spent last summer as an employee of Jasper Park Lodge. London rain may lash at London squares, but for the Alexanders, in frequent conversations at home and with friends, Canadian sun always shines in Canada. It is a happy memory.”
In June 1969, he fell ill and was unable to attend the Queen’s annual Trooping the Color ceremony. He was then taken to a nursing home where x-rays found that he had suffered an artery rupture. He was quickly rushed to hospital where a team of doctors worked to save his life.
On June 16, 1969 at 3 a.m., he would pass away.
Governor General Michener would say in a statement to Lady Alexander quote:
“Our first thoughts are for you and your family who are most closely affected. We offer our profound sympathies and our prayers. I hope it will be a comfort to you to be assured that Canadians, many of whom served under your husband’s command in the last war, will always think of the field marshal with admiration and great respect for his leadership.”
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau would say that the House of Commons was grieved to learn of the passing of Alexander, saying he built close ties with Canada. He would say quote:
“He held a special place in the hearts of all of us.”
Flags on the Peace Tower and throughout government buildings would be put at half mast to honour him. For his funeral at Windsor Castle, the RCMP would take part as part of the guard.
Two schools in Manitoba and Ontario are named for him, as is a park in Ottawa.
Information from Library and Archives Canada, Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, CBC, The Churchill Project, Wikipedia, Vancouver Sun, Windsor Star, Ottawa Citizen, Victoria Times Colonist, Edmonton Bulletin, North Bay Nugget, Edmonton Journal, Regina Leader-Post, Montreal Star, Nanaimo Daily News, Red Deer Advocate,