With the Prime Minister in Great Britain
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 23 Sep 1941, p. 39-53
Clark, Gregory, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
A joint meeting of The Empire Club of Canada and The Canadian Club.
A humorous relating of the "mixed boos and cheers" incident of the Prime Minister's first contact with the troops overseas. A description of the flight over. The speaker's visits to both Britain and France, three times each, since the war began. The situation in Britain. The rationing, the lack of anger. Britons, going about their business. The destruction in London. The Canadian troops overseas. The praise for Canada's war effort from the British in contrast to the criticism of the war effort here in Canada. Reasons for this conflict of opinion. The German war machine and their superior technology. The war effort in Britain which is not heart alone nor hand and heart, but genius. The manifestations everywhere of this industrial and technological genius. Conserving Canada's manpower for the air force. Shedding light on the puzzle of that contrast between the Canadian and British attitudes towards our war effort. The necessary secrecy of the development of new war materials. We in Canada at about the same stage where the Britons were immediately following May 10, 1940. Taking the measure of us all.
Date of Original
23 Sep 1941
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Full Text
A Special Joint Meeting of The Empire Club of Canada and The Canadian Club.
Chairman: Mr. W. Frank Prendergast, President of The Canadian Club.
Tuesday, September 23, 1941

MR. W. FRANK PRENDERGAST: Gentlemen, the guest-speaker of The Empire Club and The Canadian Club today is Mr. Gregory Clark, of The Toronto Star. Mr. Clark is known personally to many of you in this room, by reputation to you all and to many thousands of people throughout Canada. The son of a distinguished journalist, Mr. Clark is himself a journalist of great distinction. He has the essential qualities required for that profession: keen observation, sound judgment, tolerance, and a bright, dynamic style with which he mixes UD, when occasion requires, a great deal of humour and very bright wit. Mr. Clark has been three times to the theatre of war. First, he accompanied the Canadian troops to Britain, early last year. We have all read of that expedition. Later, he told us of the heroic episode of Dunkirk just recently Mr. Clark went abroad again, accompanying Mr. Mackenzie King on his journey to Britain. I am sure that in that trip he made many interesting observations and that he will have much of very great interest to tell us today.

I think these two Clubs are very fortunate indeed that, so soon after his arrival home, we should be privileged to listen to his story, which is of intimate concern to all of us who are gathered here. It is necessary that Mr. Clark's address begin precisely at a certain moment and, accordingly, that I cease precisely at a certain moment. It is a little difficult, with a somewhat antiquated timepiece, to arrive at a correct balance in that respect. I can tell you, when you hear the first musical note of Mr. Clark's voice, it will be precisely forty seconds after one-thirty, Eastern Daylight Saving time.

MR. GREGORY CLARK: Mr. Chairman, Fellow Guests, and Gentlemen: It is hard to know where to take off in a speech and harder still to know where to land at the end. But if my own friends and acquaintances are to be gone by, then the first thing everybody wants to hear is an off-the-record actual between you and me account of the famous "mixed boos and cheers" incident of the Prime Minister's first contact with the troops overseas.

Personally, I am an old veteran of "boos and cheers". And in this gathering I have already noted a fairly large number who share that with me. I was at Camp Borden in 1916, when we gave Sir Sam Hughes the good old "one-two". That, if you recollect, started with purely vocal commentary and ended in an all night riot. I was also Tinques at the Canadian Corps sports show in 1918 with some 60,000 Canadians, who had only seven months before voted almost 100 per cent for Union Government. 1 may say in my battalion only one vote, as far as I am aware, was cast for old Sir Wilfred, and I think I lost it to Colonel Herb. Lennox-you know how those votes were very discriminately scattered across Canada where they were most needed and mine would hardly be noticed in Herb Lennox's poll. Anyway, seven months later, after that famous soldier vote, the successful incumbent of all that power chose Tinques sports day to visit the troops. And I can recall very clearly my astonishment to hear the boys "boo" that distinguished gentleman and his civilian entourage, and can see him yet, lifting his hat elegantly in all directions at the boys, who did not discontinue the irreverent sounds until the gentlemen in "civvies" had retired from the field and the sports proceeded.

It was with mixed shivers and chills that I learned, on arriving in Britain, that the first contact the Prime Minister was to have with the Canadian troops overseas was at a sports day near Aldershot. To those in authority around the Prime Minister, I communicated my memories of previous encounter's between troops and gentlemen in public life. But to no avail. It was without the slightest trepidation that Mr. King went to the sports day.

Now, in Britain the censorship forbids you to mention the weather in your dispatches until five days later. We could not tell you the picture in its true light because there was, that Saturday afternoon, a regular deluge of rain. English rain. All day rain.

Here, in a little grandstand like a county fairground grandstand were jammed several thousand Canadian troops. There were delegations from all divisions and all arms. How those delegations were chosen, I can't say. But being an old soldier myself, I think it safe to submit that some of the boys would rather have been about their own devices, this rainy, dreary Saturday afternoon, than watching races and jumping events being run off in the mud under the direction of army sport directors.

Now, the Prime Minister of Canada is expected. And at a certain time, the programme of events is halted and officials are to be seen hurrying about and peering down entrances and making ready for a proper reception. But . . . . we were 25 minutes late. And the runners in their shorts and the jumpers and the other contestants stood about in the rain and the boys in the grandstand grew restless.

Then suddenly we arrived, a little company of about 12 or 15 bedraggled "gents in civvies" ducking in the rain, and, sure enough, our entry was greeted in the good old spirit, and one hearty voice amidst the scattered clapping, cheers and hyahs and so forth suggested "throw the bloody civilians out". Our welcome was described by some observers as "mixed cheers and boos". Now, when you take the West Toronto junior hockey team to Winnipeg for the finals, one carload of Toronto supporters goes along with the team. And when, at Winnipeg, the Toronto team comes out on the ice, there is a giant "boo", amidst which the little cheers of that one scant carload of partisans is wholly lost. Yet when the Winnipeg team comes out on the ice and there rises a mighty and whelming cheer, such is the mysterious quality of a "boo" that you can distinctly hear, amidst that encouraging roar for Winnipeg, the sour note of that one little carload from Toronto. As one who has been all his life more interested in almost anything you can mention than in politics, that is a fair description of the sounds that greeted us. And when at the end of his brief address, delivered from the middle of the sports field in the rain, the Prime Minister walked the full 50 yards back to the grandstand, he was cheered all the way in and everybody stood up for him as he took his chair.

Most of the sour notes had come from the right hand end of the grandstand, so I wandered down to that end to have a look, and imagine my astonishment-or was it? to find there the delegation from a famous Toronto regiment looking full of mischief and highly tickled. I knew a good many of them, having not only crossed over in the same convoy with them in December, 1939, but having spent a more perilous journey with them in June, 1940, and we exchanged signs and greetings. I indicated to them how long they would doubtless be in the clink for their vocal contributions of a moment before, and they retaliated with remarks much more to the point than some of the editorial commentaries on my dispatched account of the incident.

Three days later, when the Prime Minister was inspecting the troops, we came to the same regiment. It was no sports day now. There they stood, in their magnificence,--and I will tell you more of that magnificence presently,--and, as the Prime Minister walked up and down the serried ranks, greeting a man here and there, pausing to speak to individuals who, for their age, whether old or young, caught his eye, this same regiment stood like a rock and paid the Prime Minister every honour that a regiment can show. And, at the end, when he walked out and stood hatless, looking back at them, the Colonel turned to his regiment and gave the command for cheers. Now I do not know whether you are familiar with the manual of ceremonial or not. But I will describe what a cheer is. The Colonel gives the command: "So and So regiment; doff head dress!", head dress being the euphemism for tin hat. And as one man, the regiment doffs its head dress. "So and so regiment; three cheers for the Prime Minister of Canada." "Hip, hip"; and three times the hills roll to the sound of a regiment's cheers. Then the commanding officer says, "Such and such regiment, resume head dress." And as one man, the regiment puts back on its tin hats. That, Gentlemen, is a cheer.

And it was pleasant, that fine sunny afternoon amid the pleasant hills of England, to catch the eye of some of my friends as they stood so fine but with such a grin in their eyes, and to contrast the incident of three days earlier, when, in the rain, our little band of civilians had stood a little anxiously, and very abashed, amidst the great company of men in khaki, while the Prime Minister walked out to the centre of the sports field to say his little say.

Continuing for a moment the human interest angles of the Prime Minister's visit. I think the flight by bomber itself has certain aspects that have not been mentioned heretofore. Those huge machines, as we are all tragically aware, will carry a total of 22,--the crew of 4 (pilot, co-pilot, engineer, and radio operator) and 18 passengers. Even that is far from capacity, of course, because what they will carry in weight of bombs and fuel far outweighs 22 men.

But these machines are not equipped to carry passengers, and 18 men are about all you can put inside on narrow mattresses in any comfort, amidst the machinery, the mechanical equipment of the bomb bays, and all the intricacies of tube and pipe and wire and baggage however minimum.

In our machine were only 10 passengers plus the crew, the Prime Minister; his companion, Brigadier George Vanier; his secretary, Walter Turnbull; the Under-Secretary of External Affairs, Norman Robertson; the secretary responsible for speeches and addresses, Mr. Pickersgill; Handy, the stenographer; McNichol, the Prime Minister's valet; Andy Carnegie of Canadian Press; Brian Tobin of British United Press; and myself, representing not so much The Star, but the SNS, or Star Newspaper Service, the largest newspaper syndicate in the British Empire. Norman James, the photographer, had gone on ahead four days earlier in another bomber. We were not to have been four days behind, but a little misadventure delayed us. The mighty bomber that was to carry us over had been dolled up a little in the Prime Minister's honour. Two chairs had been built into the machine, one for the Prime Minister and one for Brigadier Vanier, who has an artificial leg as a souvenir of his having been commanding officer of the 22nd Battalion in the old war. There was also a bunk rigged up for the use of these two older men.

The ship was given its final tests after the dolling up, and went into the air over the airport to check engines. It stayed up a couple of hours while all was checked and found right. Then they started down. From the wings, at the touch of a button, the landing gear dropped properly; but the landing wheel in front, in the nose, did not come down. So they went up again and worked at it. But down that wheel would not come, so they had to land on their nose. And land on their nose they did, squashing quite effectively all that frontal elevation of a big machine. And we had to wait two days while a new nose was built on us, and a wheel installed that would come down without any question. And then they had to take the big ship into the air again for another exhaustive test flight to make sure nothing had been jarred loose in the little accident. In fact, we arrived at the airport at 8 a.m. and had to wait three hours before the ship was finally passed by the inspectors. The Prime Minister sat in his private car on a siding during these three hours awaiting his first flight in a plane.

The Prime Minister had never been higher off the ground than he could jump, in his whole life. And his first flight was to be across the Atlantic in a bomber. And he was kept three hours waiting in his car on a siding. Those of you who have done any flying will recollect that your first flight had something in common, say, with your marriage. You suffered the same sensations. A slight personal anxiety. A sense of the irrevocability of your undertaking. But the Prime Minister was the least concerned of us all when it came to boarding the plane. His reactions were those of a boy as we sailed into space, and at bomber speed and high in the air raced across the glorious sunlit expanse of Quebec, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland. We crossed the Atlantic at night going over and had breakfast in Britain. Coming home, we flew above clouds all the way-took off on a murky, rainy dawn, climbed up through the clouds into the sunlight, and paced hour after hour across the wide Atlantic with never a glimpse of anything save a vast floor of clouds that looked like last week's buttermilk. Sixteen hours, unbroken flight, we came home, diving down out of the clouds. We gained five hours, of course, coming home in 16 hours, beat the sun out of five hours. After breakfast in Britain, I came out in the dawn and picked a purple aster from a flower bed. I was wearing the aster at tea in Canada, before five in the afternoon.

Going over, the Prime Minister was, as I say, like a boy, filled with the pleasure and thrill of this journey and the great sights of earth we saw in the afternoon. Coming home, he and all the rest of us were bored stiff. He spent the whole day intently reading the mass of documents he had accumulated in his visit to Britain.

He saw the army, the navy, and air force,--not all of them, only the first division actually, and only four of our squadrons. He saw the ruins of London under the personal guidance of that great lover of London, Herbert Morrison. He saw great ports and studied their destruction and their incredible survivals, under the guidance, not of public men, but of sailors, engineers, and the men who make those machines of survival. But the bulk of his time and the centre of his attention were devoted to contacting in person the men with whom he has been in daily, hourly contact for two years by a perfected system of communication, wireless, document, and airborne dispatch bag.

Now-how is Britain? I have had the extraordinary privilege of having been three times to Britain and three times to France in this war. I saw both England and France in those far off days of the winter of '39 and '40, before the great blow fell. I have seen apathy and disunited effort and complacency. I was in the disaster in Flanders and saw the agony of France. I was back two weeks to watch the staggered awakening of Britain. Then back a third time to France, 10 days after Dunkirk was all over, and left France the day Paris fell. Then a few weeks more, to watch the effects of this great loss on the British. Now, after a year, in which Britain has been pounded with all the hate the enemy could summon in triumph and seeming victory, how stands the little fortress?

First, it seems to me the ire, the anger, have gone out of them. When disaster strikes you, your first fear and excitement are shot through with an instinctive anger. Then you settle down to fight the fire or handle the boat or rescue your friends, with a cold, cautious, alert, and almost patient determination, in which there is no shadow of anger any more. I think that was my impression of Britain on this last visit.

In the whole visit, I did not meet an irate man. And that for Britain is something. Even a year ago, after Dunkirk, you were still conscious, in Britain, of the formulae, the patterns, the usages and customs, which were thought to be an indispensable feature of British life. Those patterns, formulae, usages and customs, are all gone. There is only the one pattern now. And it is the pattern of cold, implacable determination, which binds all classes into a unity it is impossible to exaggerate. There are no rich or poor any more, They are all poor because the material value of everything now cannot be thought of at all. And all rich, because they have been literally through hell together, and discovered in the journey an extraordinary kinship to one another. No Briton I met this trip thought well of himself, he was so preoccupied in thinking well of his fellow Britons, if you understand me.

Everything is rationed. Their food, their clothes, their time-each man is rationed out so many hours of duty as fire watcher or warden or guard. Yet the streets of Loudon and Glasgow are filled with people, they seem to be shopping and hasting about their business. I can think of no difference between Oxford St. in London, or a street in Glasgow, and Yonge St. in Toronto right now or at 5 p.m.

Yet the ruins of London, if gathered together in one area, including the great ruins like those around St. Paul's and Holborn and Mooregate and the Great Victoria St. and Hackney, and added to them all the single, solitary one house or two house ruins of those insane random bombs the Hun dropped in that long, dread winter, would make a city almost as great as Toronto. So I heard one engineer aver. And there is not a city in the islands that has not suffered its share. Yet to try to tell about the ruins of London is one of the most curious difficulties in the art of expression I have ever attempted.

Here is one thing we did to try and get around the problem. At our hotel, situated between the Marble Arch and the west end of Piccadilly, we propositioned a taxi driver as follows: "Drive us," we said, "as far as you can without letting us see any ruins". And for 9 and 3 he drove us up around the park, around Kensington, and the Edgeware Road, through block after block of business streets, and, except for a few false starts where, half turned into a block he suddenly remembered a single smashed house, and except for only a few glimpses of ruin that looked more like construction jobs, alterations and repairs than ruins,-so wonderfully have the repairs been done, he drove us that long 9 and 3,-which in London is a good long ride, and brought us back to the hotel.

"Now", we said to him, "drive us where we will see as much ruin as possible". And he turned in from the park, and twisting and turning down past Berkeley Square, in towards Piccadilly, over past Oxford St. where we could see the ruins of Lewis's great store which he had so skilfully avoided on the previous tour, that old man--and all the taxi drivers of London today are grandfathers--took us towards Holborn with never a block but had its neatly extracted house, or its half-block ruin, and we came at last to Holborn, and then St. Paul's, and so on down past Great Victoria St. to the Bank of England, and out along the Thames, and the docks, and the slums that have vanished in staggering areas of neatly piled rubble. And that little jaunt cost us 16 and 9 with a whole pound to the grandfather who, with gestures of his arm, had indicated to us the scars of London.

One of the strangest things the Prime Minister saw in his tour of the ruins was in the area lying between St. Paul's and High Holborn, where that whole area of The City, so called, was wiped out by fire on December 21 last, and they had constructed, out of the brick and stone of all those buildings, a huge water tank for the storage of water for the emergency fire pumps in the event of another attack. Norman James thinks his picture of that water tank, made with those historic stones and bricks, is the most British picture he got on the trip.

Our troops overseas--we have never had anything like them. Our first division is, to all intents and purposes, a division of regulars. In our old war we never could get to the shape these men are in. After a few months training, we were into it and shot up and refilled with new men. Never, never could we quite catch our step. This division has been two years in training, has weeded and trimmed and had the pick of the drafts. Frankly, I say I have never seen such soldiers. When this war is over, whatever happens to those divisions in the meantime, we will receive back to Canada, not the men we were in our time, civilians turned soldier and full of battle and of honour, but a body of men far more deeply grained as soldiers, full of a far longer comradeship than we were afforded in our war, filled with thoughts and ideas they have had the time and the occasion to ponder as we, in our time, did not.

Before I went over this time, I had heard many stories, and had some letters from friends in the army, regarding how fed up and bored they were. But in their midst, in not only the first but the second and third divisions which I had time to contact, there was no trace of any such spirit, unless you call the impatience of men to be at their enemy being bored or weary. It seems to me the average man is not a letter writer, and he will compose themes in a letter that do not quite jibe with the true state of his mind. I found no bad news of them for you. I found them sinewy, lean, magnificently trained, with a discipline that made me hot with envy, a readiness of mind and heart that made me think, not so much of what they will do to the enemy, but of what a day it will be to have these men, heirs of a rather shabby age in those nineteen thirties, back with us in Canadian life, conditioned as they are now.

It is time I began to think of my landing now, and it occurs to me that two interviews I had overseas--one with General McNaughton and one with Air Commodore Critchley--would be of interest in our attitude to the one thing that is foremost in our mind--the war effort. Coming from Canada, where criticism of the war effort is so lively, it is highly disconcerting to encounter in Britain nothing but praise--and warm and seemingly most sincere praise--for Canada's war effort. There are any number of easy rationalizations of this conflict of opinion, with the Atlantic lying between, but it is time we all stopped seizing the easy thing first.

General McNaughton said to me for publication: "It will not be by force of numbers we will win the war, but by our inventiveness and thoroughness in the army and our inventiveness and thoroughness in the supply of war materials".

We can never forget that two German divisions, equipped and highly trained in the use of a novel method of warfare against which no defence existed, routed over three hundred divisions of traditionally equipped and trained Dutch, Belgian, French, and British divisions. Of course, those German armoured divisions were followed up by a great number of traditionally equipped and trained German divisions.

After a few months' absence from Britain, what would strike you most forcibly of all is not that all hands are working like mad, but all heads as well; that the war effort of Britain is not heart alone nor hand and heart, but genius. That industrial and technical genius of Britain, which conquered the whole world of trade in the past century, is at the front of Britain's war effort.

And this is manifest everywhere: in the aircraft we were privileged to see; in the air fields and stations scattered all over Britain; in the machines; in the mechanisms; in the guns and equipment of every imaginable sort, as strange to eyes only one year absent from Britain as was the German equipment to those divisions which tried to stand before Dunkirk. Necessarily, all that is new must be secret, must be manufactured secretly, and employed as secretly as possible in training.

Air Commodore Critchley (who happens to be in Canada now), who is in charge of initial training for the air ministry, told me that by instinct and experience and back ground, it was now abundantly clear that Canadians were, above all others, gifted for flying, that the wastage in training was so considerably less amongst Canadians that, in his opinion, considering the increasing part aircraft have to play in this war, every effort should be made to conserve Canada's manpower for the air force. He said he looked with envy on the Canadian army in Britain and wished for the clay the air force could raid the army already over there for men supremely equipped for the air.

These two statements from officers deep in the experience of this war, shed. possibly some light on the puzzle of that contrast between the Canadian and British attitudes toward our war effort. In all directions in which the war effort of Canada is already declared and fully revealed, we cannot push too hard nor demand too much, if we are to breathe the same air with the British people. But there is that realm of surprise, not only in policy but also in the creation of new and decisive materials of war, of which we are forbidden to know anything. In our attitude towards the war effort, it seems to me we fall into two parties. The one maintains that there is not enough, and their point of view, if carried to its full conclusion, would lead to the maximum production of materials and men, consuming capital, materials, and work hours to the full, with no thought of how suddenly, as Flanders demonstrated, a whole mighty tradition can become obsolete. The other maintains that our war effort is ample, that there are doubtless secret policies and secret materials and plans which, like the happy ending of a movie, will save us all in the end. There is, however, a middle road, and that is to apply to this great problem the same processes you would apply to business or industry: first, to study the situation; second, to decide upon a plan; third, to put the plan into execution.

And in the study of the situation and the decision upon a plan, Canada cannot, never could, function alone. That there will be an enormous speeding up of war effort, not only here but in Britain and America, is already obvious, following the Atlantic conference and the sudden concentration of minds on what appears to be a plan, decision having been reached.

After each of his many attendances at the war cabinet, I would ask the Prime Minister what the main subject of discussion had been. The answer was always the same "Manpower".

Not by an effort of the will alone can you conceive of war. Not by imagination. In Canada, even at this hour, we are about the stage where the Britons were immediately following May 10, 1940. We are fully aware of what has happened and is happening. We have been told by every means of expression known, what we are faced with. But, as Britain herself knows, it takes more than understanding, more than exhortation. It takes more.

Are bombs the only way of setting fire to the spirit of a people ? Is the human will as inert as the past two worldwide years would indicate?

In Canada, thanks to the peculiarities of our political situation as regards not only ourselves but the world--around us, we are not in the happy position we suppose. We are in this unhappy position: that this day, this hour, is taking the measure of us all, every man, every woman, every manager, every worker, every preacher, every storekeeper, every young man, every middle aged man; with our satisfactions, with our angers, with our excuses, with our accusations, in the baleful light of a world on fire, we are having our measure taken. Not by an effort of the will alone can we conceive of war.

Who says so? (Applause.)

MR. C. R. SANDERSON: Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen We read about England, we listen to England, but, in spite of all that, every one of us, I think, has a longing to go and see for himself. That isn't possible. But the next best thing is that someone who has been and who has seen should tell us what he has observed. And, Gentlemen, when the person who does that is someone who sees with the trained eyes of an expert observer, and when, in addition, he has the vital gift of being able to put into words what he has seen and so make us see it in turn, this is the nearest approach to going to England ourselves.

I don't think there is a single soul in this room, or a single soul who has been listening over this radio right across the Dominion, who hasn't felt in this last half hour that he has been seeing things with his or her own eyes. No one could fail to respond to the emotion which Mr. Gregory Clark has put into our hearts. And, Sir, all I can say is that speaking on behalf of these two Clubs, and speaking also on behalf of the audience on the air, we are infinitely grateful to you for letting us see through your eyes what you saw on your last visit to that little fortress. Thank you, Sir. (Applause.)

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With the Prime Minister in Great Britain

A joint meeting of The Empire Club of Canada and The Canadian Club.
A humorous relating of the "mixed boos and cheers" incident of the Prime Minister's first contact with the troops overseas. A description of the flight over. The speaker's visits to both Britain and France, three times each, since the war began. The situation in Britain. The rationing, the lack of anger. Britons, going about their business. The destruction in London. The Canadian troops overseas. The praise for Canada's war effort from the British in contrast to the criticism of the war effort here in Canada. Reasons for this conflict of opinion. The German war machine and their superior technology. The war effort in Britain which is not heart alone nor hand and heart, but genius. The manifestations everywhere of this industrial and technological genius. Conserving Canada's manpower for the air force. Shedding light on the puzzle of that contrast between the Canadian and British attitudes towards our war effort. The necessary secrecy of the development of new war materials. We in Canada at about the same stage where the Britons were immediately following May 10, 1940. Taking the measure of us all.