The Harper government has made remembering the War of 1812 a national imperative and is plowing $30-million into commemorating the conflict, which it has dubbed “the fight for Canada.”
The war, of course, was fought between the United States, Britain and inhabitants of what is now Canada. During the 1812 to 1814 conflict, U.S. attempts to invade Canada were repelled.
Andrew Pocock, Britain High Commissioner to Canada, spoke to The Globe and Mail about his perspective on the War of 1812 and bicentennial commemorations.
The diplomat has a doctorate in English literature from Cambridge and a great personal interest in military history.
The Globe: Tell us how you see the war and your thoughts on the conflict.
Pocock: It’s an interesting question because it’s 200 years ago now and it’s the second war that we fought against the United States. Well, it wasn’t the U.S. in the Revolutionary War. That was more of a kind of civil war in British North America.
[In]the 1812 war [there was]an independent state involved. Slightly different dimension. It's very interesting to go over what happened in terms of the military conflict both by land and sea. And some very curious things came out of it.
In a light-hearted vein: the United Kingdom, Britain, is responsible for giving the United States two important things from the War of 1812: One is the White House, because we burnt the presidential mansion and the brickwork was so badly scorched they couldn’t get the burn out so they painted it white.
And secondly, we gave the United States their national anthem. I mean the bombs bursting in air were either over Boston or Baltimore. I forget which. But those were ours. And the rockets’ red glare was ours too. One of life’s little ironies.
But I think what really mattered historically, for the War of 1812, was two things: One, the definition it helped to give to the young Canada. I mean it was still British North America at that stage. But I think, as we see from the way the battle is being memorialized here, that it did give people a sense of identity, a sense that they were different citizens of North America from their American neighbours.
It took a while for that to crystallize, and it took awhile obviously for Canada to evolve into the con-federal state it became and then the independent state it became – and an actor on the world stage. But some of the seeds were certainly sown in 1812 and that is an important and good thing.
And the second thing I think that really matters is the peace that followed [the war] It wasn’t always an easy peace. I mean there’s very interesting history in the 19th century of pressures and differences between not only the United States and what then became Canada but the United States and Great Britain in British North America.
I mean questions even over the border. The 49th parallel wasn’t settled until, I think, the middle of the 19th century. And there were other forms of pressure. But effectively 1814 [the end of the war]saw the last military difference between two countries that then grew into a lasting peace.
Not only a peace in a passive sense but a peace that became an alliance in two major world wars: a very important alliance. And of course that became a cultural economic family, a human series of networks and transactions over certainly the last 100 years that are enormous.
The Globe: I imagine the war doesn’t figure largely in British recollection, does it?
Pocock: Well it’s not a forgotten conflict by any means. But I heard the American Ambassador say the other day that it wasn’t hugely remembered in the United States because the United States had fought more important wars.
Well in a sense so has the United Kingdom. At the time, in 1812, the war that profoundly mattered was the war with Napoleonic France. And the assets of the British army and the Royal Navy were deployed in blockade and in combat in the peninsula in Spain. And winning that was what would change the balance of history – and it did.
But [the War of 1812]is not a forgotten conflict. It’s not forgotten for a number of reasons. There were various naval engagements, three of which we lost; three of which we won. [They]did remind people that there was an emerging naval power, the United States, on the other side of the Atlantic -- which was an interesting factor.
There was the defence of British North America, with very few regular troops and a lot of Canadian militia. And there was the contribution, interestingly and importantly, of Quebec: French Canadians, in the defence of their territory, not all that long after a war in which – the Seven Years’ War – la Nouvelle-France had become rather reluctantly part of British North America.
But nonetheless they defended Canada, as it was then becoming, in a way that was both positive and encouraging.
The Globe: The Americans advertise their antique warship, the USS Constitution or “Old Ironsides,” as “undefeated.” It was involved in the War of 1812. What was the naval score in that war?
Pocock: There were frigate actions in different ways. I think Old Ironsides took on and beat a smaller British frigate, HMS Java. I don’t think she was defeated. But there were other actions where British frigates beat American sister ships of Old Ironsides.
There was a very famous encounter off Boston where a British frigate captain taunted his American counterpart to come out and fight and the battle only lasted 20 minutes. It was a sort of blood-stained draw, I suspect, in terms of [the war’s]naval encounters.
But with Old Ironsides, what impressed the Royal Navy about her was that she was a kind of super frigate. She had 44 guns, was built of very hard American oak and rather lighter caliber cannonballs seemed to bounce off her sides; hence, the nickname: Old Ironsides.
There wasn’t any iron in her. Just pretty hard North American wood. She’s, I think, for the United States Navy rather what HMS Victory is for the Royal Navy.
The Globe: What’s the British contribution in the 1812 bicentennial or is it pretty much Canada’s commemorations?
Pocock. We will play a role. We’ve got a couple of big events of our own next year. We’ve got the Olympic Games in London and we have the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee that will be celebrated in realms such as Canada as well.
What I thought we would do is mark some of the celebrations that will take place, as I understand it, across a number of towns in Upper and Lower Canada, as it used to be. And we have a couple of military bands that are very likely to be coming across to join in celebrations and commemorations and play at important occasions. They will be bands of British regiments. ... To some extent it depends on what’s available but we’re pretty sure there will be a couple around.
The Globe: Do you think there’s a risk of overstating the war? There’s been a debate in Canada over whether the tone of commemoration is a bit of a cardboard cutout version of history and whether Canadians are making too much of it.
Pocock: At the political level it’s very much a matter for the Canadian government to decide. But I think at a historical level there is something to remember. Going back to the point I made earlier, it’s one of the defining times in the history of British North America that became the country of Canada. I think what’s worth remembering is not so much the... of course we should remember the military engagements, I mean that’s what ultimately wars are about.
But we should remember what came out of it: the lasting peace which grew into an alliance and a political and economic cooperation between two countries that’s fairly unprecedented. A vast unguarded border and enormous two-way trade, as well as all the historical-linguistic family ties across two international frontiers. That’s pretty important.
The Globe: The slogan of the Canadian celebrations is “The Fight for Canada” so [the remembrance]a bit more chauvinistic than that, in the way it’s being rolled out at the moment.
Pocock: Well, people will commemorate it in the way they choose. But on the exam question as to whether this is a conflict worth remembering, from where I sit: Yes it is.
Because it helped to define an emerging nation in North America that we value and secondly, it did lead to a long and really important peace that developed into an alliance and an economic partnership that is very significant.
The Globe: How big was the British force?
Pocock: There were 2,000 British regulars in the whole of the colony at the time, which is not many.
The Globe: That’s an interesting point you raise. What proportion of the fighting was done by the British?
Pocock: I think quite a lot was done by regular forces. There were Canadian militia and irregulars, as it were, helping, but Major-General [Isaac]Brock was a regular army man, line commander, had a couple of line regiments under his direct command and quite a lot of country to cover.
He took Fort Detroit from the Americans and had to march back to Queenston Heights for the second encounter and of course further up the river at Montreal was another regular regiment. But lots of Canadian militia involved too.
The Globe: There is a new book out by Alan Taylor, called The Civil War of 1812. Reading on the period, one is reminded the war was badly executed at times. Do you have any opinion as to whether the war was well executed or not? We’ve been taught it was definitely well executed in the sense we achieved our objectives.
Pocock: There’s a very interesting PBS documentary made as a joint venture between the U.S. public broadcasting system and some Canadian stations, of which I’ve seen the first installment about the land war in 1812.
When the Americans tried to invade Canada at three different points. One was at Queenston Heights and was further up into Montreal. And indeed there was meant to be an invasion launched from the Fort Detroit side. And certainly the impression given was the American army at the time was very badly led by each of its individual generals and some bold action by Brock with smaller forces was a) able to take Fort Detroit and b) repel the invading forces at Queenstown Heights.
So I think the United States wasn’t a huge military power at the time. It had a small army and when you look at the map they’re covering very large distances in what was extremely difficult terrain in those days. So I think a measure of incompetence and bad luck and poor logistics and under provisioning and all of the usual things that plagued armies at that time.
But at the same time elements of competence and grit on the part of the defenders went into the equation. When we then attacked Washington, I think that was as an amphibious operation – navy and army – and that wasn’t badly executed.
But there was a problem in 1814 in New Orleans when the British army attacked the city there ... after a peace treaty had already been signed. But of course communications in those days being what they were, the attacking general didn’t know that. But that attack was not well executed by British forces, and casualties by the standards of the war were quite high. So it ended on not only an unnecessary but a tragic note.
The Globe: Who won the war in your opinion?
Pocock: Well, I don’t think there was a clear winner or loser. It’s probably easier to say who didn’t get what they wanted. Well if the invasion of Canada was part of the objective of the United States, that certainly didn’t work. So that was a failure.
In terms of the impact on the United States economy, that was very severe. There was a naval blockade instituted, particular as the Royal Navy was able to move assets across the ocean from France to initiate the blockade. By 1814, New England was almost up in arms against its own government, because the economy there had virtually collapsed.
So a number of people learned a number of lessons. One, the United States learned it wasn’t yet a global military power. Two, a young Canada learned it was able to defend its territory if it absolutely had to. Three, the British learned that while they were able to throttle a nascent United States, there was enough muscle there and potential for them to be a bit more cautious in the meantime. And fences were repaired.
Of course, one of the great peaces that came out of this was not just the United States and Canada, but of course the United States and Great Britain. That was the last war we fought against the Americans. Although we fought many with them since.
I think commemoration is the right word. No one is celebrating enormous victory or punishing defeat. We are looking back on a conflict which is ill defined in some senses in its origin, inconclusive perhaps in its outcome but which led to rather better times in terms of alliances and cooperation that has lasted two centuries. And I think that is worth commemorating.
The Globe: Yes, how often do you imagine conflicts where the bitter memories haven’t in fact calcified and hardened and remembered as grievances? You certainly don’t have that here.
Pocock: Indeed of our closest relationships with the world are probably on this side of the Atlantic. At least historically. I mean we’re now of course part of Europe and have very close relationships there. But the memories of the 20th century as far as the United Kingdom is concerned will be memories of alliance and help from the United States, from Canada and of course the rest of the Commonwealth in two world wars.
The Globe: This government in particular is a big fan of history and wants to bring more traditional remembrances into the national identity but at the same time they have to be careful not to stir up anti-American sentiment, which of course is always a possible side effect of the commemorations.
Pocock: Anti-anybody sentiment would be a pity. I think this is a positive anniversary in many ways. It commemorates decent outcomes, perhaps more by luck initially than by judgment. But nonetheless, 200 years of peace and, bar the last few years, prosperity, is something well worth celebrating.
The Globe: Are Canadians justified in feeling they won the war?
Pocock: Yes. Well, I think from a Canadian point, if you judge the preservation of your territory and your identity and your political future, as a victory – and it would be hard to say it’s not – yes, Canada did well from the conflict. It held its line and its ground and it was then in a position to chart an independent political future, firstly under the aegis of its links to Britain, but then as the 19th century went on, through confederation up to the Conference of Westminster in 1930 which confirmed what was already, effectively, the case: That Canada was already an independent country within the Commonwealth. There are few straight lines in history but you can see the evolution of Canada into the great dominion and then an independent country as flowing at least in parts from events surrounding the 1812 war.
The Globe: How significant was the British role in this war?
Pocock: I think British regular forces, be they military or naval, had they not been there, I think it would have been difficult for Canadian militia to have resisted. Not that the American attacks in 1812 were particularly well co-ordinated. But over time, I think the sheer weight of population ... in fact such was the weight of population that President [Thomas]Jefferson said winning the war would be just a matter of marching – a quote that’s been used against him ever since. But I think that was certainly the American perception, that it would be relatively straightforward given the population difference.
So I think, without overdoing any of this, I think the British military contribution was central to holding the line, certainly on the ground. And then if one was looking at what happened subsequently: the naval blockade and hence the economic blockade – and then the attacks on Washington, that could only have happened through regular military forces.
The thing worth remembering from the British point of view is firstly we were fighting a world war. That’s what the Napoleonic Wars were. We were fighting a world war that was reaching its climax in Europe. Enormous financial and military resources were going into that. The entire Royal Navy and all its ships and battleship equivalents were off the European coast in the Mediterranean, off Spain and France. The whole British army was essentially fighting in the peninsula. British money was being used to support allies – in other words, opponents of Napoleon be they Russia or Prussia or everybody else – that is where the focus was. So to conduct another conflict on the other side of the world was a considerable ask.
Secondly, the logistics of this. It’s not just a matter of getting a few people across a river. It’s crossing the Atlantic in all weathers and two winters, maintaining forces by sea, first of all, and eventually by a blockade of the American coast. And of course maintaining military forces and militia on a vast continent with extremely difficult terrain and in North American winters. Just doing that requires a bit of organization and credit.
You had in the Royal Navy the greatest multinational institution in the world at the time. Almost every nationality served on the ships. It was an extraordinary organization that was capable of fighting a world war and yet exploring the globe at the same time. Think of Cook and others.
So I would say even though parts of it weren’t well executed. I mean some of the naval encounters, particularly in the early part of the war, when I think the British navy was perhaps a little complacent and certainly had ships that under-matched their opponent. And secondly things like the assault on New Orleans, which could have been better done.
You could hardly say this was a glittering campaign. But parts of it went well: the later naval engagements, the assault on Washington, etc. Perhaps, most importantly for history, the holding of the land border with the United States in the early part of the war.
The Globe: Do you think General Brock receives enough attention back home in Britain? Is he commemorated enough in the U.K.? He is certainly feted in Canada.
Pocock: Alas, I think General Brock is rather in the shadow of General Wolfe. Wolfe is memorialized in Britain and in his place of birth and other places. Everyone knows the great picture [ The Death of General Wolfe] by Benjamin West. The panorama.
Wolfe is the man people remember, and perhaps justly, because he changed the history of the continent. But Brock held the line. And that was massively important in Canada’s history, in retrospect. But I think he’s not perhaps as well known as he might be [in the United Kingdom]
Who knows, one of the small side effects of commemorations in the next couple of years might be to return a bit of attention to him. He was a rather dashing character as far as I understand and died in combat in the prime of his life, as did Wolfe. On a field of victory, as did Wolfe.
There seem to be a number of British military people who specialized in doing that. I mean [Admiral]Nelson of course had the greatest death bed scene in British history.
The Globe: Maybe you could do something to get General Brock more attention in London.
Pocock: It’s a fair point. If we’re going to look a this seriously, I think over time we will. ... Perhaps General Brock deserves a better place in the sun.