HMCS Niobe Grounding and Court Martial;
Part 4: The Courts Martial, Day 3 of 3, Nov 1911
The Officer of the Day reprimanded, and the Navigating Officer dismissed from the ship, it is now Commander Macdonald who stands before the court. he too is charged with the grounding of HMCS Niobe. Today's report on the third day of the court martial is followed by an opinion article that was printed the same date, exploring the political machinations which caused HMCS Niobe ro be in Yarmouth in the first place.
The Montreal Gazette, 20 November, 1911
End of Niobe Court-Martial
Decision Reached that Charge Against Commander Macdonald is Not Proven
Sword Returned to Him
Accused Man Personally Asked to Admiralty to Make the Enquiry.
Halifax, N.S., November 18.—(Special) The court-martial on the Niobe this afternoon concluded the series of court trails which has engaged its attention, by giving a decision that the charge against Commander W.B. Macdonald, of the Canadian cruiser Niobe, was not proven. The president of the court, in rendering this judgment and handing back his sword to the commander, stated that it gave him great pleasure to state that Commander Macdonald was honourably acquitted. It came out in the defence of Commander Macdonald that the court-martial had been personally asked for by him. The commander explained this in the following terms:
On October 19, not having heard that any steps had been taken by which I could vindicate my conduct, and realizing that it was a critical time in my Imperial service career, I sent the following telegram:
'Admiralty, London.—Respectively submit convenience of service admits Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty may be pleased to try me at court-martial grounding Niobe.' "
Commander Macdonald, in the course of his defence, submitted a statement of what occurred from the time of leaving Yarmouth up to the time of grounding, and the subsequent steps that were taken to salve the ship.
"At 9.58, after getting away from Yarmouth, I rounded Blonderock bouy," he said, "and shaped course S. 74 E. The night was very clear. Up to this time no abnormal tide had been encountered, and nothing to lead me to suppose that any corrections other than those allowed fir in tide tables would be necessary, I am firmly of the opinion that Lieut. White's computation of tides was the correct one, which the point of our, which the point of our stranding proves, and that had there not been an abnormal tide the ship would have made the southwest ledge bouy even in thick weather. About 10.15 p.m. I gave my night order book to the officer of the watch on the forebridge and pointed out to him that the ship was making the southwest ledge bouy, to see that the ship was not set in to northwards, and on no account to get to port of his course, but to keep generously to starboard. At this time the night was extremely fine and starry, I then went into my cabin on the forebridge. On being called at midnight, I came out of my cabin and found that the ship had run into a fog. I called out Lieut. White's name, and was informed that he was not on the upper bridge. I sent for him. As my reduced speed had not enabled me to hear the southwest ledge bouy's whistle, I determined to haul out, and went into the chart house to determine a course, and had just leaned over the chart when the ship took ground. The time from my first being informed that the southwest ledge bouy was sighted to the time of grounding was about 20 minutes. I beg to state that the cause of our grounding was an abnormal tide, due either to the gale, the previous night in the Bay of Fundy, or to perhaps a hurricane in the West Indies. I would ask the members of the court to place themselves in my position on the night in question, to remember that at 10.25, when I gave the order book and instructions to the officer of the first watch, the night was exceptionally fine, exceptionally clear; that no abnormal tide had been experienced, and that I was kept in ignorance of the fact that Cape Sable light had not been seen when we were closely approaching it ; that when I was called about the time I expected to be, I was definitely informed that the buoy had been seen and heard immediately before the fog closed down in the position I expected it to be seen. I am of the opinion that neither the charts, tide tables nor sailing directions give the seaman, not possessed of local knowledge, any idea of the danger of the locality. I am not claiming to have grounded on an uncharted rock, though this may well be the case, and I think that this locality probably abounds in uncharted rocks, which only ships of deep draught discover."
The squadron sailed this afternoon for Bermuda.
The Montreal Gazette, 20 November, 1991
The Niobe's Mishap
What Preceded the Sending of the Ship to Yarmouth
The court martial at Halifax has already found one victim for the disaster to the Niobe off Cape Sable last July in the person of Lord Allister Graham, who was officer of the watch up to a quarter of an hour before the ship stranded on the rocks. From a naval viewpoint, from the technical viewpoint of marine navigation the decision may be quite correct. The British Admiralty is rather strict and severe in such cases, as may be imagined. But the average Canadian cannot help feeling that the whole affair has been one for which the country should feel heartily ashamed. Lord Graham is virtually made a scapegoat for an amateur naval department's rank blunders and a resume of the facts will show that the officials of the Niobe were practically ordered to go to dangerous localities whenever the presence of the ship as an attraction to local celebrations being held at the time was deemed necessary.
The Niobe, a training ship, was sent to the Yarmouth, N.S., old home week celebration on the order of Hon. L.P. Brodeur, who acted on the request of Mr. B.B. Law, M.P. But before Mr. Brodeur fulfilled his promise he had left for the Imperial Conference and, the celebration approaching, Mr. Law wrote to Commander C.D. Roper and Mr. P.J. Ling, of the Naval Department at Ottawa, on the matter. Both these officials refused to send the Niobe to Yarmouth as a civic attraction. In this the officials were justified, as it meant the disarrangement of training exercise on board the vessel. But Mr. Law persisted and again requested that the ship be sent. Once more the department refused. And once again Mr. Law came back by letter requesting the department cable Mr. Brodeur in London and remind him of his promise. Quite rightly the department refused to do any such thing.
Mr. law, whose prestige as a political advertiser was evidently in danger among his townfolk, therefore fell back upon the hope of the Maritime provinces when something was wanted—Hon. Mr. Fielding. Mr. Fielding was in London, but he cabled the naval department at Ottawa asking that Mr. Law's request be granted. Just why the minister of finance was allowed to dabble inj the administration of naval affairs is not quite clear, but Mr. Fielding took the chance without any hesitation. Mr. Law, encouraged by this acquiescence, got after Mr. Brodeur again on the latter's return to Canada on July 11, and extracted his signed promise that the Niobe would positively be at Yarmouth.
In the meantime, however, it is interesting to learn that Commander Roper only July 14, the day previous to the receipt by Mr. Law of Mr. Brodeur's definite promise, had written a memorandum, strongly protesting against the proposal. The commander made the significant remark that he considered that the opinion of the technical officers should be obtained before any promise was made as to the vessels of the department visiting any particular port, at given date. Admiral Kingsmill, on forwarding this memorandum, commented upon it favourably and endorsed its objection to the proposal. The admiral added that it would be impossible to carry out the training objects of the vessel if the visiting of the ship to ports where celebrations were being held was to become a recognized custom.
Notwithstanding the objections of the qualified officials of the department, Mr. Brodeur confirmed his promise to Mr. Law and on July 14 the Niobe reached Yarmouth. The men were landed to participate in the parade, some 4,000 visitors inspected the ship, a grand ball took place and other entertainments were given with the vessel as a center of social activity. On July 19 the disaster occurred when a gale sprung up in the harbour. Of the good seamanship and devotion of the officers on this occasion much has been written and deservedly so.
In view of all the facts the present court martial seems to be shaped in the wrong direction. It is quite true that the admiralty must enforce its Spartan regulations, but it is unfortunate that Canada is to receive advertising of this sort. The fact that the naval department was used as an advertising adjunct to please political friends of the recent administration, and that such action cost the country nearly a quarter of a million dollars in money and incalculable amount in prestige, is enough to make the man in the street feel hot under the collar.