Wednesday 6 November 2019

Declarations of War, the State, and Parliament — The Second World War (part one)

Originally, I was going to copy the style of part one of this series and track through the entire Second World War. But once I got stuck in to the Dominions and their proclamations, it got very long again. Consequently, everything after the entry of Italy into the war is going to have to wait for part two-bis.

This is not necessarily a complete tour - for one, various things are not online and I'm not flying to New Zealand to have a nose, and two this article would never end if it even tried to be complete. But it should give a flavour of how the UK and the Dominions reported and enacted the commencement of the Second World War.

[You can tell I'm enjoying this!]

War with Germany

As everyone knows (or at least really ought to know) on 1st September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. That day, the London Gazette noted that His Majesty had made a declaration in council [1] and also reported a series of proclamations calling up the reserves and so on [2].

In a supplement to that issue of the Gazette (at the time, the Gazette was only printed on Tuesdays and Fridays, although supplements could and would appear on other days ) printed on the Sunday, Chamberlain's famous ultimatum and the lack of a response to it was reported. This constitutes, unlike the situation in the Dominions, the only real "proclamation" (and it isn't even that) of the state of war. [3]

Exceptionally, although understandably, as well as meeting on the Friday (the 1st September) Parliament met on the Saturday, and in a moment even more unusual on Sunday 3rd September. As far as can be ascertained (see paragraph 17.5 of Erskine May) the Commons has only sat on a Sunday on five occasions in its long history, and four of those were due to a demise of the Crown. So the sitting on Sunday 3rd was extraordinarily exceptional.

I apologise for what follows, for to say the House passed a bewildering array of legislation at great haste is no little understatement. The House was actually adjourned at the time, having decided on 29th August to adjourn until the 5th, although it had agreed the Emergency Powers Act 1939 that day first. Consequently the Speaker had to recall them [4]

Having done so, one of the (many!) things presented to the House that day was a copy of all correspondence between the UK and Germany (by way of Command Paper) [5]

The House then suspended various rules to, inter alia, allow a Vote of Credit to pass to fund the (now seen as inevitable, though still two days off) war, part of which I reproduce here [6]

Then both Houses proceeded to pass eighteen bills in one day, which obtained the Royal Assent later that day too... [7]

The House sat again on Saturday 2nd and passed more bills, and again on Sunday 3rd where still further legislation was considered. On Sunday, a further six Acts obtained the assent [8]

And on Tuesday 5th, a further ten Acts obtained the Assent [9]

And on Thursday 7th, a further seven Acts [10], at which point the Commons adjourned until the following Wednesday. Possibly to allow the King's Printer to catch up and HMSO to catch up...

There were, of course, surrounding this all the expected debates in the Commons, which I will leave for others to find. I think forty-one Acts in seven days is enough for anyone, especially as all (or all but a de minimis fraction, I haven't precisely checked) were first introduced to Parliament on or after the 1st September.

Meanwhile, a War Cabinet was being created and the government generally reconfigured. Here, for example is the appointment of Eden as Foreign Secretary, and Andersen (of the eponymous shelter fame) as Home Secretary [11] [12]

Further emergency legislation was passed in the coming weeks, but that's a story for another time too.

Update (2019-11-06): a co-conspirator sends me this link to the BBC announcement of the outbreak of war. After Mr. Chamberlain's speech, it includes a series of government announcements, including the closure of cinemas, how air raid sirens ("hooters") work, the closure of schools to permit evacuations, read in the inimitable BBC way

"make sure you and every member of your household, especially children who are liable to run about, have their name and address on [...] sew the label into their clothes so they cannot pull it off"

After a brief further notice about unemployment benefits, the National Anthem was played. 

Declarations by the Dominions

Whereas in the United Kingdom, after the initial notice in the Gazette attention turned to Parliament, some of the Dominions produced quite a few proclamations and other instruments. These naturally all varied depending on their local legal and constitutional configurations.


Australia produced an amazing array of proclamations between 1st September and the 6th, covering everything from changes to customs rules (which I leave as an exercise to the reader to find) and regulations on shipping to the things discussed here.

On 2nd September 1939, as the situation in Europe was obviously deteriorating, Sir Winston Dugan, the Governor of Victoria [13] and as "Deputy" to the Governor-General issued a proclamation declaring that there was a "danger of war" [14]. 

Functionally, this seems to have provided for preliminary activation of all emergency legislation. For example, the same day a proclamation was issued (now by the Governor-General, the Lord Gowrie, himself) calling up the reserves [15] [16].

Anyway, as we all know, the danger of war became a war itself the next day. Hence, His Excellency issued a further proclamation [17] declaring this. Notice how this also includes, similar to the notices in the London Gazette (although much briefer), a notice from the Prime Minister of Australia, Sir Robert Menzies, reporting that word had arrived from London that the war had begun.

The Parliament of Australia wasn't sitting at the time, but both houses had resolved that their speakers could summon them if necessary. Consequently, on 6th September, they met. The Governor-General sent messages announcing he had called out the reserves [18], and in the House of Representatives the Prime Minister opened a debate on the world situation [19]. Both houses then proceeded to pass a small set of emergency legislation.


This one has a Wikipedia article [20] but I actually think the series of Australian proclamations is more interesting.

The first thing to observe here is that this proclamation demonstrates the peculiar Gazette formatting of the Australian ones. Notice, for example, the location of the embossed seal. The second is that unlike the Australian ones, this proclamation wasn't issued in pursuance of any statutory provision. The third is that is issued in the name of the King by the Governor-General, not by the Governor-General himself. This all reflects the slightly differing views as to the constitutional position of Canada versus Australia at the time. Also, the eagle-eyed will notice this proclamation is dated the 10th. [21]

Now, obviously Parliament needed to meet to do those things parliaments must do - and to provide some sort of approbation for the war, hence the delay in issuing the previous proclamation. And herein lies a little journey. At the end of its previous session, the Parliament had been prorogued to the middle of July; in July it was decided that, actually, Senators and MPs wouldn't be needed until late August [22] [23]...

... come early August, let's actually have you all back on 2nd October [24] [25] ...

... then come 1st September, and actually a war looks pretty likely, can you all get here this Thursday! [26]

A few observations on these prorogations. Firstly, the first pair are both proclamations extending a prorogation, which accounts for why third is worded differently. Secondly, I enjoy how the first two "relieve" members from having to attend on the original day, and then enjoin them to "herein fail not" when making attendance on the new date. Thirdly, the the final one first "exonerates" members from the duty to attend on the original date, and then "commands" them to attend, for the "despatch of business" on the new one.

Parliament then met, the Governor-General, Lord Tweedsmuir, gave the Throne Speech, and proceeded to make provision for the war. By way of an aside, this Parliament was then prorogued again from the end of September until October, then successively until January, whereupon it met and was immediately dissolved. Probably a story for another day.

Although this is a fun array of prorogations, I still prefer the Australian proclamations!

New Zealand

Although there certainly was a proclamation in New Zealand (the Governor-General read it on the steps of Government House), the Gazette isn't online. However, there is this interesting telegram [27] from the Secretary of State to the Governor-General. Like Canada, New Zealand chose to formally proclaim the war, rather than just let the United Kingdom's pronouncements apply to it.

War with Italy

United Kingdom

In June 1940, essentially the reverse happened. Whereas in 1939 it had been the United Kingdom which delivered an ultimatum, which led to war, to Germany; in 1940 it was Italy which declared war on the United Kingdom. Consequently, the Gazette notice [28] is very perfunctory.

I think the opening words of Clement Attlee, the Lord Privy Seal, in the Commons that day sum up how grave the situation was better than I ever could [29]. The first paragraph is here, but I really recommend reading the whole of the Lord Privy Seal's speech.


Aside from a proclamation, necessitated by the Prize Courts Act [30] [31] declaring Italy to be an enemy state, the sole interesting entry is this perfunctory note in the Gazette in the name of the Prime Minister [32]. Again, the Australian government preferred to just let the British declaration of war extend to it ineluctably.


The Canada Gazette doesn't seem to have been digitised for this date (yet?). So things are a little spartan here, however, I intend to return to this at a later date.

New Zealand

Again, almost certainly a proclamation, but no idea what it contained.

This esoteric, and I fully admit it is of extraordinarily niche interest, article series will continue in the not to distant future with the declarations of war in December 1941 on Finland, Romania, and Hungary; and then two days later on Japan.


I am indebted to whoever compiled this Wikipedia page [33], which made quickly checking the dates in this post (and the next one) much easier.

The London Gazette is licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0; Hansard and the Journals are licensed under the Open Parliament License; the historic Commons Journals can be found online (for which I am eternally grateful). Australian Government Gazette entries are sourced from the Federal Register of Legislation, which is provided under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Australian Hansard extracts are sourced from the Parliament of Australia Website and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia licence. The image of the Canadian proclamation is apparently in the public domain. The extracts from the Journals of the Canadian House of Commons are sourced from the Parliament of Canada website per [speaker's permission]

[1] London Gazette, no. 34663, page 6039 1st September 1939
[2] ibid., page 6039 et seq.
[3] And in some cases, especially royal births (still practised today, as it happens) an extra-ordinary issue of the Gazette would be produced.
[4] Commons Journal, volume 194, page 404
[5] ibid., page 405
[6] ibid.
[7] ibid., page 410
[8] ibid., pages 415-6
[9] ibid., page 422
[10] ibid., page 427
[11] London Gazette, issue 34670, page 6067, 5th September 1939
[12] Although it had been in his former role as Lord Privy Seal that the said shelter was "named"
[13] I don't think Sir Winston was acting as Administrator of the Commonwealth here, for one he had only become Governor of Victoria in July 1939. Instead, given that at the time the Commonwealth government was located in Melbourne, he was probably simply on hand and neither the actual state governor who would have been Administrator nor the Governor-General were.
[14] Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 1939, No. 61, p. 1845
[15] Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 1939, No. 62, p. 1847
[16] As a side note, the peculiar formatting of the top of these proclamations in the gazette is due to the position of the Great Seal, which (as we will also see for Canada) for Dominion proclamations seems to invariably occur at the top.
[17] Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 1939, No. 63, p. 1849
[18] House of Representatives Hansard, No. 36, 6th September 1939, page 26
[19] ibid. (click the links on the left)
[20] Canadian declaration of war on Germany, Wikipedia, (as at 2019-11-05 3.50 p.m.)
[21] Library and Archives of Canada, reference RG68, R1002-106-X-E.
[22] Canadian House of Commons Journal, volume 78, page iii
[23] At this point, war would have seemed reasonably distant at worst.
[24] ibid., page iv
[25] Successive prorogations like this were quite normal at the time.
[26] ibid., page v
[27] New Zealand declares war on Germany, Research and Publishing Group of the New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage (accessed 2019-11-05, 10.51 p.m.)
[28] [missing, will add later]
[29] House of Commons Debates, volume 361, column 1140, 11th June 1940
[30] Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 1940, No. 105, p. 1237
[31] I think it is the case that the proclamation declaring a state war at all would be otiose at this point, anyway, since the already subsisting war with Germany sufficed to activate all the legislation.
[32] Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 1940, No. 104, p. 1235
[33] Declarations of war during World War II, Wikipedia, (as at 2019-11-05 1.02 p.m)

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