Most of the world remembers World War I as a futile struggle when naive young men, raised to believe in abstractions like honour, duty and manliness, were slaughtered in pointless battles planned by incompetent generals. English-speaking Canadians, while generally accepting this view, have supplemented it with the memory of a war in which their soldiers won great victories and forged a new national identity. The idea that the nation was born on the slopes of Vimy Ridge is now a cliché in constant use. The Canadian government’s decision to build interpretation centres at Vimy and Beaumont-Hamel and the construction of the new Canadian War Museum in Ottawa suggests the events of what was once called the Great War will continue to play an important role in the story of Canada we tell to our children in the 21st century.
This series of articles is intended to provide readers of Legion Magazine with an introduction to the best research on Canada’s role in the war. We will examine both the events as experienced by the men and women who lived through them and the memory of those events created by journalists, war artists, poets and historians. We begin with the most basic and controversial question. Why did war break out in 1914? The answers will surprise many readers because history texts, which once taught that “war guilt” was widely shared by all the major European powers, now insist that the dominant elites in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany consciously sought to transform a crisis in the Balkans into a European war that would allow Germany to control continental Europe. This interpretation of the events of July and August 1914 was put forward by German historian Fritz Fischer in the 1960s. For 30 years, the debate over Fischer’s thesis raged in European and North American universities. Gradually though it became evident that the arguments were over details, and that the evidence supporting this view was overwhelming. Of course the war that the Kaiser and his supporters believed they were starting was to be fought by the existing conscript armies and would be over before Christmas. A rapid invasion of France, employing the so-called Schliefen Plan, would burst through Northern France and neutral Belgium, encircle Paris and force a surrender. Only then would Germany send major resources to the Eastern Front to join with the Austro-Hungarian Empire to defeat Czarist Russia. The all-volunteer British Army was too small to matter should Britain come to the aid of France. Canadians who lived through the Great War found this “new” version of history full of irony as it was essentially what everyone had believed before postwar revisionists had argued that black was white. The generation that went to war in 1914 was well-informed about events in Europe and quite capable of making up their own minds about the meaning of the war. Historian Ian Miller has demonstrated that English-speaking Canadians interested in world affairs had long been aware of the possibility of a major European war. The enmity between Germany and France stemming from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the increasingly bitter rivalry of the German and British Empires over the naval arms race were constant topics of informed discussion throughout most of the early years of the 20th century. Canadians were deeply divided on how they should respond to crises in Europe, with French Canadians—at least those within Quebec—almost totally opposed to any form of military or naval preparation that might underwrite participation in foreign wars. In the rest of the country there was conflict between pro-Empire activists who favoured contributing money to Britain to build additional Dreadnought battleships, nationalists who favoured a Canadian navy and smaller groups of anti-militarists apparently opposed to war under any circumstances. This last view was consistently argued by the widely read religious press, especially the Methodist Guardian and by the voice of the western farmer, the Winnipeg-based Grain Growers Guide. Canadians were divided on the issues of war and peace, military and naval expenditure, cadet training in schools and a host of related issues precisely because they understood what was at stake. If war came, Canada, a British Dominion, would be legally bound by the actions of the mother country. However, the nature and extent of Canadian participation would be determined at home. Before the invention of radio, daily newspapers were the major means of communicating information and ideas. Most Canadians were well-served by a lively and partisan press that provided detailed accounts of world events. News of the German invasion of France reached Canadians on Aug. 2, 1914 and in a matter of days even anti-war newspaper editors, shocked by the violation of Belgian neutrality, added their voice to those calling for Canadian participation in a just war. The protestant religious press reversed its pacifist message, urging readers to support a struggle fought for Christian ideals. After the war, church leaders would be harshly criticized for their sudden conversion to military action, but in 1914 the issues seemed clear and compelling. Canada was at war but there was little the country could do to assist the allied cause. Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s attempts to create a Canadian navy had ended with his defeat in the election of 1911 and the new Prime Minister Robert Borden’s Naval Aid Bill—intended to pay for three additional Royal Navy battleships—had been blocked by the Liberal-dominated Senate. Canada’s professional army of 3,000 all ranks, plus some 70,000 part-time volunteers serving in the militia, were a far more considerable force. Under the energetic, if controversial leadership of Sir Sam Hughes, minister of militia since 1911, 56 new armouries and drill halls were built and summer training camps revitalized. Hughes is usually condemned for his eccentric behaviour and misguided confidence in the Canadian-made Ross Rifle that proved unable to withstand combat conditions, but he should also be remembered for expanding the militia, acquiring modern guns for the artillery and encouraging more realistic training. Whatever view one takes of Sam Hughes, it is evident that no Canadian field force could possibly have gone into action on a European battlefield in 1914. But this did not stop the minister from trying. On Aug. 6, he sent 226 night telegrams directly to unit commanders of the militia ordering them to interview prospective recruits and wire lists of volunteers for overseas service to Ottawa. Hughes bypassed existing mobilization plans and ordered the Canadian Expeditionary Force to assemble at a new, yet to be built, embarkation camp at Valcartier near Quebec City. Would the original plan have worked more smoothly? Would a conventionally recruited force of 30,000 men have been ready to leave for England in October? We will never know, but it is impossible not to be impressed with what Hughes and William Price, who created camp Valcartier and organized the embarkation troops, accomplished in just seven weeks. And so who were the men who volunteered to go to war in 1914? Historian Desmond Morton suggests that “for the most part, the crowds of men who jammed into the armouries were neither militia nor Canadian-born.” Most, he argues, were recent British immigrants anxious to return to their homeland in a time of crisis, especially when Canada was deep in a recession that had created large-scale unemployment. The best available statistics suggest that close to 70 per cent of the first contingent “were British-born” though the officer corps was almost exclusively Canadian. Command of the 1st Canadian Division went to a British officer, Lieutenant-General Sir Edwin Alderson, but Hughes appointed Canadians to command the brigades, battalions and artillery regiments. Much the same pattern held for the second contingent; 60 per cent were British-born, but their officers were Canadian. Newfoundlanders were still mourning the loss of more than 300 fishermen in a spring blizzard when news of the war reached the colony. The response was nevertheless enthusiastic and in the absence of a recent British immigrant population, recruits were drawn from a cross-section of town and outport communities. Less than a quarter million people lived in Newfoundland in 1914, but thousands volunteered to serve in the Newfoundland Regiment and the Royal Navy. Imperial ties were no doubt basic to this response, but many were drawn to serve by the promise of decent pay and a meaningful role in a war that could not be much more dangerous than the sea. The men who gathered at Valcartier were supposed to be at least five-feet, three-inches tall with a minium chest measurement of 33.5 inches, between 18 and 45 years of age, and ready to serve for one year “or until the war ended if longer than that.” Officers received from $6.50 a day for a lieutenant-colonel to $3.60 for a lieutenant. Non-commissioned officers could earn as much as $2.30 a day while the basic rate for a soldier was $1.10. The Canadian Patriotic Fund provided additional support for families from private donations. The fund, with chapters across Canada, offered support only after an investigation proved the recipients were both needy and worthy. It then provided assistance on a sliding scale that paralleled the army’s rates of pay. A dollar a day was not far below the income of a junior clerk or unskilled labourer and far above the cash paid to a farm worker. The army was thus an attractive proposition to many single men seeking escape from the dull routines of work or the harsh experience of unemployment. A large number of married men also volunteered, but Hughes, who insisted participation had to be voluntary in every sense of the word, decided that “no recruit would be accepted against the written protest of his wife or mother.” According to the newspapers “long lists of men were struck off the rolls because of this regulation.” As the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the Newfoundland Regt. departed for England, a second contingent, which would become the 2nd Cdn. Div., was authorized. The decision was made in the context of the German advance on Paris, the dramatic retreat of the British Expeditionary Force from Mons, Belgium, and the miracle of the Battle of the Marne that saved France from immediate defeat. If the war was seen as a romantic adventure in early August, by October the harsh reality of high casualties, and the prospect of a German victory, created a more realistic view. By October, Canadian opinion was also deeply affected by the plight of the Belgian people. Voluntary organizations, including farm groups, churches and ad hoc committees, responded with offers of money, food, clothing and plans to aid Belgian orphans and refugees. This spontaneous outpouring of sympathy preceded the first atrocity stories that served to further intensify anti-German sentiments and public support for participation in the war. The 1st Div. arrived in Britain on Oct. 14, 1914, and reached their tented camp on Salisbury Plain near Stonehenge just in time for the worst, wettest winter in recent memory. Over the next four months the contingent trained and equipped itself to join theBritish Army in Flanders as a standard infantry division. Major-General Alderson, an experienced British officer, was given command. The establishment of 18,000 men included three brigades each of 130 officers, 4,000 men and 272 horses. Each brigade contained four infantry battalions of approximately 900 men each, commanded by a lieutenant-colonel. A battalion was made up of four rifle companies, each divided into four platoons. Additional firepower was provided by two sections of two Colt machine-guns per battalion. The three divisional artillery brigades, equipped with modern 15-pounder field guns, provided the firepower that was supposed to permit troops to assault enemy positions neutralized by shelling. There is no consensus among historians as to how well—prepared the Canadians were when they entered the line in early 1915. Morton describes the Canadians as “woefully unready.” John Swettenham, the author of To Seize The Victory, still a very useful survey of the Canadian military effort, emphasized the problems of the Ross Rifle and other difficulties with equipment. Bill Rawling’s important study, Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps, 1914-1918, reminds us that “the Canadian artillery was not able to fire its guns until the end of January 1915 and then was allotted just 50 rounds per battery. The gunners would have to wait until the move to France to gain any real experience with the tools of their trade.” Rawling concludes that the 1st Div. was “hardly a well-trained formation,” but notes that trench warfare was new to the “professional armies of Europe as well.” Andrew Iarocci, who has studied the training of the division both in England and France, maintains that a great deal was accomplished before the 1st Div. entered combat in 1915. His study—based on training manuals and battalion war diaries—offers a detailed account of what was taught and what was learned. Iarocci reveals that British and thus Canadian formations were far better prepared for the realities of trench warfare than is usually suggested. Their preparation did not include any useful advice on how to capture strongly held enemy positions because no one knew how this might be accomplished in 1915. There was certainly no preparation for an enemy prepared to use chlorine gas as a new weapon of war. In the next issue we will consider the experience of the men confronted by poisonous gas in the Ypres salient.