Hell’s let loose — Canada mobilizes to fight in First World War

by Bruce Cherney

On July 29, 1914 Britain had warned its colonies that all was not well and they should make preparations for the possible outbreak of war.

Under the initiative of premier Sir Richard McBride, British Columbia bought two submarines for $1.15 million from a Seattle ship yard to deter a sneak attack along the West Coast. The subs had originally been commissioned by Chile and were designated CC1 and CC2.

Troops and sailors manned the Halifax fortifications and in Quebec a few guns were dragged out to battle anyone who chose to invade Canada via the St. Lawrence River.

The Ottawa Free Press in bold five-inch red-flared type proclaimed “Hell’s Let Loose.” The Manitoba Fress Press put out a special edition on the Sunday of what was a banker’s holiday long weekend. The newspaper’s management apologized for working on the Sabbath but added that they had the provincial government’s permission.

In Winnipeg, Bishop Nicholas Budka told his Ukrainian flock that they had a duty to return to serve the Habsburg emperor. The Austro-Hungarian Empire with the support of Germany threatened to invade Serbia to avenge the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist. This threat threw Europe into a series of sabre-rattling military camps. Russia mobilized to support the Serbs. Russia, in turn, was supported by France and Britain.

Prior to the war, there were two political blocs — The Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy (Italy later switched sides), and the Triple Entente of France, Britain and Russia.

When Britain entered the war, Bishop Budka reversed his earlier position. In a pastoral letter of August 8, 1914, he wrote: “our new homeland, Canada, calls on its faithful subjects to rally around the English flag ready to give up their property and lives ... So at this time when England turns to us as its faithful subjects ... we Canadian Ukrainians have a great and holy duty to stand under the flag of our new homeland that we swore loyalty and duty ...”

He also said his earlier letter of July 27, “which referred to that moment when the war was exclusively between Austria and Serbia ... no longer applies under the changed political situation and must not be read publically in the churches.”

But, the damage had already been done. Despite the Bishop’s support of Canada and Britain, hundreds of Ukrainians would be labeled enemy aliens and sent to detention camps.

Even the first letter had little impact with the Ukrainians living in Canada, after all, they had fled to the New World to escape the tyranny imposed upon them in the Old World. 

At the outbreak of war, Canada only had a militia numbering 77,323 officers and men and a mere 3,110 who could be counted as a permanent regular force. Still, Canada did have a nucleus of officers trained in combat during the Boer War. The dominions in the British Empire had also embarked on a standardized system of training, organization and equipment in 1909. Most of the provinces started cadet training in schools. Militia spending rose from $7 million in 1911 to $13.5 million in 1913.

An able British officer, Major-General Willoughby Gwatkin, developed a mobilization plan for a Canadian force of 25,000 to fight “in a civilized county in a temperate climate.” By mid-1914, there was also a War Book detailing all the precautions necessary in the event that Canada was at war. A special Imperial Defence Conference in London in 1909 laid “the foundation of a workable system which will enable us, should necessity arise, to employ the potential military strength of the Empire for a common Imperial purpose.”

Despite having the world’s longest coastline, the HMCS Rainbow was Canada’s only seaworthy battleship and it narrowly missed being sunk off San Francisco by German cruisers on August 5. The two submarines bought by B.C. were taken over by the Canadian government, manned with reservists and were used as offshore patrol craft by the navy operating out of a base at Esquimalt. In 1917, they were transferred to Halifax and used as training vessels until they were scrapped in 1920.

“Owing to the summary rejection by the German Government of the request made by his Britannic Majesty’s Government that the neutrality of Belgium should be respected, his Majesty’s Ambassador at Berlin has received his passports, and his Majesty’s Government has declared that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany from 11 o’clock p.m., August 4,” said a dispatch from the British Foreign Office.

Prince Otto von Bismarck, the former chancellor of Germany, who died in 1899, was right when he said: “If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.” The “damned silly thing” that brought the world to war was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist in the city of Sarajevo.

Nations mobilized as one threatened action against the other, leading to the outbreak of war.

“When Britain is at war, Canada is at war,” Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier said in 1910, “there is no distinction.” Canada controlled domestic policy as a self-governing nation but did not control its own foreign policy. Canada, like other members of the British Empire, including Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, was automatically at war with the British declaration. In fact, Canada — nor any of the other democratic nations of the British Empire — wasn’t even consulted when the decision was made to go to war by Britain.

On August 1, The Duke of Connaught, Canada’s governor general, sent a cable to the secretary of state for the colonies in England, saying “that if unhappily war should ensue the Canadian people will be united in a common resolve to put forth every effort and to make every sacrifice necessary to ensure the integrity and maintain the honour of our Empire.”

It was pure jingoism, but an accurate judgement of the Canadian response to the call to arms. Crowds in Montreal took to the streets singing La Marseillaise and Rule Britannia. Impromptu parades broke out from Winnipeg to Victoria, celebrating the news of war with flag waving, decorated vehicles and impassioned speeches.

“Great exhibition of patriotism here,” cabled the governor general to London on August 4. “When the inevitable fact transpires that considerable period of training will be necessary before Canadian troops will be fit for European war, this ardour is bound to dampen somewhat. In order to minimize this, I would suggest that any proposal from you should be accompanied by the assurance that Canadian troops will go to the front as soon as they have reached a sufficient standard of training.”

The same day that the governor general had cabled London, the British government advised Ottawa that there seemed to be “no immediate necessity for any request on our part for an expeditionary force from Canada,” but it would be prudent “to take all legislation and other steps” to prepare for war. War was actually only hours away when this telegram was received.

On August 5, the order came down to mobilize a Canadian army division of 23,000 troops.

“When the call comes, our answer goes at once, and it goes in the classical language of the British answer to the call of duty, ‘Ready, aye, ready!’” said Laurier upon the declaration of war.

The call to arms was enthusiastically accepted by the British government, which sent a cable calling for the force to “be dispatched as soon a possible.”

Prime minister Sir Robert Borden recalled Parliament on August 18, pledging Canadians would honour their commitment to the Empire.

Members of Parliament approved an overseas contingent of 25,000 men, a war appropriation of $50 million and a Canadian Patriotic Fund to support the families of the men who would be fighting for the Empire. The War Measures Bill was also passed, giving cabinet the full authority to do whatever it would take for “the security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada.”

On August 6, Col. Sam Hughes, the minister in charge of the militia, ordered militia colonels across the land to recruit volunteers between 18 and 45 who were physically fit and able to shoot. If they were married, they would have to have their wives’ permission to join.

Fully two-thirds of those who enlisted were British-born, a few were from the Maritimes, about a thousand were from Quebec and a good many were from the West. By August 12, 100,000 Canadians had volunteered. Winnipeg was able to immediately send enough men for two battalions.

While the plan had originally called for a contingent of 25,000 to go overseas, there were 31,000 men gathered at Valcartier, Quebec. Borden solved the dilemma by declaring that all would go. Hughes wept for joy.

“Some may not return,” Hughes told the departing troops, “and pray God they will be few.” Again Hughes was wrong: one in 10 Canadians who went overseas would be killed in battle. Canada lost some 60,000 during battles such as the Somme, Ypres, Flanders and Vimy Ridge, a sacrifice that was greater per capita than that of any other Allied nation.

Thirty merchant ships were hired to transport the troops. The convoy formed in the Gaspe basin and proceeded on to join a convoy of Newfoundlanders also bound for Britain. It was the largest single military contingent to have crossed the Atlantic in either direction to date. It exceeded General James Wolfe’s invasion fleet of 1759 and the British force that crossed the Atlantic to fight against the American rebels in the American Revolution.

They arrived in Britain on October 14 and were then stationed in camps on the Salisbury Plain for further training. 

“Canada sends her aid at a timely moment,” Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, cabled Ottawa upon the arrival of the first contingent. “The conflict moves forward and fiercer struggles lie before us than any which have yet been fought.”

The “fiercer struggles” were four years of trench warfare and massive bloodletting.

The Canadian troops gained a reputation of being tough, resourceful fighters, well trained and well commanded, wrote Colonel G.W.L. Nicholson, author of the Official History of the Canadian Army of the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919.

“Whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line,” wrote British Prime Minister Lloyd George in his War Memoirs, “they prepared for the worst.”

The fact that they were well led was emphasized by Lloyd George, when he considered appointing Canadian Corps commander General Arthur Currie the supreme commander of all British and Empire troops. The appointment was never made for political reasons — the British officers would have considered it an insult to have a colonial above them — but Currie, a former Vancouver real estate agent, proved time and time again that he could bring success to the battlefield.

What these troops did not realize was that when the war got underway, they were set upon a course that would change Canada forever. By the signing of the armistice ending the war at 11 o’clock in the morning of November 11, 1918, Canada emerged as a fully autonomous and confident nation.

“The men of the various units from every province in Canada who fought at Vimy Ridge and at Passchendaele and in the battles of the Hundred Days, fought not as Maritimers, or British Columbians, or representatives of Quebec or Ontario or the Prairie Provinces,” wrote Nicholson. “They fought as Canadians, and those who returned brought back with them a pride of nationhood that they had not known before.”

In 1922, when Britain and Turkey were on the verge of war that threatened to embroil the other nations of the British Empire, Prime Minister Mackenzie King said that the only way Canada would ever again go to war was through an act of the Canadian Parliament. Canada had thus declared its complete independence from British foreign policy.

When the Treaty of Versailles was to be signed in 1919, Canada demanded its place at the table. “The press and people of this country take it for granted that Canada will be represented at the Peace Conference,” Borden told Lloyd George.

“Her resolve had given inspiration, her sacrifices had been conspicuous, her effort was unabated to the end,” said Borden. “The same indomitable spirit which made her capable of that effort and sacrifice made her equally incapable of accepting at the Peace Conference, in the League of Nations or elsewhere, a status inferior to that accorded to nations less advanced in their development, less amply endowed in wealth, resources, population, no more complete in their sovereignty and far less conspicuous in their sacrifice.”

At home, women demanded, and received, the vote, first in Manitoba in 1916 and then federally in 1917. Old quarrels that were put on hold emerged after the war, in particular, the conflict between labour and business that erupted in full force during the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.

The troops that returned home had gone into battle as colonial troops and emerged as Canadians. The only thing to mar this feeling of patriotism and accomplishment was the fracture created by the Military Service Bill, which instituted conscription and was opposed by Quebec, by prairie farmers and city workers who felt the poor had contributed more than the rich and powerful toward the war effort.

Canada also increasingly saw itself as part of the North American family rather than tied forever to Britain and Europe. It drifted closer towards the United States economically and politically. “If the future policy of the British Empire meant working in co-operation with some European nation as against the United States, that policy could not reckon on the approval or support of Canada,” Borden said. 

Canada had recognized that it was better to hitch a ride on a rising star rather than a fading Empire.