I’m just back from the Great Clips® at the Airport Plaza, in Kelowna where I got my hair cut. My favourite barber, Keara, took great care of me, as she always does. Great Clips® is one of my corporate sponsors; they do a wonderful job of thanking veterans throughout Canada and the US with a free haircut for the month following Remembrance Day. Thank you to them, and Keara specifically, for the support and the great clip!
As a reminder to everyone, I am, by training and military profession, an engineer. I am not an historian, although I do enjoy reading and dabbling in matters of an historic nature. I promise that I have tried to be as accurate and complete in my statements as possible, recognizing that many facts and interpretations of those facts may be lost for the sake of brevity. If you find that I have inadvertently missed important details or glossed over some, please feel free to comment.
The Lead Up to War
To this day, Canada has often been described as an unmilitary country. In many respects that was and continues to be true. However, when called to action Canada has always responded and fought well above its weight class.
Before we get into Canada’s involvement in World War 1 (WW1), let’s do a quick review of what triggered the War to End All Wars. Historians pretty well agree that European Imperialism, Militarism, Nationalism and a complex web of Alliances among the crowned heads of the major powers fuelled distrust and polarization within Europe. They also agree that the tipping point was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Serbia on 28 June 1914. Ferdinand was the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Austria blamed nationalists in Serbia for the assassination. Due to these alliances, when Austria declared war on Serbia, Russia was compelled to support Serbia. This in turn triggered a series of diplomatic moves to mobilize friendly forces, while attempting to demobilize potential enemy forces. By 4 August 1914, Britain, as compelled to do as part of their alliance with Russia, declared war on Germany. The irony of this is that the crowned heads of Britain, Germany and Russia, who wielded such significantly great power (more so than the current constitutional monarchs of today) were cousins. Sibling rivalries at their worst!
In 1914, Canada was a self-governing dominion of the British Empire, but did not control its foreign affairs. Newfoundland, which did not become a province of Canada until 1949, was also an independent dominion of the Empire. So as of 4 August 1914, both Canada and Newfoundland found themselves at war.
At the time, the population of Canada was just under 8 million and that of Newfoundland was 242,000. Close to 619,00 Canadians enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) and 12,000 Newfoundlanders would also answer the call.
As I was preparing to write this post, I thought that I could lump Newfoundland’s participation in as part of the Canadian contribution to the war. Then, as I started reading into the history of Newfoundland in the war, I started to see that that would be doing a major disservice to both Canada and Newfoundland. The war and its after-effects on Newfoundland are so significant that there needs to be a separate post dedicated to Newfoundland. Watch for that post in the coming weeks.
Canadians took pride in their membership in the British Empire with its very prominent military tradition. While Canada was automatically brought into the war when Britain declared war, Canada had the right to determine the country’s level of involvement. At the time, Canada had only 3,110 men in the Active Militia spread out over 9 provinces. Needless to say, Canada was hopelessly ill-prepared for a war. Rather than to mobilize the Active Militia, Prime Minister Robert Borden called upon Colonel Sam Hughes, Minister of the Militia and Defence, to form a new Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).
On 10 August 1914, the government established the strength of the First Canadian Contingent for overseas service at 25,000, the figure requested by London. Hughes, eager to lead and personally coordinate a speedy call-up, chose to forgo the established mobilization plan and issued a more direct call to arms.
Men from all classes and ages rushed to enlist at armories and militia bases across the country. They all traveled to a single, hastily prepared camp at Valcartier, Québec, for equipment, training and preparation for war. Eventually, the camp held over 35,000 troops.
In October 1914, the First Contingent of the CEF — 30,617 strong — made the voyage for England.