The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo, may have been the spark that ignited the First World War — the “damned silly thing in the Balkans,” predicted years earlier by former German Chancellor Otto Bismarck — but when it occurred on June 28, 1914, few were immediately concerned about its consequences except for Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the days that followed, it was business as usual in the rest of the world.
In Britain, a Home Rule Bill for Ireland brought about the fear that a civil war would erupt. France was distracted by a political scandal. The Canadian government was involved in the Komagata Maru incident. The ship carried 376 passengers from Punjab, India. Only 24 of them were admitted into Canada. In what can be only be seen as blatant racism in Canada’s then immigration policy, the other passengers were not allowed to land and a stand-off ensued. Through the threat of using force, the government caused the ship and its passengers to return to India on July 23, 1914.
In Manitoba, the interests at the time were the revelation of a scandal-plagued Conservative government led by Premier Rodmond Roblin, an impending provincial election, and the two-week-long Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition which opened on July 10. In fact, neither Manitobans nor Canadians had any inkling that war was looming above the horizon.
It was only in the last week of July that the world sensed that war was a possibility, and that was when 50,000 Austria-Hungarian troops invaded Serbia on July 28 with the intent of attacking and capturing Belgrade. This act of agression brought into play the tangled web of European alliances that made war inevitable. Russia mobilized in support of its Slavic brethren in Serbia, Germany supported Austria-Hungary, the French supported Russia, and ultimatums were exchanged between countries. Only England seemed to want to prevent war by offering to act as a mediator between Austria and Serbia, but was rebuffed.
On July 29, 1914, Britain warned its colonies and commonwealths, including Canada, that all was not well and they should make preparations for the possible outbreak of war. Overall, it was believed in Canada and abroad that if a war broke out that it would be localized and over quickly. In fact, the British government contacted German Kaiser Wilhelm, asking him to intervene with Austria-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph. The Kaiser looked eastward to Russia and saw one-million troops along its border with Germany and refused. With the obvious inability by any other means of putting a break on the warmongers, Britain mobilized her fleet and the nation was on a war footing. In Europe, the realization was emerging that the war juggernaut had been unleashed and could not be stopped.
World Fears Worst was the front-page headline in the July 31, 1914, Winnipeg Tribune. By then, Russia ignored a 24-hour ultimatum from Germany to withdraw its troops from the border. In turn, Germany issued a general mobilization order of its own troops, and declared war on Russia on August 1.
But before it attacked Russia, Germany issued demands that France — an ally of Russia — remain neutral. The French cabinet resisted military pressure to commence immediate mobilization, and ordered its troops to withdraw 10 kilometres from the border to avoid any incident. Not satisfied with the withdrawal, Germany attacked neutral Luxembourg on August 2, and on August 3 declared war on France. When Belgium refused to permit German troops to cross its borders into France on August 4, Germany also declared war on Belgium. The German intent was to eliminate the threat to the west before engaging Russia — the Schlieffen Plan adopted in 1905.
“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,” stated a dispatch from the British Foreign Office.
“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 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 Halifax to 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.”
“Some may not return,” Militia Minister Sam Hughes told the departing troops, “and pray God they will be few.” Hughes was wrong: one in 10 Canadians who went overseas would be killed in battle. Canada lost some 60,000, a sacrifice that was greater per capita than that of any other Allied nation.
It was in the trenches of the Western Front in Europe that Canadians lost their innocence and came to the realization that modern warfare using the latest killing technology was indeed “Hell on Earth.” The magnitude of the losses was so horrendous that the euphoric celebrations during the first days of the war soon turned to grief on a nation-wide scale.
Despite the carnage on an unprecedented scale, the Canadian troops gained a reputation of being tough, resourceful fighters, well trained and well commanded .
Colonel G.W.L. Nicholson, author of the Official History of the Canadian Army of the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919, wrote: “They fought as Canadians, and those who returned brought back with them a pride of nationhood that they had not known before.”