The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month is Canada’s Remembrance Day to honour the over 120,000 men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice during conflicts ranging from the First World War to Afghanistan today. It was the armistice ending the First World War on November 11, 1918, that was chosen as the day of remembrance, since 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.
When the war began, Canada was totally unprepared, it would take time for the young nation to hone its citizen volunteers into a fighting machine. But it was these soldiers, aviators and sailors who forged a uniquely Canadian identity.
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, originally destined for Chile, for $1.15 million from a Seattle ship yard to deter a sneak attack along the West Coast. 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.
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, 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 went to 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.”
“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 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.” 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.
While the cost in casualties was hard to bear, an outcome of the war was that Canada emerged as a fully autonomous and confident nation.
The Canadian troops gained a reputation of being tough, resourceful fighters, well trained and well commanded .
“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 Colonel G.W.L. Nicholson, author of the Official History of the Canadian Army of the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. “They fought as Canadians, and those who returned brought back with them a pride of nationhood that they had not known before.”
If just for this fact, the Canadians who died in the Great War deserve our profound gratitude on November 11.