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Covering the First World War is no easy task. There are thousands of lives to look at, hundreds of important events and more.
For the first episode of this podcast, I obviously wanted to start at the beginning. So, I am going to look at the first month of the war for Canada, when mobilization began, enthusiasm was high, and everyone believed the war would be over by Christmas.
Of course, all of this started with one event a world away.
On June 28, 1914, the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, triggering a series of events that would plunge the world into the worst war it had ever seen to that point. For everyone in Canada, the day was essentially like any other day and no one could expect what would soon be coming.
In Alberta, the major news was still the Hillcrest mine disaster that killed 189 miners a week earlier in the Crowsnest Pass.
In Ontario, James Whitney was preparing for the election on June 29, where he and his Conservatives would cruise to a fourth straight majority government.
In Saskatchewan, a four-month-old William Ormond Mitchell was just beginning a life that would lead him to become one of Canada’s greatest writers.
In Nova Scotia, Hank Snow was about to enter his second month of life, which would take him to huge heights of stardom as one of the greatest musical artists to ever come out of Canada.
In New Brunswick, Henry Emmerson, the former premier, was in his 14th year of serving in Parliament, unaware that within 10 days, he would be dead after a long illness.
For most Canadians, it was a pleasant Sunday as the summer warmth began to descend over the landscape.
The next day, people would begin to hear about the assassination. The Ottawa Journal reported, quote “Austrian Heir and Wife Shot to Death On Visit To Bosnian Capital.”
The Edmonton Journal would announce that martial law had been declared after the shooting of the Archduke in a story mixed with many others on the front page.
The Regina Leader reported on the killing, and included a cartoon of Death approaching the throne of Austria, saying to himself, “Every time I come here, I feel unusually guilty.”
Prior to the start of the war, Canada’s military forces were organized into the Canadian Militia. Sam Hughes, the Minister of Militia and Defence, had been instructed by Sir Robert Borden, the prime minister, to train and recruit an army for overseas service. At the time, Canada had only 3,110 men in the army and a navy that was barely a navy. Needless to say, Canada was hopelessly ill-equipped for a war, but war was coming. There was barely any sort of navy to speak of as well. Only four years earlier, in 1910, the Naval Service Act was put forward by Sir Wilfrid Laurier to establish a Canadian Navy. Canada was completely dependent on the British Royal Navy for maritime defence. The Act was unpopular with many, especially considering that even if Canada had a separate force, it would be under British control during a time of war. French-Canadian nationalists and British-Canadian imperialists opposed the act. The act would actually contribute to the end of Laurier’s 15 years as prime minister only one year later. Under Sir Robert Borden, a Naval Aid Bill was introduced in 1913, which would not have Canada build or supply ships, but rather give cash to the British Royal Navy instead. This bill was based on a memorandum that called for a Canadian contribution of $35 million, or $814 million today, for three war ships that would be incorporated into the Royal Navy and then returned to Canada once any threat had subsided. Borden stated there was a need to act, but he was against an independent Canadian Navy, as the Liberals had wanted.
Borden would state quote: “The loss of such a decisive naval battle by Great Britain would practically destroy the United Kingdom.”
One week later, Laurier would state, quote:
“England is in no danger, whether imminent or prospective.”
While the bill was passed on May 15, 1913, it still had to go through the Senate, and most of the senators had been appointed by Laurier over his 15 years in office. Borden threatened to reform the Senate if the bill did not pass.
Nonetheless, the bill did pass and was defeated in the Senate on May 29, 1913.
It is important to address the reluctance for Canada to have its own navy, because the events of the First World War would change all that very quickly.
With the killing of the Archduke, Austria-Hungary, with the support of Germany, sent an ultimatum to Serbia’s government, whom they believed was behind the killing. Serbia, in return, met each demand in the ultimatum but Austria-Hungary declared war, nonetheless. Russia, who saw itself as the protector of the Slavic nations, mobilized its troops. German, in response, demanded promises of peace from Russia and France. When no answer was given, Germany declared war on Russia on Aug. 1. On Aug. 3, Germany declared war on France. This then caused France to turn to Britain and ask for support. At the time, Britain was not required to do so as there was no formal treaty with the French, just an informal agreement. On Aug. 4, Germany invaded France by moving through Belgium, which was a neutral country. In response to this, Britain sent an ultimatum that demanded Germany withdraw from Belgium. On Aug. 4 at 5 p.m., with no answer from Germany, Britain declared war. Due to the dominion status of Canada at the time, when Britain went to war, so did Canada. Whether it wanted to or not, Canada had entered into the First World War and by the end of the war, the country would be changed forever. Almost immediately, the Union Jack was put up the flagpole at Parliament Hill. Parliament was convened and the MPs reacted with enthusiasm, more so for the English MPs than the French ones.
On Aug. 5, news that Britain had gone to war, bringing Canada with it, newspapers across the country quickly spread the news.
The Windsor Evening Record proclaimed in large font, “Britain Protects Dominion. Forces of The War Lord Are Repulsed On Land And Sea.”
The newspaper stated that the 21st Regiment in the city would possibly be asked to send 100 men to the front. Little did anyone know that number would only continue to climb and by the end of the war, 248 men from the city will have lost their lives.
The Nanaimo Free Press reported news of a suspected British victory against the Germans in Belgium, only the day after war was declared. Mixed in with patriotic stories on the front page was another story, that showed the darker side of nationalism and patriotism. In Vancouver, the German Consulate had been surrounded by a crowd and attacked. The article would say quote:
The Saskatoon Daily Star announced in bold letters that the Germans were shelling Glace Bay in Nova Scotia, stating that a German cruiser was attacking a wireless station there. The Edmonton Journal reported the same story, announcing that Nova Scotia’s shores had been shelled. The article would state quote:
“The aim of the Germans is evidently to destroy Canadian wireless connection with Great Britain if they destroy Glace Bay. The Germans will doubtless endeavor to shell Canso, the headquarters for cable lines for Canada and cut the cables severing all communication with the Motherland.”
In truth, the wireless station in Glace Bay was not attacked, as several newspapers would report only the next day.
Throughout the country, the patriotic spirit was extremely high. Most felt that the war would be a quick affair and those who enlisted would be home by Christmas.
In reality, most did not realize that it would not be until 1915 that the first Canadian troops would see combat, or that there would be four years of hell awaiting the Canadians who went overseas to fight. Whether anyone knew it or not, the war was just beginning.
The Canadian government quickly responded with the need for not only troops, but ships, munitions and much more. On Aug. 5, the day Canada was thrust into the war by the declaration from Britain, Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden announced that the government had purchased two torpedo boat destroyers from Chile. The ships had just been completed in the Seattle shipyards for the Chilean government. The ships would immediately travel to British Columbia, to be manned by naval reservists.
Col. Sam Hughes announced the same day that Canada would be mustering a force of 20,000 men from the reserves and militias. Col. Hughes also stated that he had already offers of enlistment from over 100,000 men.
A force was quickly mobilized in Canada, but from the beginning it was beset with political patronage, with friends of powerful politicians serving in the higher ranks, resulting in a lack of professional officers and non-commissioned officers with any experience or skill in the tactics of war.
Only one day after Canada, or at the least Britain, declared war on Germany, Captain Andrew Hamilton Gault organized a new military unit, offering $100,000, or $2.2 million today, to finance and equip this new battalion to participate in the Canadian war effort. That unit would become the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, which exists to this day. The charter was signed on Aug. 10 and the Governor General approved the creation of the regiment.
I won’t go too in detail on this battalion because I have an entire episode devoted to them coming on May 9.
When the battalion left for Ottawa on Aug. 14, 160 men had enlisted and three parades were held in a single day, at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. to bid the soldiers goodbye as they prepared to go overseas.
On Aug. 15, Minister Hughes would speak to the Montreal Garrison and the new volunteers following a huge parade in their honour. He would say quote:
“A war has been declared in Europe involving the British Empire. For many years past, it has been known that the men of the German Empire, not the German people, mark you, nor the Austrian people, but their rulers, have aimed to command both land and sea.”
He would go on to state, regarding the importance of protecting England, quote:
“For generations, Great Britain has been regarded as the safeguard of the liberties of the freemen of the world. If British liberty is endangered the liberties of France, the United States and every other liberty loving people are endangered.”
He would close out stating the importance of volunteers and assuring everyone that no one would be forced to enlist in the service, words that would not be true only three years later.
“I call for volunteers, volunteers mark you. I have insisted that it shall be a purely volunteer contingent. Not a man will be accepted or leave Canada on this service but of his own free will and if I know it, not a married man shall go without the consent of his wife and family.”
In the House of Commons, the response was swift from nearly every Member of Parliament. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Canada’s prime minister from 1896 to 1911, now serving in the Official Opposition, would say, quote:
“It is our duty to let Great Britain know and to let the friends and foes of Great Britain know that there is in Canada but one mind and one heart and that all Canadians are behind the Mother Country.”
This backed up a statement made by Laurier in 1910 when he was prime minister, when he said, quote:
“When Britain is at war, Canada is at war, there is no distinction.”
From August 18 to 22, an emergency session was held in Parliament to endorse the decisions already made by the executive, as well as to pass the War Measures Act. While the Liberals and Conservatives had been at each other’s throats for years, that bitterness disappeared in the face of the war.
Sir Robert Borden would state quote:
“In the awful dawn of the greatest war the world has ever known, in the hour when peril confronts us such as this Empire has not faced for a hundred years, every vain or unnecessary word seems a discord.”
MP Sir George E. Foster, who had served in Parliament since 1882, would give the final remarks of the Parliamentary session. He would say quote:
“We are meeting as a band of Canadians of different races and nationalities and languages but never in the history of Canada have, we met feeling that we were one in the sense as at this hour of our history. The last four days of this session of Parliament have vindicated Canadians public life and Parliamentary life for all time to come. They have shown that it is possible for us to forget all mean and petty things when our country and its highest liberties are at stake. The time of trial is upon this country and the Empire. It will do us good in the end. God and the right will finally triumph.”
On Aug. 19, Charles Doherty, the Minister of Justice, tabled the resolution that would create the War Measures Act.
Doherty would state quote:
“We are asking the people of Canada to entrust us with a very wide power.”
The bill would pass completely with unanimous support in the House on Aug. 22, and it was implemented retroactively to Aug. 4, which gave legality to the actions of the government since the start of the war.
Under the Act, the government would have the power to censor and suppress publications, writings, maps, plans, photographs, communications and the means of communication. It would also allow the government to control the harbours and ports of the country and the movement of vessels, as well as transportation on land, air and water within the country. The most controversial aspect of the Act was that it gave the government the ability to arrest, detain and deport anyone deemed to be an enemy of the state. I will go into greater detail regarding the impact of the war on German immigrants later in this series, including their internment during the war. The country would remain under this act for the next six years, including over a year after the war ended.
The government would also increase the war budget for the country from $50 million to $75 million to defray the expenses of military preparations involved with the war effort.
On Aug 22, Parliament was prorogued until Feb. 4, 1915.
In Ottawa, the 23rd Field Battery had seen an enlistment of 60 men between Aug. 6 and Aug. 11, while the Second Field Battery had 80 men enlist. By Aug. 12, so many men from Ottawa had joined various regiments that the Lachine Regatta was cancelled as most of its members were no longer with the club and were now enlisted with the growing army. By Aug. 21, the regiments had their quotas filled, with two batteries of artillery and an ammunition column, leaving with 400 officers and men, along with 400 horses. The demand for horses had increased immensely and a call for horses for the artillery to buy was put out. The Army Service Corps had 120 men, the quota it needed, but it was still short on horses, as were other regiments.
In Windsor, the Windsor Star proudly proclaimed on Aug. 11, that 197 volunteers were coming from the community for the new Canadian contingent. The newspaper would report, quote:
The desire to enlist was so strong that even the power being cut accidently didn’t stop people showing up on the last day of enlistment. Of all that applied, only five were rejected, including one man who attempted to hide the fact that he had a serious limp. The man had stated that he only had a sore foot but an examination showed a permanently disabled foot.
The Colonel Surgeon would state, quote:
“Those are fine, husky young fellows. On the average, they are the best set of men I have seen in many years. I felt sorry for the fellows I had to send back. They were anxious to go and it was a much harder job for me to say no than it was for them to be rejected.”
Saskatchewan would proudly announce the dispatch of its first contingent on Aug. 24. The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix would report that within 48 hours of the call going out for troops, 723 officers and the men of four Saskatchewan regiments were on their way to Valcartier. To see the men off, a huge crowd assembled along the road to watch the troops march past. For those men who went to serve, city council announced that it would hold positions for city staff who go to the front and for families in the community who had members serving in the front lines, the city would provide them funds to assist families who had lost their main breadwinner.
The idea of supporting troops who went overseas was also endorsed by other communities. Victoria’s mayor Alexander Stewart would announce that the provision for dependents of those at the front was something he supported, and that a general relief of unemployment for dependents should be put into a common fund so that it could be handled economically when funds were handed out.
What these councils did not know, was how many men would enlist, and how long the war would go on for.
Companies also got behind the war effort when it came to enlisting. The Bell Telephone Company announced that any employees who are sent to the front will have their positions kept open for them, and those with dependents will have their families receiving half pay during the soldier’s absence in the field. Gillette would run ads stating that they would send shaving kits to troops at Valcartier Camp for no extra charge if ordered as a gift by family.
Most of these troops went to Valcartier Camp, a small plot of land located about 20 kilometres outside of Quebec City. To accommodate the number of troops coming in, the Canadian Northern Railway established daily passenger service directly from Toronto, Ottawa and Quebec. While Canada had started with only 3,110 men in its army when war was declared, within only a few weeks, 32,000 men had gathered at Valcartier. This group would form the First Contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, which would sail to Europe the following year.
Each day, hundreds of troops were arriving and by Aug. 24, 15,000, about half that would eventually be there, had arrived at the camp. As soldiers arrived, they were immediately put to task in training, including shooting at 1,500 targets, all under the watch of commandant Colonel Victor Williams. Col. Williams was a veteran of the North West Mounted Police, who had joined the infantry in 1889 and served in the Second Boer War, where he reached the rank of Lt. Colonel. He would command the Eighth Canadian Infantry Brigade in France as a Brigadier General from Dec. 1915 to June 1916, and after being taken prisoner on June 3, 1916, he would remain as a POW until the end of the war. From 1922 to 1939, he would serve as the Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, and he died on Dec. 12, 1949. Mount Williams in the Canadian Rockies is named for him.
Valcartier would eventually have 30,000 men in it, making it the largest military force Canada had ever assembled to that point. The camp would, for a short time at the start of the war, would technically be the 11th largest city in Canada. By the point that it reached its largest size, the camp had one officer for every 25 men.
Each time that a train would leave a community, it was bid goodbye by throngs of well wishers. In Calgary on Aug. 27, a crowd of 10,000 gathered on the train station to wave at the departing soldiers. This was a similar display that was seen only a week earlier when the first detachment of men left. Both times, the crowd let out huge cheers for the men that would soon find themselves at the front lines in France.
The atmosphere at the camp was jubilant throughout August. On one night, two huge bonfires were lit and thousands of troops gathered around singing songs and hymns, while other men played gules and bagpipes. Colonel Sam Steele would also visit the camp and visit the Lord Strathcona Horse, of which he had long commanded. Steele would eventually serve in the First World War and earn himself a knighthood in the process.
In order to capture the atmosphere and the historic nature of the camp, film crews began to arrive. The Ottawa Citizen would report on Aug. 31, quote:
“The first were seen taking views of the regular calvary at drill.”
The camp even had a bank, when the Union Bank was established near to the headquarters after the building was pulled into place by three teams of horses.
It wasn’t perfect and capitalism would rear its head. At the canteens in camp, there were cases of overcharging with one popular brand of cigarettes being sold for 25 per cent above the usual price. Bananas were being sold for 40 cents per dozen, or nearly $10 today. Many people questioned these high costs since Quebec City was only 30 kilometres away by train. A board of inquiry would be established to investigate the charges and the practice of extortion.
Canadian support of the camp was high. On Aug. 29, a carload of fruit and vegetables arrived at the camp as a donation from the Beamsville Fruit Growers Association. In all, 12 large motor trucks arrived loaded with fruit for the troops to enjoy. Even individual Canadians did what they could. One box arrived containing a dozen eggs with a note stating quote:
“Handle with care, for solders at Valcartier, a widow’s mite.”
The last of the troops would arrive at the very beginning of September, with the next two contingents traveling to Halifax. Valcartier Camp was advantageous in the summer due to its close proximity to the route of embarkation, but it would be too cold and the conditions too difficult to continue sending troops in the winter. By November 1, Halifax would become the new embarkation point for Canadian troops.
One of the first casualties of the war would occur at Valcartier. A private Eachus of the Calgary regiment would be found dead at the camp after he committed suicide. According to the news report, he was found in the field hospital with his throat cut, having done so with his own razor. His comrades stated that on the way to Valcartier, he was dejected. By the time he reached the camp, he was taken to the hospital, where he would later be found.
Another man can claim to be the first killed in the war for Canada as well. Private Gordon Betts was stationed with the Fifth Royal Highlanders and while standing on sentry duty at Soulanges in France. He was shot suddenly through the eye and killed instantly. Betts was only 16-years-old and had resided in Montreal before serving as a sentry. There were rumours that Betts was a spy and that the killing may have also been accidental but that is all hearsay.
At the time, Newfoundland was its own separate dominion, and an offer was put forward by Canada to incorporate the Newfoundland troops into the Canadian Expeditionary Force, but this was rejected by Newfoundland’s government. This response pleased Sir Edward Morris, the prime minister of Newfoundland who was influenced by Governor Sir Walter Davidson, who had wanted the island to play an active role in the war, rather than a symbolic one. Instead of calling the Legislature together to pass a vote on proceeding in the war, Morris decided that the colony would equip a regiment for service. The task of accomplishing this was handed to the Newfoundland Patriotic Association, an organization formed on Aug. 17, 1914. Governor Davidson would be the head of that organization. This decision actually set Newfoundland apart from Canada and the other nations in the British Empire. While those other nations had the war efforts administered through a government department, Newfoundland’s war effort was managed by volunteers, funded by leading politicians. A major reason for this was that the Newfoundland government had no experience running a military, nor did it have any armed forces or a military department. No British soldier had been on the island since 1870, and no local militia was organized afterwards. All the island had were four church-sponsored cadet corps, a branch of the Legion of Frontiersman and the Rifle Club of St. John’s.
The government of Morris was also quite shaky, and the financial resources of the island were also limited. In the 1913 election, Morris had only won 41 per cent of the vote and to be able to raise a military force, he needed the support of both the Liberal and Union opposition parties, and the Anglican, Methodist and Roman Catholic churches.
While the creation of the Newfoundland Patriotic Association was celebrated by many, it did have its critics. William Coaker, the leader of the Fishermen’s Protective Union, stated that the government was trying to evade its responsibility by not managing the war effort. There was also worry among some about how a group of citizens would manage the government’s money, or if some in the NPA would use it for personal gain.
The group’s first 55 members were selected from the three major denominations on the island, as well as members of the People’s Party and the Liberals. The next day, Aug. 18, 200 more people joined the organization. Branches were also formed in 45 rural communities.
Newfoundland would raise an initial regiment of 500 men, the first of thousands to serve overseas from the island. The call for troops in Newfoundland ran throughout September and when recruitment ended on Sept. 26, 1914, 970 men had come forward. Of those, 565 were accepted, and 200 were rejected. The remainder were put into further consideration if more troops were needed.
Those first troops from Newfoundland would leave on the steamship Florizel on Oct. 4, 1914, heading for England and eventually France.
On Aug. 14, the Members of Parliament convened for an emergency session that was expected to last three days. The main issue would be the exact cost of the war for Canada. At the time, according to most estimates, it was believed it would cost the country $75 million, or $1.7 billion today. In reality, the government would be paying $2.5 million per day by 1918 and the national debt would rise by $2 billion. In modern funds, that is roughly $46 billion today.
As the war dominated the headlines of the country, a residual effect was seen at the food shops where the price of goods began to increase. Even the cost of lumber and rubber shot up within only five days of war being declared.
On Aug. 10, the Ottawa Citizen reported that there had been a rush on flour, causing it to jump in price to 70 cents per barrel, or $16.21 today. This represented a 40 per cent increase in just a few days. Oddly, the price of sugar was falling, as were the price of some vegetables, including prunes. Within a week, sugar would see its price increase and the Redpath Sugar Company would tell its sellers that the war does not warrant an increase. The company would set the sale of its sugar to 5.5 cents per pound retail. It didn’t help. Within a few days, the price was seven cents per pound, increasing by one cent in one day alone.
Three days later, the government announced that it was proposing to take power for whatever drastic action was needed for the protection of consumers in regards to the sky-rocketing price of food.
The war had many on edge, even though Canada was far from the front lines. In Ottawa, boys flying a large kite sparked a minor panic for several residents thinking it was a German plane. In another incident a few days later on Aug. 13, there were reports of an airship lurking around the city, as well as a rogue German plane.
H. Carrington, a cashier in the city, would tell the Ottawa Citizen, quote:
“Just as day was breaking, I heard a buzzing sound in the air and looked out the window at my house…I could perceive an aeroplane quite distinctly at a height which I judged to be 1,500 feet…It was a biplane, so far as I could distinguish and flew from the direction of the Parliament buildings towards the south.”
A rumour spread that the guards on the railway were given orders to shoot down the plane if it came within shooting distance.
By the end of the month, regiments were being organized including the First Canadian Automobile Machine Gun Battery. Encamped at Landsdowne Park in Ottawa, it consisted of 50 men who were described as expert chauffeurs. Those 50 were chosen from 200 who had offered their services. They would start their squad drill the morning of Aug. 27, before being trained in the use of machine guns.
The first Canadian cruiser, the Niobe, would be fully manned, equipped and ready for service by Sept. 1. The Ottawa Citizen would state, quote:
“She will be placed absolutely at the disposal of the admiralty. To what particular patrol she will be assigned is not known but it will probably be in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.”
George Eric Buster Reid
One feature I plan to have in each of the episodes of Canada’s Great War is ending the episode by focusing on a soldier who fought in the war. It doesn’t have to be a person who died, or a Victoria Cross winner, but a soldier who took up the call and served their country.
Born George Eric Reid on Dec. 1, 1893, in London Ontario, and at some point picking up the nickname Buster, he would begin to play football for McGill University as a student and was one of the first to enlist from the university and soon found himself overseas. Reid joined nearly every other member of the McGill Football team to enlist for overseas service.
According to news reports, Reid was playing in the scrimmage of Frank Shaughnessy’s 1914 intercollegiate team when he left to enlist, joining the 21st Westmount Rifles. After a brief period of training in England, he joined the Third Battalion on the front lines. He would enlist on Oct. 27, 1914 in Montreal, giving his occupation as student, taking on the rank of private.
In 1915, he was able to complete his degree in Arts in absentia.
Over the next year-and-a-half, Reid would be wounded twice and was mentioned in dispatches for his bravery. An injured hand would return him to Canada briefly in 1916. While he would lose three fingers on his left hand, he was back in France after the summer of that year.
In September of 1916, Reid had reached the rank of lieutenant and was chosen to man the first tank to be used in the Somme offensive.
One year later, Reid had been wounded once more and mentioned in dispatches again. By this point, he had attained the rank of major. By this point, he had also served at Vimy Ridge and would receive the Legion of Honour.
By the end of his time in the war, Reid had reached the rank of Brigadier General. He would become the president of Reid Brothers and Company Limited, where he would work for the rest of his life.
In 1937, he was the guest of honour at a banquet of the McGill Graduates Athletic Club, which honoured the past championship teams of the university. On Jan. 14, 1938, Reid became ill while working in his office and was taken to hospital the following day. Diagnosed with streptococcus, he would die in his sleep on Jan. 17, 1938.
Information comes from Edmonton Journal, Canadian Encyclopedia, Veterans Affairs, Ottawa Citizen, Nanaimo Free Press, Saskatoon Daily Star, The Vancouver Sun, Heritage Newfoundland, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, the Hill Times, Windsor Star,