If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.


Monday, 25 August 2014

The Solidification

It has been a tremendous week for me.  Many of you know that I have been submitting articles to The Centenary News.  I have been invited by the editors to continue to write copy, and I am more than pleased to do so.  My last article, on Dr. Gusky's photographs, received this reply from the artist: "Thank you for your article.  It’s beautifully written and, I believe, one of the best articles I’ve yet seen on the Hidden World of WWI."  In return, it must be said that this is the highest praise that I've ever received.  As always, comments, questions and suggestions are most welcome, and I invite you to follow "If Ye Break Faith" on Twitter and Facebook.

Earlier in this series, it was explained that the prevailing sense of identity held by Canadians prior to the war was one that reflected the British roots of the majority of the population.  Through their experiences in training and combat in the early stages of the war, a new sense, a more national sense of being was beginning to emerge.  As the war continued and involved ever more Canadians both at home and at the front, this new nationality spread and developed, eventually becoming the notion of what it is to be Canadian which would form the basis of the type of national identity present in the modern era.

Canada would commit ever more resources to the war in Europe.  Speaking strictly of manpower, not only would the losses of battle need to be replaced, but three whole divisions were to be recruited, equipped and trained to be sent to France joining the 1st Division in turn to form the Canadian Corps.

This was the beginning of a demographic shift in the constitution of the Canadian army overseas.  While the men of the First Contingent had been largely British born, those that followed would increasingly be younger, on average, and more likely naturally Canadian.  Much like the First Contingent, all provinces of Confederation were represented, including the first francophone regiment, the 22nd.  Geographical recruiting still existed and battalions of the 2nd, 3d and 4th Divisions were composed of nuclei from the same area.  With casualties, though, it would become more common that men of one part of Canada would wind up in a unit from another.  The impact of this integration can not be underestimated in its influence on a national identity, particularly with a country as geographically wide as Canada.  Being under adverse conditions would have helped to create a commonality amongst men who in other circumstances would not have known each other.  This would foster an understanding that people from other parts of the country or different walks of life had more in common than could be thought.

The four divisions of the Canadian Corps went into action together for the first time at Vimy Ridge.  In an effort to protect the left flank of the British who themselves were making diversionary attacks in support of a general French offensive, the Battle of Vimy Ridge has entered Canadian mythos precisely because it was a great success for the Corps’ first full commitment.  In capturing the Ridge, the Canadians were, in the opinion of General Henry Horne, British 1st Army commander, “the pride and wonder of the British Army.” [1]  What really secured the Corps’ reputation, and thus tempered the sentiment of this fledgling nationality was a far more difficult, but more crucial victory later in 1917.


The Third Battle of Ypres, or more commonly, the Battle of Passchendaele had begun on the 31st of July 1917.  Involving British and Australian units, by mid-October casualties had reached more than 100,000[2] with very little gain.  Passchendaele Ridge was a high feature in the area and taking possession of it would grant a large tactical advantage.  Multiple attempts to take the Ridge on the 9th and 13th of October had met with failure.  In what was becoming a habit of the British General Staff, the Canadian Corps was requested in an expectation it could succeed where others had not. 

Years of continuous shelling in an area with a low water table mixed with unseasonably heavy rain had turned the Ypres area into a horrific muddy mess: “Of all the battlefields in which Canadians fought during this war, Passchendaele was by far the worst.”[3] The attack would have to be made across hundreds of yards of glutinous mud, defended by the interlocking fire of the concrete pillboxes and dense barbed-wire entanglements of the carefully engineered German defenses known as the “Hindenburg Line.”  Movement would be agonisingly slow and under observation from the high ground which was the battle’s goal.  General Arthur Currie, the first Canadian born commander of the Corps was reluctant to commit to the attack.  His opinion was that the ground had been fought over for months without any advantage, and further attacks would prove useless.  Passchendaele, he thought wasn’t worth “one drop of Canadian blood.”  Protesting his orders to the highest level, he told Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig that the Corps would sustain 16, 000 casualties in such an assault.  Haig insisted that Passchendaele “Must be taken” but he couldn’t freely state why.  The officers of the Canadian Corps would have to accept his word of the critical necessity.[4]

Only Haig and a few of his top aides were aware of the highly suppressed details of the near collapse of the French Army through widespread mutinies that had happened in June.  By October, the situation was more stable, but the incidences had so weakened French resolve it was a serious concern that if the Germans were to mount a concerted effort against them, the French Army would disintegrate.  It fell to their chief ally, the British, to keep the enemy occupied until the French could get back on their feet.

Time, therefore was of utmost concern.  While Vimy had been planned and prepared for over a period of months, Currie was only given nine days before he must execute his attack.  It is here that the Corps proved itself as having grown into war.  Showing a remarkable aptitude and adaptability at all military levels, the Canadians were achieving a professional competence not expected of non-professional soldiers.  A knack for thoroughness and detailed planning showed a desire to succeed. General Currie himself believed "Thorough preparation must lead to success. Neglect nothing."[5] Their reputation having been made, there was no option but to uphold it through continued success.  Terrain, weather conditions and a shift of German tactical doctrine were all incorporated into the Corps’ battle plan, which took shape as a three stage attack against limited objectives with fresh units moving forward through the consolidated gains.  Known as “bite and hold” this British developed strategy was quickly replacing the wide-front mass attacks of the early years of the war.

Over sixteen days, the Divisions of the Canadian Corps struggled forward through diabolical mud. The artillery fire supporting the infantry was some of the heaviest of the war, but in most places it proved impossible to move the guns forward, leaving advanced units without fire support. Momentum was staggeringly slow, the terrain deep in muck and littered with waterlogged shell holes that were death traps for the wounded.  As the Divisions advanced, unit cohesion devolved as elements worked around the wire obstacles and thick-walled bunkers.  Often the battle was reduced to skirmishes of platoon and section strength rather than massed assault.  By the 10th of November, they held the Ridge, at a cost of 15,654 casualties, of which 2,600 were fatal[6] (JM 177), eerily close to Currie’s initial estimate.

The growth of the reputation of the Canadian Corps, which had seen its genesis with the 1st Division’s stubborn defense at 2nd Ypres and maturing at Vimy, coalesced with the tough victory at Passchendaele.  Colonel Nicholson, in his Official History sums up this reputation, and the factors relating to its cause “There has not been lacking testimony from senior Allied commanders that in the latter part of the war no other formation on the Western Front surpassed the Canadian Corps as a superb fighting machine. ‘Whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line’, wrote Lloyd George in his War Memoirs, ‘they prepared for the worst’. Much of its success the Corps owed to the fact that…the Canadian Corps was in the unique position of being able to preserve its composition unchanged….The men who made up its units were heartened by the comradeship that comes from shared experiences in the face of difficulty and danger, whether the result be reverse or triumph. Their morale was high, and they endured grievous hardships and bitter setbacks with a dogged optimism and irrepressible cheerfulness.”[7]   It is how these men would take those notions of pride home with them that would help create the dynamic shift of Canada feeling as a small component of Empire to a country of itself.






[1] Meyer, G.J., “A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914 to 1918”, Delta 2006, pg 691
[2] Zuehlke, Mark “Brave Battalion”: The Remarkable Saga of the 16th Battalion in the First World War, John Wiley & Sons, 2008 pg 175
[3] John Marteinson “We Stand on Guard”: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Army, Ovale Publications, 1992 pg 170
[4] Zuehlke, ibid.
[5] http://www.worldwar1.com/bioccurr.htm
[6] Marteinson, pg 177
[7] Nicholson, GWL, “Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War”, Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationary, 1964, pg 507

Monday, 18 August 2014

The Crucible

It has been a rather busy time, and enjoyably so.  Already I have had a couple of articles picked up and published by The Centenary News, with several other prospective pieces being green-lit.  It is a wonderful addition to my portfolio.  My recent posts here are under consideration by Active History, and I shall be just as pleased if they decide to move forward with my submissions.  I am continuing in my self-assigned role as an educator of Canada and the First World War, mainly because, as mentioned last week the appalling lack of understanding of this event by ordinary Canadians.  The Vimy Foundation contacted me with results of another survey revealing that many Canadians have no frame of knowledge of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.  Find the survey here.  In this week's post I take a look at how the notion of a separate national identity really began to take form once the First Contingent went into the line on the Western Front.  Following, this series will conclude with the evolution of that identity through the rest of the war, how total war shaped what it meant to be Canadian from the perspective of the home front, and how these concepts merged after the war setting the stage for our further development as a nation. Comments, questions or suggestions are always welcome, and you can follow along with Twitter and Facebook

By February, 1915, the previous seven months of war had exhausted the combatants and settled the Western Front into the shape that would dictate how the remainder of the conflict would be fought.  With the war of manoeuvre essentially over, either side had to figure out how best to breach the line and bring the war to a close.  It was into this burgeoning siege that the 1st Canadian Division arrived.  Deemed fully trained by their task-masters at Salisbury Plain, the men were in high spirits, but aggression in training might amount to little more than bravado; only actual combat could be the sole judge of fighting quality.  Confusion and turmoil at Valcartier followed by months of soggy misery on Salisbury Plain had done more to prepare the 1st Division for combat than could have been guessed.  Since their inception, everyone from private to general learned their new trade and stumbled along the way.  This inured the Canadians to operating in the chaos which was bound to occur in battle.

In order not to overwhelm new arrivals, it was common practice to assign recent arrivals to a quiet sector of the line so as to slowly acclimatise them to the war.  In the first two months the 1st Division would practice trench operations under the watchful eyes of veteran British units.  By April, they were prepared to conduct their own operations.  It was in this fashion that they went into the line just beyond the Belgian town of Ypres, alongside the 45th Algerian Division, a French Colonial unit of questionable quality.  The Germans were well aware of the learning policy and where along the front these untested units were.  A vicious attack which would involve poison gas was planned in the Ypres sector mainly because the shock of this new weapon and the following assault would be made against new arrivals.  The 2nd Battle of Ypres was as tough a test of mettle for green troops as could be imagined.

Late in the afternoon on the 22nd of April with wind conditions at last favourable to them, German engineers began to release chlorine gas from cylinders which had been installed along their trench line.  Wafting on a light westerly breeze, the gas cloud rolled over the Algerian’s positions.  Panic ensued and the French-African troops broke, abandoning the line.  German troops following the cloud at a safe distance had little resistance to contend with.  They had created a gap of over four miles, seized a strategic position within Kitchener’s Wood and captured four British field guns which had been abandoned there.  Undoubtedly, if they had been aware of how successful the attack had been, the Germans would have continued the advance, rolling up the rest of the salient.  However, with daylight fading and uncertain of the safety of moving too quickly with poison gas to their front, they decided to consolidate the gains they had made “little but their own caution remained to keep the Germans from Ypres.”[1]

The Canadians were faced with a nightmare situation in defensive warfare.  In the centre of the line, they held the apex of the salient.  Already contending with an entrenched enemy to their front, left and right, no there was no supporting units on their left flank and the German advance threatened their rear and made very real the prospect that the whole division could be cut off and surrounded.  Lt General Alderson, the professional British commander of the Division knew immediately what to do.  He ordered reserves from 1 Brigade to be brought forward in defence of St Julien and instructed the 10th and 16th Battalions to mount a counter attack against Kitchener’s Wood.  This would be the first major combat action for Canadians in the war; a night attack over difficult terrain that had not been reconnoitered against an enemy in hastily prepared positions within a dense tree line.  It had all the makings of a fiasco.  More experienced troops would have hesitated; senior officers would have been within their rights to call for adjustments to the plan. NaivetĂ© paid off.  The Canadians went forward not knowing that perhaps they shouldn’t and secured their objective because nobody had the idea that it should not have been possible.

The attack was costly, though, and the two battalions included were so reduced they could not hold their gains against a German counter-attack.  Proving ability to take quick, aggressive action did serve to hold the enemy in place.  The Germans remained checked at Kitchener’s Wood.

Throughout the 23d, Canadian lines were continually shelled while the Germans prepared to renew their attack.  Again gas would be used as a preliminary to infantry assault, and it would fall upon the centre of the Canadian line, at the boundary between 2 and 3 Brigade.  How inexperienced soldiers will respond to a given situation can win or lose a battle.  They might fall back in disarray before they should or try to hold a position long after it has stopped being tenable.  Or they can out-perform all expectations and fight through, adapting as the battle develops.  All of this was reflected in the events of the morning of the 24th.  Shelling had intensified and just before first light another cloud of chlorine was released.  The 8th and 15th Bn’s took the brunt of this.  The 13th Battalion on the extreme edge of the line withdrew, creating another dangerous gap, and individual companies of the 15th stood their ground, “C” Company holding out in danger of being surrounded, allowing the remaining 15th companies to redeploy rearward.  

The 15th’s stand had slowed the German advance and had bought time to form a secondary line of defense.  It cost the battalion the entire compliment of “C” Company, mostly as prisoners.  All told, the 15th lost 647 casualties, the worst single day’s loss by a Canadian battalion in the entire war.[2]

Confusion had ruled the day.  Battalions couldn’t communicate with each other and were out of touch with their brigade headquarters- division General Headquarters had no clue at all.  What communications and orders did get through were often out of place in the changing situation.  Yet through all of this, men who had been farmers, clerks and labourers not nine months before performed like seasoned regulars.

By the time the Division was withdrawn from the line, it had taken 5,400 casualties, 1,737 of which were fatal, (NG 369) or about a quarter of its strength.  Author and historian Tim Cook notes “Within this chaos the Canadians continued to remain an effective fighting force.”[3] This observation wasn’t just self generated, praise for the 1st Canadian Division came from the highest levels:  “In spite of the danger to which they were exposed, the Canadians held their ground with a magnificent display of tenacity and courage, and it is not too much to say that the bearing and conduct of these splendid troops averted a disaster” said Field Marshall Sir John French, British Commander in Chief. [4] Already begun was a reputation for pluck and audacity.  The Canadians may be rough rustics in the eyes of their allies, but they could fight.

Being through such an experience bonds men together.  That they had performed well and were recognised for their conduct raised their esteem and prestige.  It was the beginning of there being a pride of place in the term “Canadian.”  When replacement troops and later subsequent Divisions arrived to form the Canadian Corps, these troops would strive to live up to the precedent set by the 1st Canadian Division at 2nd Ypres.



[1] Desmond Morton & JL Granatstein “Marching to Armageddon”: Canadians and the Great War 1914-1919, Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1989, pg 59
[2]  Marteinson, John “We Stand on Guard”: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Army, Ovale Publications, 1992,pg 113
[3] Cook, Tim At the Sharp End Penguin Group (Canada) 2007 pg 161
[4] Greenfield, Nathan M., “Baptism of Fire”: The Second Battle of Ypres and the Forging of Canada, April 1915,Harper Collins 2007 opening leaf

Monday, 11 August 2014

The Forge

The re-branding of "If Ye Break Faith" has already begun.  I have decided that the site, and the project's main purpose is to be the education of the First World War, particularly as it relates to Canada.  The inspiration to move in this direction comes both from my passion for the subject matter and this recent article from the London Free Press that sheds a shocking light on our collective understanding of such an important part of our past.  The war is so crucial to the history of our country, and the development of national identity that I have decided to deepen the examination of these factors with a series of posts, including this one.  Of course, the shift in "If Ye Break Faith"'s mandate was taken in part by the launch of the Royal British Legion's "Every Man Remembered" project, which I fully support, but does make the initial motive behind my project redundant.  Dedication to educate about the war is as far as I've gotten, I have no clear concept in mind of how I intend to achieve this aim. Helpful suggestions and comments are always welcome, and you can follow for updates on Twitter and Facebook.

In my last essay “Who We Were and Who We Are”, I very broadly examined Canada’s close relation to
Empire and the shift in that identity brought about by World War One.  What I’d like to do now is to take a closer look at some of the factors which inspired that change.  In the years before the war, Sir Wilfred Laurier had addressed the Commons, saying “When Britain is at war, Canada is at war.  There is no distinction.”  His comments, viewed in context, are more of a statement of legal obligation than as some may interpret it presently as a pledge of solidarity.  Canada was far too subordinate at the time to take decisions on policy of war independently.  It is important to keep this nature of political identity in mind relative to the point in time it existed, as well as the largely British nature of Canada’s population in 1914.  One part would dictate the existence of a state of war, the other would explain popular enthusiasm for it. 

The patriotic rush experienced in other countries was no less different here.  Parliament’s original authorization of an Expeditionary Force of 25 000 was quickly over-subscribed by more than ten thousand, with many more being turned away.  The Duke of Connaught, Canada’s Governor General, believed that getting Canadian troops to the front as quickly as could be met minimal training standards would keep domestic enthusiasm at a high level.  “Having men fighting and bleeding on European soil for the Empire would ensure the commitment of Canada to the cause.”[i]  Such enthusiasm inspired the government to commit to sending ever more troops to the war.

Historians often remark on how poorly prepared European armies had been for the scope and scale of the conflict which would become the Great War.  This is no less true and perhaps more so in Canada’s case.  The country has never been, nor had any cause to be, heavily militarized.  In 1914 the Permanent Force numbered just over three thousand officers and men, the reserves counted almost sixty thousand members of the Active Militia, many of whom had just attended annual camps in July.  The attendance at the 1914 concentrations was the largest yet seen.  It had been so largely because of Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia.  He viewed the part-time force as Canada’s primary military source, increasing spending from 1911-13 by more than $6 million annually, encouraging participation in camps and adopting a training module regulated by British standards.[ii]  Numbers of men, regular or reserve, on paper hardly account for how difficult it would be in a practical sense to organize a force for war in Europe.

There were two comprehensive plans on file for assembling and training a force drawn from Militia units for service in an overseas war.  Both plans had merit and detraction in their differences, but similarly called for equipment issue and basic training to be conducted locally.  Once these logistics were complete, individual units would concentrate for further training at the division level.[iii]  Local commanders would select their own officers, with senior officers being appointed by the Chief of the General Staff.  With a broad timetable, either plan would provide a combat ready division within a few months of mobilization.

Hughes discarded both plans in their entirety, instituting his own and exerting a great personal control in every aspect.  Instead of organizing locally, Militia units would form up and train at the very start at Valcartier, a camp which had yet to be built.  All required equipment would be procured and issued there.  This took away from the gradual and measured nature of the prior designs and injected a larger sense of urgency.  Part of this was due to the notion that a large European war couldn’t last long.  It was believed either a decisive victory in the opening campaign or a lack of financial backing for a protracted conflict would see an early end.  Hughes wanted Canada to get active in it before it was all over.  The other nature of his deployment strategy, and his insistence on tight control was more personally political.  Building Valcartier and tenders for equipment and supplies were contracted to firms with business ties to the minister.  Eschewing the logical notion of formation commanders appointing the officers to serve beneath them, Hughes took this ability out of their hands, commissioning party friends to levels of command for which some were unqualified; even going so far as to appoint officers at platoon or company level, often on a whim.  He deconstructed regionally established regiments by forming mixed battalions from their component companies.[iv]  Only battalions that could organize quickly would remain intact.  This act took away from previous regimental solidarity, a matter of deep pride in the Canadian military system, but it brought together Canadians from different parts of the country.

A lack of initial preparedness and the move towards Hughes’ design in place of established plans was a recipe for disaster.  It is then remarkable in the face of this that the first troops began to arrive at Valcartier on the 19th of August, and by the 3d of October the First Contingent (later organized into 1st Canadian Division) of 30 000 men were aboard 31 ships about to sail to England.  The over abundance of troops at Valcartier and Hughes’ personal control over which would be sent in the First Contingent meant he could withhold selection information hopefully to inspire high performance.  The whole show hadn’t gone off without a hitch, though.  Problems with equipment- in supply and quality, confusing policies enacted on the fly and changed without warning requiring orders and contradicting counter-orders all lumped in with Hughes’ micromanagement were constant threats to a quick deployment.  Nevertheless, Hughes’ bombast and bullying and the dogged perseverance of those under his control at Valcartier achieved what some had thought impossible.  Learning to operate in a state of perpetual chaos from a very early point would serve the Canadians well when they would finally get to the front.

In any event, thoroughness was sacrificed in the name of expediency.  When the First Contingent arrived in England it was deemed so woefully undertrained six months would pass before it would deploy to the front.  Those six months were to be spent on Salisbury plain, during a miserable, wet winter, under the thumb of hardened British regulars as training cadre.  Hughes and the Governor General’s shared desire to get their force into action quickly had necessitated that certain elements of military indoctrination, particularly relating to conduct, propriety and discipline had been glossed over.  Officers and NCO’s new to their position would have difficulty enforcing discipline especially as it hadn’t been thoroughly instilled from the get-go.  Add to this young men away from home for the first time, with money in their pockets, unused to strong drink and a reputation for insubordinate, drunken loutishness began to take hold.  They were derided by locals and held in contempt by the British assigned to train them.  As so often happens in cases like this, there was created a solidarity which bonded the men together.  Justified or not, the view of the Canadians as uncouth, rustic colonials gave the men of the 1st Division a distinction they could delight in.

Losses at the front had created a demand for immediate reinforcement.  The Imperial General Staff wanted to send battalion or even company-sized drafts from the Division and integrate them into British units at the front as soon as they demonstrated proficiency.  While this would have provided for the acute demand, it would have destroyed the integrity which was being built.  For all his exasperating meddlesomeness, Hughes once again did something that would speak to his merit.  He insisted that “his boys” would go into battle all together, or not at all.  It speaks to his perseverance and to the growth of our national identity that he got his wish.  The men from Canada would then be together through the same experiences and hardships, and from this, their solidarity would grow.

Already the men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force had begun to form a notion of themselves as distinct from their British roots.  It would be their trial by fire and three more years of war that would further evolve and solidify their new sense of identity.






[i] Zuehlke, Mark “Brave Battalion”: The Remarkable Saga of the 16th Battalion in the First World War, John Wiley & Sons, 2008 Pg 4
[ii] Desmond Morton & JL Granatstein “Marching to Armageddon”: Canadians and the Great War 1914-1919, Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1989, pg 8
[iii] John Marteinson “We Stand on Guard”: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Army, Ovale Publications, 1992 pg 96
[iv] Zuehlke, ibid. pg 8

Monday, 4 August 2014

Who We Were and Who We Are

It is August 04, 2014.  Exactly one hundred years ago, Britain declared war on Germany.  For Britain and her Empire the Great War was about to begin.  I have found a great deal of confusion in comments posted to Canadian sites reporting on this anniversary.  Mostly, there seems to be a lack of understanding of why Canada became involved in the war, and what possible benefit was gained from this experience.  I have endeavoured to address these questions below.

In all the build-up to the centenary there has been no shortage of interesting tributes, projects and memorials being announced.  As many of you know, "If Ye Break Faith" was begun to be part of this effort by providing a means to memorialise the Canadian fallen of the war.  It has come to my attention that the Royal British Legion has just last week made available "Every Man Remembered", an online repository of publicly contributed tributes and biographies of all Commonwealth soldiers killed in World War One.  As this is remarkably similar to what I had in mind to create, I find that I must seriously rethink the purpose of "If Ye Break Faith" to avoid any intellectual property issues, while at the same time being a really good sport and throw my full support behind the Legion's efforts.  As always, you can keep up with things as they develop by following on Twitter and Facebook.

When the house of cards that was European peace through strategic alliances finally collapsed, public interest domestically was certainly piqued.  If not at first for news that the argument between Austro-Hungary and Serbia had spilled out over the continent, it was almost certainly the speculation on what Britain would choose to do.  Thoughts of this nature were more than a distracted concern.  Canada was a very different entity, both politically and demographically a century ago.  What is now a mostly titular and symbolic connection to the United Kingdom was in 1914 a more rigid and formal relationship.  Since Confederation in 1867 Ottawa had gained wide freedoms in domestic affairs, but the Crown retained, among other things, control of foreign policy.  Thus what happened to Britain in this unfolding crisis would happen to Canada as well.


The ultimatum requiring Germany to withdraw from Belgium expired without compliance and Britain was forced to act.  London’s Parliament approved and delivered a declaration of war to the Kaiser’s representatives on the 4th of August.  A telegram making note of this was sent out to the Dominions.  It is recorded in an extra edition of the Canada Gazette that the Duke of Connaught, Governor General of Canada received this notice at 8:45 pm on the same day.  Parliament was immediately recalled by royal order.  The HMCS Rainbow and Niobe were directly seconded to he Royal Navy; their officers and crew immediately placed under the laws of Active Service[1].  Canada was going to war.

While the ability to decide such matters was beyond the power of the national government, Canada’s decision on how to contribute to the war effort was entirely its own.  There was, however, little doubt what that level of commitment would be.  The population at the time was predominantly British- either by birth or recent descent.  Support for what many considered “the home country” was overwhelming.  With news breaking of the declaration, the already holiday atmosphere of a long summer weekend became one of jubilant celebration as “tens of thousands of Canadians took to the streets.”[2]   This attitude was reflected in the political speeches given at the announcement, Prime Minister Robert Borden promising to “put forward every effort and make every sacrifice necessary to the integrity and maintain the honour of our Empire.”  Opposition leader Sir Wilfred Laurier made his now famous statement “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!’”[3]  It is revealing of the sense of nationality at the time that the possessive pronouns relating to Britain and Empire in both speeches are in the collective first person.  Even before Parliament solidified the exact nature of this intent, recruits were already beginning to volunteer.

Ottawa followed through on the rhetoric of both party leaders authorising an expeditionary force of  25 000, appropriating $50 million for its equipment and training and a resolution to provide for all costs associated with Canada’s war effort.  This assumption of fiscal responsibility may have incurred Canada’s first national debt, but also allowed for tremendous growth in domestic investment and industry.  As the war grew in length and breadth the demand for goods manufactured or produced in agriculture accelerated.  Britain as head of the Empire could not alone meet the material needs of so large a conflict.  Foreign demand for exports would help provide the capital to improve infrastructure, not the least of which was a substantial increase in railway mileage.  It was rail that linked the country in the decades after Confederation and expansion of transportation would strengthen that bond; more deeply unifying the country in a physical as well as ideological sense.

Two thirds of the First Contingent was British born, and Britons would never number less than half of those serving in Canadian uniform throughout the war.  The men who went to war from Canada may have considered themselves British, but their experiences overseas would serve as a catalyst to change the prevalent sense of identity held before 1914.  In a speech commemorating the start of the war, Chief of Defense Staff General T.J. Lawson said “The war affirmed that Canada is unavoidably part of the international system.”  At the same event, historian Margaret MacMillan agreed that due to the war “Canadians became more conscious of our country as a nation- of our contribution to the world.  This outcome allowed Canada to become more independent.”  Due in no small part to an esteemed reputation for efforts in battle and a reciprocal esprit de corps from this adulation, the men of the CEF began to take pride in being and identifying as Canadian.  There was a noticeable shift in population demographic in the years following the war.  While the origin of immigrants was still majorly British, for the first time since 1867 population growth was more from natural increase, outpacing migratory growth by a factor of nearly ten to one by 1920.[4]  Descendents born to the war generation would carry on this pride of being Canadian, supplanting the pre-war mindset of British subjectivity almost completely.

The war, particularly as it moves further away from us in time can not be easily understood.  It can never be easy with modern sentiments gained through a century’s social progression to comprehend Canada’s subordinate position in global affairs or the enthusiasm of those who rushed to volunteer.  However as who we are now is indelibly tied into this experience of our past it is crucial to make that understanding.  General Lawson tells us that “World War One is a story of individual sacrifice for values still held through the thread f one hundred years.”  Those that returned to Canada with a growing sense of nationality took great pains to ensure those values for which so much was sacrificed would become intrinsic to this young country.  Their desire to move beyond the tragedy of war, their efforts to create a better world helped to shape Canada.

One hundred years on and the nature of the country has changed again.  The ratio of migratory to natural population increase has reversed.  Canada has become a more multi-ethnic country, moving further away from our British-centric roots.  This in itself has been a gift to Canada’s growth and leant to a deeper and progressing notion of our national identity.  Though there are fewer here today that have a generational link to Canadians of the Great War the ideals for which they fought-freedom, fairness, equality and justice- are still a large part of who we are.  In a reversal of Borden and Laurier using possessive language towards Britain in 1914, one hundred years later Canada’s top General addressed all Canadians, no matter of origin “I urge you to discover your history for yourselves- it’s yours, own it.”  Whether we were born here or have just arrived when we say we are Canadian we inherit the legacy left to us of all those who went before us and particularly that of the men of the CEF.



[1] Canada Gazette, Wed. 05 August 1914
[2] Cook, Tim At the Sharp End Penguin Group (Canada) 2007 pg. 21
[3] Quotes taken from: Morton/Granatstein Marching to Armageddon Lester & Orpen Dennys 1989 pg. 6
[4] Statistics from a table developed by Claude BĂ©langer, Marianopolis College