A century ago today, the first contingent of Canadian troops sailed for Europe to defend the British Empire. They were on their way to a European war in transition, as the high drama of invasion and counter-invasion subsided into attrition. All sides on the Eastern Front had paused to regroup and reconsider their initial offensive plans; in the south the beleaguered Serbian Army, having repelled two Austrian invasions, was licking its wounds and preparing to meet a third; and in the west, despite proclamations of imminent triumph by press and propaganda on both sides, the first Battle of Arras was turning out to be another in the series of actions that established stalemate all along the front line.
So this seems a good time to spare a moment for Canada, a nation that committed its small population to the War from the very start, and is generally dismissed by the British remembrance industry with faint praise and a mention of Vimy Ridge. We’ll get to Vimy Ridge in 1916, and when we do we’ll be talking about propaganda, popular war-weariness and national identity, but most Canadians in 1914 had no need of spin-doctors to seduce them into supporting the mother country.
An essentially autonomous Dominion of the Empire, nominally ruled by the British King through an imperial governor-general, Canada was enthusiastically pro-British, despite murmurs of dissent among the French-speaking Quebecois that made up almost a quarter of the country’s population (7.2 million in 1911). The Dominion entered the War automatically with Britain, making no separate declaration, and as in so many belligerent countries the immediate upshot was an impressive display of national unity. Prime Minister Robert Borden’s strongly anglophile Conservative Party, in power since 1911, and the more American-minded Liberal opposition put aside their differences to grant the government sweeping emergency powers, and on 6 August it called for 25,000 volunteers to join a Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) to Europe.
At that point regular Canadian ground forces amounted to some 3,100 troops, mostly employed to garrison harbours, with lightly trained local militia companies as the only reserves, but 33,000 volunteers answered the government’s call, and the troops that sailed on 3 October were the first of almost 600,000 Canadians to enlist with the wartime Army. Of those, 418,000 saw service overseas, 210,000 were casualties and 56,500 were killed. Another 7,000 Canadians fought with British ground units, and 14,500 British citizens returned from residence in Canada to enlist.
Aside from the five divisions deployed on the front line in France, Canadian pilots were particularly successful in France –the 13,000 Canadians that fought with the British air services included several acknowledged ‘aces’. And although the Canadian Navy was a tiny coastguard force that played no part in the wider War, the country’s shipyards built more than 900 (mostly small) ships for use by Allied forces. Canadians also performed important work as lumberjacks in Scotland and France, as train drivers on battle-zone light railways and as steamer captains during the prolonged campaign in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq).
The separate colony of Newfoundland, now a Canadian province, raised its own forces from a population of about 250,000. About 6,500 men served with the Newfoundland Regiment, and 2,000 of them were killed on the Western Front and at Gallipoli. Another 2,000 Newfoundlanders joined the Royal Navy, and a further five hundred crossed the Atlantic to work as foresters.
Civilian responses in Canada at the start of the War were similar to those in Britain. Amid general consensus that everything must be done to defeat Prussian militarism, women’s organisations, churches, civic bodies and charities performed voluntary work to aid recruitment, fundraising and collection of resources, while popular campaigns pressed for Germans and Austrians to be removed from their jobs and interned. As in Britain, popular disillusion with war would feed on disputes over conscription, scandals over CEF equipment, massive economic upheaval and spiralling national debt. Although most English speakers continued to accept, however unhappily, the need for a continually expanding war effort, French-Canadian opposition had solidified by 1917, feeding a resurgence of separatist sentiment that would threaten national unity throughout the 1920s.
Canada is not one of those places generally mentioned as having been transformed by the First World War, but change is relative. The country experienced a full five years of sociopolitical stresses and changes comparable with those in Britain, ran up massive wartime debts and underwent major changes to its industrial and trading patterns. It sent almost nine percent of its entire population across the ocean to take part in the conflict, and emerged with a strengthened sense of nationhood, in its own eyes and those of the world.
So as we wave off that first boatload of American troops, so big and strapping that they’d be dangerously tall in a trench dug by undernourished Europeans, remember that the USA isn’t the only state in North America. Better yet, point it out next time someone tells you America came late to the War and gained more than it lost. Tell them they’re talking poppycock.