Canadian General Arthur Currie once stated in a letter that he hoped “we do not have to do the same thing all over again in fifteen or twenty years” in regards to the First World War.
Though Currie would never know it, the world and Canada would do just that.
On Aug. 4, 1914 Britain and by extension Canada, declared war on Germany.
What would transpire for the next four years would haunt our nation for years and eventually lead us down a path to repeating history with a second world war.
In 1914, Canada had a population of just under 8 million and yet nearly 10 percent of the population went to war, that included nurses, soldiers, chaplains and more. Over 67,000 Canadians were killed or died as a cause of war and over 250,000 were wounded.
There barely existed a person in Canada who didn’t know someone who died in the war, whether it was a son, a neighbour, or spouse. Those that came back wounded are now often referred to as forgotten. Much less support was offered to the veterans of the First World War than in later wars.
In a small community like Queens, you would be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t know of someone who died or was not at the very least related to someone who went overseas. It was a tragedy that hit every town.
It’s often thought that many of the volunteers didn’t know what they were getting into when it came to the First World War.
David Campbell, a history professor at Saint Mary’s University who focuses on the Great War, says that those who signed up for the war were not as naïve as we often portray them as.
“If you look at the war as a whole, people were a lot less naïve than they’ve often been credited as being by subsequent generations,” says Campbell.
He says there was some enthusiasm to join at the beginning before Canadians knew how long the conflict would go on. Eventually however, the government had to go to the very divisive measure of conscription.
“Well into 1915 and definitely 1916, everyone knows that this is just an awful struggle,” says Campbell. “I can’t imagine there’s anything of romanticism left.”
It was a tough sell getting many rural people to sign up for the war, though many did. It was hard to leave your family home if they were dependent on fishing or farming for their livelihood. The government didn’t fight too much to get farmers to join however, as food was needed at home and at the front.
“Canada was a major food exporter in the war and provided food stuffs to its allies, especially to Britain,” says Campbell. “It’s a pretty tortured balance to be kept because we need as many people in uniform as we can but we still need people on the farms and on the boats and in the factories.”
Forging a nation
Canada and Britain both had very small standing armies but large militias. Both chose to create an army specifically for the war instead of calling on the militia. Canada’s standing army had a little over 3,000 men.
The Canadian government did not want the Canadian forces just becoming a part of another British regiment, they were to stay regiments of their own. Because of that, they were able to stand out in battles that are now iconic in Canadian history such as Vimy Ridge and Passchendale.
“It was harder to marginalize or ignore Canada or any of the other major dominions given the extent of the military commitment,” says Campbell.
Campbell says as the war progressed Britain started treating the commonwealth differently. Commonwealth prime ministers were consulted on military tactics and treated more as separate nations than they had ever been treated before.
Despite being viewed on the world stage as a more independent and united country, Canadians were very divided during the war when many fought against conscription. Nearly 124,000 people were conscripted in a country of barely 8 million people. Around 100,000 were still in uniform at the end of the war.
“I think what we need to do as Canadians today is question our assumptions about the war,” says Campbell. “A lot of what we’ve been led to believe about the war is that it united Canada well it frankly didn’t if you look at how fractured society and politics were on the home front.”
Campbell says that some Canadians did feel a sense of unity but many were divided with provinces looking at other provinces and comparing how many of their people volunteered. The French and English populations were also at odds with the idea of conscription.
“Most of the broad brush assumptions or answers we’ve been given you can find lots of exceptions to them or lots of reasons to question them,” says Campbell.