The Rally of the Canadians for the Empire
The people in the Dominion of Canada were resolved to lead the way. The government did not wait until war was declared. As soon as it became evident that Great Britain was likely to be dragged into the struggle, the duke of Connaught, then governor-general, who was touring the west, started for Ottawa, and the Dominion cabinet met to take action. German cruisers were traversing the seas, and it was thought possible that some of these might attempt attacks on certain vulnerable Canadian points. There were large German colonies in the United States, and smaller ones in Canada itself. Would some of these Germans seek to open guerrilla war on Canada, or try, by destroying bridges, blowing up cities, or damaging ships, to injure the empire? All these things had to be guarded against. Canada had not given much time or care to military defence in the past.
There was, it is true, a Department of Militia responsible for military matters, and at its head was a very active officer, Colonel (afterwards Major General) Sam Hughes. But Colonel Hughes's power was limited until the approach of war by the apathy of the people. There were some militia regiments, and a small regular force, but the average young man had not troubled to do militia training. The militia were little more than skeleton corps. But they were found, at the moment of emergency, to supply an invaluable groundwork on which a military organization could be built up quickly.
As it became clear that war must come, steady streams of men poured from every point to the various militia headquarters offering their services. Farmers drove in twenty and thirty miles or more, cowboys left the prairies; city men, clerks and bank cashiers, owners of prosperous businesses and mechanics — young men, middle-aged, and old — moved by one common purpose, offered themselves. The militia officers found themselves suddenly overwhelmed. There were so many recruits that they could barely record their names. Soldiering, yesterday the amusement of a few, became to-day the settled work of the nation as a whole.
Party politics usually burn with a fierce heat in Canada, and the line of cleavage between Government and Opposition, both in the Dominion and in the separate provinces, has always been clearly marked. Now, however, divisions were obliterated. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the venerable ex-premier and leader of the opposition, called his chief adherents together and, after consulting them, publicly announced that his, the Liberal, party would lend its support without reserve to all measures deemed necessary by the government. "There should be a truce to party strife," said he, and he saw that the truce was observed. The statesmen of the several provinces echoed the same sentiment. The duke of Connaught summarised the national position — "Canada stands united from the Pacific to the Atlantic in her determination to uphold the honour and traditions of the empire." Parliament was assembled, and it unanimously resolved to raise an expeditionary force of 22,000 men, for dispatch to Europe. The Dominion government had already placed the two Canadian cruisers, the Niobe and the Rainbow, at the service of the Admiralty. The same authority paid the cost of a hospital for the wounded in Paris, and when newscame from England that there was likely to be distress among the poor in the Motherland, it sent over a gift of 1,000,000 bags of flour of 98 pounds each.
A great outburst of public and private generosity was witnessed. Provinces, cities, banks, business organizations, and individuals vied with each other in the extent of their gifts for the empire. Less than eight weeks after war was declared a list was drawn up of what had been offered and given. Among the provinces, Alberta gave half a million bushels of oats to England, and her civil servants set apart five per cent. of their salaries up to £300 a year, and ten per cent. beyond that, for the Patriotic Fund. British Columbia gave 25,000 cases of tinned salmon, Manitoba 50,000 bags of flour, New Brunswick 100,000 bushels of potatoes, Nova Scotia offered 100,000 tons of coal (afterwards changed to £20,000 in cash), Ontario 250,000 bags of flour, Prince Edward Island 100,000 bushels of oats, also cheese and hay, Quebec 4,000,000 pounds of cheese, and Saskatchewan 1,500 horses. Then the cities made their presents: Montreal, 30,000 to the Patriotic Fund and a battery of quick-firing guns; Ottawa, £10,000 to the Patriotic Fund and £60,000 for a machine gun section; Toronto, £10,000 and other gifts. Calgary sent 1,000 men for the Legion of Frontiersmen. These were typical cases.
"At the same time the women of Canada were building, equipping, and maintaining a women's hospital of a hundred beds to supplement the British naval hospital at Haslar, near Portsmouth. In less than three weeks they raised close on £60,000, partly as presents to the War Office for hospital purposes, and partly for their own hospital. The Canadian Red Cross raised vast sums. The individual gifts of many rich Canadians were on a princely scale. Thus, Mr. J. K. L. Ross, of Montreal, presented £100,000 to the Patriotic Fund, paid the cost of carrying the 5th Royal Highlanders to England, and gave a steam yacht. Mr. Hamilton Gault, another millionaire, raised and equipped at his own cost a regiment — Princess Patricia's Light Infantry — soon to win wide fame. Crowds of rich men came together and raised hundreds of thousands of dollar's to purchase machine guns and armoured motor cars. The Canadian Pacific Railway gave £20,000, and the men on the line gave another £20,000, in addition to promising one day's pay monthly during the war.
It was not only the rich who gave. Canada was at this time passing through a trying period of industrial depression. Many of her business men were having a desperate fight, and at the time that the war broke out the streets of many cities were full of unemployed. Yet the poorest managed to find something for king and empire. Americans living in Canada clamoured to serve. Towns mainly inhabited by German emigrants led the way to loyalty. The white men were not alone. American Indians brought their gifts, of money and in kind, and offered themselves as scouts, boatmen, and woodmen.
It was soon found that the first Canadian contingent could not be kept within the 22,000 originally intended. In a few weeks an army of 33,000 men was raised. The various regiments raised throughout the Dominion were assembled at a newly-created camp, Valcartier, outside Quebec. The army that arrived there had features of its own. There were cavalry like the Royal Strathcona Horse and the Royal Dragoons, largely composed of veterans from the South African War. There were Highland regiments drawn from cities like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, regiments affiliated with famous Highland units in the United Kingdom — Seaforths, Gordons, and Camerons — full of the pride of tradition and race. There were scouts from the west, plainsmen trained to pioneer work in the desolate lands of the north, cowboys accustomed to life in the saddle, trappers and hunters, and farmers. There were many townsmen, but the Canadian townsman, as a rule, sees much more of the open air than the townsman in Europe, and possesses much more initiative. A very large proportion of the men were British born, young fellows who had gone out to Canada, lived there for some years, and, at the first call of duty, had volunteered to return and fight for the land of their birth.
The Dominion government resolved that the first contingent should be completely equipped in a way surpassed by no other army in the world. No money was to be spared. Accordingly, the personal equipment of the men was brought to a point of excellence that excited general admiration on their arrival in Europe. They were amply provided with machine guns, their artillery was abundant in quantity and of the best. They had a splendid park of motor transport vehicles and the mechanical equipment was as good as could be. The hospitals of Canada had been searched to select a strong corps of trained nurses to accompany the army. There was a complete medical department, chaplains were given military rank, and - at that time an unusual feature - secretaries to the Y.M.C.A. were given rank as officers and attached to the regular forces.
By the end of September the expeditionary force was complete, from a very carefully chosen Intelligence Department to the hospital orderlies. Then one day officers and men set out as though on a route march, but this time their steps were directed towards the St. Lawrence, and they did not look back. A fleet of great ships had been assembled there, the expeditionary force marched aboard, its guns and supplies were slung into place, and it sailed for Europe.
The voyage across the Atlantic was watched with anxiety by the people on both sides of the ocean. Would the raiding German cruisers succeed in attacking them en route? A complete veil had been drawn over the movements of the troops. For some weeks no Canadian newspapers were allowed to circulate abroad. No word was breathed of where, or how, or when the Canadians had started.
Early in October a report was circulated in England that the contingent had landed at Southampton. The report turned out to be false. Then, on October 14, the people of Plymouth were surprised in the early morning to see transport after transport arrive in the Sound, and drop anchor there. Across the waters, the sound of singing and shouting and cheering was borne from the boats, and thousands of khaki-clad men could be seen on the ships' sides looking towards the shore. The word went round the town that the men on the crowded decks were Canadians, and Plymouth and Devonport thereupon set out to give the new comrades a royal reception.
A group of camps had been arranged on Salisbury Plain, and the men were immediately moved there. The young recruits hoped to proceed to the front within a week or two, but the British military authorities had other ideas, and gave them an exceedingly hard course of training, which, starting in October, continued well on into February. It had been intended to transfer the troops from their tents to huts before the winter weather came on, but the shortage of labour in England and other causes prevented the completion of the huts, and most of the troops were still under canvas when the New Year opened. The life of the Canadian troops during those weeks on Salisbury Plain was wearisome and trying. The camps were one great sea of mud. It was an unusually wet winter. The roads had not been made to stand the strain of the heavy military traffic that fell on them, and in places they became almost impassable. The camps were miles away from any villages, and fourteen miles from a town. The soldiers had nothing to do during the long winter nights but crouch in the semi-darkness in their tents, listening to the unceasing rain outside, unless they were able to get into the Y.M.C.A. marquee, which would not hold them all. They had plenty of money, the private soldier receiving about five shillings a day, including allowances, but there were few or no rational ways of spending it.
Lieut.-General E. A. H. Alderson was given command of the contingent shortly after its arrival in England. The king visited the camp on November 4, accompanied by the queen, Lord Kitchener, and Lord Roberts, and was greeted with immense enthusiasm. Lord Roberts paid another visit to the Canadians, and made a speech which was long remembered. "We have arrived at the most critical moment of our history, and you have generously come to help us in our hour of need," he told the assembled soldiers. "I need not urge you to do your best, for know you will, for you will be fighting in the greatest of all causes — the cause of right, of justice, and of liberty."
Those who saw the troops on their arrival at Plymouth, and who saw them again shortly before their departure for France, could not fail to be struck by the difference. They had now experienced four months of the most rigorous military life and discipline. They had lived under surroundings of the greatest hardship, exposed to the worst weather possible, with few comforts and few conveniences, in their isolated camp on Salisbury Plain. They had been tried, hardened, and strengthened. No man of military knowledge who walked through the Canadian camps towards the end of the period of training could doubt but that here were men who, given opportunity, would bring glory to the Dominion and victory to the British arms.
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Primary source: Chronology of the War.
- John Alexander Hammerton (ed.) (1933). A Popular History of The Great War, Volume 1, The First Phase, 1914. The Fleetway House, London. p.88-94
- Conflict of dates between sources: 14 October in A Popular History of The Great War and 16 October in Chronology of the War.
- Events primarily sourced from, but not limited to: Lord Edward Gleichen (1918–1920). Chronology of the War. Volumes I, II & III. Constable & Company, London. (Copyright expired) Less frequently used sources are referenced separately.