This year marks the 100th year anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. Starting on July 24, 1914 it lasted over four years, ending on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, November 11, 1918. The war was the bloodiest conflict in Canadian history resulting in the deaths of nearly 61, 000 Canadians. The slaughter of so many Canadians erased the naïve idea of the honour and gallantry of war. The reality of war, which was demonstrated beyond belief, saw history refer to it as The war to end all wars, although that certainly was not the case.
The success and the importance of the Battles of Passchendaele, Vimy and Ypres kindled a confidence and sense of pride nationally that Canada and its armed forces had proven a worthy defender on the world stage and an equal partner of the British Empire. Canada, in spite of the terrible human loss, could from then on stand proud that we had demonstrated, beyond all odds, that we could defend ourselves.
At that time in history, and as part of the British Empire, it was Britain, not Canada, that made decisions relating to Canadian foreign policy. Because of Britain’s ultimatum that Germany withdraw its army from Belgium was not met, Canada automatically became an ally with Britain, France, Serbia and Russia against Germany and the Austro- Hungarian empires.
Back at home, Canadians were united. Under the new War measures Act of 1914, the Canadian parliament was given broad powers to maintain security and order during war. The Canadian Minister of Militia called for 25,000 volunteers to train in Quebec and 33,000 men showed up and at the beginning of October, 1914 Canada sent its first contingent of serviceman to Europe. And so it went.
A great deal of Canada’s war effort was provided by volunteers. The Canadian Patriotic Fund raised money to support families of the servicemen who were serving overseas, military hospitals cared for the wounded and the Canadian Red Cross worked for the good of Canadian servicemen.
By 1915, military spending equalled the entire Canadian government expenditure of 1913, causing the government, who choose not to raise taxes, to undertake a project that many thought impossible. Canadians were asked to loan money to their own government. $50 million was asked for – and $100 million was received. The government raised huge sums of money from “ordinary Canadians”. The Victory Loan campaign was a success with “Canada’s war effort being financed on borrowed money”.
Recruitment continued as thousands of Canadian joined the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, a part of the British army. Although Canadians had lots to learn, it was recognized that they were good soldiers who fought with courage and a whole lot of self-sacrifice. By the latter years of the war, Canadian soldiers who “had struggled to achieve, and won, earned a considerable degree of autonomy from British control” (source Historica Canada).
In addition to the 61,000 casualties, many more Canadian men returned home “mutilated in mind and body”. In human cost, the war had taken a whole generation of men who did not live to see the fruits of their sacrifice. Lest we forget.