For the Empire

When the First World War began in 1914, Canada was only forty-seven years old. Its people were largely of English, Irish or Scottish descent, either having been born there or having parents who had been.

Canada was a Dominion within the British Empire and when war was declared by England on August 4, 1914, Canada was automatically at war with Germany. Upon the declaration of war, Canadians across the land took to the streets to celebrate, waving Union Jacks and singing Rule Britannia! There was a tremendous out pouring of emotion for the Empire. Loyalty to the King and imperialism predominated. Canadians were proud of their ties to Britain.

One such example was John McCrae, the author of the famous poem In Flanders Fields. He, like tens of thousands of Canadians, were staunch supporters of the British Empire. He fought in the Boer War in 1900 and 1901 as an artillery officer. In August 1914 he was appointed second in command of the 1st Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery and brigade surgeon and was amongst those troops of the first contingent to train at Valcartier, Quebec.

A strong sense of patriotism motivated men to enlist to protect the Empire. In 1914 men were quick to sign up and go off to war. Many thought it would all be over by Christmas, so were in a hurry to get overseas. Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia in Prime Minister Robert Borden’s cabinet was certainly eager, if not obsessed, with getting Canadian soldiers into the battle as soon as possible. 

By October 1914, just two months after war was declared, Canada had sent more than 30,000 hastily trained troops to England. Of these, over half had been born in Britain and over 9,000 others had been born in Canada, many to parents who had emigrated to Canada in the latter part of the 1800’s, from the British Isles. Ties to the Empire ran as deep and wide as the Atlantic Ocean.

Who could predict that the war would continue past Christmas, 1914 and past three Christmases thereafter, and end in the fall of 1918? At the start of the war Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, Britain’s Secretary of State for War, was of the opinion the allies needed to put armies of millions into the field of battle and be able to maintain them there for several years. The British cabinet was shocked and in disbelief at such a statement.

War became more destructive than ever before. Innovation and invention revolutionized the destructive capacity of warfare, in many deadly areas. Submarine warfare, where invisible attackers sunk ships without warning, terrified merchant sailors. Aeroplanes became a machine of war for the first time, showing their worth by spotting for the artillery and bombing positions behind enemy lines. Cavalry became obsolete and in its place the tank was invented. These slow moving monstrosities crashed through barb wire and rumbled over trenches. Artillery fire sent shells, some weighing over a tonne, farther, and with more lethal impact, than ever before. More soldiers were killed in World War One by exploding shells than by rifle or machine gun fire.

As Canadians celebrated in the streets in August 1914 and enlisted for King and Empire, few realized this war to end all wars would be as murderous and as destructive as it was.

Roger Gunn is a historian of World War One and the author of Raymond Collishaw and the Black Flight.