Building a Force
Sons of the Empire
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Topical Film Company
Canadian soldiers in England. Canadian troops arrive in England prepared to defend the Empire. The troops are seen arriving on rail baggage wagons. Some wash themselves (outdoors), another is seen writing a letter. A group of soldiers pose for the camera with a large Union Flag which has a border made up of miniatures of Allied flags
Pieces of History
Raising Volunteers and Early Send-Offs
The Department of Militia and Defence’s control over the process began at enlistment centres across Canada’s thirteen military districts, from Halifax to Victoria. Men who met the physical requirements were dispatched by rail to a camp at Valcartier, Quebec. Colonel Sam Hughes had personally selected this extensive training facility on a site 25 km northwest of Quebec City on the east bank of the Jacques Cartier River. Between September 1914 and March 1915, the first units from Valcartier set sail aboard transport ships bound for further training in England, but a much larger task lay ahead. This period was marked by strong support among Canadians, even in Quebec, for a voluntary war. Local armouries and other recruitment facilities welcomed a deluge of willing recruits; some two-thirds of this first wave were British-born. Early recruitment also displayed signs of administrative confusion and Hughes' unorthodox leadership style, but command if not control remained concentrated in Ottawa. Militia units across the country served as the initial administrative sites of communication, enrolment, and mustering procedures.
Standards for physical stature, age, marital status and experience were adopted at the recruiter’s desk at a time when the military could afford to be selective. In almost all cases for the first and second contingents, enlistees had to be white. Local recruiting officers routinely barred would-be volunteers from the Japanese, Chinese and Sikh communities in British Columbia, as well as African Canadians from the Maritimes and First Nations from across the country. Later, in 1916 and 1917, the military did recruit from racial minority communities. Approximately 3,500 First Nations, more than 1,000 African Canadians, and several hundred men of Asian descent served during the war, though these numbers would have been higher if early volunteers had been accepted.
Although public support for the war varied across regions as the war overseas bogged down, all locales provided crucial settings for enlistment and early training. The recruiting film sequences in this collection capture many elements of this process, from signing up, to training in England, to disembarkation at the port of Brest, on France’s Brittany coast. And wherever local populations saw marching troops in parade formation or troops in orchestrated send-off events, they witnessed scenes designed to emphasize what displays of military force are meant to convey to civilians on the home front— a sense of power. This was especially true in the First World War, when public spaces served as the primary public display of military might and prestige. These images appeared in newspapers and were filmed and then presented in public cinemas.
Surviving descriptions of an August 1914 march-past in Guelph, Ontario, show a typical enlistment parade. Following public announcements of an evening march, the route between the city’s armoury and its exhibition grounds became lined with spectators. Two standard bearers of the army and navy veterans association, the Guelph Musical Society Band, and veterans of the Boer War led the procession, which displayed the first 25 recruits of the 30th Wellington Rifles. Bringing up the rear were several decorated automobiles carrying militia officers, city council members and the mayor. Civilian onlookers typically felt mixed emotions as parades like this filed by, and it is important to consider the varied messages, from valiant masculinity to a struggle for democracy, signified in the thousands of march-pasts, open-air concerts and last goodbyes on train platforms. From small towns to large cities, crowds witnessed send-offs staged as civic endorsements of military manhood, armed might and support for the war. Scenes of marching soldiers, patriotic rallies, send-off parades, farewell dances, dinners and religious ceremonies became commonplace in efforts to continue the flow of volunteers.
Military shows of strength, including the sequence of Sam Hughes reviewing troops in Toronto in 1915, were repeated across Canada, but the number of volunteers began to drop off the following year. March-pasts also continued near training facilities once recruits left their homes, and crowds assembled to show their support for the war until troops boarded the trains toward ships bound for overseas. “We will be in England some weeks before we get into the big show,” wrote Private Cliff Allan of Guelph in the summer of 1915 in a letter to his parents from the Royal School of Artillery in Kingston Ontario: “We are doing great work in camp just now. Tomorrow a route march to Gananoque is on the boards.” He finished with a simple wish for those at home: “Remember me to all the Guelphites.”
Within a year after the outbreak, however, a general sentiment of innocent enthusiasm gave way to concern for the war’s mounting costs, particularly after news of the Canadians’ hard-fought battle amidst the gas attacks at Ypres in the spring of 1915. While most had expected the war would end by Christmas the previous year, mobilization efforts across all belligerent nations had been progressively stepped up as the fighting continued. The demands ultimately transformed home front life everywhere and civilian-military relations in particular. Until the implementation of the Military Service Act in 1917, recruitment was through a voluntary system that produced a total of 59,144 men in 1914. Voluntary enlistment actually peaked in 1915 with 158,859, but could not keep pace with mounting casualty tolls and an increased scale of fighting.
As military recruitment and training forces in Canada augmented and expanded, so did the equipment and facilities under the command of the militia department, from artillery hardware to training facilities across the country. We might think of this as a ‘militia regiment’ phase. In addition to the mushrooming Valcartier camp, there was a much larger network of training facilities from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. This was supplemented by the end of 1916 with more strident efforts to use local community resources to extract as many volunteers as possible from a dwindling national pool. The monthly enlistment figures from January to June of 1916 began strong but faded (29,295; 27,737; 34,913; 20,969; 15,359; and 10,619) before plummeting even further. By the end of that year, casualties overseas totalled 67,890 with 19,436 dead or missing. The film sequences from this period feature march-pasts and troops embarking on vessels from throughout the British Empire. Captured on film are scenes of Australian and American soldiers as well.
After Prime Minister Robert Borden’s return from England in May 1917, where he visited with wounded soldiers and met with pro-conscriptionists in the Imperial War Cabinet, Ottawa pursued compulsory military service as a last resort. A parliament deeply divided by the conscription crisis voted for the Military Service Act in July 1917. Implementation began that September.
Approximately 312,000 men and officers had enlisted by the end of 1916, significantly less than Borden’s pledge of half a million. By this time, civilian crowds supporting the war, on city streets, in parks, or at patriotic events staged in exhibition grounds, had dwindled with news of heavy Canadian and Allied casualties in France and Belgium. All through the period of voluntary enlistment in Canada, recruiting officers and concerned civilians who had helped organize the open-air rallies, send-off parades, and other events, relied heavily on public gatherings to express continued support for those already in uniform. Their efforts intensified while recruiting levels declined. Conscription was to provide fresh reinforcements for the CEF’s heavily taxed regiments and battalions overseas, but it was a divisive issue in Canada.
Brown, Robert Craig and Donald Loveridge. “Unrequited Faith: Recruiting in the C.E.F., 1914-1918.” Revue Internationale d'Histoire Militaire 51 (1982): 53-79.
Granatstein, J.L. and J.M. Hitsman. Broken Promises: A History of Conscription in Canada Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Maroney, Paul. “‘The Great Adventure’: The Context and Ideology of Recruiting in Ontario, 1914-17.” Canadian Historical Review 77 (1996): 62-98.
Miller, Ian Hugh Maclean. Our Glory and Our Grief: Torontonians and the Great War. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.
Morton, Desmond. When Your Number's Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War. Toronto: Random House, 1993.
Rutherdale, Robert. “Canada's August Festival: Communitas, Liminality and Social Memory.” Canadian Historical Review 77 (June 1996): 221-49.
---. Hometown Horizons: Local Responses to Canada's Great War. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004.
---. “Send-offs During Canada's Great War: Interpreting Hometown Rituals in Dispatching Home Front Volunteers.” Histoire sociale/Social History 36 (November 2003): 425-64.
Sharpe, C.A. “Enlistment in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1918: A Regional Analysis.” Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d'études canadiennes 18 (1983/84): 15-29.
St. G. Walker, James W. “Race and Recruitment in World War I: Enlistment of Visible Minorities in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.” Canadian Historical Review 70 (1989): 1-26.
Military Logistics of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914–1919
Canadian military logistics is a dimension of the history of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) that is often overlooked. Yet just a few days after Canada’s entry into the First World War, it was obvious that there was no way of ignoring it. When huge numbers of military and civilian volunteers showed up at Valcartier, near Quebec City, in August 1914, logistical support services, which had only recently been established, were soon put to the test. Clothing and equipping the members of the first contingent turned out to be a real headache. Manufacturers had to be found and contracts drawn up in a hurry for the production of uniforms, boots, belts, weapons, vehicles and so on. From a logistical standpoint, mobilizing the first contingent destined for Europe was a nightmare.
Throughout the Great War, the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s logistical support system was an immense, complex operation. Of all the support services, the Canadian Army Service Corps (CASC) was the most diversified. Its main responsibilities were transporting combat troops, delivering equipment and materials, and providing the troops with fresh supplies. In addition to these essential tasks, the CASC also evacuated the wounded (ambulance drivers belonged to the corps), salvaged equipment that had been captured from the enemy or left behind on the battlefield and delivered mail. The CASC worked closely with the Canadian Ordnance Corps, the Canadian Army Medical Corps, and the Canadian Artillery Corps for the transportation of specialized ordnance.
The CASC operated from seaports located hundreds of kilometres from the battlefield, all the way to just behind the front lines. Its replenishment system could supply not only small groups of just a few men but also formations the size of an infantry battalion (approximately 1,000 men).
Resupplying front-line units was a multistep process. From ports and depots, supplies were first taken by railway to railheads. From there, CASC units were responsible for moving the supplies by truck or light railway to supply dumps. These operations took place in the third line of supply. Thanks to their small size, light railways could run and reach areas closer to the front lines more easily. It was also harder for enemy artillery to pinpoint them. The administrative area behind the front lines was crisscrossed by light rail lines that were built and maintained by Canadian railway troops.
From the supply dumps, the CASC’s divisional train and ammunition supply column, both of which were horse-drawn, were responsible for bringing supplies closer to the front lines, to their respective divisions or individual units. This was the second line of supply.
Lastly, operations to supply front-line units constituted the first line of supply. These units had to come back to the rear to get their own supplies of gear, ammunition, weapons, technical and communications equipment, water, medication and food. These supply expeditions were carried out chiefly at night so that the soldiers could not be seen by the enemy. But assigning combat troops to this task meant that a battalion’s defensive positions at the front would be short of manpower for a time and so vulnerable to enemy attack.
Toward the end of the war, however, a Canadian officer from Montreal proposed using the tumpline system — the method that Canada’s aboriginal people and coureurs de bois had used to carry large loads on foot. Before the introduction of this system, infantryman had to carry supplies in their arms, thus limiting the quantity of materials due to their size and weight. The tumpline system, which involved the use of a head strap, allowed the soldiers to carry more weight and freed up their arms, thus giving them more freedom of movement. With this system, each soldier was able to transport a greater quantity of supplies and so fewer men were required for the job, leaving more troops to ensure the defence of the front lines.
Besides regularly providing drivers and vehicles to other units, the CASC also maintained and repaired its vehicles. It also had to make sure that the troops were fed, which meant that fresh and hard rations had to be allocated and distributed properly; its military cooks oversaw the operation of field bakeries and butcheries.
The CASC was not the only logistical support corps to play a key role in the CEF. The Canadian Ordnance Corps was responsible for procuring, storing and distributing uniforms, boots, equipment, weapons, ammunition and shells to combat troops. Specialized supply depots, located in the second line of supply, helped ensure more effective distribution.
The Canadian Ordnance Corps’ other major role was to maintain equipment in the field. The repairmen in the specialized ordnance mobile workshops could get closer to the deployed units and repair their weapons, both light and heavy, as well as their equipment. If the mobile workshops were not able to do the repairs on site, the weapons and equipment were shipped to heavy or stationary workshops at the rear, where virtually anything could be reassembled or rebuilt. The small detachments of the Ordnance Corps worked closely with the various units of the Army Service Corps.
Despite the gradual mechanization of the war, horses remained a vital component of the CEF. The cavalry, the artillery and, of course, the Army Service Corps used huge numbers of horses right up to the end of the war. At one point, Canadians were using as many as 24,000 horses and mules in their overseas operations. Horses could often manage in places where motorized vehicles could make no headway! Inevitably, some horses suffered injuries or fell ill. The Canadian Veterinary Corps operated mobile sections to take care of horses; it also ran veterinary hospitals for horses, advanced remount depots and specialized basic provisions depots.
Other logistical support services also played a crucial role in enabling combat troops to get on with their job. The Canadian Postal Corps, for instance, helped maintain the morale of soldiers at the front, at the rear and also those convalescing in hospitals. Army chaplains, who constituted the smallest organized support group, provided religious services to Canadian soldiers of different faiths and offered moral support at difficult times. Lastly, despite the enemy’s efforts to maintain a naval blockade by submarines, the Canadian Forestry Corps ensured that Great Britain, France and the Canadian Expeditionary Force obtained all the timber they needed to carry out their military operations.
Thousands of men served in these various organizations. The Army Service Corps, for example, counted over 17,000 officers and non-commissioned soldiers in its organization. Even if these units were not combat troops, many of them, including the Army Service Corps, played important roles in all military actions. One hundred and four members of the CASC were killed, and 363 were wounded.
Brown, Ian Malcolm. British Logistics on the Western Front, 1914-1919. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1998.
Canadian Army Service Corps, 2nd Divisional Train: Record of Service of Officers, 1914-1919. Brian Pontifex, comp. Toronto: Carswell, 1920.
Davies, W.J.K. Light Railways of the First World War: A History of Tactical Rail Communications on the British Fronts, 1914-18. Newton Abbot, UK: David & Charles, 1967.
French, Cecil. A History of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps in the Great World War, 1914-1919. C.A.V. Barker and Ian K. Barker, eds. Guelph: Crest Books, 1999.
Jackson, H.M. The 127th Battalion, CEF; 2nd Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops. Montreal: Industrial Shops for the Deaf, 1957?.
Johnston, James Robert. Riding into War: The Memoir of a Horse Transport Driver, 1916-1919. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions and The New Brunswick Military Heritage Project, 2004.
Love, David W. “A Call to Arms”: The Organization and Administration of Canada’s Military in World War One. Calgary: Bunker To Bunker Books, 1999.
Phelan, Frederick Ross. “Army Supplies in the Forward Area and the Tumpline System: A First World War Canadian Logistical Innovation.” Canadian Military History 9, no 1 (Winter 2000): 31-45 [reprinted from the article published in the Canadian Defence Quarterly in October 1928].
To the Thunderer his Arms: The Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps. William F. Rannie, ed. Lincoln, ON: W.F. Rannie, 1984.
Warren, Arnold. Wait for the Waggon: The Story of the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1961.
Life in the Trenches
From Switzerland to the North Sea, some 500 kilometres long, soldiers on both sides carved out ditches in the ground that, over time, were expanded in complexity and depth. By 1915, vast underground cities housed the soldiers, as the opposing armies faced off against each other across no man’s land. Along this continuous line of trenches, offensive operations degenerated into frontal assaults, which were usually stopped dead by concentrated fire.
The Western Front, as it was called, consisted of a series of trench systems in depth. The front lines were held in strength, but behind them, joined by a series of communication trenches that ran perpendicular to the front, were support and rear trenches. Deep protective dugouts were situated along the front and rear trenches to provide some degree of safety against all but direct hits from artillery fire. Saps and listening posts were pushed into no man’s land, where soldiers were positioned to provide advance warnings of enemy attacks.
Despite the unsanitary nature of front line trenches, they were areas of safety. The trenches protected against small arms fire, shrapnel bursts and high explosive bombardments. Every day and night soldiers shored up the crumbling walls, filled sandbags, and rebuilt sections that had been damaged by artillery fire. It was not only a war of the machine gun and rifle, but also of the shovel.
Life in the trenches was filled with long periods of boredom interspersed with terror. Much of the time was spent in routine duty. At half an hour before dawn, the infantry was roused from their dugouts or funk holes (small spaces carved into the trench walls) and ordered to ‘Stand-To.’ At the alert, they waited for a possible attack with bayonet fixed. If nothing occurred, and it rarely did, since the infantry of both sides were always at their most prepared at this time, officers inspected the men. Rifles were examined for rust; feet were prodded to ensure that dry socks had been worn to protect against trench foot. The latter being a type of frostbite that occurred from prolonged standing in cold, slushy water, and could, in severe cases, require the amputation of toes or feet. After inspection, soldiers were often rewarded with a small dose of rum, which was much appreciated by the men, who saw it as a form of medicine to help withstand the daily deprivations.
Breakfast, like most meals, usually consisted of canned beef, jam and biscuits. It was a monotonous diet, but soldiers rarely went hungry. For lunch or dinner, soup or stew was brought up from rear areas to offer some variety and warmth. Care packages from home, filled with cheese, bread and sweets, augmented the bland food. During the day, though, the goal of most privates was to avoid the sergeant who assigned trench chores. Most were unsuccessful, with soldiers spending much of their time rebuilding the trenches or standing sentry.
Despite these duties, soldiers had much free time, during which they dreamed of home and of loved ones left behind; worried about children who were growing up without a father; of ailing parents with no caregivers; or of a wife who was trying to feed a family with insufficient funds. Literate soldiers might spend a few hours scribbling letters. Return mail from home was a welcomed treat, with letters read and reread. These exchanges back and forth remained an important life-line to Canada from the trenches. And while they were usually subject to two levels of censorship, by officers at the front and officials in England, soldiers nonetheless tried to share their thoughts with those at home. Civilians could not understand everything, nor could soldiers often capture the full range of their strange experiences in words, but letters remained an important avenue of expression.
Boredom could be kept at bay through gambling, and there was always some rake with dice or cards to fleece his mates. If a soldier had no money, he at least had cigarettes. Soldiers smoked all day long, and cigarettes, which were issued by the army, bought in rear areas, and begged from those at home, were a useful distraction. They helped to calm the nerves, or so soldiers said, and they certainly helped to mask the stench of unwashed bodies.
There were no baths in the front lines and, most soldiers went at least a week, usually longer, without changing their clothes. Dirt and mud were a part of life and, during the winter, helped to insulate soldiers. Far more trying was the infestation of parasitic body lice. The lice lived in the seams of clothing where they feasted on human blood. Soldiers scratched themselves raw to get at their infernal enemies. They learned to defeat their insect adversaries, at least for a time, by taking off their shirts and running a candle over the seams. This drew out the lice that were then squashed satisfactorily between finger and thumb. While soldiers did this, they would sit around, talk, complain and gossip. It was known as ‘chatting,’ and it is just one of many wartime phrases that would enter the English lexicon. But the lice always came back, tormenting the soldiers day and night.
Rats, too, were a constant plague, and because they lived off corpses, they could grow as big as cats. They bit soldiers and scurried over their faces while they slept. The rats were hunted by soldiers and their trench pets, usually fierce terrier dogs, but the rodents lived in and outside of the trenches and were always multiplying. Their squealing movement could be heard throughout the battlefield.
Amidst the mud and slush in the winter, or heat and flies in the summer, soldiers developed their own trench culture. New words sprang up, slang like ‘napoo’ for being killed, or ‘blighty’ that referred to England or home. Artistic soldiers could take spent ammunition and shape it into art. Some soldiers tried their hand at poetry. While most were not as skilled as John McCrae, Wilfrid Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, to name the best-known war poets, the trench poetry or doggerel provided much insight into the soldiers’ front-line experiences. At the group level, some battalions printed trench newspapers. Drawing from their own soldiers in the ranks—men who in civilian life had been editors, journalists and cartoonists—these crude newspapers contained rough humour and wry commentary on the strange, subterranean world of the trenches.
But just as a soldier might be penning a letter or staring at the blue sky above, the crash of an artillery shell could bring sudden death. The enemy was always there to kill or maim. Snipers skulked into no man’s land, camouflaged and ready to put a bullet through a man’s head should it rise, even for a second, above the safety of the trench parapet. Poison gas was released in the form of gas clouds and artillery shells, and soldiers who could not put on their respirator quickly faced a lingering death as chemicals corrupted and ravaged lungs.
Machine-gun bullets raked the front lines day and night. Yet artillery shells were the greatest killer in the war, accounting for more than half of all deaths. High explosive shells blew deep holes in the ground or wrecked trenches; soldiers were atomized by direct hits. Equally deadly, shrapnel artillery shells rained hundreds of metal balls and jagged steel down on soldiers, shredding through flesh and bone. Steel helmets, introduced in early 1916, helped to reduce casualties, but a unit’s tour in the front lines almost always resulted in a steady hemorrhage of casualties. It was clinically called wastage, and impersonal charts showed that each month the infantry would lose approximately 10% of its strength, even in quiet areas where no operations were carried out. While the snipers and artillerymen did their dirty work, the soldiers could look around and see their best friends killed and maimed.
Yet the soldiers struck back in the form of nighttime raids. Changing into dark clothes, equipping themselves with revolvers, grenades, daggers and clubs, small groups of men snuck past their wire and into no man’s land. Raids were a form of organized mugging, and the goal was to gather intelligence, kill the enemy and grab a prisoner. Enemy sentries were usually the target, but sometimes large groups of raiders slipped into the opposite trenches to wreck mayhem. While Canadian troops acquired a reputation as fierce raiders, these operations were dangerous affairs, and in the confusion of night fighting, casualties were often heavy.
To help relieve the unending pressure on soldiers, they were rotated in and out of the front line. On roughly four- to six-day tours, filthy, verminous, exhausted soldiers passed from front to secondary lines and finally to the reserves. This rotation helped to relieve the strain, but soldiers always knew they would return to the trenches in this maddening cycle.
Endurance was the key to survival and soldiers learned to cope with the inhuman conditions. Some developed fatalistic attitudes, believing they would be killed ‘when their number was up’; others lived in terror all the time; a few hoped for a blighty wound, a bullet through the hand or leg that would take them away from the horror and back to a clean hospital in England. Thousands suffered mental breakdowns, known as shell shock, but hundreds of thousands more of the ‘poor bloody infantry,’ as the soldiers liked to call themselves, learned to withstand the strain of the trenches. And it was these survivors who, after four years of bitter fighting, would finally break the static warfare on the Western Front and defeat the German forces.
Bird, Will R. Ghosts Have Warm Hands: A Memoir of the Great War, 1916-1919. Ottawa: CEF Books, 1997 (1968).
Black, Ernest Garson. I Want One Volunteer. Toronto: Ryerson, 1965.
Canadian Bank of Commerce. Letters from the Front : Being a Partial Record of the Part Played by Officers of the Bank in the Great European War. 11 v. Toronto: Canadian Bank of Commerce, 1915-1919.
Cook, Tim. "`More a Medicine than a Beverage': 'Demon Rum' and the Canadian Trench Soldier of the First World War." Canadian Military History 9, 1 (Winter 2000) : 6-22.
Fraser, Donald. The Journal of Private Fraser, 1914-1918, Canadian Expeditionary Force. Reginald H. Roy, ed. Nepean, ON: CEF Books, 1998 (1985).
Granatstein, J.L. Hell’s Corner: An Illustrated History of Canada’s Great War, 1914-1918. Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre, 2004.
Litalien, Michel et Stéphane Thibault, Tranchées : le quotidien de la guerre 1914-1918, Outremont, Québec, Athena éditions, 2004.
Morrison, J. Clinton. Hell upon Earth: A Personal Account of Prince Edward Island Soldiers in the Great War, 1914-1918. Summerside, PEI.: J.C. Morrison, 1995.
Morton, Desmond. "A Canadian Soldier in the Great War: The Experience of Frank Maheux." Canadian Military History 1, nos 1 & 2 (1992) : 79-89.
---. When Your Number's Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War. Toronto: Random House, 1993.
Morton, Desmond and J.L. Granatstein. Marching to Armageddon: Canadians and the Great War, 1914- 1919. Toronto: Lester & Orpen, Dennys, 1989.
Winter, Denis. Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War. Markam, ON: Penguin Books, 1985.
The 13th (Royal Highlanders of Canada) Battalion
In April 1915, the battalion was used to reinforce British and Canadian lines in Ypres sector, the site of the first use of poison gas during the war. For the remainder of 1915 and 1916, the battalion fought in many locations, including Festubert, Messines, Bailleul, Givenchy, Flanders and the Somme. On April 9, the battalion went over the top in the Battle of Vimy Ridge. In 1918, the 13th participated in battles around Amiens, Chaulnes, and Roye. In August 1918, they attacked the German forces outside Hangar Wood and two soldiers won Victoria Crosses for their courageous actions, Private J. B. Croak and Corporal H. J. Good. Croak attacked and captured a machine-gun nest single-handedly and despite being badly wounded, proceeded with the aid of other members of his unit, to attack another German strongpoint, silence three machine guns, bayoneting or capturing their crews. Croak was wounded again and died just after the last resistance was overcome. Good’s act of courage involved the destruction of three machine guns and their crews, and with the aid of three soldiers, successfully assaulted and captured a German battery of 5.9 inch guns and their entire crews. During the course of the war, the 13th suffered 5,881 casualties, of which 1,105 were fatalities.
Les Purs Canayens
by Serge Durflinger
During the First World War, the Canadian government used posters as propaganda devices, for fund raising and as a medium to encourage voluntary enlistment in the armed forces. Posters were an important form of mass communication in pre-radio days and hundreds existed during the war, some with print runs in the tens of thousands.
Because of Canada’s bilingual character, recruiting poster images and text reflected different cultural traditions, outlooks and sensibilities. Recruiting posters remain snapshots in time, helping historians understand the issues and moods of the past.
The French-Canadian recruiting posters reflect Canada’s pressing demand for manpower during the First World War. They also indicate the underlying social, cultural and political strains that affected Canada’s war effort and influenced military policy. Most French-speaking Canadians did not support Canada’s overseas military commitments to the same degree as English speakers.
At the outbreak of war in August 1914, the Dominion of Canada was constitutionally a subordinate member of the British Empire. When Britain was at war, Canada was at war: no other legal option existed. Nevertheless, Ottawa determined the nature of Canada’s contribution to the war effort, not London.
When Canadians learned they were at war, huge flag-waving crowds expressing loyalty to the British Empire drowned out voices of caution or dissent. The war would be a moral crusade against militarism, tyranny, injustice and barbarism. "There are no longer French Canadians and English Canadians," claimed the Montreal newspaper La Patrie, "Only one race now exists, united...in a common cause." Even Henri Bourassa, politician, journalist, anti-imperialist and guiding spirit of French-Canadian nationalism, at first cautiously supported the war effort. Few Canadians could have predicted at this time that their nation soon would become a major participant in the worst conflict the world had yet seen, or that the war would place enormous political and social strains on Canada.
Recruitment: Policy versus Reality
The Conservative government of Prime Minister Robert Borden immediately offered Britain a contingent of troops for overseas service. Thousands of men enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), then assembling at Valcartier, Québec under the personal, if chaotic, supervision of Sam Hughes, the exuberant Minister of Militia and Defence. There was a surplus of volunteers and selection standards remained high; some men, in fact, were turned away. On October 3, a convoy of ships carrying nearly 33,000 Canadian troops departed for Britain. In December 1914, Borden announced solemnly that "there has not been, there will not be, compulsion or conscription." To find whatever manpower might be necessary, Borden placed his faith in Canadians’ patriotic spirit.
Fully two-thirds of the men of the first contingent had been born in the British Isles. Most had settled in Canada in the 15-year period of massive immigration that had preceded the Great War. The same attachment to the Mother Country was less obvious among the Canadian born, especially French Canadians, of whom only about 1000 enlisted in the first contingent. At the time war was declared, only 10 percent of the population of Canada was British born. Yet, by the Armistice in 1918, nearly half of all Canadians who served during the war had been born in the British Isles. These statistics indicate that voluntary enlistments among the Canadian born were never equal to their proportion of the population.
Following the dispatch of this first contingent, the Department of Militia and Defence delegated the task of recruiting to militia units across the country. This decentralized and more orderly system raised a total of 71 battalions — each of approximately 1000 men — for service overseas. Posters, which appeared in every conceivable public space, were an important part of this large recruiting effort. The poster text and images were usually designed and printed by the units themselves and tailored to local conditions and interests.
Recruitment, however, was already tapering off in the fall of 1915. In October of that year, Ottawa bowed to the pressure of patriotic groups and allowed any community, civilian organization or leading citizen able to bear the expense to raise an infantry battalion for the CEF. Some of the new battalions were raised on the basis of ethnicity or religion, others promoted a common occupational or institutional affiliation or a shared social interest, such as membership in sporting clubs, as the basis of their organization. For example, Danish Canadians raised a battalion, two battalions recruited "Bantams," men under 5 feet 2 inches (1.6 m) tall, and one Winnipeg battalion was organized for men abstaining from alcohol. Up to October 1917 this "patriotic" recruiting yielded a further 124,000 recruits divided among 170 usually understrength infantry battalions.
In July 1915, with two contingents already overseas and more units forming, Ottawa set the authorized strength of the CEF at 150,000 men. Extremely heavy Canadian casualties that spring during the Second Battle of Ypres indicated that additional manpower would be required on an unprecedented scale. There would be no quick end to the fighting. In October, Borden increased Canada’s troop commitment to 250,000; by the new year, this had risen to 500,000. This was an almost unsustainable number on a voluntary basis from a population base of less than eight million. Within months, voluntary enlistments for Canadian infantry battalions slowed to a trickle.
Unemployment had been high in 1914-1915, and this perhaps had prompted the initially heavy flow of enlistments, especially from economically troubled Western Canada. By 1916, the booming wartime industrial and agricultural economies combined to provide Canadians with other options and employers competed with recruiting officers for Canada’s available manpower. Those keen to volunteer had already done so; the rest would have to be convinced — or compelled.
By the end of 1916, the CEF’s front-line units required 75,000 men annually just to replace losses, which were extremely heavy among the infantry; yet, only 2800 infantry volunteers enlisted from July 1916 to October 1917 and not a single infantry battalion raised through voluntary recruitment after July 1916 reached full strength.
French Canada and Recruitment
Following the nation-wide outbursts of patriotism in August 1914, French-Canadian support for the war began to decline. There existed among French Canadians a tradition of suspicion and even hostility towards the British Empire, and, while sympathetic to France, Britain’s ally, few French Canadians were willing to risk their lives in its defence either. After all, for over a century following the British conquest of New France in 1760, France showed no interest in the welfare of French Canadians. In North America, les Canadiens had survived and grown, remaining culturally vibrant without French support. By 1914, while an educated élite in French Canada professed some cultural affinity, most French Canadians did not identify with anti-clerical and scandal-ridden France.
When a French government propaganda mission toured Québec in 1918, Bourassa spoke for French Canada when he wrote of the irony of the French "trying to have us offer the kinds of sacrifices for France which France never thought of troubling itself with to defend French Canada." In short, neither France nor Britain was "a mother country" retaining the allegiance of French Canadians. The "patriotic" call to arms rang hollow.
French Canadians’ language and culture seemed more seriously threatened within Canada than by the war in Europe. In 1912, Ontario passed Regulation 17, a bill severely limiting the availability of French-language schooling to the province’s French-speaking minority. French Canada viewed this gesture as a blatant attempt at assimilation, which it had resisted for generations. Bourassa, who by 1915 saw the war as serving Britain’s imperial interests, insisted that "the enemies of the French language, of French civilization in Canada are not the Boches [the Germans]...but the English-Canadian anglicizers..." Bourassa’s acerbic campaign against the "Prussians of Ontario" had a major impact on recruiting for "Britain’s" war. The Montreal daily, La Presse, judged Ontario’s unyielding Regulation 17 as the main reason for French-Canadian apathy. To English Canada’s calls for greater French-Canadian enrollment, Armand Lavergne, well-known nationaliste, replied: "Give us back our schools first!" Wartime appeals for unity and sacrifice came at an inopportune time.
French Canada’s views were reflected in low enrollment numbers. Yet, most Canadians of military age, not with standing language, did not volunteer. Those tied to the land, generations removed from European immigration, or married, volunteered the least. Significantly, these characteristics applied most often to French Canadians, although many rural English Canadians were not enlisting either. If British immigrants are not counted, the respective contributions of French and English Canadians are more proportional than the raw data would suggest.
When the first contingent of the CEF sailed in October 1914, it contained a single organized French-speaking company (about 150 men). Sam Hughes at first refused to authorize any French-language units. The second contingent of over 20,000 men, dispatched to Britain in early 1915, had a single French-speaking Québec battalion, the 22nd, later nicknamed the "Van Doos." Besides this battalion, the CEF was almost entirely an English-language institution, hardly an inducement for a French Canadian to volunteer. A mere 13 of 258 infantry battalions formed during the course of the war were raised in French Canada, and all struggled to attract and retain recruits. Those understrength French-speaking battalions that proceeded overseas after 1915 were invariably broken up to reinforce the 22nd and other units suffering severe infantry shortages.
Occasionally in 1915 and 1916, respected and battle-hardened officers of the 22nd would be assigned to newly formed French-language battalions in the hope that a claim to some association with the famed "Van Doos" might encourage prospective enlistees. It rarely did. In June 1916, the 167th Battalion, recruiting in Québec City, even tried raffling an automobile to raise interest but only raised 144 men for service at the front with the 22nd. One interesting unit was the 163rd Battalion, raised in November 1915 by the noted nationaliste journalist and adventurer, Olivar Asselin, who insisted on enrolling only high-calibre men. Criticized by his nationaliste colleagues for enlisting, Asselin explained in the pamphlet “Pourquoi je m’enrôle,” that far from being a hypocrite, he was helping to defend France and not the British Empire. Asselin nicknamed his unit "les poils-aux-pattes" [hairy paws] and adopted the porcupine as his regimental emblem, explaining "qui s’y frotte s’y pique" [stung are those who come into contact with it]. Asselin’s considerable efforts to raise a high-quality French-language battalion were in vain: despite successful recruiting, the 163rd was dispatched to Bermuda for garrison duty, where it languished. It, too, was eventually dismantled to reinforce the 22nd.
French Canada supplied approximately 15,000 volunteers during the war. Most came from the Montreal area, though Québec City, Western Québec and Eastern Ontario provided significant numbers. A precise total is difficult to establish since attestation papers did not require enlistees to indicate their mother tongue. Though French Canadians comprised nearly 30 percent of the Canadian population, they made up only about 4 percent of Canadian volunteers. Less than 5 percent of Quebec’s males of military age were enrolled in infantry battalions, compared to 14-15 percent in Western Canada and Ontario. Moreover, half of Quebec’s recruits were English Canadian and nearly half of French-Canadian volunteers came from provinces other than Québec. The result was an angry national debate concerning French Canada’s, and especially Québec’s, manpower contribution.
Conscription and its Aftermath
When Borden pledged in 1914 that there would be no conscription in Canada, he also maintained that Canada would furnish whatever manpower was needed to help win the war. By the spring of 1917, these two policies had become irreconcilable. Voluntary enrollment was no longer producing the reinforcements necessary to maintain Canada’s commitment in the field where the CEF had suffered appalling casualties. Worse was yet to come.
In May 1917, Borden visited Vimy Ridge in the immediate aftermath of that costly Canadian victory. Moved by the hardships endured by the troops and proud of their battlefield achievements, on May 18, upon his return to Canada, Borden announced that "all citizens are liable for the defence of their country and I conceive that the battle for Canadian liberty and autonomy is being fought on the plains of France and Belgium." The government began drafting the Military Service Act.
Many English Canadians hailed the step as a military necessity, but also as a means of forcing French Canada to augment its low enlistment rate. Saturday Night magazine insisted, "it is certainly not the intention of English Canada to stand idly by and see itself bled white of men in order that the Québec shirker may sidestep his responsibilities." English Canada hated Bourassa as much as the German Kaiser. There was little sympathy for French Canadians and little understanding of the demographic, cultural or historical factors which might have dissuaded them from enlisting
The Military Service Act became law on August 28. Former prime minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier claimed the measure "has in it the seeds of discord and disunion." He was correct; anti-conscription demonstrations occurred regularly in Montreal in the summer of 1917. Angry crowds broke office windows at the pro-conscription Montreal newspaper, The Gazette. The home of Lord Atholstan, proprietor of the equally pro-conscription Montreal Daily Star, was dynamited earlier that month although he escaped unharmed. Recruiting officers in various parts of Québec made themselves scarce for fear of their lives. Crowds chanted, "Nous en avons assez de l’Union Jack!"
The political truce that had prevented a wartime election ended. Parliament was dissolved in October 1917 and pro-conscription Liberals joined Borden’s Conservatives to form a Union Government, something of a misnomer since its founding was the result of national disunity. Some labour groups, most farmers and many Canadians of non-British origin were also firmly opposed to conscription. J.C. Watters, the president of the Trades and Labour Congress, threatened that if conscription passed, Canadian workers "would lay down...tools and refuse to work."
The ensuing December 17 "conscription" election was by far the most bitterly contested and linguistically divisive in Canadian history. In the end, the Unionists won 153 seats against the Laurier Liberals’ 82, including 62 obtained in Québec, but the popular vote was less than 100,000 in favour of the Unionists. The result was profound alienation in French Canada. Conscription was considered the result of the English-language majority imposing its views over a French-language minority on an issue of life and death. Conceptions of Canada and definitions of patriotism had never been further apart. Canadian national unity had never seemed so fragile.
The first group of conscripts was called in January 1918. There were slightly more than 400,000 Class I registrants; that is, unmarried and childless males aged 20-34. Nationally, almost 94 percent of these men applied for various exemptions from service (98 percent in Québec) and the appeal boards established to review these cases granted nearly 87 percent of their requests (91 percent in Québec). Some 28,000 others (18,000 in Québec) simply defaulted and went into hiding to avoid arrest by military or civilian police. Conscription was unpopular among those called, regardless of region, occupation or ethnicity.
The tension in Québec was palpable. At the end of March 1918 a mob destroyed the offices of the Military Service Registry in Québec City. Conscript troops were rushed from Toronto and on April 1 they opened fire with machine guns on a threatening crowd, killing four demonstrators and wounding dozens of others. The extent of the violence shocked the country. Religious leaders and civic authorities successfully appealed for calm. The rioting stopped, but the bitter memories would linger for decades.
Of the 620,000 men who served in the CEF, about 108,000 were conscripts. Fewer than 48,000 of these proceeded overseas and, before the war ended in November 1918, only 24,000 actually served at the front. Although all of the conscripts would have been urgently needed at the front if the war had continued into 1919, as expected, conscription hardly seemed worth the effort given the severity of the national disunity it caused. In the postwar period, French-Canadian nationalistes would point to the conscription crisis as evidence of the impossibility of reconciling the views of French and English speakers in Canada. The events of 1917-1918 forced the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King to tread warily over the same issue during the Second World War.
Robert Craig Brown and Donald Loveridge. "Unrequited Faith: Recruiting the CEF 1914-1918." Revue Internationale d’Histoire Militaire 51, 1982.
Marc H. Choko. Canadian War Posters. Montreal: Méridien, 1994.
Gérard Filteau. Le Québec, le Canada et la guerre 1914-1918. Montreal: L’aurore, 1977.
Jean-Pierre Gagnon, Le 22e Bataillon, Ottawa et Québec: Les Presses de l’Université Laval en collaboration avec le ministère de la Défense nationale et le Centre d’édition du gouvernement du Canada, 1986.
J.L. Granatstein and J.M. Hitsman. Broken Promises: A History of Conscription in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Desmond Morton and J.L. Granatstein. Marching to Armageddon. Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys, 1989.
Desmond Morton. When Your Number’s Up. Toronto: Random House, 1993.
G.W.L. Nicholson. Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964.
Reproduced with permission from Canadian War Museum
The 10th (Western Canadians) Battalion
First commanding officer, Lt.-Col. Russell Boyle, was killed in the unit’s first combat action. On April 22, 1915, the 10th and 16th battalions counterattacked German positions at Kitchener’s Wood at midnight near the town of St. Julien, in the Ypres salient, Belgium. In the course of the intense 6-hour battle, there were 80% casualties for the Canadians. St. Julien is commemorated annually in April.
The 2nd (Eastern Ontario) Battalion
During the Battle at Hill 70 in August 1917, the 2nd Battalion knocked out and captured three machine guns and the western edge of Fresnoy and then stormed the village. The battalion had similar success at Bois Hugo by pushing back the Germans and holding the position intact. They engaged in more fighting at the Battle of Amiens, August 8-11, 1918. During the Battle of the Scarpe on August 30, 1918, the 2nd Battalion, together with the 1st Battalion, caught the enemy completely by surprise by hiding behind an ingenious barrage, resulting in further movement northward.
Adapted from Nicholson, C.D., Colonel G.W.L. Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1918.
Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI)
The PPCLI, the first Canadian unit to arrive at the war front, was integrated with the British 27th Division and suffered terrible losses. During 1915, a reserve infantry battalion provided the PPCLI with reinforcements. On December 22, 1915, under the command of Brig.-Gen. A. C. MacDonell, the PPCLI joined with the 42nd and 49th battalions to form the 7th Brigade. During the Battle of Passchendaele, before the start of the main attack on the night of October 30, 1917, the PPCLI captured “Snipe Hall,” an obstacle pillbox for the 9th Brigade on October 26. Struggling forward through the mire to their intermediate objective, a storm of enemy fire bombarded the battalion causing heavy casualties including most of their junior officers. The main accomplishment of the PPCLI on October 30 was the storming of the heavily guarded position on the Meetcheele crossroads due mainly to the courageous actions of two men. Lt. Hugh Mackenzie, DCM (a Patricia officer serving with the 7th Machine Gun Company), and Sgt. G. H. Mullin, MM, a regimental sniper, led an attack on the enemy’s machine-gun pillbox site that was creating an obstacle to the battalion’s left company’s ascent of the ridge. Mackenzie was killed by enemy fire but Mullin successfully captured the pillbox single-handedly. With his revolver, he killed its two machine gunners and forced the garrison of ten to surrender.
The 5th (Western Cavalry)
The 5th Battalion also engaged in fighting at St. Julien and Boetleer’s Farm in April 1915. In 1917 at Hill 70, when the machine guns of the 5th and of the Princess Patricia’s Light Cavalry Infantry could not halt the advance of the Germans, the battalion’s Mounted Rifles held in check enemy firing. After an assault on Hill 70 on August 15, the 5th Battalion captured 150 prisoners and eight machine guns. On August 9, 1918, at the Battle of Amiens, Sgt. Ray L. Zengel of the 5th Battalion was one of three men who prevented heavy casualties when he charged forward, attacked and silenced a machine-gun post, receiving the Victory Cross for his bold action.
The 16th (Canadian Scottish) (Princess Mary’s) Battalion
Under the commands of Lt-Cols R. G. E. Leckie and C. W. Peck, the 16th Battalion fought in many battles, including Ypres, Vimy Ridge, the Somme, Passchendaele and Amiens. At Regina Trench on October 8, 1916, men of the 16th were restricted at the wire by a storm of enemy machine-gun and rifle fire, not one being able to get through. With complete disregard for the gunfire, the 18-year-old piper James Richardson marched up and down playing his bagpipes, inspiring about a hundred of the Scottish to rush the wire. The soldiers managed to fight their way into the Regina Trench. At Vimy Ridge, Private W. J. Milne engaged in heroic action for which he was awarded a Victoria Cross posthumously. While his company was being held up by enemy machine gun, Milne crawled on hands and knees to bombing distance, wiped out the crew and captured the gun. Later that day, he was killed.
Adapted from Nicholson, G. W. L. Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1918.