Canada Prepares for War: A history of WWI

Robert Bothwell recounts how Canada found itself at war on August 4, 1914.
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July 23, 2014
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On August 4, 1914, Canadians found themselves at war. It was not entirely unexpected: for the previous two weeks there had been increasingly alarming reports of confrontations among the nations of Europe, and then mounting speculation that Great Britain, too, would be involved, and with Britain the British Empire, and with the British Empire, Canada, the empire’s first and largest dominion.

Canada has often been described as an unmilitary country. There are some senses in which that was true. Canada’s preoccupation before 1914 was economic growth, agriculture, mining, railways and settlement rather than war-making. It is also true that prior to 1914 Canada’s professional armed forces were minuscule, but it is also true that the unprofessional armed forces, the militia, were a universal and prominent feature of Canadian society—in Quebec as in the eight English-majority provinces. Parades, martial displays and annual training camps were features of daily life. Next to churches, government-built armouries were the most prominent public buildings in many towns.

Canadians took pride in their membership in the British Empire with its very prominent martial tradition. The battles of the British (or English) past were fondly remembered and celebrated: Crecy, Agincourt, the Spanish armada, Blenheim, Trafalgar, and Waterloo. Great imperial functions like Queen Victoria’s golden and diamond jubilees or King Edward’s and King George’s coronations flickered past Canadian audiences as parades in which, latterly, Canadian units also marched or rode, a proud part of the display of British power.

Things were not quite the same in French Canada, for while there were militia regiments there were also units of papal zouaves, marching in red pantaloons and recalling the day when French Canadians had fought for the pope to hold back the forces of Italian secularism—unsuccessfully, as it happened.

It was too bad there was no papal navy, for when the question of formulating a naval policy for Canada arose between 1910 and 1914, French Canada reacted with indifference and then hostility to various schemes for securing the waves. The latest, Conservative prime minister Robert Borden’s plan to contribute many millions of dollars to the Royal Navy in what he was told (by no less than Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty) was Britain’s hour of need, split the cabinet and failed to pass the Canadian Senate. The split was along language lines, and was a harbinger of trouble to come.

In fact, opposition to Borden’s naval scheme proved to be the right position, though mostly for the wrong reasons. In arguing for Canada’s naval contribution (money) Churchill placed urgency before candour and, indeed, truth. Britain was indeed in an exciting naval race with Germany, but it was a race that Britain was winning. The urgency of securing Canada’s money may therefore be doubted. Moreover, Britain’s naval strategy involved cooperation with its unofficial ally France, and the Royal Navy was distributed accordingly from 1912 to 1914. Churchill and the British prime minister, H.H. Asquith, breathed not a word of this arrangement to Borden when he visited Britain seeking enlightenment in 1912. But the entente with France was to be crucial in moving Britain toward war in 1914, and by the time Borden recognized the danger of war, at the very end of July, the movement had become an avalanche. What Borden did not know did not hurt him politically, for the opposition also had no idea how ill-founded his naval plans actually were.

As the British Cabinet deliberated in the first days of August 1914, its Canadian counterpart simply awaited news from London. Borden sought no special information, and got none. It would not have occurred to him actually to offer advice, for what would he say? The Germans had provided a casus belli by invading Belgium, and that was enough for Borden—as it was for most Canadians. Still, the hours drifted by as the British government presented an ultimatum to the imperial German government and awaited a reply. The mercurial minister of national defence, Colonel Sam Hughes, became impatient and hauled down the Union Jack outside defence headquarters as a sign of his displeasure at Britain’s hesitancy to declare war on Germany.

Finally, at 5 pm on August 4, 1914, the word came. Britain was at war, so Canada was at war. Hughes rejoiced. The Union Jack was restored to its flagpole, Parliament was summoned and Canadians reflexively reacted. Judging from the newspapers, they reacted with enthusiasm, though more effusively in English than in French Canada.

Canada’s automatic participation in this new war was of course legal and constitutional. The question of how much participation was however up to Canada. What would be required? What was appropriate? No-one could say for certain. General Willoughby Gwatkin, a British officer serving as the army’s chief of staff, warned of a long, costly and bloody conflict, but nobody in 1914 seems to have imagined what that actually could mean. Gwatkin was, unfortunately, proved right.

Nobody could really remember the last Great War, which had ended ninety-nine years before and which had lasted 22 long and costly years. It was a war of marching and cavalry charges and field artillery, though occasionally it was also a war of sieges and trenches. Importantly, it was a pre-modern conflict, before railways and the internal combustion engine, telegraphs and radios, and airplanes, which would give the war just beginning a different character. Nevertheless, men would be required for the army, money for armaments and raw material to feed the industry that would produce the armaments. The earlier war had had a happy outcome, which people did remember and that provided encouragement for the struggle about to begin. History had accelerated since 1815, but some of its themes were familiar. Bonaparte had been a tyrant; he was an international malefactor; he had broken international law, not once but habitually. In August 1914 rhetorical tailors were measuring Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany for his new outfit as a tyrant and a brute, while Borden burnished his oratory for the emergency parliamentary session called for mid-August so members could assemble from across Canada’s three-thousand-mile breadth. And so war came to Canada.

This article is the first in a two-part series to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Read the second part by Margaret MacMillan here. The Bill Graham Centre and the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, with support from the Canadian Armed Forces, will also hold a conference “1914-1918: The Making of the Modern World” on July 30 and a concert “1914-1918: In Memoriam” on July 31 to commemorate the centennial.