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20: Canada's Part in the World War

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The sailing of the First Canadian Contingent on October 2, 1914, for England, en route to the theater of war, marked a noteworthy epoch in Canadian history. For the first time the Dominion took her place, not as a British colony, but as a component part of the British Empire. This position was established by the voluntary offer of expeditionary troops to be raised, equipped, and paid by Canada for the defense of the British empire.

For many years a movement had been on foot to bring about this attitude on the part of the Dominion by His Majesty's government.

No such action was taken by the Dominion in the South African War, though a Canadian regiment was raised for the guarding of Halifax so that the regiment of British soldiers doing garrison duty there might be released for service at the front, and all other troops who left Canada went simply as volunteers to join the British army, though raised by the Dominion government.

When the situation in South Africa reached a critical stage and there were fears of German interference on behalf of the Boers it became clear that the British government strongly desired a helping hand from Canada for political reasons. It seemed a good time to show a solid front and a united Empire. Later, on October 3d, there came a request for 500 men from the British Colonial Secretary. No immediate action was taken on this, but on October 13th, the government passed an Order-in-Council for the raising of 1,000 volunteers and providing for their equipment and transportation. But these men were really British volunteers, not Canadian troops, as once at the front they became British soldiers under British pay. This contingent was known as a "Special Service Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry," and did not belong in any sense to the organized troops of the Dominion, either regular or militia, although they approached more nearly to that status than in any previous case of assistance given by the Dominion to the Empire.

In the Indian Mutiny in 1857 a regiment was raised in Canada by the British government known as the 100th Prince of Wales Royal Canadian Regiment" and in the Empire's other wars, such as the Crimean and the Soudanese, there were always Canadian volunteers in the British forces.


The declaration of war by Great Britain on Germany made on the night of August 4, 1914, found the people of the Dominion not wholly unprepared for the situation. For some time ways of helping the mother country had been the chief topic both in government circles and among the people at large. This is best instanced by the following telegram sent by His Royal Highness, the governor-General, to the Secretary of State for the colonies, Rt. Hon. Lewis Harcourt.

"Ottawa, August 1, 1914

In view of the impending danger of war involving the Empire my advisers are anxiously considering the most effective means of rendering every possible aid, and will welcome any suggestions and advice which Imperial naval and military authorities may deem it expedient to offer. They are confident that a considerable force would be available for service abroad, as under section sixty-nine of Canadian Militia Act the active militia can only be placed on active service beyond Canada for the defense thereof. It has been suggested that regiments might enlist as Imperial troops for a stated period, Canadian Government undertaking to pay all necessary financial provisions for their equipment, pay and maintenance. This proposal has not yet been maturely considered here and my advisers would be glad to have views of Imperial Government thereon. Arthur"

This offer from Canada preceded similar offers from Australia, India, South Africa and Egypt.

The response to this came in the following cable from His Majesty.

"London, August 4, 1914

Please communicate to your ministers following message from His Majesty the king and publish:

'I desire to express to my people of the Overseas Dominions with what appreciation and pride I have received the messages from their respective governments during the last few days. These spontaneous assurances of their fullest support recalled to me the generous self-sacrificing help given by them in the past to the Mother country. I shall be strengthened in the discharge of the great responsibilities which rest upon me by the confident belief that in this time of trial my Empire will stand united, calm, resolute, and trusting in God. George R.I. Harcourt"

Mr. Harcourt also cabled advising that although there was not immediately need for an expeditionary force it would be advisable to take all legislative and other steps necessary to the providing of such a force in case it should be required later.

The declaration of the war by Great Britain was officially recognized in Canada on August 5th, in a message from the Governor-General, beginning:

"Whereas a state of war now exists between this country and Germany."

On the following day came a call to the militia for active service and Canada had gone on record as having accepted her responsibilities as an integral part of the Empire. She was sending troops to help England not as volunteers who were to become British soldiers, but as Canadian soldiers, enlisted, clothed, armed, equipped and paid by Canadian dollars.

Shortly after this came another cablegram from Mr. Harcourt gratefully accepting the offer of the expeditionary force and requesting that it be sent forward as quickly as possible. This cablegram was supplemented by another suggesting one army division as a suitable composition for this expeditionary force. The terms of enlistment were to be as follows:

"(a) For a term of one year unless war lasts longer than one year, in which case they will be retained until war is over. If employed with hospitals, depots of mounted units, and as clerks, et cetera, they may be retained after termination of hostilities until services can be dispensed with, but such retention shall in no case exceed six months.

"(b) To be attached to any arm of service should it be required of them."

An army division of war strength consists of about 22,500 men composing all branches of the service.

While the call to arms found Canada prepared morally and financially, it found the country sadly unprepared from the standpoint of equipment. It was necessary to buy or make rifles, uniforms, guns and equipment of every description to increase the limited supply on hand to the necessary point. The quantity and variety of supplies required by an army division seems mountainous to the civilian. They ran the entire gamut from shoe laces to motor trucks, and these had to be purchased at the high prices caused by sudden demand wherever it was possible to obtain them in quantities with the greatest speed.

In this great work of mobilization Canada's fine railway organizations played a great and necessary part. With their aid and that of many prominent men in Canadian affairs the question of the gathering of materials at selected points went ahead rapidly.

The matter of enlistments held equally important sway. An order in council authorized an army of 22,218 officers and men and the recruiting officers wasted no time in setting about their work. All over the Dominion men had been drilling ever since the danger of war became acute. The organized militia was hard at work. Volunteers were being rapidly gathered and after a thorough medical examination were put in charge of a drill sergeant. There was no difficulty in getting men and the recruiting officers from the first were overwhelmed with applications. Canada was going to the aid of the mother country, not unwillingly, not with hesitancy, not with parsimony, but with a great rush of enthusiasm to save the Empire, Our Empire!


The problem of concentrating this huge body of men soon became a real one. A great mobilization camp was needed. A place not too far from the Atlantic, with ample railroad facilities, large and roomy enough for the maneuvering of large bodies of men as well as their housing in tents, must be found. A further qualification was that this great camp should be located in a position of strategic importance and one which could be defended should the necessity arise.

Such a place was found at Valcartier, a small village some sixteen miles from the City of Quebec on the line of the Canadian Northern Railway.

When the war was declared the government did not own Valcartier and few people had ever heard of it. Soon, however, the name began to grow more familiar with the newspapers and in a day or two the place became government property. For the purpose it proved ideal.

Great expanse of level country provided an ideal maneuvering ground. The site of the camp itself was high enough for good drainage and the Jacques Cartier River provided an abundance of good water.

But with the acquisition of the ground the work had just begun. It was necessary to erect tents for the housing of 30,000 men. A commissary for their subsistence must be provided. Stores and storehouses had to be rushed to the spot and there was a huge amount of work of a more or less permanent character in the shape of water works with many miles of piping, shower baths, drinking troughs, an electric light plant and the like. The engineers were called upon immediately to lay out the camp and its many auxiliary features. A rifle range, the largest in the world, was immediately planned and put in operation for the training of the soldiers, for few men unacquainted with military life are able to handle modern high-powered military rifles with any degree of success, although the average man, under capable instructors, rapidly becomes proficient. Artillery ranges in the Laurentian Hills were established for the training of the field artillery. Here the big sixty-pounders, which throw a shell for nearly five miles, first woke the echoes.

A great bridge-building record was made by the men of the Royal Canadian Engineers under the direction of Major W. Bethune Lindsay of Winnipeg. The Jacques Cartier River separates the main camp from the artillery practice grounds at the base of Mounts Ileene and Irene. Across this 350 feet of waterway the Royal Canadian Engineers built within four hours a barrel-pier pontoon bridge capable of carrying heavy batteries. The Major and his three hundred men worked with that well-ordered efficiency which characterizes the efforts of the British bred. The race for the record started with the Canadian Northern Railway. The materials barrels, planking, etc. were freighted on to the ground with remarkable dispatch. The casks were made watertight, the timber was made ready, the twenty-foot bank cut down to provide an easy grade for traffic, and the actual test was on.

There was never a hitch. One party of men lashed the barrels to the heavy planks, and, as soon as that operation was complete, another party lifted the pier and carried it down the bank. Another squad of men conveyed it on to the water, where it was taken in charge by still another party and floated out to the front line. The pier was drawn quickly into position, and as many men as could work with freedom soon had the flooring spiked down. The actual bridging commenced at eight o'clock; the span was complete at ten minutes after twelve. The extra ten minutes were accounted for by the fact that on one or two occasions passing bodies of other troops necessitated a temporary cessation of carrying operations.

Col. Burstall, Director of Artillery at the Camp, visited the work during the morning and expressed his astonishment at the progress effected. Ordinarily it is a good day's work to throw a bridge of this class across a three-hundred foot stream. Col. G. F. Maunsell, Director General of Engineering Service in Canada, who is attached to headquarters at Ottawa, also paid close attention to the task and was vastly pleased with the result. Col. Morrison, Ottawa, of the Artillery Service, hurried a gun across the bridge when completed, establishing its efficiency at once. Without doubt the brother officers of Major Lindsay, in all branches of the service, were extremely gratified at the efficiency and despatch of the men making up the Royal Canadian Engineers at the big camp.

Of course, the railway problem of moving the thousand or more troop trains which were rushing from all parts of Canada to Valcartier was a huge one. In this they had to cope with the great quantity of supplies and equipment which was daily forwarded. At Valcartier it was necessary for the Canadian Northern to form a loop for the rapid handling of these trains so that a constant stream of trains was kept continually moving in both directions without interruption.

Great hardships and inconveniences resulted in many cases from the lack of proper equipment. It was colder down in Quebec than in many other parts of the Dominion and a great many men were without sufficient blankets to keep them warm. Uniforms were scarce and army shoes fit for the work of drills and maneuvers even scarcer. Gradually, however, these deficiencies were supplied, recruits began to show amazing progress in the art of soldiering and little by little the great camp lost its motley appearance and became an efficient military organization in which rigid discipline and high efficiency prevailed. In six weeks Valcartier's 30,000 were ready, ready for England and the final polish which was to fit them for the test of battle. They could even have been sent to the front. It seemed that this was not yet necessary.


But it was decided that the time had come for this great body of troops to leave. The original plan of sending a division of 22,500 men was supplemented by the dispatch of the remaining 7,500 as a reserve to prevent the delay in getting them to the front should the necessity arise suddenly. Members of the government spoke of a possible second or third contingent, as experience had taught them that it would be as easy to raise 100,000 men as it had been to raise 30,000. At a given time the evacuation of Valcartier began. Thirty-two transports lay in the St. Lawrence prepared to take the division to England, and soon the first contingent began to move toward the sea. The British fleet had cleared the ocean of all but a few scattered German cruisers, and these were amply guarded against by the warships which acted as escorts. And so, on the second day of October Canada's first great pledge of loyalty left the shores of the Dominion to go to the defense of the Empire.

On October 15th the transports reached Plymouth, England, and were received with greatest enthusiasm. An English newspaper, The Western Morning News, spoke of the arrival the next morning in the following terms:

"The arrival of the fleet of transports with the first contingent of Canadian forces on board was an event of good augury for the future of the war. These splendid men have come, some of them nearly 6,000 miles, to testify to the unity of the Empire and take their share of the burden which rests upon Britons the world over of being the stoutest champions of justice and liberty. Even if their numbers were smaller we should hail their arrival as a symbol of the solidarity of the British race, but they come a large number in themselves, yet only the earnest of many more to come if they are needed to help in defeating the imposition of German tyranny and militancy on the world. The cheers they raised for the old country as they steamed into the harbor yesterday, and the splendid vigor and spirit they displayed, showed they have both the will and the power to give a good account of themselves at the front and prove worthy comrades of the dauntless band of heroes who, under Sir John French, have won the unstinted admiration of our French and Russian and Belgian allies and, indeed of the whole world."

Then followed long weeks of hard training on Salisbury Plains. At last they were considered fit for the front and the contingent was transported to France. Of their conduct there, under the baptism of fire, the following letter from General French at Headquarters of the British Army, dated March 3d, to His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught, is an ample testimonial.

"The Canadian troops having arrived at the front, I am anxious to tell your Royal Highness that they have made the best impression on all of us.

"I made a careful inspection of the division a week after they came to the country, and I was very much struck by the excellent physique which was apparent throughout the ranks. The soldierly bearing and the steadiness with which the men stood in the ranks (on a bleak cold snowy day) was most remarkable.

"After two or three weeks preliminary education in the trenches, attached by unit to the Third corps, they have now taken their own line on the right of that corps as a complete division and I have the utmost confidence in their capability to do valuable and efficient service.

"The Princess Patricia's Regiment arrived with the 27th Division a month earlier and since then they have performed splendid service in the trenches.

"When I inspected them (although in pouring rain), it seemed to me I had never seen a more magnificent looking battalion Guards or otherwise.

"Two or three days ago they captured a German trench with great dash and energy and excellent results.

"I am writing these few lines because I know how deeply we are all indebted to the untiring and devoted efforts your Royal Highness has personally made to ensure the despatch in the most efficient condition of this valuable contingent."

The first contingent had evacuated Valcartier only a short time when the second contingent began to move toward the great mobilization camp, for a similar process of training to that followed in the first case.

When the second contingent sailed away from Canada to take its place with the allies on the battlefields of Europe, it was accompanied by a battery of the most complete and efficient armored motor car rapid-fire machine guns ever devised. Indeed, they are, so far as is known, the first motor car machine guns in the ranks of the allies in any way comparing in point of up-to- dateness and efficiency with those now being employed by the German army. For up till recently Germany was the only power which had given any attention to armored motor car machine guns. The Germans had been experimenting for several years upon this latest development in field weapons, and when the present war broke out they had a type of armored motor car rapid-fire gun that has enabled them to do a kind of work that would not be done by any other sort of artillery. Great Britain, France and Belgium began hurriedly experimenting, and hastily put together a number of machine guns mounted on armored motor cars. These were but tentative weapons, however, quickly designed to meet an exigency for which the allies had not, like the Germans, already prepared. It has remained for Canada to evolve a type of armored motor car battery that is said to be the most perfect and effective that has ever been constructed.

This ultra-modern battery of forty guns was a part of Canada's contribution to the Empire at war. Fifteen of the guns were made possible by the patriotic generosity of Mr. J. C. Eaton, Toronto's well known millionaire department store owner, and were designated as the Eaton Battery. They were completed right in Toronto, where both the experimenting and designing were carried on, and the cars and guns put together, under the supervision of Mr. W. K. McNaught, C.M.G., who undertook the task of directing the work for the government. The corps of officers and men who man the battery had a special course of training under Capt. W. J. Morrison at Exhibition Camp.

It is only necessary to recall to mind certain pictures that have appeared recently of motor car machine guns in action to realize with what deadly effectiveness these weapons may be employed in present-day warfare. They combine all the terrific killing power of the rapid-fire machine gun with the swift mobility and tirelessness of the gasoline-driven motor car. Protected behind almost impregnable steel armor plate, the driver may dash ahead of the advancing lines and enable the gunner, almost completely protected, to mow down the ranks of the enemy with a sweeping stream of rifle bullets, played along a line of men much as one would play a stream of water from a fire hose. The car may be in motion all this time, or may stop only for an instant, so that the enemy has no time to train its artillery upon it. It may dash into what would be for infantry or cavalry or ordinary gunners the jaws of death, distribute its deadly sting, and then dash out again unscathed. Thus it may be of incalculable service in the field. Or it may be used in a town where whole masses of defenders may be driven back, and the streets completely cleared by the rapid sweep of its bullets.

The armored motor car guns which were constructed in Toronto are built on a motor truck chassis. The wheels are made of pressed steel, and have heavy tires of solid rubber. All the rest of the car is effectively covered with Harveyized steel plates, which were severely tested. This armorplate was rolled in Canada by Canadian workmen, and was made from iron ore mined in Nova Scotia.

The distinctive fighting feature of the car is the revolving turret of this armor-plate in which the offensive apparatus is situated. This turret rises above the four-foot armored body at about the center of the car. In it is the new model Maxim rapid- fire gun, mounted very strongly on an apparatus of steel and phosphor bronze, the invention of Canadian engineers. This gun mount really carries the revolving turret which surrounds it, and which revolves so easily on ball bearings that a mere touch of the hand will move it. It can make a complete revolution, so that the gun has a clear sweep. It can be locked by means of a lever operated by the gunner. The gunner sits on a seat fastened to the frame which supports the turret. The running machinery of the car which comes below the floor, is, of course, protected by a steel skirt, which extends around the car. The machine gun is aimed through a loop-hole in the steel turret. It can fire from 300 to 600 rifle bullets a minute, and has an effective range of a mile and a half. The bullets are held in a belt which runs through the gun automatically. The armor-plate on the rear of the car is loop-holed so that rifles can be used. Each of the machine guns has two extra barrels, the reason for this being that with the bullets passing through the barrel so rapidly it naturally becomes very hot, and so must be changed frequently.

Another feature of the car is that it is protected overhead as well as around the sides and front, and rendered immune from shrapnel fire, missiles from aeroplanes, and dropping bullets, by the same kind of armor-plate that is used on the sides. Thus the drivers and all the fighting men are completely protected by armor-plate.

Each car, in addition to its fighting equipment, carries picks, shovels, wire rope, repair tools and provisions. Attached to the battery are two workshop cars, with turning lathes and repair machines driven by motor spare parts, etc. These stay behind the firing line. Each car carries a complement of five men, including the two men who drive and the gunner who operates the machine gun. The extra two ride in the rear and may use rifles through the loop-holes. But there is no real specialization, for each man must be competent not only as a soldier but as a chauffeur, machinist and gunner. If there is only one man left in the car, he must be able to operate the machine gun, run the car, and make repairs if necessary. And he must be a man who can keep his head, observe intelligently, and plan for himself and his regiment. Those in charge of the recruiting for the Eaton Battery expressed themselves as well pleased with the type of men secured. Many had seen service before; there were several expert telegraphers, several expert signalers, and one an ex-lieutenant in the British navy.


As had been outlined in the early portion of this chapter, the World War produced a result in the Dominion long sought by the British government. From the position of a British Colony independent in all but name and free to send or withhold military aid, Canada has voluntarily advanced step by step in the direction of stronger unification of the British Empire. In each of the wars fought by Great Britain the part to be taken by Canadian soldiers has received more and more formal recognition from the Dominion government, advancing from a mere permission to volunteer, through various stages to the actual enlistment, equipment and dispatch of a purely Canadian Contingent under Canadian officers and Canadian pay to the support of the British Empire.

Though each step had been in this direction few thought that Canada would ever take such action. It has been admitted that if Canada herself was attacked Canadians would, of course, defend themselves to the last. It was even admitted that aid might be sent in case of an attack on the British Isles, as a part of the Empire, but so far as to raise an army to take part in a campaign in Europe seemed far beyond the range of imagination.

Notwithstanding this, however, the Dominion has made the move without hesitation and in so doing has established a precedent which is apt to prove of huge importance in the future history of the Dominion.

Great Britain's enemies must consider not merely a war on Great Britain but a war on the British Empire, for Canada as well as Australia, India, South Africa and Egypt, having once sent aid could not again refuse it and make their position tenable. The Empire now presents a solid front to the world and her strength is vastly increased hy the loyalty and devotion of the Overseas Dominions.

This military unity must also produce results in other directions tending toward a closer union between the Dominion and the Mother country. We venture to predict that the future will witness a strengthening of the bonds of loyalty, of commercial and educational ties without the least abatement of the complete autonomy enjoyed by the great Dominion.

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