When Prime Minister Robert Borden returned from a series of meetings with the Imperial Staff in the spring of 1917, he was convinced that conscription (compulsory military enlistment) was needed in order to maintain the strength of the Canadian Corps in France. Voluntary enlistment had dropped off sharply. At the beginning of 1916, the average rate of enlistment was 30,000 a month, but this figure had declined to 6,000 a month by the end of the year. Borden felt that compulsory service was necessary for Canada to maintain its commitment to the war in Europe.
Conscription was a politically divisive issue. Resistance was strongest in Quebec, where a majority had opposed Canada's involvement in a "European" war, but such reservations were not limited to the French-Canadian population. Organized labour bitterly opposed compulsory enlistment, fearing that it would lead to the conscription of workers for war industries. Many farmers were concerned that compulsory enlistment would create a shortage of agricultural labour at a time when they were hard pressed to meet the demands of wartime consumption. Consequently, conscription-which the Borden government had introduced with the passage of the Military Service Act in August 1917-became the dominant issue in the December 1917 federal election.
Prior to the election, the Borden government passed the Military Voters Act and the Wartime Elections Act. The Military Voters Act gave the right to vote to all military personnel regardless of gender and contained provisions that would allow them to assign their vote to any constituency in Canada. The Wartime Elections Act extended the franchise to all wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of servicemen and, at the same time, disenfranchised many voters of enemy-alien birth who had immigrated to Canada after 1902. These two pieces of legislation increased the number of voters most likely to support conscription and eliminated ones unlikely to support compulsory service.
Borden led the Union government, a coalition of Conservatives and pro-conscription Liberals. Borden won the election, but the country was divided as never before. English-Canada voted overwhelmingly to support the Union government, while Quebec supported Laurier and the Liberals who refused to support conscription.
Announcement of War
Ottawa, 4th August, 1914
His Royal Highness the Governor General received a telegraphic dispatch from the Secretary of State for the Colonies at 8.45 this evening, announcing that war has broken out with Germany.
—The Canada Gazette
That was it. We were in. Everyone knew there would be war in the summer of 1914. But they expected it to be civil war between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland over Home Rule. The British army was gathering on Salisbury Plain. The Royal Navy’s warships stood in great rows at Spithead, ready to stand between Catholics and Protestants.
Instead, war broke out in the Balkans. No big surprise there, either. There had been dirty little wars there the previous two summers. The crisis that started a war that killed 60,000 Canadians and 10 million other people didn’t even make a lot of front pages until war came.
Both sides in Ireland pledged their loyalty to the cause. (In the words of Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary: “The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland and a strange light began by perceptible gradations to fall upon the map of Europe.”) Also pledging loyalty were the Socialists in France and Germany. For many belligerents, especially Britain, Russia and the now-forgotten Austrian empire, the war was the most bloody pep rally in history.
A century after it began, governments are using the memory of the war for their own “messaging.” But none of us can remember this war. As Western University professor Jonathan Vance points out in Death So Noble, Canadians struggled for decades to give meaning to the loss of their sons, lovers, siblings and friends. Now we’re about to get another wave of politically motivated storytelling.
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We “see” the First World War through an almost impenetrable cloud. Our vision is skewed by the appalling propaganda of the war years and the post-war campaign to make the war sacred and to sanctify the dead.
How thick is the fog? Thick enough that people can still argue strongly over how the war started and who was to blame. Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, says there were, in the mid-1990s some 25,000 books and academic papers about the causes of the war. And much has been written recently, including Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace.
We’ll see many more analyses of this war as the centennial rolls along. But will we really ever understand what happened?
It took almost a century for the wartime generation to pass away and for writers in the “winning” countries to begin to consider that maybe we were the bad guys, or, at least, as much to blame as anyone else. We — meaning the British Empire, of which we were an enthusiastic part — supported France, which supported the Russians, who supported the Serb regime that armed a group of suicide bombers who killed the heir to the throne of the Austrian empire.
Today, we’d call that supporting state-sponsored terrorism.
That’s the case Clark makes: we’re no less guilty than anyone. The strength of Clark’s book is he knows governments are multi-faceted, imperfect gems, rather than big, clumsy rocks. There was no “Britain” or “Russia” or “Austria-Hungary.” Each nation was a conglomerate of politicians, military officers, diplomats, labour groups, industrialists, journalists, farmers and industrial workers. Not only were these people often at odds with each other, there were factions within factions inside each group.
No one could keep track of the deals, side deals, hints and lies that eventually became a lethal Rube Goldberg machine. Through the hundreds of pages of Clark and MacMillan’s books, it’s a story of rather stupid people engaged in duplicity and passive-aggression. There are no honest dealers, no real morality, and no regard for the millions of people who would suffer.
It was not a good war, despite the almost constant imagery of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection in most war art and writing. Cleansing and redemption through bloodshed runs thickly through wartime propaganda, from images of slaughtered Belgian babies (a modern Murder of the Innocents) to the story of the Canadian soldier crucified on a barn door by Hunnish fiends.
The sacrifice of a “lost generation” is one myth that turns out to be true. Looking over the war memorials in this country’s older universities generates sadness, not pride.
Even my son’s high school has a commemorative wall showing the names of more than 100 young men who never came home. I could not imagine the horror of seeing my boy’s name on that list, and I can see why so many people were prepared to believe anything to ward off the realization that the war was nothing more than butchery.
But people could not speak that way at the time.
Once the war started, all of the belligerents, including Canada, became tyrannies. While there are books about various aspects of wartime Canada, there’s no good overview of the Canadian home front. And that’s a book that should be written, since the war changed Canada.
Women gained rights, and their political power increased. (The fact that some of that power was used to ban booze would dismay returning veterans). The government seized control of industry and commerce.
History’s most effective propaganda campaign, run by the best Fleet Street journalists and advertising executives, was aimed not only at us but also at the Americans, who stayed out of the war until the spring of 1917.
Until the last year of the war, Canadian war correspondents were effectively barred from the trenches — there were no reporters at our big fights at Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Amiens and Passchendaele — but the country was flooded with scores of propaganda books, thousands of almost-fictional newspaper articles and miles of films of staged fighting.
In Canada, the war effort was backed up by a brutal censorship run by a former MI5 agent, operated under the War Measures Act. No one could discuss the reasons for the war or advocate a negotiated peace. People could be jailed for criticizing the army and navy. Nothing could be written to undermine the British campaign to draw the United States into the fight.
Jeffrey Keshen, in his Censorship and Propaganda in Canada’s Great War, argues that the lies made it much more difficult for the soldiers, sailors, airmen and nurses who came home to return to something resembling a normal life. Canadians who stayed had one story of the war, created by four years of censorship and propaganda. The veterans had another, and they kept it to themselves.
It was supposedly a war for freedom, but the government liked censorship so much that two days after the war ended, the rules were tightened to outlaw any criticism of capitalism. The law was enforced until the end of 1919.
We fought for democracy, but Sir Robert Borden’s government ran the only proven rigged election in this country’s history. Tens of thousands of immigrants and second-generation Canadians were disenfranchised. Women who had sons or husbands overseas could vote, but the rest, who might oppose conscription, could not. Soldiers’ votes were spread around to ridings where they might be needed to support the government candidates. Elections Canada is a legacy of the war.
More than 8,500 immigrants from Central Europe were crammed into prison camps across Canada and were denied “British justice.”
As Canada commemorates the war, will people speak of the Easter Riot of 1918, when soldiers fired into crowds of anti-draft protesters on the streets of Quebec City, killing four and wounding scores more? English Canada supported conscription. Quebec did not. The split became ingrained in the country’s politics.
The centenary of the war should bring a new generation of literature. MacMillan and Clark’s books are solid examinations of the cause of the war. Frank Furedi’s First World War: Still No End in Sight examines a new argument that the battle over modernity that began in 1914 still continues. Sir Hew Strachan’s second and third volumes on the First World War, a follow-up to his 1,100-page examination of the early stages of the conflict, are long overdue. Michael Winter’s Into the Blizzard: Walking the Fields of Newfoundland Dead comes out this fall and will tell the heartbreaking story of the Newfoundland calamity on the Somme.
We’ll continue to see attacks on the history we learned in high school. The Kaiser has already emerged in modern literature as a none-too-bright, damaged man who probably didn’t want war, but sent excruciatingly confusing signals.
Historians have already killed the myth that there was public pressure to go to war. For decades, authors wrote about crowds around palaces egging their leaders on to war, as though the continent was run by various incarnations of Pontius Pilate. Crowds did form — after all, the crisis started during Europe’s summer holidays and peaked on the Bank Holiday weekend — but they were nowhere near the size of the throngs that lined the streets four years before for the funeral of King Edward VII.
Canada fosters its own myths. Our battles in France are supposed to have won us our independence. That view of history culminates in the Vimy Myth, that somehow Canadian soldiers bled and died for the salvation/independence of Canada. That’s not what people believed at the time. They fought as Canadians, but as also as cubs of the British lion.
In his introduction to Col. George C. Nasmith’s 1919 celebratory work Canada’s Sons and Great Britain in the World War, Sir Arthur Currie, who led the Canadians in France, didn’t try to make that argument. Instead, he resorted to doggerel:
At Britain’s side whate’er betide
Unflinchingly we stand.
With hearts we sign, God Save the King.
God bless our Empire wide we do implore,
And prosper Canada from shore to shore.
The peace that followed was no real peace at all. Monarchies, which were unable to cope with governing a modern state, were soon replaced with police states that were far more efficient at generating human misery.
Saul David, in his book 100 Days to Victory, captures the aching sadness of the people who fought the war and those who were left behind. Author Vera Brittain, 24 years old when the war ended, walked along Whitehall on the day Germany surrendered and saw the revellers:
“And in that brightly lit, alien world I should have no part. All those with whom I was really intimate were gone; not one remained to share with me the heights and depths of my memories . . . For the first time I realized . . . how completely everything that had made up my life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey. The war was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were dead and would never return.”
On April 23, 1914, my 21-year-old cousin, Napoleon Theophilus Bourrie, was killed on the Western Front. He had been there for two years, a member of the Simcoe Foresters, part of the Fourth Canadian Infantry Battalion. Despite the ferocity of his name, Napoleon, a victim of my family’s fetish for history, was just a private. Unlike a third of his comrades, he has a real grave, near Ligny-St. Flochel, France.
Napoleon’s name is listed on page 372 of the Book of Remembrance, which is kept under glass in the Chamber of Remembrance of the Peace Tower of the Parliament buildings (which was originally christened the Victory Tower). On Aug. 14, less than two weeks after the centennial of the outbreak of the war, the book was opened to Nap’s page. None of the summer tourists in shorts who saw the lovely calligraphy surrounded by exquisite illumination knew who he was. No one knew how he died.
No one will ever know why a boy from the shores of Georgian Bay thought it would be a good idea to place himself in front of German machine guns and artillery, for a cause that was likely as murky to him as it is for us.
Mark Bourrie is a writer and journalist with a PhD in history, specializing in wartime censorship and propaganda. His next book, Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Attack on Your Right to Know, will be published by HarperCollins early next year.