Prelude to War

Setting the Stage

In examining Canadian Cities at War it is necessary to first provide a national context.  We will not attempt to replicate the many fine Great War web sites that already exist but rather fill in some of the gaps and point our viewers to other material they may find useful to review.

Population Trends

Those wishing to explore the issue further may download a complete set of data for 1914 see the 1914 Canada Year Book. The period leading up to the outbreak of the Great War was one of significant change in Canada.  After 1907, the hardy Marquis strain of wheat made large-scale farming on the Canadian prairies much more profitable. Offering free land and assisted passage, the Dominion government conducted an aggressive and highly successful marketing campaign in Europe to attract new migrants.  With the end of free land in the United States and tough economic times in Europe, the appeal of the “Last Best West” was magnetic.

The massive inflow of single males led to a marked gender imbalance.  The 1911 census showed a female deficit with only 886 women for every thousand men. This gender imbalance was most striking in the western provinces and in rural Canada.  In the west, the deficit ranged from 560 in BC to 688 in Saskatchewan. The imbalance was of course reversed throughout Europe, the primary source of immigrants. England had 1068 women per thousand men.

The second major shift was the rapid expansion of the west driven both by immigration and a western movement of native born Canadians. In the summer of 1914, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the celebrated author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries was on a speaking tour of Canada. On returning home, he remarked “What Canada needs now are more women…she wants 100,000 women…. The population is not increasing because so many men in the west cannot get married…they toil on their farms alone and the moment things go wrong they get disheartened.” [i]

Between 1901 and 1911, the Canadian population as a whole grew by 34%. But in the west, expansion was even more dramatic. Saskatchewan grew from under 100,000 in 1901 to almost half a million in 1911, to become the third most populous province in the country. This type of dramatic population shift makes any attempt to characterize “westerners” as fundamentally different than “easterners” problematic as most of those in the west would be relative newcomers.

A rapid period of urbanization accompanied the general pattern of growth. The urban population increased by 62% compared to 17% in rural areas. By 1911, almost one in three Canadians lived in cities and towns over 5,000.  Once again, urban growth was most marked on the prairies.   Regina, Calgary and Edmonton all grew from villages of under 4,500 to major cities of over 30,000.  Saskatoon emerged from a tiny temperance colony of 113 in 1901 to a city of over 12,000 in 1911.

Click on the images to see full size.

[i]Sandra Gwyn, quoting Conan Doyle in Tapestry of War, 17

The Economy

Economic conditions in 1914 were not good.  The depression which became serious in the summer of 1913 remained entrenched with the urban workforce particularly hard hit.  The immediate impact of the outbreak of war was to make conditions still worse as the breakdown of transatlantic trade disrupted both sources of raw materials and equipment and the markets for agriculture and manufactured products.[ii] Taken together, the surplus of men, the large numbers of recent British immigrants and high unemployment would provide a rich pool of manpower to fuel the patriotic flames ignited by the outbreak of war.

[ii]Canada Year Book 1914, 526

The Government

In 1914, Canada was still far removed from full independence. The British North America Act of 1867 was an act of the British Parliament that could be amended by a simple majority. While in practice this would only be done with the advice of the Dominion Government there was no legal requirement to do so. The Act also reserved to the British government the right to disallow any act of the Dominion government that it deemed to be contrary to its interests.  Although a Department of External Affairs was established in 1912, its capacity for independent action was limited. In international affairs the general view was that treaties were negotiated between sovereign powers. As there was only one sovereign in the Empire, the treaty making power was necessarily reserved to the British government.  Where Dominions sought to enter into agreements with other nations, they could do so only with the consent and assistance of the British government. The same approach applied to the declaration of war.  By its very nature it was a declaration by the sovereign and once made, applied equally to all parts of the Empire. In this setting, the Governor General was “the direct representative of the Sovereign and responsible to the Imperial Government, [not the Government of Canada] for the proper discharge of his important functions.” [iii]This link to the government in London meant that the Governor General retained significant power – all the more so when the office was held by the King’s uncle, Field Marshal, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Stathearn. The Duke was a professional soldier with extensive service throughout the empire including service in Canada during the Fenian Raids and in South Africa during the Boer War. In June of 1914, dressed in his Field Marshall’s uniform, Connaught observed military training in Camp Petawawa outside Ottawa where ten thousand eager militiamen staged a three-day mock battle. Such attention from a senior British officer was often seen as interference by Canada’s mercurial Minister of Militia, Sam Hughes. Connaught in turn disliked the boorish Hughes.[iv]

[iii]Canada Year Book 1914, 1
[iv]Tim Cook, The Madman and the Butcher, 44

The Army

The experience of the South African War had a profound effect on the army in Canada.  The very idea that a sharp-shooting citizen soldier could hold his own in the field against a professional army was a shock to the British way of soldiering.  When Major General, the Earl Dundonald was sent to Canada as the last British General Officer Commanding, he gave impetus to new ideas that were already popular among those Canadians who had fought with him against the Boer irregulars.  In a 1903 address to the Canadian Club in Ottawa, he put it this way:

“The ideal army is one…which is composed of highly organized citizens temporarily taken from their employment to defend their native land, the permanent or standing force being composed of specialists for the purpose of instruction…”[v]

The army was not conceived as a force that would be immediately available for a European war but rather an affordable model for an army that could provide a credible defence at home.  The Riel rebellion and Fenian raids were still fresh in the public mind.  The lingering threat from the United States and ideas of manifest destiny still shaped military thinking.

Although Dundonald’s ideas for reform were never fully implemented the broad outlines of what he proposed helped to shape the Canadian army of 1914.  The quality of the Militia varied greatly across the country.  Some regiments in urban areas enjoyed the support of wealthy benefactors and high social standing. All too often the focus was often as much on ceremonials and parades as combat skills.  Marksmanship was seen as the fundamental basis of soldierly skill. The pre-war period saw a rapid growth in the construction of ranges and acquisition of training areas. The government supported civilian shooting clubs and a burgeoning cadet movement aimed at developing the idea of military duty as a fundamental part of citizenship. By 1914 there were over 40,000 members in military and civilian shooting associations and a similar number in school cadet corps.[vi]

There is a tendency to think of the Army of 1914 as small and unprepared for war. It is perhaps useful to provide a bit of perspective by comparing the numbers of 1914 to those of today. Although poorly trained and equipped, in comparison to Canada in 2010, the Militia was ubiquitous. Virtually every town of any size had some sort of Militia presence. As rag tag as they may have been, it must be acknowledged that to deploy a force of over 30,000 men to England within two months and to have a division of 18,000 men in France by February 1915 was a remarkable achievement. One wonders whether Canada could replicate such a feat today even with a much larger population.

[v] As quoted by James Wood, Militia Myths, 105
[vi]James Wood, Militia Myths, 279