Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Canada Enters the War

The fact that Canada was automatically at war when Britain was at war in 1914 was unquestioned as from coast to coast: in a spirit of almost unbelievable unanimity, Canadians pledged support for Britain. Sir Wilfrid Laurier spoke for the majority of Canadians when he proclaimed: "It is our duty to let Great Britain know and to let the friends and foes of Great Britain know that there is in Canada but one mind and one heart and that all Canadians are behind the Mother Country." Prime Minister Robert Borden, calling for a supreme national effort, offered Canadian assistance to Great Britain. Borden orchestrated a massive national effort in support of the mother country, but also demanded that Great Britain recognize Canada’s wartime sacrifices with greater postwar autonomy. The offer was accepted, and immediately orders were given for the mobilization of an expeditionary force.

Training at Valcartier Camp near Quebec City Before Deployment

With a regular army of only 3,110 men and a fledgling navy, Canada was ill prepared to enter a world conflict. Yet, from Halifax to Vancouver, thousands of young Canadians hastened to the recruiting offices. Within a few weeks more than 32,000 men gathered at Valcartier Camp near Quebec City; and within two months the First Contingent, Canadian Expeditionary Force, was on its way to England in the largest convoy ever to cross the Atlantic. Also sailing in this convoy was a contingent from the still separate British self-governing colony of Newfoundland. A suggestion that Newfoundland's men should be incorporated into the Canadian Expeditionary Force had earlier been politely but firmly rejected.

Upon reaching England the Canadians endured a long miserable winter training in the mud and drizzle of Salisbury Plain. In spring 1915, they were deemed ready for the front line and were razor-keen. Nothing, they believed, could be worse than Salisbury. In the years that lay ahead, they were to find out just how tragically wrong that assessment was.

The first Canadian troops to arrive in France were the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, which had been formed at the outbreak of war entirely from ex-British Army regular soldiers. The "Princess Pats" landed in France in December 1914 with the British 27th Division and saw action near St. Eloi and at Polygon Wood in the Ypres Salient. Today, their battalion memorial stands on high ground of just north of Hooge.

Newly Arrived on the Western Front

Early in February 1915, the 1st Canadian Division reached France and was introduced to trench warfare by veteran British troops. Following this brief training, they took over a section of the line in the Armentières sector in French Flanders. Mention should be made of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, whose Great War experience is forever linked with that of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. In 1914, however, it was a separate Dominion from Canada, and would not become a Canadian province until 1949. Independently, Newfoundland raised and maintained a regiment that over the next four years was kept at battlefield strength through voluntary enlistment. The regiment was integrated with the British Army, serving mainly with the 29th British Division at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. Its losses in several battles were greatly felt within the small dominion of 242,000 residents, and keeping the regiment at battle strength was difficult but achieved.

Source: Veterans Affairs of Canada


  1. One of the best novels I've read in the context of Canada and the Great War is 'Three Day Road' by Joseph Boyden.

    1. Thanks for the book suggestion, I can get it at my public library. My Canadian grandfather served in WWI but died in 1917 during a major battle.

  2. Agree: Three Day Road is gripping.

  3. The Newfoundland Regiment lost 90% of its men at Beaumont Hamel on 1st July 1916.