The First World War started 100 years ago today

On August 4th, 1914 the United Kingdom declared war on Germany on behalf of the British Empire, including Canada. The First World War had begun. 2014 marks the centenary of Canada’s (and thus Alberta’s) entrance into “The Great War,” a period which tested the province’s strength and demonstrated its resilience. This post will look at recruitment, life in the trenches, conscription and the final 100 days of the First World War.

In August 1914, communities across Canada prepared to serve, organising the people and resources that would be needed to assist the allied forces in victory. Canada was thrust into a situation that required everyone to help the war effort and Albertans responded without hesitation.

Group photo of the 187th Regiment, Canadian Expeditionary Force from Stettler, Alberta. November 18, 1916 (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A5037b)

Group photo of the 187th Regiment, Canadian Expeditionary Force from Stettler, Alberta. November 18, 1916 (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A5037b)

During the initial stages of the war Albertans were eager to volunteer, and within the first few days men from all over the province had enlisted for military service. Alberta supported the Canadian Expeditionary Force, including 180 cavalrymen from the 19th Alberta Dragoons, more than 400 from the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, 900 members from the 101st Edmonton Militia Regiment and more than 300 hundred men from the 103rd Calgary Rifles Regiment. By 1916, 24 battalions had been raised in Alberta, consisting of approximately 1,000 men each.

Reaching the trenches, the enthusiasm that volunteer soldiers felt upon enlistment quickly wore off. It became obvious to the men that they had been given inadequate training and the weapons they were issued, particularly the Ross Rifle, proved to be ill-suited for trench warfare. As soon as soldiers reached the trenches, they were met with deplorable conditions: vermin, rain, mud and disease were common and the horror of seeing friends and countrymen suddenly killed or maimed became a weirdly familiar experience. The letters that soldiers sent to friends and relatives back home, although often censored, detailed some of their experiences, but it was impossible to describe the realities of being in the middle of a war zone to civilians. One soldier, Private Maus, stated during correspondence with his uncle in Edmonton: “It is a rather muddy picnic, with fireworks free.” This illustrates Private Maus’ wry sense of humour, but also alludes to the dirty conditions and the never-ending noise of artillery fire that were commonplace. Men from Alberta served alongside other Canadians throughout four years of trench warfare.

Presentation of Colours to the 51st Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force in Edmonton, Alberta, ca. 1915 (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A2526)

Presentation of Colours to the 51st Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force in Edmonton, Alberta, ca. 1915 (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A2526)

A number of men enlisted for military service with the hope of fighting alongside their friends, relatives and neighbour, but very few of the battalions remained together. Units were regularly disbanded and their members reassigned to reinforce other battalions that had been depleted as a result of casualties. Only four battalions from Alberta remained intact and they fought in the front line at second battle of Ypres, the Somme, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele. They were the 50th battalion from Calgary; the 49th from Edmonton; the 31st, comprised of recruits from southern Alberta; as well as the 10th which recruited members from Calgary and Winnipeg. In total, around 49,000 men from Alberta enlisted as soldiers in infantry, artillery battery operators, field hospital workers, aircraft crews, as well as other equally important areas.

The strong number of volunteers who were initially eager to take on the duties of war had declined sharply by 1917. Once word had reached the home front about the death toll that accompanied war service, recruitment became a challenge. Prime Minister Robert Borden and his cabinet nevertheless felt a duty to maintain its front line ranks and, with the lack of new and willing recruits, talk of conscripting able bodied men into military service began. Borden had seen firsthand the toll Canadian soldiers paid while visiting hospitals in England and the battlefront in France.[1] As a result, Borden pushed a conscription bill through Parliament, despite strong opposition, and mandatory enlistment was made law on August 28, 1917.

Len Foster and other soldiers overseas during the First World War, ca. 1916 (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A6741)

Len Foster and other soldiers overseas during the First World War, ca. 1916 (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A6741)

All eligible men were instructed to immediately sign up for military service. This included men who were unmarried or childless widowers between the ages of 20 and 34, although there were other exemptions. War-time workers who were deemed essential to the war effort and conscientious objectors were a few of the exceptions that men could apply for. In Calgary, 11,953 males requested exemption and 60% of Alberta’s conscripts who registered in Edmonton were deemed unfit to send to war. Conscription was passed with the intention of enlisting 70,000 new recruits from across Canada, but approximately 26,000 were sent to Europe. This was far less than Borden’s goal.

The final 100 days before the armistice were among the darkest, with Canadians fighting in a series of bloody battles in France. The Amiens campaign began on the foggy morning of August 8, 1918, when Canadian soldiers, along with the British, Australian and French forces, pushed through German defences within the first day. Albertans in the 10th battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force made significant advances, being the first to reach their offensive objective and they were soon followed by the 31st battalion. The Canadian forces forged ahead and up next was the region of Arras, where a large numbers of German defenses still remained. The battalions that had been raised in Alberta remained on the front line during the attack and assisted in taking control of the Drocourt-Quéant Line. This was a significant breakthrough for the allied forces in progressing towards the German border. What followed was a series of campaigns that showed the Canadians as a vital fighting force, and victory was claimed again in the subsequent, major battles of Canal du Nord, Cambrai and Valenciennes. Throughout these conflicts, the battalions made up of Albertans remained at the forefront of the action until the very end, with the liberation of Mons, Belgium. After years of violence, armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, and the conclusion of the war brought a mixture of shock and relief to Alberta’s soldiers.

Trenches in France during the First World War (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A9020)

Trenches in France during the First World War (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A9020)

Alberta paid the price for their involvement, with approximately 6,140 men killed and another 20,000 wounded. One in eight of those who enlisted never came back. The casualties of war were felt across the province. From the town of Gleichen, 250 men were deployed to fight and one in five of those soldiers lost their lives. Edmonton’s 49th battalion alone recorded approximately 1,000 losses, enough to assemble an entire battalion. In February of 1919, war veterans gradually began to return home, but the province had changed as a result of the First World War. Sacrifices were made by those who fought in the war as well as the by people who remained on the home front. From the social impact to the human toll, life in the province was altered for Alberta’s people in subsequent generations.

Soldiers in the 49th Battalion return to Edmonton, Alberta from Europe after the end of the First World War. March 22, 1919 (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A18513)

Soldiers in the 49th Battalion return to Edmonton, Alberta from Europe after the end of the First World War. March 22, 1919 (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A18513)

For more information on Alberta in the First World War, refer to Alberta in the 20th Century: The Great War and its Consequences 1914-1920 or Alberta Formed Alberta Transformed. The Great War: 1914-1918 features a number of editorials that are specific to Alberta.

This was the first part of a series commemorating the First World War. Over the next month, this series will look at a range of topics that will show Alberta’s involvement in this historic event.

Written by: Erin Hoar, Historic Resources Management Branch Officer.

Sources

Blue, John. Alberta: Past and Present. Vol. 1. Chicago: Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1924.

Byfield, Ted, ed. Alberta in the 20th Century: The Great War and its Consequences 1914-1920. Vol. 4. Edmonton, Canada: CanMedia Inc., 1995.

Canadian War Museum. (Accessed July 18, 2014).

Love, David W. A Nation in Making: The Organization and Administration of the Canadian Military During the First World War. Vol. 1. Ottawa: Service Publications, 2012.

Payne, Michael, Donald Wetherell, and Catherine Cavanaugh, eds. Alberta Formed Alberta Transformed. Vol. 2. Edmonton, Canada: University of Alberta Press, 2006.

Notes

[1] Canadian War Museum. (Accessed July 18, 2014).

3 comments

  1. I am looking for a photograph of my father, John Cameron, who was in D. Company 3rd Battalion, 48th Highlanders, 3rd. Brigade, 15th Battalion, he sailed for France on March 15th. 1915.

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