CBC Digital Archives

First World War: Canada answers the call

They called it "The Great War" and "The War to End All Wars" – though of course it didn't. When hostilities erupted in Europe in 1914, Canadians rushed to Britain's side. But the cost was terrible: more than 60,000 were killed, 172,000 wounded. There are no more Canadian combat veterans alive to recall the horrors of the First World War, but their voices and memories live on in the archives of the CBC. Lest we forget, here are some of their stories.

Aug. 4, 1914: After weeks of crisis in Europe and a German invasion of neutral Belgium, Great Britain declares war on Germany. Canada is automatically committed, and sends out a call for volunteers. Tens of thousands immediately enlist. As we hear in this clip which features the enlistment stories of several Canadian veterans, "if ever a country wanted war, it was Canada in that week." 
• The First World War broke out in Europe in 1914 after the June assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne. The assassination set off a series of events on the already politically unstable continent, and soon escalated into full-scale war.
• Before the outbreak of the war, two opposing alliances had already formed in Europe -- the "Triple Entente" (France, United Kingdom and Russia) and the "Triple Alliance" (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy). These coalitions were the basis for the opposing sides in the First World War.

• Italy refused to join Germany and Austria-Hungary in the fighting, saying the Triple Alliance was a defensive pact. In 1915, Italy changed its allegiances and joined with France, Britain and Russia.
• More than 25 nations would be pulled in over the course of the war. They included Russia, France, the United States, Romania, Serbia and the rest of the Commonwealth for the "Allied Powers", and Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire for the "Central Powers."

• When Britain declared war, Canada (as a British colony) was automatically considered to be at war as well. Prime Minister Robert Borden offered assistance to the U.K. in the form of Canadian troops, and Britain quickly accepted. Of a nation of barely eight million, more than 600,000 enlisted over the course of the war.
• Newfoundland, which did not become a part of Canada until 1949, also answered the call. About 8,500 men enlisted.

• Sir Wilfred Laurier, Canada's Opposition leader in 1914, voiced the popular Canadian opinion when he declared: "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."

• Canadian men flocked to enlist in the war effort. Before the war, Canada had very scant military resources - a regular army of 3,110 men and a fledgling navy. But within a few weeks of the war's outbreak, "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." (Source: Veterans Affairs Canada website.)

• Voluntary enlistment began to slow down as the war dragged on. In January 1916, Prime Minister Borden announced that he would send 500,000 Canadian men overseas -- something that would be very difficult to achieve on a voluntary basis at that point. So Borden became determined to push through conscription (compulsory military service). While much of English Canada supported conscription, French Canada was strongly opposed. The Military Service Act, which would allow conscription, was passed in July 1917.

• The December 1917 election was fought almost entirely over the conscription issue. Sometimes referred to as the "khaki election," it was one of the most bitter elections in Canadian history. To shore up support for conscription, Borden allowed soldiers overseas to vote (and their votes could be counted in any riding) while conscientious objectors were not allowed to vote. Borden's Unionist Party handily defeated the Liberals of Wilfred Laurier (who opposed conscription.)

• Despite violent protest in Quebec, conscription began in 1918. But the war ended soon after. Although 400,000 men became eligible for military service, only 125,000 were conscripted, and just 25,000 were sent overseas.

Medium: Radio
Program: Flanders' Fields
Broadcast Date: Nov. 22, 1964
Guests: Thomas Morrisey, Charles Price, G.R. Stevens
Host: Joseph Schull
Duration: 8:49
Photo: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-896; main topic photo: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-000338

Last updated: October 28, 2013

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

All Clips from this Topic

Related Content

John Diefenbaker: extra clips

His eyes blazing and his finger stabbing the air, John George Diefenbaker set 1950s Canada ali...

John Diefenbaker: Dief the Chief

His eyes blazing and his finger stabbing the air, John George Diefenbaker set 1950s Canada ali...

Leaders' Debates 1968-2011: Highlights

After months of anticipation and weeks of campaigning, it all comes down to one night. Televis...

Marc Garneau: Canadian Space Pioneer

His bravery is inspiring, his grace is charming and his credentials are out of this world. In ...

The Avro Arrow: Canada's Broken Dream

It's the closest thing Canadian industry has to a love story and a murder mystery. The Avro Ar...

1960: Canada celebrates two millionth immigra...

Annette Toft, formerly of Denmark, becomes Canada's two millionth immigrant since the Second W...