Among the treasures of the Toronto Reference Library, some of the most affecting are the many shelves of regimental histories of the world wars that rent the twentieth century. One hundred years ago this month, troops from all over the world were mobilizing for a war in Europe that would last five years and shatter a generation.
Those fragile volumes--regimental histories, memoirs, diaries--are the raw material for many other books—general histories, analyses, commentaries, explanations--that tell us about the past, and perhaps, guide us into the future. Lest we forget…..
Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, one day after Germany had declared war on France and invaded Belgium. This meant, automatically, that Canada was also now at war, but in fact the Canadian government had promised Britain overseas troops several days before war was officially declared.
The first Canadian volunteers began arriving at Valcartier Camp in Quebec on August 19. In October, the first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force sailed for England. That same month, German and the Allied armies were fighting the first battle of Ypres, the Belgium town that was vital to both sides. Canadian troops would first see action in Europe the next April, at the second battle of Ypres.
The Times War Atlas, published in 1914, shows the world as it existed that summer. On this map from the Atlas, the town of Ypres does not even appear—its name would become infamous only later the next year, when the Germans deployed the first gas attacks against French and Canadian forces.
Click on the map to enlarge. Ypres (not named) is located directly south of Ostend and directly east of the small town of Poperinghe in northwest Belgium.
The Canadian response to Britain’s involvement in the war was swift and full of patriotic fervour. Perhaps the most striking difference from anything we might consider today, is the constant refrain of duty. Not a phrase or a sentiment considered of much consequence in the world of 2014.
Click to enlarge. The War Call of Sir James Whitney, from One Hundred Years of Conflict between the Nations of Europe: The causes and issues of the Great War (1914). Whitney was Premier of Ontario in 1914. Why Britain is at War from 2nd Battalion Bulletin: Canadian Expeditionary Force. (1914)
But within months the heavy price exacted from Canada began to come clear. Scan the lists in the War Record from the 16th Battery Canadian Field Artillery, to take only one, and find a sad litany: Killed, Gassed, Sick, Wounded, Died Illness, Sick, Wounded, Sick, Killed, Sick, Sick, Wounded……
Lest we forget.