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On August 5, Canadians work up to the following headlines:
The previous night, at 8:45 p.m., the Governor General of Canada received the following telegram from London:
See Preface Defence Scheme, war has broken out with Germany. HARCOURT.
I was surprised how brief the message, it's only eleven words, was that would plunge Canada into a war for the next four years.
I was also surprised that the declaration of war by Britain had not been totally unexpected. Prime Minister Borden and his cabinet were being kept regularly informed during the crisis by the British government and the Canadian High Commissioner in London. When it reached the crisis point, in late July, Borden had to cut short his golfing vacation in the Muskoka’s. When he left, he still believed war could be averted. He had informed his wife that she should remain behind since he expected to be back soon.
In the summer of 1914, Canada was not particularly well prepared. There was a recently completed draft of the War Book which detailed the roles and responsibilities of various government departments in a crisis. The Canadian Navy had only two obsolete warships, and both of which had been tied to the docks for several years. The Canadian Army was in somewhat better shape.
Sam Hughes, the Minister of Militia and Defence, had been arguing for years that the next war would be with Germany. When he became the minister in 1911 he:
- started a program of building armouries across the country where the militia could drill and train;
- increased the participation in the annual summer training camps; and
- ordered new equipment such as Vickers machine guns and new 18-pounder artillery guns.
Hughes was eager to get his men into battle. After all, everyone was predicting a short war. He declared Valcartier as the mobilization base and called for 25,000 volunteers. There was only one problem as the 31,000 men discovered as they descended on the camp. It didn’t really exist.
As the base was being the constructed around them the men had to endure:
- bad weather in bell-tents,
- poor food and sanitation,
- constant military reviews,
- frequent reorganizations,
- the occasional stampedes by the contingent’s 7,000 horses, and
- daily drill and training schemes.
Also, it didn’t help that Hughes had declared the camp dry. Soldiers like a drink or two after a long day of drill.
There were anxious moments when the thirty-three ship convoy, transporting the first contingent to England, finally sailed in early October. The disembarkation port had to be changed from Southampton to Plymouth for fears that German submarines would sink the fleet.
Finally, the contingent was in England ready to do battle. There, they waited on Salisbury Plain enduring the worst weather conditions in living memory as the War Office was trying to figure out what to do with them. In retrospect, it was a Godsend as the Canadians sorted themselves out replacing weak officers and poor equipment.
As 1914, came to a close they were still on Salisbury Plain waiting anxiously as the war waged across the channel in Belguim and France.