The Great War Haunts Us Still

IT'S BEEN 90 YEARS now since the Guns of August began to fire, and the smoke has yet to clear from the world they made. The fault lines of modern history - from the quagmire in Iraq through Yugoslavia's implosion to the Cold War and beyond - all branch back to the cataclysm of 1914-1918.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 8, 2004

IT'S BEEN 90 YEARS now since the Guns of August began to fire, and the smoke has yet to clear from the world they made. The fault lines of modern history - from the quagmire in Iraq through Yugoslavia's implosion to the Cold War and beyond - all branch back to the cataclysm of 1914-1918.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 8, 2004

The Great War Haunts Us Still

IT'S BEEN 90 YEARS now since the Guns of August began to fire, and the smoke has yet to clear from the world they made. The fault lines of modern history - from the quagmire in Iraq through Yugoslavia's implosion to the Cold War and beyond - all branch back to the cataclysm of 1914-1918. The world, as it was before the GREAT WAR, trailed ancient and complex roots; where the new growth it's sprouted since will lead is still uncertain. Much of the globe was convulsed by the war - in half of Europe and many of its colonial possessions entire nations were reshaped, re-peopled and renamed. Canada, too, changed profoundly, in ways large and small, and paid a heavy price for its involvement.

The Canada that found itself at war was sparsely peopled, overwhelmingly rural, mired in an economic slump and, as always, divided by language, faith and region. A population of eight million included three million Roman Catholic French Canadians who were largely indifferent about what they viewed as a British war, although a handful, patriotic or adventuresome, did join in. English Canadians, on the other hand, were exhibiting an incipient Canadian nationalism, marked by suspicion of the U.S., resentment of British condescension and - somewhat paradoxically - fervent imperialism. They were as wild in their enthusiasm for the conflict as the population of any European nation. Just as well since the young Dominion, self-governing in internal matters, remained a British colony in foreign affairs.

The makeup of the First Canadian Contingent perfectly illustrates our divisions, resentments and yearnings in the days when most still thought in terms of a short, glorious war. Of its 36,267 volunteers, only 1,245 were French-speaking; more astonishingly, only 10,880 had been born in Canada. More than 23,000 were British-born, men with close ties to the Old Country who were also faced, during an economic depression, with No English Need Apply want ads. When this "Canadian" contingent reached England in October of 1914, it didn't much impress observers. British officer J.F.C. Fuller, later to become a celebrated military historian and proponent of tank warfare, thought hard training might turn them into proper soldiers, provided "all the officers could be shot."

There is some truth in Fuller's comment: the Canadians never shook their reputation for ill-discipline and, in fact, later acquired other dubious tags, for savagery and for having the highest VD rate of all the Allied armies. But it was nonetheless a considerable national feat to get 30,000 men overseas within two months of the war's start. Much credit for that, if for little else, belongs to the minister of militia, Sam HUGHES, a 61-year-old newspaper owner and military enthusiast, who combined demonic energy with bigotry and extraordinary pigheadedness.

As volunteers poured in to the vast training camp he was building at Valcartier, near Quebec City, Hughes frantically placed contracts for tents, boots, machine guns and other necessities. Many of the contracts went to cronies, and many eventually turned into scandals. His secretary designed a shovel with a hole in it for firing through. Hughes spent more than $30,000 on it, apparently without realizing the shovel was good neither for digging nor shooting. His championing of the Canadian-made Ross rifle, even after it was proven to overheat in rapid fire, was a more lethal mistake.

The Canadians were sent to France in February 1915 and then to the strategic Belgian town of Ypres in mid-April. Within days, the Germans launched their first major Western Front gas attack. For three days, more by sheer courage and determination than military skill, the raw troops held their position against German attackers. It was a brutal introduction to the carnage and confusion of trench warfare. A 1,500-strong Canadian contingent was sent to attack a wood protected by German machine guns; after taking it at horrific cost, the 500 survivors were ordered to abandon it. Hundreds more died defenceless when their Ross rifles jammed. By the time British reinforcements stabilized the sector, Canada's three-day baptism of fire had cost 6,036 dead, wounded and captured, far more than in the entire three-year Boer War.

The slaughter shocked the home front, but Canadians and their government reacted like all the other belligerents. Part of the enduring mystery of the war is the way nations on both sides of the divide absorbed their losses and dedicated themselves to trying harder. By 1915, the militia department was outspending the entire federal budget of 1913. The government turned for the first time to borrow from Wall Street, initiating the process of moving us from the British sphere to the American. Then, in desperation, it turned to the citizens, asking for a $50-million loan. Canadians bought $100 million in Victory Bonds, and ever-larger amounts as the war went on. They could do it because prosperity had returned. Exports of wheat, timber and munitions soared. The Imperial Munitions Board became Canada's largest business, with 250,000 workers, 40,000 of them women, producing shells, aircraft and ships.

The war's demand for cannon fodder grew inexorably. Even without mounting a major assault or defence, front-line troops had a "wastage" rate of 100 casualties every few days. In response to Ypres, Prime Minister Robert Borden upped Canada's manpower commitment to 50,000, then to 150,000 by summer and 250,000 by fall. And, on New Year's Day, 1916, Borden - leader of a nation of only eight million - pledged half a million men for the struggle. Willing candidates were not a problem, at least at first. Young men were reached through their churches and sports clubs, and called to duty by ideals of courage and duty instilled by their patriotic education. Women's groups, too, did their part, scouring the streets for prospective soldiers and handing out white feathers to the obdurate. By late 1917, each of Canada's four divisions needed 20,000 men a year to maintain its strength. Only conscription could provide them.

Borden, determined to stand by the Empire, Canada's allies and - above all - the soldiers of the Canadian Corps, introduced the Military Service Act in June 1917. The December federal election campaign over the bill was bitter, virulently racist and pregnant with future ramifications for national unity. It remains one of the most divisive moments in Canadian history. Pro-war English Canada had the votes, and re-elected Borden. Within a year, he had the 100,000 extra men he thought he would need, even if only a quarter saw any fighting before war's end. And Borden's new majority Unionist government brought in measures literally impossible a few years before - the vote for women, railway nationalization, income tax, Prohibition - as the Great War continued to propel modern Canada into being.

In Europe, our soldiers continued their painful learning curve at such places as St. Eloi and Mount Sorrel, bloody battles no longer remembered. By mid-1916, when Sam Hughes was dismissed and the Ross rifle finally abandoned, casualties had reached 32,000. By sheer good fortune, Dominion troops missed the slaughterhouse of the Somme. That battle, where 20,000 died on the first day alone, saw the greatest loss of life in British military history. (The Somme, military historian John Keegan once wrote, marked the "end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered.") Newfoundlanders didn't share the Canadians' luck. The First Newfoundland Regiment was annihilated at the Beaumont Hamel sector, and simply ceased to exist.

On Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, all four divisions of the Canadian Corps, fighting together for the first time, launched an assault on the German position at Vimy, a high ridge so strongly fortified that several earlier British and French assaults had been hurled back. Two years of hard lessons had been well learned. In five days of bloody fighting, the Corps swept everything before it in a meticulously planned and executed assault, the Allies' first clear victory on the Western Front. The price was high - 3,598 killed and another 7,004 wounded - but soldiers at the time, and historians since, have argued that the battle was the key to making Canada a nation. More crucially to the war effort, Vimy helped hone the Corps into the sharp point of the Allied spear, an elite-troop status confirmed by the Canadian success in the bloody (15,654 casualties) battle of Passchendaele later that year.

In the war's last, harshest year, the mood in Canada was bleak. The fallout from conscription saw farmers raging at the government's broken promises about draft exemptions, and riots in Quebec City as police tried to arrest evaders. Food and fuel shortages were driving up prices. And still the relentless carnage rolled on. Then, with relative suddenness, it was over. The Canadians and their fellow shock troops from Australia broke through the German lines at Amiens on Aug. 8, setting off the famous Hundred Days that would finish the war.

Constantly on the move, sweeping through northern France and Belgium, punching way beyond its weight, the Corps played a vital role in the Allies' final victory. Mobile warfare and the honour of leading the charge were every bit as costly as trench warfare - 45,835 killed, wounded or captured in those three months, almost a fifth of Canada's total First World War losses. The Canadians were outside Mons in Belgium when the guns ceased firing at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11. They had suffered their last casualty, Pte. George Price of the Saskatchewan Regiment, just two minutes before. All told, 60,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders perished on the Western Front; many more, as historian Desmond Morton has noted, "returned mutilated in mind or body."

Ever since, the Great War has sat uneasily in our collective hearts and minds. It did take us from colony to nation, and showed us we were capable of things undreamed of before 1914. But for all our pride, we have never been sure that what was won was worth what was lost. And looming over everything is the knowledge that, 20 years later, we had to do it all again.

Tragedies on the Home Front

SOMETIME IN MID-1915, John Grant of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., starved to death. Paralyzed for 13 years, Grant had been cared for by his family. But in May of that year, his wife died suddenly while their two sons were overseas with the Canadian army. The invalid didn't survive the months it took Ottawa's Militia Department to decide whether he deserved the $20 per month separation allowance it paid soldiers' wives. By August the department had shelved the issue as moot; after all, as paymaster general J.W. Borden recorded, Grant had since "died of want."

Grant's tragedy is just one of the extraordinary stories, many similarly appalling, in Desmond Morton's Fight or Pay: Soldiers' Families in the Great War. Well-argued and finely written, especially given its detailed social and financial policy subject matter, Fight or Pay underscores two little-known truths about the war. The conflict cost lives at home as well as abroad, and Canada's social security net owes as much to the Great War as it does to the Great Depression.

Morton, 67, is one of Canada's most prominent historians of the 20th century, and his easy familiarity with the sources - and his anger with official Ottawa - is evident. The federal government was nearly overwhelmed by the chaos caused by the army's sudden, vast expansion in 1914. The dependents of those who volunteered in August did not receive their first monthly allowances until December. Many survived the fall months only by the grace of neighbours.

Deluged by heartbreaking letters from suddenly destitute wives and mothers, Ottawa was happy to hand over its wartime welfare responsibilities to a private organization, the Canadian Patriotic Fund. At first enthusiastically embraced by the public, the fund supported dependents - so long as their morality and housekeeping standards were approved by the middle-class ladies who evaluated the claims. By the end of the war, however, the fund's popularity had vanished in a cloud of class resentment. People were sick of a system that condescendingly divided the needy between worthy and unworthy and demanded even-handed legal entitlements. "The First World War," Morton concludes, "convinced many Canadians to look to their government for more than their ancestors had imagined possible."

Great War Truths in Fiction

THE FIRST WORLD WAR occupies a profound, and profoundly ambiguous, place in Canada's psyche, as both slaughterhouse and crucible of the nation - a giant stride, domestically and in foreign affairs, along the road to nationhood. And no other event in our history has had a greater impact on Canadian authors. From the 40, mostly forgettable novels written during the conflict and its immediate aftermath to recent works by major writers, the Great War haunts us still. Some notables:


The title says it all, as Charles Yale Harrison, a Montreal Star reporter who fought in the trenches, savagely denounces a callous officer corps and its futile military tactics. In contrast to the generals' fate, Harrison's ordinary soldiers die in a hell of mud, rats, lice, constant shelling and bone-crushing labour. Generals, a classic of the same worldwide postwar revulsion that also produced All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms, is an almost clinical account of war's brutalizing effects.


Hugh MacLennan's big-picture CanLit staple methodically reconstructs the First World War's most dramatic home-front moment: the Halifax Explosion of 1917. In MacLennan's nationalistic hands, what was - before Hiroshima - history's greatest man-made explosion, becomes the centrepiece of an allegory about Canada's wartime transformation from British colony to independence.

THE WARS (1977)

Timothy Findley's family history - he had an uncle on the Western Front - and characteristic concern with organized violence as a means of social control led him inevitably to the Great War. The Wars is about a sensitive young Toronto soldier caught up in the mixed barbarism and nobility of the trenches, and driven to an action that - seen through the mad prism of war - is treasonous. An indictment of much of 20th-century history and a passionate defence of the individual spirit, The Wars was Findley's breakthrough novel and arguably his finest.


Set after the fighting and far from the front, Jack Hodgins' book remains very much a war novel. In Portuguese Creek on Vancouver Island, discharged soldiers try to make a go of farming the unpromising plots provided by the federal government. The futility of their labours is reminiscent of the conflict, as is a raging wildfire that threatens their town - but then, everything reminds the vets of the war.

THE STONE CARVERS (2001) A sweeping and poignant vision of the totality of the war's effects on Canada, Jane Urquhart's novel revolves around two fictional characters, both talented wood carvers: Klara Becker, a stay-at-home spinster who loses her lover to the fighting, and her wandering brother, Tilman, who loses a leg at Vimy Ridge. And one real-life personality, the brilliant and obsessed Walter Allward, the man who created one of the world's great monumental works of art in Canada's First War memorial at Vimy. Scarred physically and emotionally, but compelled by their artistic calling, the siblings travel to France after the war to work on the memorial's gigantic allegorical figures. Like Allward himself, Klara and Tilman manage from stone and memory to carve out a kind of healing.


Alan Cumyn's tightly paced story returns full circle to the focus of Generals Die in Bed, to the soldiers in the trenches. But Cumyn, 44, is generations removed from the conflict, and unlike Harrison, he explores the Great War's loves as well as its hates. The Sojourn covers three weeks in the life of Pte. Ramsay Crome in 1916, two stretches of front-line duty bracketing a delirious 10-day leave in London. There Crome, altered beyond his own understanding by his experiences, finds the peaceful life of the city hallucinatory. It's only in the trenches, where the anvil of common experience forged soldiers' bonds, that Crome can anymore be himself.

Maclean's November 8, 2004