By Brian McCabe
Much has been written, in the past two years, about Irish and British participation in the first World War, but rather less has been written about Canadian participation in that great conflict.
As in other parts of the then British ‘Empire’ thousands of Canadian men rushed to enlist in the ‘Great War’ when it began in August of 1914. Three years later, in 1917, with deaths and casualties rising and with no end in sight to the fighting, Canada faced a military crisis.
With more than 500,000 men in uniform and 80,000 needed on the Western Front just to replace losses (the Battle of Vimy Ridge in early 1917 claimed 11,000 casualties, including 3,600 killed from among the 100,000 Canadians who fought there) the pool of volunteers had largely dried up. The Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden’s government responded with legislation to conscript young men for overseas military service – something he had promised three years earlier not to do. The military crisis then became a political crisis.
When Borden’s ‘Military Service Act’ became law in July 1917, riots and street battles broke out, especially in the French-speaking province of Quebec. The country essentially fractured along the long standing English-French divide.
French Canadians were not prepared to send their sons to fight for the ‘British’ Empire. The recruitment rates from that section of the population were extremely low. French Canadians accounted for nearly 30% of the country’s population, but made up only 4% of the military volunteers, with only about 35,000 serving overseas.
At the beginning of the war, those who rushed to serve were, in the main, young men with ties to Great Britain. Of the 30,600 men who formed the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s first contingent, about two-thirds had been born in the British Isles. Canadian-born men comprised about one third of the ranks.
Yet, as a famous Canadian journalist later put it, “Canada entered World War I as a colony and came out a nation…” British-born or not, the soldiers’ letters home, as the war dragged on, reflected an emergent Canadian identity.
In the early years of the war, many Canadian soldiers thought of themselves as fighting with the British for the sake of the Empire, but it is noticeable that over the course of the war – and especially after Vimy Ridge – they increasingly began to refer to their battlefield accomplishments as “the Canadians did this or the Canadians did that”.
In going to war, it seems, these young men discovered their country. One such young man was Harold Henry Simpson.
Born in Bayview, Prince Edward Island, on 17th March, 1897, Simpson enlisted in September, 1915, as an 18-year-old, in Charlottetown. Having experienced two years of the horrors of trench warfare on the Western Front, Simpson wrote a touching and poignant letter home on Christmas Day, 1917, which paints a vivid picture of life in the front line at that time…
Dec. 25, 1917
Well from the 21st until Christmas we spent all our spare time in getting the dugout fixed up as nicely as possible for Christmas and by Christmas we had it nicely decorated.
Yesterday, Albert, Dennis and I went out and gathered some green branches, spruce, fir and cedar, also the leaves of some evergreen shrub which I did not recognize but which were very pretty and we easily decorated our home. Not having quite enough material we went out again, and this time we found a real holly tree and with it we were well away. We decorated our mirror with the leaves of the evergreen shrubs, the posts of our supports with cedar and fir and the supports themselves with holly. By the time we had finished our home looked more like some farmer’s paradise then a bare French cellar a mile and a half from Brother Boche.
After dinner we sat around the fire and talked – talked of the old days back home before the war, talked of our training days, and talked of the life out here, of our last Christmas also spent on the line and of the events of the intervening year. Presently, someone suggested the question, where will we spend next Christmas and in answer to it some of the more optimistic among us said Canada…A couple of pessimists among us suggested that probably we would still be in France.
So the day passed and now it is Christmas night. How I would like to be with you all tonight…I wonder what kind of a night it is at home tonight.
We had a light flurry of snow just at dark and now the moon in shining bright and clear upon it from a cloudless sky.
Everything is perfectly quiet, it is as though the two opposing forces have agreed to make this day as peaceful as possible and except for an occasional report of a gun one would never know there was a war on. There is just one thing which I would like this evening and as I looked out over the peaceful scene tonight with the glittering white snow sparkling under the moon beams I could not help thinking what a perfect ending a nice sleigh drive would make to this Christmas.
With a heart full of love to all from your soldier son, Harold
Readers will be glad to know that young Harold survived the war, returning home in 1919, and going on to become a teacher in his own country.