Life in Canada, Preparing for War

At the outbreak of war in 1914, no one expected this conflict to take on such incredible proportions. In the years preceding the Great War, the mightiest countries of Europe forged strong alliances with one another in order to maintain the balance of power on the continent. Because of those alliances, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, many countries were bound by treaty to join the conflict. Russia’s alliance to the Serbian power forced the country to side against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had strong ties and they also sided together. Like a domino effect, almost all European countries were pulled into the conflict.

Of course, many European countries were major colonial powers at the time. Their involvement in the conflict also meant that their colonies were automatically at war as well. For this reason, the Great War brought people from all continents together to fight mainly in Europe, but also in Africa and the Middle-East. Not only was the Great War a global conflict on a geographical level, its scale and duration soon led it to become a global conflict within all spheres of society. The entire world economy shifted to accommodate the war effort. Everyone was somewhat involved in the conflict, from children targeted by propaganda and being told to convince their fathers to join the army, to women entering the workforce in great numbers, to minority groups enlisting with the hopes of gaining a better treatment after the war.

A Numbers Game?

During the 19th century leading up to the First World War, European countries spent considerable resources maintaining an army even in times of peace. Each country had to make sure they would be ready as quickly as possible in case they were attacked. However, the extent to which they prepared for an eventual conflict varied widely.

For example, in absolute numbers of manpower, the Russian Empire had the largest army in 1914. Yet, when we compare the number of soldiers to the total Russian population, we realize that only 0.4% of the population was actually trained to participate in the war. In reality, the Russian Empire had the smallest per capita enlistment rate of all the countries listed above. In contrast, France had the largest at 11%.

WWI Background

Many European empires lost their colonies in the Americas during the 1700s and 1800s, yet the Middle East, Africa and Asia were still sought after territories. Decades of imperial rivalries, economic competition, nationalism, and instability following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the east all led to the fragility upon which Europe stood at the turn of the 20th century.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was to become the future King of Austria-Hungary, was assassinated on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo, Bosnia by a Serbian nationalist (part of an extremist group that wanted Serbian power in the Balkans with the intention of breaking up the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Austria-Hungary believed the Serbian government was involved in the murder and declared war. This declaration of war was supported by Germany, an ally of Austria-Hungary.

Russia quickly became involved as it sought to protect Slavic nations (which included Serbians). Germany then demanded a promise of peace from Russia and France, yet with no reply declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914. Germany declared war on France, a Russian ally, on August 3, 1914.

European countries wrangled one another over international relations leading to two alliances at the start of WWI in 1914: The Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Italy, which later left the Alliance) and The Triple Entente (France, Russia, Great Britain).

The German army invaded Belgium, on its way to France, on August 4th, 1914. Britain, an ally of France and supporter of Belgian neutrality, demanded the Germans withdraw from Belgium and that Germany observe the Treaty of 1839 which declared Belgium a neutral country. Despite the ultimatum from the British, Britain declared war on Germany on August 5th and Canada, as a member of the British Empire was obliged to enter the War…

Canada was a self-governing dominion of the British Empire but did not fully determine or control Canadian foreign affairs and therefore was obliged to enter the War alongside Britain.

The Canadian Government thought that the might of the British Empire would make for a short-fought war with Germany. Little did they know it would last four long years and enlist 619,636 Canadians, almost 13% of Canada’s population of 8 million.

Who got involved? When?

Although the war began in Europe, it quickly spread around the world. The following is a list of countries, their alliances and the dates they entered the War:

The Triple Entente or Allies

  • Serbia (28 July 1914)
  • Russia (1 August 1914)
  • France (2 August 1914)
  • Great Britain (4 August 1914)
  • British Empire Dominions and Colonies (4 August 1914):
    • Australia
    • India
    • Canada
    • Newfoundland
    • New Zealand
    • South Africa
  • Japan (23 August 1914)
  • Italy (23 May 1915)
  • United States (6 April 1917)

These countries also fought with the Allies or declared war on the Central Powers:

Minor European Powers:

  • Portugal
  • Belgium
  • Romania
  • Greece
  • Montenegro

Other countries:

  • San Marino
  • Brazil
  • Costa Rica
  • Cuba
  • Ecuador
  • Guatemala
  • Haiti
  • Honduras
  • Nicaragua
  • Panama
  • Peru
  • China
  • Siam
  • Liberia

The Central Powers:

  • Austria-Hungary (28 July 1914)
  • Germany (1 August 1914)
  • Turkey (5 November 1914)
  • Bulgaria (14 October 1915)

These were the main European countries to remain neutral throughout the war:

  • The Netherlands
  • Switzerland
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Norway
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Iceland

Would you Fight for a Dollar?

In August 1914, the daily pay rate for a private was $1.00 a day! Although, a dollar in 1914 could get you further than a loonie will today, according to the Bank of Canada inflation calculator, $1.00 would equal nearly $22 in 2018. So… would you fight for $22 a day…?

As a Private, the lowest rank within the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), you could hope to be promoted as a corporal and get a raise of ten cents. (equivalent to $2.00 today), but you would be taking on a lot more responsibility. The highest ranking senior officer (below General ranks), a Colonel, would earn $6.00 (equivalent to $130 today) as their daily pay rate.

In comparison, the average daily rate for a Nursing Sister attached to the CEF was double that of a Private, earning $2.00 a day (equivalent to $43.00 today)

The Royal Montreal Regiment at the very beginning

Men answered the Call to Arms to go overseas and fight an enemy they thought was dangerous and needed to be stopped. The Royal Montreal Regiment was quickly formed in early August 1914 to coordinate the city of Montreal’s war effort. At the time, what was called The ‘’1st Regiment, Royal Montreal Regiment’’and it was raised from the combination of three existing prominent militia regiments in Montreal: The 1st Regiment, Canadian Grenadier Guards (372 men and 12 officers); The 3rd Regiment, Victoria Rifles of Canada (355 men and 12 officers), and the 65th Regiment, Carabiniers Mont-Royal (276 men and 8 officers). Shortly after, the Minister of Militia created the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) to regroup all of the 424,000 Canadians that when to France and Belgium between 1914 and 1918. Within this military organization, The Royal Montreal Regiment was known as to the 14th Battalion (RMR) CEF.

Additional resources

Multimedia material

The National Film Board of Canada’s (NFB) docu-drama about the life and experiences of famed Canadian fighter pilot Billy Bishop during WWI

Assassination of Franz Ferdinand – cartoon – Simple History, 1:42 minutes

12 minute video by Epic History introducing the beginning of the War, massive casualties and world context. July 1914-December 1914