A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE FIRST CONTINGENT

OF THE CANADIAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCE

 

On June 28, 1914 shots were fired in Sarajevo, the capital of Serbia, which were to reverberate around the world down to the present time. Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria and heir apparent to the Imperial Austrian throne, and his wife, were both shot dead. Grief quickly turned to outrage and the storm clouds of war gathered over Europe. Storms often pass, and many felt that this one would too, just like so many before. However, it was not to be, and after many failed diplomatic efforts, the world was plunged into an unimaginable Armageddon. King George V declared war on Germany on the evening of August 4, 1914. The British Empire, of which Canada was such an integral part, was now automatically at war too. Canada still did not have a say in the matter, although her sacrifice of almost 66,000 dead on the battlefield would change all this, but that was still in the future. 

The Toronto Star of Wednesday, August 5, 1914 reported that the Duke of Connaught (a son of Queen Victoria and Canada’s Governor General) had received the following message from Hon. Louis Harcourt, the Colonial Secretary: Please communicate to your Ministers the following message from His Majesty the King:

I desire to express to my people of the overseas Dominions with what appreciation and pride I have received the messages from their respective Governments during the last few days. These spontaneous assurances of their fullest support recalled to me the self sacrificial help given by them in the past to the mother country. I shall be strong in the greatest responsibilities which rest upon me by the confident belief that in the time of trial my Empire will stand united, calm, resolute, trusting in God.

George R. I. 

A Canadian Press Dispatch of the same day added that when Parliament met in special session on August 18, it would, it was understood, be a very short session. The chief business would be to vote $50,000,000 for war purposes.

Thousands of men volunteered for the Canadian Army and a training camp was quickly established at Val Cartier, 25 kilometres north of Quebec City (see photo at the left). There was a real fear that the Canadians would miss the action and that the war would be over by Christmas. On October 3, 1914, only six weeks after their arrival at the camp, over 33,000 men boarded 33 transatlantic liners at Quebec City. The convoy of ships must have looked an impressive sight as they gathered in the St. Lawrence estuary.

The ships were meant to dock at Southampton and the Toronto Star, eager to be first with a story, erroneously reported the safe arrival of Canadian troops and their disembarkation. In fact, to everyone’s surprise, the ships sailed into the harbour at Plymouth, Devon – the fear of a German U-boat attack necessitating a change in plans. On Thursday, October 15, 1914, the Western Evening Herald, a Plymouth newspaper, announced that the first Contingent of Canadian troops had arrived the day before, in a fleet of Transatlantic liners, painted naval grey. The photo below right shows the Franconia arriving in Plymouth.

The coming of the troops was not generally known, but the news quickly spread and there soon assembled crowds at every vantage point to cheer the Colonials as the ships majestically steamed through Plymouth Sound to the Hamoaze, where they moored. The troops seemed in high spirits as they swarmed on the decks and in the rigging. The bands and bagpipers played merrily, and rousing cheers were raised in answer to the waving of hats and sticks ashore.

The Canadian troops travelled by train to Amesbury, just north of Salisbury, and spent several months training on Salisbury Plain. It was one of the wettest winters on record and there was flooding everywhere. The Canadians were not to witness the extraordinary events that led to the Christmas Truce of 1914; however, by February 1915, they were considered battle ready, and sailed across the English Channel to France. It didn’t take long for Canadians to gain a reputation as determined fighters, often in the face of heavy fire. It also didn’t take long for the casualty toll to mount, and slowly, but surely, the devastating news filtered back home.