Find your military ancestors and build your family tree
   partnered with

   The CANADIAN GREAT WAR HOMEPAGE
   Canada's Role in World War I
   1914 ~ 1918

Find your military ancestors, learn their history, and build your family tree

Are you interested in Genealogy or military history? Find your military ancestors in free searchable databases for World War One. Add branches to your family tree as you search your ancestry and build your genealogy. Discover your family origins in military history, military ancestors and genealogy, and family history records.

FIRST NAME

LAST NAME

LOCALITY

Home | Canadian Military Heritage Project | Olive Tree Genealogy

Build a FREE Family Tree

A Brief History of the Canadian Expeditionary Force

The First Canadian Contingent 1914~1915

When the year 1914 dawned in Canada, there were few Canadians who dreamed that the year was destined to usher in what would become the greatest war in history to that point, a war which was to claim the lives of over 65,000 young Canadians. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo went almost unnoticed in Canada. There had always been problems in the Balkans, what concern was it of Canada. And even if war did break out in Europe, it would be short and sharp, and would probably be over before any Canadian troops could reach the theater of operations.

The outbreak of war between Great Britain and Germany on August 4, 1914, therefore, found Canada completely unprepared. Canada had only 3110 permanent troops, a few outdated machine-guns and artillery pieces, and a militia system so inadequate that it had roused the scorn of German military writers, who had pronounced it a negligible factor so far as a European war was concerned. However with the coming of war the Canadian government promptly sent a cable to England offering the services of Canadian troops. The offer was accepted a few days later; and preparations were immediately begun for the mobilization of a division of approximately 20,000 men. That Canada was automatically at war when Britain was at war was unquestioned. Sir Wilfrid Laurier spoke for the majority of Canadians when he proclaimed: "it is our duty to let Great Britain know and to let the friends and foes of Great Britain know that there is in Canada but one mind and one heart and that all Canadians are behind the Mother Country."

The story of the first Canadian division, from its almost impromptu organization at Valcartier Camp, near Quebec, to its heroic stand at the Second Battle of Ypres, when it was all but wiped out of existence, and when, as Sir John French said, it "saved the day" for the allies, is one of the most dramatic and amazing episodes of the great War. A hastily formed and partially trained body of citizen soldiers, the First Canadian Contingent won for themselves, almost at the moment of their arrival in France, a reputation second to none on the Western front.

On the evening of August 6th the Minister of Militia Sam Hughes sent a letter gram to the 226 Militia commanding officers across Canada announcing the formation of the Canadian Expeditionary Force to be mobilized at camp Valcartier P.Q. Valcartier had already been selected as a military training ground before the war broke out; but little had been done to put it in shape to serve as a mobilization centre for an expeditionary force of over 20,000 men. On the day after war was declared, however, the engineers were already at work at the camp; and in less than three weeks there had sprung up what was perhaps one of the finest military encampments in the world. A mile of rifle ranges was constructed; a waterworks system, a telephone system, and an electric light system. were installed; storehouses, offices, a moving picture palace, rose overnight; and ordnance stores began to pour in .

By the middle of August the troops had begun to arrive. By the end of August over 30,000 volunteers, from all parts of the Dominion, were in camp. Each militia unit had been assigned a definite quota; but in nearly every case the local contingents arrived far over strength. Hundreds of men jumped on the troop trains and came on their own responsibility. Several regiments, such as the Queen's Own of Toronto and the Royal Highlanders of Montreal, sent each a whole battalion. The Fort Garry Horse of Winnipeg chartered two trains themselves, and came down to Valcartier without authority; and no one had the heart to send them back. The arrivals were a motley crew. Some wore mufti, some wore khaki, and some wore the black or scarlet serges of their militia units. The task of equipping them, and even of accommodating them, put a tremendous strain on the administrative departments, a strain which at times neared the breaking-point.

At first all was confusion. Detachments were juggled about from battalion to battalion, and juggled back again. Commanding officers were changed almost daily, often due to the erratic nature of Sam Hughes personality. Brigades were formed, and broken up again. But gradually order emerged out of chaos. The final reorganization was completed; the troops were medically examined, inoculated, and equipped with service uniforms; training was begun, and the rifle ranges echoed with the sound of musketry practice. By the middle of September, the camp had settled down into a reasonably well-ordered routine.

It had been originally intended to send overseas only one division with the necessary reinforcements; but at the last minute the government announced that the whole force of 83,000 men would be sent at once. By the third week of September the transport ships had been assembled and the process of loading began by September 27th. Unfortunately the loading of the transports was less then successful, Far to little planing had been done, chaos and confusion were the order of the day as ships were loaded and then unloaded, guns were loaded with there wheels still on taking up space, equipment belonging to one unit would often end up on the wrong ship, and in the end much equipment was left behind.

The First Contingent embarked at Quebec in 31 transports. The flotilla was concentrated at Gaspe Bay, where it was met by a convoy of British warships; and on October 3, the entire Armada, containing the largest military force which had ever crossed the Atlantic at one time, set sail for England. In three long parallel lines of about a dozen ships each, with flags flying and signals twinkling, it made an imposing sight for the handful of people who saw it off. On October 6th the convoy was joined at sea by a ship carrying the Newfoundland Regiment. Before and during the crossing there had been much talk about the threat of German submarines but this threat never materialized.

Two weeks layer the contingent arrived in England. Here it was disembarked at Plymouth. The landing of the Canadians was unheralded; but their welcome by the people of Plymouth was a royal one. As the troops marched through the town, the townspeople mingled in and through the ranks.

The area allotted by the British War Office to the Canadians was Salisbury Plain. This was a group of camps, in the south of England, which offered in summer weather an almost perfect training ground. For a few days the Canadians were charmed with their new surroundings. Then the weather broke. In what was to prove to be a grim forshadowing of the conditions the men would endure in France, there followed one of the worst winters on record in England. The rain poured down day after day; the roads became impassable; the Plain itself soon became a morass. Everything grew saturated with water, from tents to clothes, even tobacco and matches. Training was impossible; and sickness grew among the troops until the hospitals were filled to overflowing.

Human nature can stand only so much, and no more. In Canada the First Contingent had been extraordinarily well-behaved; and later in France it showed that it could face without flinching all the terrors of modern warfare. But the mud and boredom of Salisbury Plain was to much for many of the men. Hundreds broke camp, and fled in search of a few days' fun and dry comfort. Some men went away, not to return until they heard that the First Division was leaving for France. Absence without leave became a serious problem. Punishment was unavailing to stop it. Men went away, lived like lords at London's hotels and brothels, came back, and accepted their punishment quietly as the price they were willing to pay for a few days' respite from mud and misery.

The first Canadians to go to France, apart from a hospital unit, were the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. Named after the daughter of the Canadian Governor-General, the Duke of Connaught. This regiment, which was composed mainly of British reservists and old soldiers, many of whom were Boor war veterans, had been raised separately from the Canadian Contingent, through the generosity of Montreal millionaire Captain Andrew Hamilton Gault, who was destined to play a heroic part as one of its officers. Its colours had been worked by Princess Patricia herself. Early in December, 1914, the Princess Pats, as a crack regiment, were ordered to proceed to France, and there they joined the 27th British Division. They would not rejoin the Canadians until a year later.

The First Canadian Division did not leave for France until the beginning of the following February. Under Lieut. -Gen. Alderson, an Imperial officer who had been appointed to command the Canadians, it sailed from Avonmouth, and after a stormy passage through the Bay of Biscay, landed at St. Nazaire in the south of France. Its first experiences in France were not remarkable. It went through the usual stage of apprenticeship in what was relatively a quiet part of the line. The Canadian artillery took part in March in the ill-starred battle of Neuve Chapelle, and the infantry were on the outskirts of the fighting. If the day had gone better, the whole division would doubtless have been engaged, but fate did not so order it. For three months Canadians had a fairly undisturbed opportunity to initiate themselves into the mysteries of trench warfare.

In the middle of April, the Canadian Division took over from the French, a sector to the north of Ypres, in Belgian Flanders. By this time trench warfare had reduced the situation on the Western front to comparative deadlock. Neither side was able to advance, and the war threatened to become one of exhaustion. This did not suit the Germans, who had pinned their hopes on a quick decision. In an endeavor to break the deadlock, they brought into use a new weapon which they had developed, poison gas. In the late afternoon of April 22, the German artillery concentrated its fire in a violent bombardment of the front line to the left of the Canadian troops. An hour later they opened the valves on 5700 cylinders of chlorine gas, long yellow clouds of asphyxiating gas were released to drift across no mans land and into the French lines. The French colonial troops, Turcos and Zonaves who were on the immediate left of the Canadians were swept back by the poisonous fumes in agony of mind and body, Many of the French troops choked to death in there trenches. Into this gap poured three German divisions.

The situation of the Canadians troops was one of the most critical which could arise in warfare. Their left flank was completely exposed, and they were outnumbered at least five to one. If they retired, it was probable that the whole of the British forces in the Ypres salient would be surrounded and captured, and it was possible that the Germans might reach the Channel ports. Under the circumstances, the only thing to do was to stand fast. General Alderson withdrew his left flank, so as to meet an attack from the northwest, and he shortened the rest of his line; but after the first shock of the German attack was over, the Canadians' line did not budge. The strength of their defense, and the success of two heroic but costly counter-attacks, at Kitcheners Wood and Mauser Ridge, gave the Germans the impression that they were a much larger force than they were. On April 24th the Germans attacked yet again in attempt to obliterate the Salient once and for all. Again the Germans employed the same strategy as before, another violent bombardment followed by a gas attack and waves of infantry. The fighting that followed was terrible, shredded by shrapnel and machine gun fire, srugling with there jammed rifles and choking from the gas they never the less held on until reinforcements arrived. By April 25, after three days of ceaseless fighting, the sorely tried Canadians were relieved.

When the Canadian Division came out of the trenches that April day it had almost ceased to exist. Many battalions marched out only one-fifth or one-sixth of their original strength. One or two battalions could barely muster 100 men. The Canadians had been victorious in death. They had saved the day at one of the critical points of the war. And what makes their achievement the more remarkable is the fact that, compared with the regular troops of the European armies, they were, for the most part, untrained and amateur soldiers. Neither at Valcartier nor on Salisbury Plain had conditions been such as to make thorough training possible. Nothing but their high spirit and courage carried them through the ordeal of the second battle of Ypres.

Until the middle of May, the remnants of the division remained in rest billets. Meanwhile, however, reinforcements were coming forward from the reserves left behind in England; and in a brief space of time the division was back at full strength. Reorganized and revived, it took part in two of the battles of the early summer of 1915, Festubert and Givenchy. These engagements were on a small scale, and produced results measured only in a few yards of stinking mud; but they were bitterly fought, and the casualties sustained in them high. These high casualties still further depleted the nucleus of "original Firsts" remaining in France. By the end of the summer, the number of men in France who wore the colored shoulder straps of the First Contingent had become pitifully few. The division had become largely a new force, ready to be merged in the larger formation of the Canadian Corps on the arrival in France of the Second Division.

Continue reading about the CEF (Canadian Expeditionary Force) in 1916

Return to The Canadian Great War Homepage The Canadian Great War Homepage recommends the Canadian Military Heritage Project for more military history and genealogy
These pages were researched and written by Brian Lee Massey & are Copyright 1997 - 2007. This site may be freely linked to but not duplicated in any fashion without my consent. Poppy graphic and poppybar graphic designed by Brian L. Massey and may not be used on other sites

The Poppy is a ™Trademark of Dominion Command, Royal Canadian Legion, and is used on The Canadian Great War Homepage with their permission

Spotlight On: Soldiers of the First World War (1914-1918)    Olive Tree Genealogy Military Genealogy & History