Calgary historians reflect on the major global conflict also known as “The Great War”
Every semester in the First World War class Stephane Guervemont teaches at Mount Royal University, the historian gives his students the same piece of advice on how to truly get a sense of what life was like in the trenches.
“I tell my students to dig a hole and go in there with your clothes — no pyjamas — just your regular day clothes, and have your parents throw a grenade at you and shoot at you with a machine gun every once in a while as you stay in there for months. That’s trench life. It’s incredible. It’s hell.”
According to Statistics Canada, more than 400,000 people from Canada travelled to Europe at some point from 1914 to 1918 to experience this kind of hell. The First World War remains to this day one of the deadliest and most important conflicts ever witnessed by humanity. In terms of deaths, it was the bloodiest conflict in Canadian history with about 60,000 lives being taken, compared to over 20,000 in the Second World War.
Calgary played a pivotal role in the First World War. The 10th and 50th battalions were raised in the young city, and were made up primarily of Calgarians. The 31st Battalion’s 1,000-man unit, consisting of men from across Alberta, was recruited and mobilized in Calgary. Recruitment for the 8th Canadian Field Ambulance, the 12th Regiment Canadian Mounted Rifles and five reserve battalions also took place at Calgary. Calgary’s Sarcee Camp was the largest training base in Western Canada. The entire 50,000 Alberta war recruits were trained at this camp.
The Canadians that enlisted did so for many reasons. Some people wanted to go for adventure; some because their family or friends had volunteered; and many people went for patriotic reasons.
Pat Brennan, a University of Calgary historian, says as a result of today’s Canadians experiencing nothing but peace at home there is a tendency to look back on First World War volunteers and ridicule them for being naïve with regard to not knowing what kind of conflict they would be entering. Brennan says that’s a mistake.
“They (these soldiers) believed so strongly in what was happening. I’m not saying there was no propaganda or naivety. But they believed so strongly that virtually everyone that could sign-up did. We should try to give them credit by trying to understand. It’s a very important event that we don’t understand.”
However, most of the people representing Canada were in fact British-born citizens returning home to defend their motherland. A lot of Canadians did stay home.
The first contingent that went over to fight was 90 per cent British citizens. However, more Canadians did enlist in the war as the war went on — partially due to conscription being introduced in 1917— and by 1918 a true sense of English Canadian pride was born.
Causes of the First World War
While the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip, certainly triggered a series of events that would lead to the outbreak of the First World War, historians argue that the war would still have taken place if there were no assassination.
“There were rivalries (in Europe) of a sort where if one empire was to get ahead, another must not — a ‘zero-sum game’ as we call it,” says Brennan. “Europe was heading towards war, and given Europe’s importance at the time it would be a World War.
“If the assassination did not happen there is a significant chance that two years later, five years later, whatever, there would have been another incident to ignite the war.”
Guervemont says the arms race between empires, the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, and different nations aggressively trying to establish alliances in case there was a conflict were causes of the war.
John Ferris, a historian for the U of C, says Serbia and Germany played a leading role in escalating the tension in the days after the assassination.
“The Serbian government is involved in an act of state sponsored terrorism,” says Ferris. “The assassination of Franz Ferdinand follows on from Serbian national policy.
“The Austrians had to do something in the sense that if you’re in a country and something is done to you and you don’t respond then you’re suggesting to everybody, ‘Hit me again.’ The Germans also deliberately encourage the more aggressive factions in Austria to take extremely tough action.”
Ferris says it’s important to realize that the major states of the time were the same because they were all aggressively pursuing their self-interests. He adds while no country is truly worse than the other, some countries were more foolish.
Sense of Canadians going into the war
Ferris says it is incorrect to believe Canadians and Europeans didn’t realize the war could be a long, drawn-out stalemate
Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives NA-4002-25.“There is a myth that civilians, Canadians and Europeans, believed the war would be quick, cheap and heroic,” says Ferris. “That’s a myth. There’s been a lots of war reportage in the last 20 years across the West of what wars are like. In fact, everybody knows wars will kill lots and lots of people.”
Guervemont argues the other way, saying there were some people expecting a dashing cavalry charge and a quick offensive war, and they would be home soon.
“For many (of the Canadian soldiers) it was a free trip home that was going to be before Christmas,” says Guervemont. “They would be able to see their uncles, aunts, grandpas and grandmas and come back right away, but in reality they came back four, and in some cases five years later.”
“This whole ‘home by Christmas’ business really did become a cliché,” Brennan says. “The key thing is no one, especially here had any idea of what a modern 20th century war between great powers after the Industrial Revolution would be like. No one could have anticipated on how destructive and last as long this war would be
“We get caught up in this ‘home by Christmas’ thing because it a neat phrase and adds poignancy because it took five Christmases for them to be home,” Brennan adds.
Life in the Trenches
It’s rather remarkable how the millions of men fighting in the First World War were able to survive in the trenches. Alongside the constant shelling, grenades being thrown from time to time and putting up with the foulest poisonous gas, troops were essentially living in a disgusting and lethal cesspool.
Each soldier has 500 to 600 other men living with him in the same place. They had did do personal hygiene things, sleep, eat and relax all in the same place. Soldiers had to be on guard at night as there are huge rats that fed on flesh in the trenches. And of course the soldiers had no real protection from whatever Mother Nature decided to throw their way.
This horror was intense and raw. Guervemont is convinced people alive today wouldn’t be able to handle it.
“I think your generation and my generation would not have not survived one week. I don’t know how these guys did it for four years.”
It could be argued this war was just as tough mentally on the soldiers as it was physically.
“There was boredom and a sense that it’s never going to end,” Brennan said. “There is a fatalism that you were going to die, it was just a matter of when.”
“For these guys on the Western front they didn’t see anything else but the same spot for four years,” Guervemont said. “They moved, let’s say half the length of Alberta. From here to Edmonton and that’s about it. From Ypres and Vimy and all those other places, and that’s all they did. They advanced three kilometres until we broke the front.”
Brennan says soldiers had a strong enough conviction in what they were fighting for to keep them carrying on, and letters from home also helped the soldiers cope with life in the treacherous trenches.
According to Guervemont, rum also played a role in helping the men press forward.
“They were all alcoholics. It kept them going. If it was not for the rum, who knows?”
Is the Battle of Vimy Ridge overrated?
In the years following the Great War, many platitudes were uttered describing how the Battle of Vimy Ridge transformed Canada. Some have argued that the nation of Canada was truly born by capturing the seven-mile ridge overlooking France’s Douai plain.
Al Judson, archivist for the Kings Own Calgary Regiment (originally the 50th Battalion), says that the soldiers who took part in the battle did not feel they accomplished country unification when they captured the ridge. That sentiment appeared over a decade after the global conflict.
“The idea of unification did not come until the political landscape of the late 1920s,” says Judson. “Canada was undergoing many political battles at the time and there was a need for a rallying force to reunite Canada. Vimy Ridge was chosen by the political people as the rallying point. A lot more effort was put in and a lot more stories were made about Canada was unified by the battle of Vimy.”
While historians argue about the importance of the victory to the Canadian psyche, there is a universal sentiment that it was a great military feat for the country.
“(The Canadian Corp) took an area the British and French both had failed to take,” says Ferris. “What this means to Canadians is frankly that we can play with the big boys, and Vimy Ridge establishes the Canadian core as a dangerous force, and from that moment on as the Germans are trying to track the Canadians.”
“We took that ridge on the first day, and by the fourth day we were able to cover the other hills around it,” says Guervemont. “One of those hills was called the Pimple and it was the toughest one to take. That is where the monument is today”
Judson argues that this victory certainly “put more steel in the backs of our diplomats in dealing with the Imperial war cabinet that we wanted more say.”
Brennan has issue with the unification of a nation idea because, according to him, the battle instead represented how disunited Canada was.
“Vimy is used as this birth of a nation argument but it doesn’t reflect reality,” says Brennan. “There was a virtual absence of anyone in the Canadian army except English Canadians at the time.
“One month after the Battle of Vimy Ridge when we’re supposed to be so united the government introduces conscription and calls for military service overseas, which is extremely unpopular in some parts of Canada. So much for national unity.”
Guervemont has issue with the victory at Vimy being considered as the moment when Canada was born, insisting Canadian pride existed before the battle.
“People in 1915 and 1916 in the Canadian corps saw themselves as Canadian. We just decided after the war to say, ‘Everything started at Vimy.’ You can’t do that because you can’t erase what happened before.”
Characterizing Canada’s contribution to the First World War
Photo by Paulina Liwski.During the first half of the First World War the Canadian army — and the other nations that served the British Empire — were looked down upon by the British and French armies for not being “true professional soldiers.”
“In some cases they were viewed as cannon fodder to fill up holes in the lines,” says Judson.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge is important because it did mark the first time the four Canadian divisions fought together as one united group. The victory made the British and French realize that the Canadians can really fight. This victory encouraged the allied forces to give Canada a prominent role in the battles that followed Vimy.
“You could find military historians around the world that would say the following: ‘The Canadian army was the best in the world in 1917 and 1918,’” says Ferris. “If you are looking for a moment when Canada performed at the absolute top of its game in history in anything that’s probably 1917-1918.”
“By 1918 we had no equal and everybody recognized it,” says Guervemont.
Canada was at the spearhead of many British major attacks in prominent conflicts during that time frame, such as the Third Battle of Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele, the Battle of Amiens and the Battle of Canal du Nord. In the last 100 days of the war Canadians experienced a great deal of casualties as it continued to push the Germans back until the armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918.
The Canadian corps was so effective in battle due to its ability to repel its opponents counter attacks, its observation skills and combat ability.
Why is the war significant 100 years later?
While it may be difficult to come to a conclusion as to why a war started a century ago has any impact on Canadian society in 2014, the First World War has nevertheless shaped the Canada we live in.
As a result of Canada’s triumphs in the war, it was recognized by the world that Canada was ready to be its own distinct nation. From that point forward Canada gained more of a voice and was more empowered to shape its own destiny. Much of what Canada is today can be traced back to First World War as a starting point.
Brennan says when Canadians think about the First World War, they should reflect on the brave sacrifices of men and women.
“We should remember the willingness of so many to sacrifice their lives. Many soldiers survived the war. There was an enormous sense that this was very important.”
Guervemont says the war has proven to be significant 100 years later due to the amount of people interested in the war today. Every semester when he teaches his First World War course at Mount Royal University the class is full.
People sign up for trips to visit First World War battle sites, people read First World War books and people play First World War video games. In fact, according to Guervemont, the fascination about the First World War is the strongest it’s been in many years.