Doing Their Bit in Canada

By Geddes Smith

[The Independent; January 24, 1916]

Suppose Congress should call for a volunteer army of six and a quarter million men. Can you imagine the mighty gasp that would go up from a hundred million throats? Yet, in proportion to her population, that is what Canada has actually decided to do—and is well on her way toward accomplishing.

If you took every man, woman and child in Canada, including the babies who couldn't stand up for themselves, and called every sixteenth person to step out and be measured for khaki, and then bought him a soldier's outfit, fed, housed and trained him for six months, and paid him $1.10 a day from his enlistment until he was killed or retired, you would be doing no more than the Dominion is doing for the British Empire. And that takes no account of separation allowances, gifts of supplies and money, the Red Cross, or the Patriotic Fund. It is no slight thing for Canada to undertake to raise half a million troops from her population of eight millions—a population peace-minded like our own. It could not be done unless the country was united in support of the war.

We in the United States are living next door to a nation in arms, a training camp three thousand miles long. Enter it, as I did, by the familiar Niagara Falls gateway. On the American side, on Mediation Island in the little lake in the State Reservation, the A B C f l a g flies serenely in commemoration of the international peacemaking that was done at Niagara. But the bridge that you cross to the other side is guarded by sentries in khaki, rifles over their shoulders, bayonets fixed. Before the Clifton House, where the mediators sat, paces another guard. Queen Victoria Park is a military post. If you have business at the administration building you are received by a sentry who whistles shrilly for an orderly to conduct you into the soldier-filled offices.

Go further; the man in khaki is everywhere. Walk down Yonge street, the Broadway of Toronto, in the evening, when the ten thousand soldiers quartered about the town are released from the barracks. They swarm over the sidewalks, in the poolrooms, the restaurants, the movie theaters, even in the jewelry auction rooms, where wrist-watches and trinkets for stay-at-homes can be bought. Highlanders with, the rakish bonnet; fresh-faced young lads in swinging "British warms"; soldiers with girls, soldiers with their pals—who are often so much seedier than the men in uniform that you marvel at the improvement army rations and army garb can make—soldiers with more soldiers. You almost catch the habit of saluting, yourself. The hard-skinned ruddy cheeks, the bristly yellow mustache, the swagger stick—these are omnipresent.

Or walk down quaint, tortuous St. Paul street in St. Catherine's, type of the smaller Ontario city; recruiting streamers flung across the road urge you to enlist, and .all roads lead to the armory. Listen to the smoking room talk on the Pullman; here is a man on his way home, still husky from the chlorine gas that drove him from the trenches; here are two old army men whose boys are at the front in the old regiments; here is a farmer whose crops are in and who is on his way to enlist at the old home. In Prince Edward Island the best of the young fellows are missing this winter, so the girls tell you. Away across the continent on Vancouver Island an adventurous squad of clean-cut lads is learning that hazardous business of scouting by aeroplane. On Winnipeg's main street three or four battalions jostle each other with their recruiting stations, gaudy with posters. In Peace River Crossing, away off at the end of the railroad in the north, the walls of the primitive hotel display the call to the colors. Edmonton of a Sunday flocks to greet returned soldier-invalids at special church services. Even the Yukon has sent its contingent.

Last summer men were in training at field camps scattered over the Dominion, one in each militia division. When cold weather came they "hiked" in to the cities, where in several cases they found admirable quarters at the fair grounds. Those who had spent the summer at Niagara-on-the-Lake marched to Toronto and took possession of Exhibition Park, where the biggest fair of all Canada is held every autumn.

Here I visited them one rainy morning when only occasional squads were marching over the soggy lawns. They had made a drill hall out of the largest building, and were filling it with a babel of orders and a patchwork of vibrating khaki, as squad by squad they went thru the manual of arms or stabbed imaginary foes with the bayonet. The overseas force is recruited both from the established militia regiments and from untrained civilians, so that men of all grades and no grade of military proficiency will be found in a single battalion. The seven thousand men then in camp were housed, a battalion to a building (1157 men of all ranks), in the exhibition halls. Long lines of wooden bunks in two tiers had been put up, and in one building the men were sprawling over them—bedding and equipment shoved to one side—while their platoon commanders lectured them; a fine display of Canadian manhood where prize pumpkins and potatoes had been shown a few months before. The refreshment pavilion had been brevetted mess hall, with army cooks in charge who were eager to explain how little they wasted and how good was the food. In the A. S. (Army Supply Corps) storehouse they were checking incoming edibles, and showed me tins of powdered milk on which—when transmogrified—they assured me cream would rise! Outside there were trenches for bomb practise and sham fights. The men would have more of that sort of training when their work in Canada was done and they were transferred to the Shorncliffe camps near London, to wait the call to France.

Down in the armory courtyard the rookies who had not yet been uniformed were flinging put their chests and shouting numbers in their first drill. Up at the University boys in khaki punctuated the strolling crowds in the corridors between lectures. At Toronto, as at a dozen other universities and colleges, there is an Officers' Training Corps which prepares men to accept commissions. There is no obligation on its members to enlist for overseas service, but they form the majority of the eight hundred undergraduates which this university alone has already sent. Naturally most of the officers thruout the Canadian Expeditionary Force are university men and four Universities Companies, with college men in all the ranks, have gone. At the University of Manitoba this year only 67 out of 800 men students have failed to join either the O. T. C. or the overseas forces. St. Chad's, a little theological school in Regina, lost its whole student body and closed its doors.

At the end of 1915, when the Government announced that Canada's force was to be 500,000 instead of 250,000, there had actually been enlisted 220,000 men of all ranks, and nearly 120,000 of these had been sent overseas. Recruits had been coming in at the rate of nearly a thousand a day. Naturally the western, provinces, where the proportion of footloose men of military age is large, have done better than the east. Alberta, with about a twentieth of the population, has raised over a tenth of the army. But for that matter Ontario, too, has done somewhat more than her share, and only Quebec has fallen far behind.

The French-Canadian situation has caused much discussion. Henri Bourassa, leader of the Nationalists, has openly opposed recruiting, and the French-Canadian enlistments all told have been under 9000, from a total population of over two million. The devout Quebec Catholic is little moved by the plight of anti-clerical France, and has always been out of sympathy with the English-speaking majority in Canada. Yet Oliver Asselin, prominent in Bourassa's party, has offered to raise a regiment and has himself taken service, and the province is by no means wholly apathetic.

More than half the men already recruited from the Dominion are of British birth. The famous and unfortunate "Princess Pats" were mostly old British army men, with only a sprinkling of native Canadians. The percentage of native-born recruits has been climbing, but recent figures show that it had not yet touched fifty per cent—far below the ratio of native to foreign-born citizens. This is not surprizing, for the home ties and the kin in the trenches must be the strongest motives for enlistment. The Toronto Globe asserts that the great mass of the native-born between twenty and thirty years old are still available for service.

England's difficulty with backward bachelors is not duplicated in Canada, where married recruits are now in the minority. Consequently, while the pinch is beginning to be felt in clerical offices, where trained young men can ill be spared, the effect in the shops so far has been chiefly to transfer jobs held by bachelor recruits to unemployed married men. But the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, equally notable for their efficiency and their gaudy uniforms (even the Canadian postman, in blue and red, outshines the soldier), have lost so many men, in spite of stringent restrictions, that the officers are forced to do prisoners' guard duty, and are in high dudgeon. In Leith, Alberta, there are already a handful of woman car conductors, but that is still a novelty.

Canada does more than send her men to fight. There is no space to enumerate the gifts that the Dominion, the provinces, and the people poured into Britain's storehouses in the early days of the war. "If you can't fight, you can pay," is the slogan for stay-at-homes. The women of Canada divide their energies between the Red Cross and the Patriotic Fund. It is a bad year for other philanthropies. Ontario alone has given $1,875,000 to the British Red Cross. The Patriotic Fund, which supplements the separation allowances made to the wives and dependents of soldiers, has passed the six million mark. And if every man, woman and child in the Dominion has not bought something to eat, smoke, chew or wear and sent it off to some homesick Tommy in the trenches, it is not the fault of some thousands of shopkeepers who litter their windows with suggestive offers. As to the war loan of $50,000,000, it is only necessary to say that ten hours after it was thrown open Ottawa had been assured of an oversubscription, and that after the subscriptions had reached $106,000,000 the Government decided to keep an extra fifty millions and loan it to Britain to pay for war purchases in Canada.

Meanwhile it is not a pleasant year for Germans and Austrians in Canada. They are distrusted everywhere. The Weiland Canal revelations and actual attempts to destroy bridges justify the guards which have been placed at danger points all across the continent. But it is hard for the delicatessen dealers and their like—men and women who have lost their little circle of patrons and cannot collect their accounts from those who still do buy, because they're Germans, you know.

Canada has no such rigorous and muddleheaded censorship to fetter her newspapers as England has; but the telegraph news furnished by the press agencies is inspected before it goes out, and editors are warned not to print unauthorized matter. The Government has officially requested the press, moreover, to make no unfriendly editorial comment on the course of the United States.

This does not prevent a good deal of badinage and a pretty definite popular feeling that the United States has played a shabby role. "We don't want you to fight," the Canadian says. "Your navy isn't needed, you couldn't raise an army in time to count, and we want your munitions ourselves. But in the name of democracy and the small nations you ought to have protested at the Belgian and Armenian outrages. And you should have made it perfectly clear to the world that the safety of noncombatants on the high seas was of all-surpassing importance, instead of complaining in your mercenary way about your shipping." This feeling of disappointment at America's attitude is well voiced by the Winnipeg Free Press:

Perhaps the official attitude of the United States will best be described as one of the tragedies of the war. For the spectacle of a great nation, which bled itself white for freedom, which has done vast things for democracy, and which has produced heroes and martyrs, now adopting an official attitude of unconcern while the bloodiest struggle of the ages against autocracy is in full swing, is depressing and uninspiring.

Canada feels so strongly that the Allies are fighting America's battle as well as their own that it seems entirely natural that Americans should enlist. Just how many have already done so is uncertain. There have been estimates, probably exaggerated, running as high as six thousand. A few adventuresome lads slip into Canada over the border, and there have been many enlistments from the western provinces, where the proportion of American immigrants is high. But at least there is an American Legion now being formed in Toronto, the Ninety-seventh Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force. At its head is Lieut.-Col. A. B. Clark, formerly of the Twenty-third N. G. N. Y., a Brooklyn regiment. Recruiting for this battalion, already two-thirds full, is going on all over Canada, the men who join being required to take the oath of allegiance only for the duration of the war. There are special physical restrictions, and it promises to be a fine body of men. An ingeniously international device has been adopted: Canada's maple leaf in combination with the Washington coat of arms, which introduces the Stars and Stripes in an unimpeachable British-American version.

After all, a Canadian enlists in this war for much the same reasons as an American. I heard a young engineer who had just finished his job—a piece of railway construction—talking of his plans. "There's no more construction work," he said. "Hell, I don't want to go into the operating department. And I figure it this way: after the war I'll meet fellows I know on Yonge street and they'll say 'Were you over there? and I'd feel pretty cheap to say 'No.' It's a shame not to back up men who need help." Here were three of the most powerful motives for enlistment: the desire for action, the pull of friends, the pressure of pride. At the other end of the scale were a crowd of applicants whom I saw in the Toronto recruiting station, forlorn ineffective men who were probably moved largely by the announcement, "Pay starts at once."

Certainly the king does not count for much in the matter, altho he fits well into stereotyped phrases like "Your king and country need you—now," which even that staunch liberal sheet, the Toronto Globe, prints every day. A genial Scotch railroad man put it this way: "George is a verra good fellow, but he don't bother me and I don't bother him." And it is doubtful, too, whether the idea of the Empire is responsible for Canada's devotion, except with the extreme Conservatives. Rather it seems to be a personal adherence to the old country and the old country friends on the part of those closely bound to England; and then a firm conviction that Britain's cause is worth fighting for on its merits—a conviction that does not necessarily involve loyalty to the Empire or even patriotism. And to some extent there seems to be a national pride in Canada's own achievements. You hear the boast that Canada won the South African War for England; you can buy little books about The Battle Glory of Canada; the "heroes of St. Julien and Festubert" are invoked on recruiting posters.

It will be considerably harder to raise the second quarter-million than it has been to find the first. Canada began briskly, mobilizing a division within six weeks of the beginning of the war and putting 30,000 men into Great Britain before the middle of the first October, and has continued steadily, but she may well pause before going on to complete a levy that amounts almost to half the men of military age in the Dominion.

But she is absolutely confident of victory. And, curiously enough in so independent a member of the British family, she is quite content to furnish men and money and to let Britain run the war. "We're only amateur soldiers," a leading newspaperman said to me. "We would hesitate to think we knew as much about fighting as Kitchener." So there is little criticism of British blunders, and a cool, matter-of-fact way of talking and thinking about the war (always excepting that rather florid expectation of humiliating Germany), and, in a word, considerably more self-possession than might be expected from a nation which, long confident of her political vigor, has just begun to feel her economic strength, and yet chooses to remain British.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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A Novel of World War One
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