The West's Awake!

By Mary Synon

[Scribner's Magazine, January 1916]

In the third day of November, 1914, three months after the beginning of the Great War of Europe, a prospector flung his pack from a Siwash dugout upon the shore of the Hudson's Bay Company post at Fort Saint James. A big man, with a trace of military training in his uprightness and the tense look of the gold-cruiser in his eyes, he faced the little group of white men and Indians who gave welcome to his coming. "Is it true," he asked them, "that England's fighting Germany?"

"Where've you been these months past?" the Scotch factor burred at him.

"Up in the Omenica," came the answer. "Just heard of this war three weeks ago, and I've been coming, ever since. Has any one gone from Canada yet?"

"Fifty thousand men."

"I'm a little late," said the man of the pack, "but I'm not the only one in the rear-guard. The chaps of the Strathcona Horse are scattered from Ungava to Bering Sea, and from Fifty-three to the Pole. But we'll all be together for the Big Show."

Down through the meadow-lands of the Stuart, where the Indians were bringing in the wild hay, out into the green fields of the white man's valley of the Nechako, he took his way to Vanderhoof, that town where the civilization of the world's northern-most transcontinental cleaves the garden that old Simon Fraser found in the Northwest wilderness. To the agent of the first east-bound train the belated veteran of the Strathcona gave order. "Put me off," it was, "at the first town that's sending a contingent. Where is it?"

"Anywhere in the West," came the answer, "and everywhere. It's the West that's gone to war."

Anecdote and annotation sum up the history of Canada's part in the conflict. The man from the Omenica, speeding eastward to give himself to the Allied armies, flaunted on his banner the spirit of Canada's West. For it is the West of the land of the north that has caught the high thrill of heroic excitement which sends men to war. From Halifax to Vancouver a country tensely nationalized by the importance to its future of the battles of Flanders and of France tingles to the war news. War has drawn Canada taut till every town, every city, every hamlet, gives back answer to the bugle of patriotism; but from the Red River to Prince Rupert runs a higher, shriller note of the tocsin that proclaims Canada's share in the struggle that shakes the world. The West, that vast territory with Winnipeg at its portals, spreading out to the Pacific and up into the Arctic, has been flinging eastward in the last year and a half an army that has no parallel among the armies with whom it has merged, a great crusading army going overseas because of an ideal of service and winning for itself and its country pages in the book of history; and now, with the characteristic courage that saved the country from the resultant condition that might have been catastrophic in a land less virile, the West of Canada has rallied to another call. Armies must be fed; and for the feeding of war-stunned Europe and the Allied armies Western Canada is shipping over a bristling ocean 200,000,000 bushels of wheat out of the harvest that gilded her fields.

Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, and the Yukon, with less than one-fifth the population of the Dominion of Canada within their far-flung boundaries, have contributed more than one-half the 121,000 soldiers which Canada has given the Allied armies. Sixty-five thousand men have enlisted from the western provinces. Western Canada has a population of 1,400,000 people. At the rate of one in five, this means 280,000 men. One in three is an extraordinarily high rate of eligibles for service among the men of the country. Using this rate, a few more than 99,000 men of the West of Canada were eligible to serve in the army. The 65,000 who have enlisted are therefore more than two-thirds of the available men of the country. There is only one instance in history of a volunteer enlistment that equalled the same ratio, that of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. Consider with this that the soldiers of the Confederacy were fighting in their own territory, and that the Canadians have travelled anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 miles overland before they came to the sea they must cross, and you will face the fact of an army—not of mercenaries, but of men—that has set out with the zeal of crusaders upon a journey that makes the Anabasis of the army of Cyrus the Persian a child's wandering.

With two-thirds of her men of military availability gone, the West of Canada faced the problem of keeping up her home standard. She had given of men, of money, unstintedly to the cause she espoused. Through one winter her fields lay fallow. Spring came with promise. Then summer lifted into life the words of the prophet: "And lo, God comes, yea, even with a recompense." Canada's recompense was her harvest. Through the prairie provinces the glory of the grain, weighted upon the earth, raised spears of hope to the sun. So vast was the stretch of its yellow acreage, so heavy its burden to the acre, that for its garnering the Dominion Government had to send 29,000 men, 9,000 of them soldiers in training, to the wheat-fields. So great was the crop that 4,000 special trains of 50,000 bushels capacity to each train have been bearing their burdens from the fields to the elevators at the head of the Great Lakes, at Fort William and Port Arthur. From there, as fast as they can be filled, go the grain fleets on their perilous journey of carrying food to the war-swept lands of Europe. Somewhere down in the Saint Lawrence they are passing the transports of the rear-guard, men destined to fill the gaps in the ranks left by the fighting in France and in Flanders, men from the Rockies and the Cascades, from the backwaters of the Peace River country, from the islands beyond Prince Rupert, from the tracks beyond the Old Telegraph Trail, come from the ends of the earth over portages and ice-bound passes, going to find places in those regiments, that won distinguished honors at Langemarcke and Festubert. From the first day of the war Western Canada has been doing more than her part. Even now, with less enthusiasm, but with finer, grimmer determination, she continues to pour out men, money, munitions, until a journeying from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the country to the north leaves the observer with the conviction that in spirit and in sympathy this is a war of the West.

In the time while England's entrance into the war hung in the balance Eastern Canada, except French Quebec, swung toward a policy of upholding England in any possible contingency. The West of Canada, un-English in sentiment, opposed the idea. Then Germany entered Belgium. The West blazed with beacons of anger. Western Canada went to war, not because of any so-called "colonial" loyalty to England, but from a desire to avenge the invasion. The old-time Western idea that no man should stand idly by while the big fellow strikes his little neighbor has been the motive that took the farther provinces to war.

Quebec, that gray old city on the hills, sentinelling the way to the sea, thrusts her towers skyward like bristling bayonets; but Quebec, even with Valcartier just beneath her ramparts, drowses like a gray old woman who has seen too many wars to be stirred by the thrill of any of them. Montreal, child of the two races fighting side by side in the western trenches of Europe, cheers the victories and grieves over the losses of the far-away armies; but her own sons seem to go about their day's work in the day's fashion. Ottawa, fronting the river as it fronts the nation, frowns over the cares of state. Toronto, more Scottish than Edinburgh, rushes out its curbstone crowds to cry for the Highlanders who go to war; but the business of Toronto appears to run about as usual. It is only when one comes to Winnipeg that he realizes how the young men of Canada have followed the fifes. From Winnipeg westward the very streets of the towns tell their own stories of the men who marched over them behind the music of the "regimental bands. The West has gone to war.

On the morning of the 5th of October, a detachment of 500 men were leaving Winnipeg. Young—there wasn't one of them over twenty-five—they marched along Portage Avenue with the look of schoolboys on parade. Sidewalk crowds were cheering them. The boys smiled back, not merrily, as the Little Black Devils had smiled as they went out from Winnipeg a year ago last August, but just as bravely. At the head of one of the companies walked a tall young officer from Prince Rupert who had been the gayest of a dinner-party in the Fort Garry Hotel only the night before. "We're off to Belgium in the morning!" had been his blithe farewell to his friends, the words rising over the strains of "Kathleen Mavourneen," which the orchestra had all too opportunely chosen. One of the older men who heard him turned away from his study of the boy's eager face, "And he knows as well as I do," he said, "that once he gets in the trenches, an officer has only a seven days' chance of life and a private thirty!" The boy knew it; and so did every other boy of the 500 who stepped forth on that sunny October day. Winnipeg has good reason to remember.

Last April there came back to the Manitoba city a story that thrilled the town with pride and sorrow. The Winnipeg Rifles, whose gallantry and dash had won for them in the Riel Rebellion the sobriquet of "The Little Black Devils," had added to their everlasting glory by their heroism, at Ypres. They had been in the trenches at Ypres on the day of the 22d of April when the French had been overwhelmed by the poisonous gas fumes of the German attack. On the next day their turn had come. The bluish haze of vapor, rising before them at dawn, clouded their senses for a time; but they hung on, waiting for the German rush. The rush came. A line of gray-green forms rose to meet it. Vomiting, coughing, gasping for breath, the Winnipeg riflemen held their trenches fast. For two days they stood at their posts. That two days' stand changed the tide of the battle. The 8th Battalion had held its bit!" That "bit" saved the British army. Canada cheered from coast to coast. Winnipeg counted the cost when the cables flashed the report that only 216 of the men of the 90th Rifles had come back from the trenches of Ypres. She counted again when in the course of the next fortnight four other thousand of her young men enlisted for service and were sent to the concentration camp at Sewell.

The type of men who enlisted is an important element in the outcome of Canada. Twenty-three members of the Winnipeg Grain Exchange went. A prominent attorney, whose brother had died at Ypres, joined the army. More than 300 college students went into camp. So high did the feeling run in Winnipeg that girls took to pinning white feathers on the coats of young men who were known to be free from family obligations and who had not yet enlisted. When the last man shall have gone from Sewell, if that need shall arise, Winnipeg will say, with one of her most famous citizens, the Hon. Bruce Walker, commissioner of immigration for the Dominion: "My grief is that I have no son to send, and that I am too old to go."

At Sewell, the largest concentration camp in Canada, where 11,000 men wait orders to go overseas, the khaki-clad "rookies" chafe over the delay, even while they learn the rudiments of trench warfare under the tutelage of an even more impatient group of officers. Some of these officers have been invalided home after heroic exploits on the fields of Flanders and Gallipoli. They have at least a memory of achievement; but the officers of the Fort Garry and of the Strathcona Horse, drilling hundreds of new men every week, watching younger men go forth to service, have to hold hard to remember that they too are doing their bit.

Beyond Sewell, on the prairies of the Saskatchewan, the level wheat-fields have their own story of what the war has brought to them, as well as of what they have given to the war. There are thousands of farms in Western Canada to-day where the work is being done by old men, by women, and by young boys, just as the work of the war-tossed lands of Europe is being done by them. At Wainwright, one of the towns of Saskatchewan, a man of seventy-four was binding the grain. "My three boys are at the front," he said proudly, "and I'd be there if they'd take me." He himself had taken up his rifle against Louis Riel. Now he was doing his part by labor he had long since resigned to the three hardy young giants who had gone to France. On a neighboring ranch four women were doing the work that three men had been wont to do before they went to war. There isn't a town in the prairie provinces that has not sent its quota to the regiments.

Beyond the prairies, however, one must go for the heaviest enlistment. British Columbia holds the record for sending more men to the Allied armies than any other division of the empire of England. In one month 1,200 men came up the Fraser River from points on the old Cariboo Trail to join the regiment there. Wallachin, a town on the trail, sent 47 men to the front out of 67 eligible citizens of the town, Vancouver sent 10,000 men out of its population of 110,000. Prince Rupert went over this ratio. Every settlement in British Columbia has its soldier in the ranks. Most of the recruits, like the men from the Omenica, travelled two and three weeks to reach the railroad. One man was five weeks going down to Edmonton from the extreme north of the Peace River country.

Of the cities of Western Canada no one has reason for greater pride than has Edmonton. Set high on the banks of the Saskatchewan, the town is the clearinghouse of the last West. A city of vivid contrasts, where one of the finest hotels on the western hemisphere shadows tarpaper shacks and log cabins, where cowboys from the ranges of Alberta and Indians from the reservations ride past the marble façades of stately bank buildings, Edmonton filters the adventures of the world in her times of peace. From Edmonton the first rush to the Klondike went forth. Into it poured the railway-builders, the prospectors, the settlers bound toward the valley of the Nechako, the plains of the Athabasca, the mountains of the Yukon, the prairies of the Peace. Americans, Englishmen, Scotchmen, Irishmen, Canadians, men from half the countries of Europe and some of the lands of Asia drifted in and out of Edmonton in the backwash of the Klondike, the return from the South African campaign, and the great wave of Western Canadian development. Through ten years the city grew apace. Then came the war.

With the first trumpet Edmonton arose. The original draft for the Princess Patricia's, 300 men and their officers of the famous regiment that went down to death in glory, was raised in Edmonton on the day after war was declared, the day on which Sir Robert Borden, premier of the Dominion, sent his cablegram to England, offering Canadian troops. Nearly every man of those 300, the most daring adventurers of the Northwest, "pick of the world," as the West called them, fell on the fields of Saint Eloi; but every place their deaths left has been filled from the ranks of later volunteers from the Alberta capital. Three days after war was declared a squadron of dragoons went out of Edmonton as the 19th Alberta. The 101st Edmonton Fusiliers went as a unit. In the first month of war 2,500 men left Edmonton to rejoin regiments in the British, French, Russian, or Belgium armies. Between that time and this 6,000 men have gone from Edmonton, either to France by way of England or to the concentration camps of Canada to wait the summons overseas. Out of a population of 60,000 Edmonton has given more than 9,000 fighting men to the war. Add to these the men who came hundreds of miles by canoe from the posts of the farthest north, the men who rode in from the great plains, the men who packed in from the bush, all seeking enlistment in Canada's army, and some realization arises of the spirit of adventure that is the mainspring of the spirit of empire.

One must rebuild the social life of Edmonton, however, going back two years for the stones, to realize how the war has taken from Canada her best blood. Not only have the younger sons gone back to fight for the England that sent them out, dying in the trenches as did young Lionel West, but the young Canadians who brought the grace of the east to the prairie provinces, the Americans who blazed the farthest trails, the Russians, the Frenchmen, and Italians who made life in the West a cosmopolitan holiday, have donned the khaki and marched away to the blare of the bands. Remembering what Edmonton was in days before clouds of strife cast their shadow from Europe, is it any wonder that the orchestra at the MacDonald never plays now the famous song of the Saskatchewan? For its phrase,

"It is springtime now in gay Paree,"
holds too much of heartbreak for those who know that springtime in France made green the grass on the grave of many a boy who used to dance by the banks of the Saskatchewan.

To those men and women who have perforce stayed at home a splendid record of service has been possible. North Alberta has raised more than $100,000 for the Canadian Patriotic Fund, that official organization founded to aid the wives, children, and other dependent relatives of officers and men, residents of Canada, who are on active service with the Allied armies or waiting in reserve for allotment. The Edmonton Board of Trade raised $13,000 in one day for Belgian relief and on another day subscribed the money for two machine guns for Edmonton regiments. The local branch of the Red Cross has been working daily on supplies for the soldiers. In July, 1915, this one branch sent 63 cases of supplies to wounded soldiers in France. In these cases more than 11,000 articles, including every known requirement for the outfitting of hospital patients, had been packed. With the realization that the women who have labored in this work have been among the immediate sufferers from the war, comes the understanding of their immolating idea of devotion. The women of Edmonton, in common with the rest of the women of Canada, have done their part.

In the long run, it is the women of any country who suffer most cruelly from war. The women of Canada have been no exception to the rule. In fact, a canvass of the country would seem to show that the wives, and sisters, and mothers of the Canadians who have gone to war have been burdened with even greater responsibilities than have the women of England. The number of women who are taking men's places on Western farms runs high in the thousands. The courage with which they have looked after these obligations is only equalled by their refusal to consider themselves heroic. A story illustrative of their trials and of their manner of meeting them, is told by Mrs. Nellie McClung, of Edmonton, one of the best-beloved as well as of the best-known women of Western Canada.

Mrs. McClung was in the North Market of Edmonton when she met the English girl. The girl, ruddy-cheeked, bright-eyed, had driven seventy-five miles to market, coming from the Peace River district. "Are you all alone out there?" Mrs. McClung asked her. "I am now," the girl said. "My brothers went back to the war. My sister was on her way out from the old country, but she was a nurse, and when war came, she felt she should return." "And you're out there alone?" "Well," said the girl consideringly, "some one had to stay by the stuff."

That spirit of "staying by the stuff " has marked the women of Western Canada through the course of this hardest year in the history of the new country. Not only have women taken men's places in the harvesting, not only have they worked on the homesteads, chopping and burning to make clearings, not only have they sent of their finest young women as nurses to the battle-fields, not only are they giving millions of dollars in supplies to the soldiers, not only are they solving the problems of unemployment for women by sending the girls from the cities out to the places where work awaits them, not only are they aiding in the raising of money for the Patriotic Fund that supplements the governmental allowance for soldiers' families, not only are they working for the Red Cross and the ambulance corps, not only are they knitting and making bandages, but they are also doing the finer deeds of patient waiting and splendid sacrifice in letting their men go from them, ungrudgingly.

There is not a woman in Canada who does not realize what her anxiety will be when the man of her family goes to the front; and yet few women in Canada have held back their men. There is, of course, a natural resentment against the enlistment of married men when there are single men at home. There is also a growing feeling of anger against those Englishmen in the old country who have not offered themselves in the war. But, in the main, the spirit of the Canadian woman is one of unprotesting sacrifice, with something of the Spartan ideal in her silence.

Every boat going to England from Canada carries a score of women to wounded sons, or brothers, or husbands. Sometime in September a woman travelled alone from Dawson to Bayeaux to be with her husband. That he died of his wounds while she was on the ocean added to the poignancy of the tragedy. Mrs. Mercereau, wife of a Harvard professor who returned to his native Canada to enlist, found her husband in the officers' ward of the Royal Free Hospital in London after she had sought him on the fields of France. To many of the women of Canada her lot in being able to find and care for her husband is a happy one, for the corroding knowledge that other women hold the privilege of nursing their men has come to the women of the West.

Another thought, too, has come to some, at least, of the women of the North since the war has taken 120,000 men out of the life of the country. The western provinces have always been so plentifully supplied with men that the question of the unmarried woman has not seriously affected the Dominion. The war, however, has awakened the realization that the scarcity of men will change the status of women. A married woman in Winnipeg, wife of an officer at the front, stated the case of the single woman. "She'll be the aftermath of the tragedy," she said. But a girl in Edmonton, one of the belles of the town's gay days, spurned the commiseration. "We're not the ones to be sorry for," she said. "It's the wives and the mothers of men who'll bear the burden."

The women's patience of determination has been infused into the national flood of patriotism. It is that ideal that animates the men who are going from Canada now, just as it was the thrill of novelty, of high hope, of daring, that took out the men who sped away with the first contingent.

To go to war in the first excitement of bugles and banners; to go with flags flying and crowds cheering; to go in the faith of speedy victories; this is the spirit of the adventurer. But to go to war in the knowledge that you're going to fill the gap in the ranks; to go to war in the thought that the odds are all against your life; to go to war in the certainty of a long, dreary struggle in a strange land; this is the spirit of the hero. This is the spirit in which the men of the West are going now. The flags still fly, the bands still play, but the memory of Festubert and Langemarcke rises from the trenches in front of the boys who answer this summons that flares its purple and white of mourning from every railway station, every hotel, every bank of the West:

"You're wanted, Sonny!
The Boys at the Front
Are calling you!
There's a gap in the ranks that needs filling.
There's a place for a man in the Khaki
line that stretches across France.
A few hundred thousand of Britain's best
are out where the fighting is taking place
and the men in the forefront are wondering
when you are coming.
You'll shout, sonny, when the boys come
marching home and curse your luck that
you didn't go. So what are you waiting for?
That place in the line of Khaki needs filling.
Why not by you?
Can't you hear the bugle sounding throughout
the Empire, "Fall in!"
Can't you hear the boys at the front calling you?
Can't you hear the marching of your pals
who have answered their country's call?
Sonny! you're wanted. The Khaki boys in
France are asking for you. There's a
gap in the ranks that needs filling.
You fill it and join the army now.
God Save the King!"

Why has this West given of men and supplies out of all proportion to her population?

The lure of the West is the lure of the war. Men go to war to increase their possessions or to defend them. They go with the zest of adventure lifting their spears. They go forth in that spirit of conquest has driven the human race outward from Asia. Men go to war in the thrilling excitement of awakened emotions as old as the race. For all these reasons men go West.

The trumpet of war, sounding through Eastern Canada, signalled over a middle-aged land, a developed land, a land of set traditions and standard. Its blare aroused the mind, but not the pulse of the hastening people. Its blast swept out to the West, to a land of youth, a land of adventure and of adventurers. Men, come into the Canadian West on the wings of promise of gold or grain, heard in the trumpeted note the call of a more stirring adventure. To some few of them it was the summons of the motherland to her sons. To most of them it was another adventure. Men from the Klondike, from the British Columbian mines, from the plains of the territories, made a rush to the enlistment centres that swirled like the crowds of '98 on the Dawson Trail.

One of, every ten of the men who have fallen with the Western regiments have their nearest relatives in the United States. Harry Trathea, the sheriff of Deadwood, South Dakota, died with the Canadians in the battle of the Champagne in September, while scores of men from Washington, Oregon, and Montana were crossing the border to join the reinforcements of the 7th Battalion that was being organized as "The Western Scots." In fact, so great has been the rush of Americans into the Canadian army that the Dominion authorities have been struggling to prevent American enlistments. War makes stranger bedfellows than does politics; and the voluntary enlistments have brought together diverse elements of nationality under one standard of intention.

One may not pass even in cursory survey over Canada's part in the war without mention of two elements of extreme political importance: one is the attitude of the French-Canadians toward the war; the other is the problem of the aliens and the retention camps.

At the outbreak of the conflict all Canada held the belief that the French-Canadian enlistment would be exceptionally large. The fact that it has failed to come up to any large number has aroused more than a little comment. Sir Wilfrid Laurier himself undertook to augment the enlistment among his race. Since his campaign the enlistment among the French-Canadians has increased, giving color to the theory of those who held that the habitants of Quebec were held back by lack of assurance concerning Canada's part in the war rather than from any lack of sympathy in the cause. For the French-Canadians, coming in first contact with the pro-British sentiment of Ontario before the men of the West swept their Canadian idea of empire across the land, seem to have regarded the war as England's affair rather than theirs. The Western belief that Canada has entered upon the war not for England's sake, but for the right of small nations against aggrandizement by larger ones, is coalescing the estranged elements of the Dominion.

The question of the aliens has been more pressing. Until there came back to Canada persistent stories of the crucifixion of Canadian officers by German troops Canada was notably free from prejudice against her German colonists. These stories, the story of the Lusitania, and the distribution through the Dominion of certain German newspapers published in the United States aroused popular feeling to such a pitch that alien camps for the retention of Germans and Austrians under suspicion were established for the care of these foreigners. For the greater part, however, the aliens in Canada seem to have adopted the Canadian attitude of mind, agreeing with the Chinese boy student in the Winnipeg school who succinctly stated his opinion of the cause of the war: "Germany said to Belgium," wrote the occidentalized youth, "let me go through you." Belgium said to Germany, "I am a nation, not a road."

The war has developed through Canada a strong spirit of nationality. One may not go across the northern land in days like these without appreciation of her aroused patriotism. The leaven of Western standards of a Canada that is not a colony but a nation has been raising the bread of national unity.

Across the forests and mountains of northern British Columbia runs the Dawson telegraph. Along it flashes every day the Associated Press report of the war news. Its operators have the right of bulletining these reports so that every office from Fort George to the Yukon becomes a daily news bureau for the surrounding country. I chanced to be in a station between Fort Saint James and the Omenica on the day when the story of the gains of the Allied armies in the battles around Verdun whizzed up the wires. There were two Canadian prospectors, old "sourdoughs" of the Klondike, already set down for service in Billy Cooke's company; an American timber cruiser; a Scot from Fort McLeod; a Chinese cook; a boy with a German name from lower Ontario; three Hindoos from a road gang; an Irishman from a fur trading-station on Takla Lake; and the telegraph operator from Montreal. To a man—except the cook—they cheered when the news of the Champagne came! It wasn't that England and France had won a victory from Germany; it was that "their boys" were winning. Every click of the telegraph through the northern wilderness was driving in another rivet of Canadian nationality.

For every sacrifice there is a recompense. With her nearest frontier 3,000 miles from the scene of conflict, Canada has borne more than her part in the war she has made her own. She has given of her youth, her strength, her chivalry. She is earning her reward in the awakened pride of her people. Already she is binding her nationality with clamps of steel courage. She knows that her returning soldiers will come back to fling themselves out once more over the land. She is "staying by the stuff" against their return. The great winds of war have torn the dead leaves from the branches of her soul. With the new spring the sap is rising. The West's awake to a call beyond the call to battle. The West's awake to understanding of the great truths of the world; the truth that nations, like men, may not grow strong without struggle, and the truth that nations, like men, may not dwell in the temples of eternity if they seek to serve both the Mammon of profit and the God of sacrifice.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury