How Canada Went to the Front

By Hon. T. S. Macaulay

[The National Geographic Magazine, October 1918]

The work which the United States has undertaken in connection with the war is so vast, and the spirit in which it is being carried out is so magnificent and so enthusiastic, that what we Canadians have accomplished must of necessity appear rather small in comparison.

You of the United States are to have the honor and glory of being to a large extent the deciding factor in bringing this terrible war to a happy conclusion, and of turning what might possibly have been a drawn battle into a glorious victory. The efforts which you are putting forth are the delight and admiration of your Allies and the dismay of Germany and the Kaiser.

We Canadians are delighted at the manner in which you have taken up your task.

The story of Chateau Thierry has stirred all our hearts.

The help you have given far exceeds the men and munitions you have furnished, great and valuable though they are, for you put new heart and vigor and sureness of victory into the French and British troops, who had begun to be a little war-weary and stale after four years of struggle.


After four years of hostilities, it is difficult to place ourselves in thought back to the early days, when the great German military machine, which had been preparing for forty years, was crashing through Belgium and northern France.

The sky was clouded and the outlook dark; the brave men of France and Britain were being overwhelmed by superior numbers; we had few guns to answer the German artillery, and ammunition was so short that many of our guns were restricted to five rounds a day—it was at that time and under those circumstances that Canada had the privilege, on account of our British connection, of getting into the fray, and we all feel a joy and pride that we were able to do something, even though but little, to help stay the Hun in those gloomy days.

At the beginning of August, 1914, we were not only unprepared for war, but had so long breathed the atmosphere of peace, that we were unable at first to realize the importance of what had happened and the magnitude of the crisis into which the world had been plunged.


As to our duty, there was no doubt. From the Atlantic to the Pacific we felt that it was both our duty and our privilege to put our whole weight into the struggle, side by side with the mother country. But what were we able to do? In what way could we help?

As for military organization, we had practically none. We had 60,000 militia, but they had had little training and had taken their duties lightly. Bernhardi had said that in the event of a European war Britain's dominions and colonies could be completely ignored. As for financial help, we had been a borrowing country, and how could we begin to lend?

But our national spirit rose to the needs of the occasion. Our people quietly determined to do their best. The call went out for 25,000 volunteers to go overseas, and within a few months we had sent off not 25,000, but 33,000. Within two months of the outbreak of war some of our troops who had been hardened in South Africa were fighting in France, and within seven months even our green troops were on the field engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the Huns—and holding them!

Further detachments were despatched as quickly as they could be raised and drilled, until we now have a total of over 550,000 enlistments, and will soon have 600,000, and of these about 450,000 are already in Europe. Every month is adding to the number. We have promised that we will send over not less than 500,000, and we propose to keep that promise.


Our enlistments, including those secured under the Military Service Act, already number about one in thirteen of our population. In the same proportion the figures for the United States would be around 8,000,000, which is about the number you are preparing to raise.

We began with voluntary enlistments, but, just as in the mother country, we had to come ultimately to the draft system. You have profited by our experience, and have very wisely adopted the draft system from the beginning. We fully agree with you that this is the only right and fair method, and that it is besides vastly more efficient and more economical.

And how about the casualties? In the early days of the war, when we were short of artillery, and even of rifles, and were unprepared for poison gas, we suffered heavily. Up to June 30 of this year we had:

Killed in action. .......................
Died of wounds .......................
Died of disease ........................
Presumed dead ......................
Missing—probably dead ..............
Total Dead ............................


In other words, of the total number who had gone overseas up to June 30 last, 11.3 per cent were already dead.

In addition there were—
Wounded ….......................... 113,007
Prisoners ............................... 2,774

so that in addition to the deaths, 30.2 percent had been wounded or made prisoners. It is a comfort to know that between 30,000 and 40,000 of the wounded were ultimately able to return to the firing line.

The total casualties were 41.5 per cent of the number who had gone overseas. But even this does not tell the full story. Most of those who had but recently gone across had, of course, not been long exposed, and the casualties were chiefly among those who had gone over early. Among them the casualties were tremendous. Those noble fellows paid a terrible price, and I can assure you that among them were many who were the very cream of the Canadian nation. [According to official figures issued from Ottawa on November 12, Canadian casualties, up to eleven days before the signing of the armistice, totaled 34,877 killed in action; 15,457 dead of wounds or disease; 152,779 wounded, and 8,245 presumed dead, missing in action, and prisoners of war—a total of 211,358.]


When I think of those early days, my mind goes back to April and May, 1915, to the second battle of Ypres. It was then that the Germans made their drive for Calais and the Channel ports. Alongside our Canadian boys were French troops from Morocco, and against them the Germans first used their devilish gas. The Moroccans broke and fled, and small wonder. Nothing remained but our Canadian boys between the Germans and Calais, and they were many times outnumbered by troops that were supported by efficient artillery.

Our lads spread out to cover the extra ground, but were driven back. Some of the Canadian guns were captured, and our Montreal Highlanders and others were determined that no Canadian guns should fall into the enemy's hands, and charged through a wood and retook them. The Germans thought that we must have heavy reserves or we would never attack in such a way, and instead of pushing through they entrenched themselves as did our boys also, and time was gained.

In the next few days reserves were brought up and Calais was saved. It is said that a German major was taken prisoner, and as he was being led back to the rear and saw nothing where he expected to find masses of troops, he was distracted, and again and again cried, "Let me go for half an hour and Calais will be ours." But Calais was saved, and the course of the war has been different because of what our Canadian boys did that day.

Many of those who took part in that terrible struggle I knew personally. Before my eyes there rises the picture of Major Norsworthy. In his early thirties, handsome and vigorous, he had brains, sound judgment, self-reliance, and energy such as few possess, and had he lived he would certainly have been one of the most prominent financial men of Canada.

And Captain Guy Drummond, aged about 28, son of Sir George Drummond, inheritor of wealth and honored name, tall, refined, the very finest type of the high-principled gentleman. When last seen he was using his knowledge of French, trying to rally the flying Moroccans. But they, poor fellows, were past being rallied, as they fled, gasping for air, their faces blue, and with death already fastened upon them, for of those who fully inhaled that devilish poison few would survive a year of agony, and the rest would, be invalids for the remainder of their lives.

But perhaps the story as told by a fine young fellow, a private, Billy Maclagan, who has often been in my own house, may bring the details home to us more closely. Billy went over with the first contingent, and is one of the few, the very, very few, who have gone through the four years of struggle without a scratch. He wrote us his experiences. They were spared the worst of the gas, and put mud and spittle on their handkerchiefs and tied them on their faces. He gave us the full details of how, later on, out of the mist, flood after flood of Germans came charging on.

Our boys fired and fired until the German dead lay thick before them, and their gun barrels were red hot. And still they came on, wave after wave of gray figures. We held them, while our own numbers dwindled alarmingly. The captain went, then the lieutenant, and at last in the whole trench there remained but three—a corporal, Billy, and a drummer boy of fifteen.

The Huns paused and the three slipped out over the top and crawled back. The little, drummer boy gave in under the sights he had crawled through and over, and began to shriek, covering his eyes. The big corporal grabbed him and thrust him within his own great coat, buttoning it up, so that the little fellow could see nothing, and so they continued. At last they met reinforcements, and Billy returned with them to show the way. They were even then but a handful, but the Germans did not know that and the attack was stayed.


It was a French officer, I believe, who said that no veteran troops could have done better. Then he corrected himself, "None but green troops could have done that—they did not know they were beaten; they did not know enough to retire." The Channel ports were saved, but at what a cost!

But while we are proud of our Canadian boys, do not suppose that I claim any special superiority for them. Scotland has in the British armies about twice as large a proportion of her population as has Canada. There are glens in Scotland where not one man of military age is now living. And nothing makes our Canadian soldiers more annoyed than any claim by those at home that they are any better than the troops from Scotland and England.

We from Canada feel that we have done well, but we take off our hats to the mother country. One of the lessons we have learned from the war is to appreciate the Scotchman, the Englishman, and the Frenchman as we never did before; and we appreciate them now because we know them now.


Now let us turn to finance:

We are a young and borrowing country; we have been an extravagant country, and we thought we could do little toward financing the war. At the beginning the mother country advanced money to the various dominions at the same rate as she herself had to pay, but by 1915 we began to rely on ourselves. The government issued the call for the first domestic loan. They asked for $50,000,000, and wondered if they would get it. The subscriptions came to over $113,000,000. On the strong urgency of the larger subscribers the government took $100,000,000 of this amount.

In September, 1916, they asked for $100,000,000, and we offered them $201,000,000.

Six months later, in March, 1917, they asked for $150,000,000, and we offered them $254,000,000.

In November of the same year they asked for yet another $150,000,000, and we offered them $419,000,000. For this loan the government had reserved the right to accept all subscriptions, and they did take $400,000,000.

If in 1915 a man had told us that within the next two years the people of Canada would supply the government with $750,000,000, or $100 for every man, woman, and child in the country, he would have been looked on as a wild visionary. People know not what they can do until they really try, and we surprised ourselves.

The subscribers to our first loan numbered 24,800; to the last loan they numbered 820,000, or nearly one in nine of the population. And now our government has asked for $300,000,000 more, and I shall be surprised if the answer is not at least $500,000,000. [The subscriptions totaled $675,000,000 according to the official returns, November 19.]

We shall have a heavy, debt, but what of that? We shall carry it with ease, for we are young and growing, and our shoulders are broad. Canada never was so strong or so prosperous as at this moment. The safest government bonds in the world are those of the United States and Canada, and I bracket them together as regards security.

Not merely have we raised these large amounts of government loans, but we have Icept tip the price of our bond issues, so that every person who bought a Canadian Victory Bond can today get for it on the spot more than it cost him. The brokerage and bond houses of the Dominion have been organized into a great committee, and whenever any bond is offered for sale it is at once resold to other purchasers.

The demand for bonds has been stimulated until it now exceeds the supply, and the market price is above the cost price. Our government can borrow this year on slightly better terms than it had to give last year. That speaks for itself for the value of the bonds and the credit and wealth of the country.

In addition to paying for the upkeep of our own troops, Canada has granted war credits to the Imperial Government of $532,000,000 with which to purchase foodstuffs, munitions, etc., in the Dominion. Our banks have loaned the Imperial Government $200,000,000 more. But despite the withdrawal for government loans, the deposits in our banks are $300,000,000 more than they were at the beginning of the war. The country never was so wealthy.


Prior to the war we lived too easy a life, and our municipalities and corporations borrowed freely in Britain. When the British markets were closed we turned to the United States. Of our provincial and municipal securities sold in 1916, 85 per cent went to the United States. Of similar securities sold in 1917, only 2½ per cent went to the United States.

Our expenditures for war purposes have now risen to about a billion dollars. A considerable amount of this has been raised from taxes. There has been a tremendous increase in the national revenue. But the way in which this extra money has been raised and the kind of taxes which have been imposed would, I am sure, not be interesting. You know all about that sort of thing in your own country. Perhaps I had better say the details would be interesting but not very pleasant.

But more than men and money were required. There was a pressing need for munitions with which to meet the German hordes. Canada had never been a great manufacturing country. But again we surprised ourselves, for we have already supplied 60,000,000 shells, which I have no doubt have done good work. We have furnished munitions to the value of $1,000,000,000, and will soon have furnished another $200,000,000 worth.

We are helping in shipbuilding, too, for we expect to turn out this year about 500,000 tons of new shipping, about two-thirds of steel and one of wood. I understand that this will about equal one-fourth of the output of the British shipbuilding yards for the year of 1917. In aircraft, too, we are trying to do our share. We are turning out about 350 aeroplanes per month. The total to date is about 2,500. Besides that, we are manning them.


But it has not been all men, money, and munitions. Our people have responded gloriously to all appeals for the relief of suffering. For our Canadian Patriotic Fund, which looks after the wives, children, and dependents of our men at the front, we have already given $44,000,000. For every two dollars the government has asked from the people it has generally been given three.

To the Red Cross the contributions have been $12,000,000 in cash and $15,000,000 in supplies. Of the cash contribution, $7,000,000 were spent by the British Red Cross and the balance by the Canadian Red Cross. According to a newspaper item which I saw the other day, Canada leads all the nations of the world in Red Cross contributions per capita.

To the Belgian Relief Fund we have contributed over $1,500,000 in cash and an equal amount in supplies, while $8,000,000 more went to French, Serbian, and Polish relief funds and numerous other charitable and patriotic associations.

For military work by the Y.M.C.A. the contributions have been $4,500,000. In addition to the donations from the public, the Dominion and Provincial governments have given $5,250,000 for charitable work through the Imperial Government. In all, the relief contributions from Canada amount to $90,000,000, or over $12 for every man, woman, and child in the Dominion.

Our educational leaders have also organized the Khaki University for educating the men at the front and fitting them for their return to civilian life, and our government has undertaken its support. This idea has now been copied in Britain, France, and I believe even in Germany. It had birth in the brain of Dr. H. M. Tory, president of the University of Alberta. Dr. Tory has entire charge of the work on the other side.

To summarize what we have done in finance. We have paid about one billion dollars for war expenditures, and have raised $750,000,000 of this amount by domestic loans. We are asked to raise another $300,000,000 during November for further expenditures, and I feel sure we will offer $500,000,000. We have given a credit of over $500,000,000 to the Imperial Government for purchase of munitions and supplies, and our banks have given a further amount for the same purposes of $200,000,000.

We have supplied 60,000,000 shells, one billion dollars' worth of munitions, and will soon deliver $200,000,000 worth more. We will, besides, this year add 500,000 tons of shipping, and are making 350 aeroplanes per month, having already completed 2,500, and in addition to all this we have contributed $90,000,000 to relief work.

We are a practical people, and yet a sentimental strain runs through us. We have always a soft spot, and especially for those who help us or do us a good turn. Did you ever hear of the Canadian soldier who hailed from one of our Scotch settlements? In the course of an attack Bandy was rushing forward, rifle and bayonet at the charge, when suddenly he was attacked viciously by one of his smallest enemies, who was also nearest at hand. He felt that he could not do justice to the enemy in the distance unless he first disposed of the enemy in his midst. So he paused, put his rifle in the hook of his elbow, and made a vigorous home attack.

He was successful. But just as he caught his tormentor a German shell burst in front of him, in the very spot where he would have been had he not paused. Sandy held the little thing before him, and as he looked at it he said: "Weel, ma wee mon, I canna give ye the iron cross; I canna give ye the Victoria Cross, 'but ye hae saved ma life. I must reward ye somehow. I'll just put ye back where ye belong." And back he went.


For years before the war broke out, many of us knew of Germany's ambitions to rule the world, and feared that this struggle was coming. The question had to be settled whether Anglo-Saxon ideals of freedom and democracy were to prevail or the world was to be Germanized and ruled by the Kaiser.

When the future of humanity was at stake, we wanted to have some influence in the decision, and we were thankful that, as part of the British Empire, we were at war and privileged to take a man's part in this great world struggle, the greatest crisis that has come in the history of humanity for over a thousand years.

There was no compulsion on us. The Germans expected us to stay out, and simply could not understand our going in. At first we were influenced by patriotic and humanitarian reasons which we felt in a general way. But our boys soon came in contact with German brutality in a concrete way and our feelings became vastly deeper and more intense. For instance, Lieutenant Holt, of Winnipeg, returned on leave of absence and brought with him as a souvenir a little doll. In one of those early days his regiment was forced back by the enemy through a Belgian village. He stopped at a small house to ask directions, and a little girl of about seven years ran out and gave him her dolly. She said, "Please take my dolly to a safe place." To please her he took it. Next day our men retook the village and he at once went to the cottage to see how the child had fared. He found her—lying across the threshold, dead—killed by a German bayonet. Lieutenant Holt brought back that dolly to a safe place in Canada, but your boys and our boys are now fighting that the whole world may be made a safe place for little mothers like that.

King's Staff-Sergeant James W. Smith, who has returned with his right arm shattered and shortened and the hand little better than a deformed claw, who was foreman in the W. C. White boiler works of Montreal and is now superintendent in a munition factory, told me personally that he had himself assisted in taking down some Canadian soldiers who had been crucified by the Germans nailing them to a barn door. Do you wonder that our Canadian boys were very demons in ferocity when next they attacked?


It is no selfish struggle in which we are engaged. Like you of the United States, we have nothing to gain. We seek no territory, no indemnity, no advantage. But, like you, we are glad and proud to be in, and glad and proud to have been of any service.

This is the brief story of some of the things that have been done. But after all those things belong to the past ; they are written in history and are now mere records and memories. Nothing that we can now do can change them, and the future, which we have the power to change, is therefore more interesting and more important. In our outlook on the future we are now, thank God, united as Allies—Allies who are working together with heart and soul.

I should like again to express my admiration of the magnificent work which you of the United States are doing. If we in Canada can but keep pace with you, we shall be satisfied. We shall at least try.

My last word is a vision which I and other Canadians note with joy is already in the first stages of realization. I see the United States and the British Empire, the two great branches of the English-speaking world, going down through the centuries arm in arm, cooperating as brothers, each helping the other, each strengthening the other, and unitedly blessing the world and making it safe for democracy. The Germans have succeeded in unifying the Anglo-Saxon world.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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A Novel of World War One
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