September 11, 2018 – Cameron Cathcart – “100th Anniversary of the end of WWI”

An amateur historian motivated by a career in journalism Cameron Cathcart has a keen
interest in Canadian military history. He spent 30 years with the Canadian Broadcasting
Corporation as a Parliamentary reporter in Ottawa, foreign correspondent in Washington, D.C.,
and TV News Director in Toronto.

Broadcasting has given him the opportunity to travel the world, including war zones and in recent years, the battlefields of Europe. This has given Mr. Cathcart a deeper appreciation of the contribution and sacrifice of Canada’s Veterans. He is the Director of Ceremonies for Vancouver’s annual Remembrance Day Service at Victory Square.

Mr. Cathcart received the prestigious Vancouver Civic Merit Award in 2015, the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 and earlier, the Ministers Commendation from Veterans Affairs Canada. He initiated the annual Vimy Day Commemoration at Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver.

Mr. Cathcart is President of Royal United Services Institute Vancouver and co-chairs the biannual RUSI Strategic Studies Conference. He holds the rank of Honorary Major in The British Columbia Regiment (DCO).

Books of Interest
Embattled Nation by Patrice Dutil and David Mackenzie
Warlords by Tim Cook
A Terrible Beauty by Heather Robertson
Reluctant Warriors by Patrick M. Dennis
The War That Ended Peace Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan
Tapestry of War by Sandra Gwynn
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

Transcript of the Talk

“The First World War was nothing less than the greatest error in modern history. ”

Today, few would argue with historian Niall Ferguson’s assessment about a war of dubious intent that caused enormous consequences for mankind.

The world changed almost overnight as the grieving over human losses intensified, fateful post-war decisions were made, extreme nationalism emerged leading to the next war, Russia imploded, and America was taking tentative steps to becoming a new world power.

In August 1914, Canada plunged headlong into the First World War. The expectation was that it would be over by Christmas. In reality, no one had a clue, not least the government, how long the war would last or what the cost would be in blood and treasure.

The opposition Liberal party, with most seats from Quebec and led by Sir Wilfred Laurier, was on record for support of the war. Four years earlier, in 1910, he famously declared “When Britain is at war, Canada is at war. There is no distinction”.

Despite its identity as an independent colony since Confederation less than 50 years earlier, Canada was still part of the British Empire and as such when England called for help, Canada was expected to come to its aid.

Sir Robert Borden’s Conservative government echoed this, which reflected the dominant attitude amongst the English-speaking population, most being recent British immigrants or Canadian-born of British parents. Public support for Canada to join the war was a given.

Or so it seemed, because in 1914 the high level of enthusiasm for the war was not shared by most people in Quebec, a fact that would eventually have consequences for the government as the war kept grinding on.

While Canada was legally at war it was left to Canadians to determine the extent of their commitment. The call for volunteers went out August 3rd and by the end of the month no fewer than 20-thousand recruits reported for training at Valcartier, Quebec.

Such was the patriotic zeal to aid the Empire that by early October 1914 some 30-thousand Canadian soldiers boarded 30 ships and sailed to England. It was the largest armada of troopships ever to sail from Canada.

However, influential opponents to Canada’s involvement began to emerge in Quebec. Chief among them was Henri Bourassa, a formidable voice of Francophone Quebec and publisher and editor of the French language newspaper, Le Devoir.

Bourassa’s opposition was straightforward: whv should Canada get involved in a European war when Canada itself is not being threatened. This was in 1914, but his argument intensified as the war progressed and signaled trouble ahead for Borden’s Conservative government.

By the end of the year the ‘war economy’ began driving up manufacturing, food production and jobs. Importantly, jobs were now open in the army with recruits getting three squares a day and being paid! Most of the boys joining up wanted jobs.

Robert Borden thrust himself into managing Canada’s enormous commitment to the war in Europe. Up to now neither he, nor anyone else in Ottawa had experience running a wartime economy and large-scale military contributions. It was a daunting task.

Eventually, the war brought with it draconian laws. The most controversial was the War Measures Act. Parliament passed it unopposed before the end of August.

Government had unlimited powers for arrest, detention, deportation, and press censorship including control over transportation, harbours, trade and manufacturing.

A notorious example was the suspension of civil liberties for 85- hundred Canadian civilians. Labelled ‘enemy aliens’ they were mostly recent immigrants from Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turks from the Ottoman Empire.

They were interned for the duration of the war in 24 camps scattered across Canada. This is one at Morrissey, in the Kootenay region of BC.

The Act stayed on the books for a long time and you’ll recall, was used in 1970 for ‘apprehended insurrection’ during the October Crisis in Quebec. It remained in force until 1988, when it was replaced by the more limited Emergency Act.

At the same time Henri Bourassa was outraged that an Ontario law restricting French language teaching beyond Grade Two in that province, had not been repealed.

His argument: “How can Canada send troops to defend European minority rights while the suppression of minority rights was practiced at home’? This issue would slowly drive a wedge between English and French speaking Canadians.

The war had gone badly for Canada’s troops during the first two years. Strategy and tactics were planned by the British and carried out by Canadian officers and soldiers at the front. Canada’s soldiers attacked the enemy against impossible odds and retreat was unthinkable.

At their first major battle, Second Ypres, Canadian troops were the first to encounter German poison gas attacks. Causalities were high, and the nightmare would haunt Canada’s soldiers for the rest of war.

In February of 1916 the country was jolted at home when the Parliament Buildings caught fire. The Centre Block was destroyed, and the House of Commons and Senate were badly damaged.
Only the Parliamentary Library survived and is still used. Seven died and German saboteurs were suspected. An inquiry was unable to determine the exact cause but to this day sabotage has never been ruled out.
W
hile the economy was booming, and recruiting up, labour unrest began to quicken because of low wages and suspected corruption in the wartime armament industries.

Western farmers were also unhappy with prices for their food crops, while the government sent millions of dollars worth of food to Britain.

Critics began to see Prime Minister Borden’s government as incompetent, while he personally remained stone-deaf on French language rights outside Quebec.

He refused to intervene with Ontario and Manitoba on the school language issue. Basically, Robert Borden never understood Quebec or the French Canadians.

In July of 1916 the Battle of the Somme changed everything.

It was an unmitigated disaster, with questionable British leadership, in which Canada suffered close to 25-thousand casualties.

Enthusiasm for the war began to wane as families on the home front got word that sons, brothers and fathers were killed and the wounded and maimed returned home.

Canadians had done more for the war effort than anyone could have imagined in 1914, at great economic sacrifice and a rapidly rising casualty rate.

Fed up with a lack of answers to Canada’s questions on the war’s progress that were routinely dismissed by the British, the Prime Minister went to London early in 1917, demanding a seat in the Imperial War Cabinet. He got it.

(Here with a young wsc; 1 st Lord of the Admiralty}

Despite the costly, all-Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge in April of that year the war wasn’t going well. Coupled with the huge losses on the Somme a year earlier, recruiting sank to the lowest level since 1914.

By now there was a groundswell of support for conscription; overwhelmingly by English-speaking Canadians as the only way to ramp up enlistments and fulfill Canada’s commitment to the war.
Buoyed by this and ignoring the concerns of Quebec, conscription was announced in May 1917 by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons.

The Liberal leader, Sir Wilfred Laurier, who supported the war but opposed to conscription, predicted it would further divide French and English Canadians. He was correct.
Within two days of the Prime Minister’s announcement anti-­ conscription protests broke out across Quebec.

Ten thousand protested in Montreal and 5 days later, more then 15-thousand at Pare La Fontaine, again in Montreal. Thousands more protested across Quebec.

At the same time rallies in support of conscription took place among mainly English-speaking Canadians across the country. These were non-violent but were laced with and anti-Quebec rhetoric, and imperialistic in tone.

As the debate across Canada raged through the summer of 1917, it drew charges of disloyalty, cowardice and immorality from those supporting it and by charges of imperialism, stupidity and blood lust from those opposed.

Conscription – became law in late August.

All unmarried men or widowers aged 20 to 24 were called to arms. Fully 94-percent immediately applied for an exemption.

Local tribunals were set up across the country to consider the exemption requests. As expected, the majority of these came from Quebec but Ontario requests were proportionally about the same.

Conscription unleashed the biggest crisis in Canada up that point in our history and language was at the heart of the matter, a position that had steadily gained momentum among French Canadians since the beginning of the war.

But conscription soon had implications beyond Quebec and language. Farmers, unionized workers and non-British immigrants were also against it.

Agriculture was so labour-intensive that farmers in Ontario and the West who fed the country, the army, and Britain too, feared their sons or young farm hands would be drafted.

Across the country 20-percent of the men ordered to register for service didn’t respond. In Quebec many headed for the hills to avoid being arrested.

A staggering 50,000 Canadians had been killed since the beginning of the war and more than 100-thousand wounded.

As Henri Bourassa summed it up: “Canada has had enough!’

By the end of 1917 volunteer enlistments had dried up.

Accusations of wartime scandals began to mount – kickbacks on munitions; excessive profits; the Ross rifle failing in the trenches; army boots falling apart in the mud of Flanders.

Public unhappiness would soon be felt in July 1917 when income tax was introduced to help pay for the war, which up to now cost Canada 600 million dollars.

Income tax was to be ‘temporary’ – at least until the end of the war. One hundred years later we all know that was not to be the case.

It was clear opposition to the war was gaining momentum and if government was to continue with the war, Borden needed a new mandate. He called an election for December 17, 1917.

A wily politician, Sir Robert Borden invented the “Union Party”. It consisted of Conservatives and pro-conscription Liberals, most of whom were English speaking and had broken with Laurier.
Conscription was the only issue in the campaign that followed – one of the most vitriolic in our history.

The election also allowed the government to take certain actions under the Wartime Elections Act.
It was Canada’s version of ‘gerrymandering’ – not by moving electoral boundaries but disenfranchising voters or giving more votes to pro-conscriptionists such as the 400-thousand soldiers, and nurses in the field.

One method was giving the vote for the first time to all Canadian women who had relatives in the war. However, as fewer soldiers were from Quebec, fewer women there were able to cast a ballot.

Voting didn’t apply to all women. It was denied to those women immigrants considered to be enemy aliens. This applied to some immigrant men too and of course, those in detention camps.

Sir Wilfred Laurier campaigned hard to convince Canadians that conscription was not the right way to proceed. This message resonated in Quebec but had little effect elsewhere.

This poster shows just how the debate had poisoned relations between the Canada’s French and English-speaking population, organized labour, and the farming lobby.

In the midst of the campaign the catastrophic Halifax Explosion occurred. Two ships, one loaded with munitions, collided in the harbour causing a blast that destroyed most of the city.

1600 people were killed; another 9-thousand wounded, some blinded for life. A devasting blow, added to the tragic losses in the war. This headline reflected an early estimate.

Sabotage was rumoured but never proved.

Two weeks after the Halifax tragedy, Canadians went to the polls and elected the new Union government with a huge majority. The Liberals were crushed outside of Quebec.

Unionist suffered the same fate in Quebec, a legacy that would last for over 40 years until the Diefenbaker landslide of 1958.

Gerrymandering of voters may have worked, but it wasn’t necessary as most Canadians supported the Unionist cause – conscription.

Not surprisingly, victory was sealed when over 90 percent of the troops and nurses serving in France voted Unionist.

With this huge mandate Borden could now proceed with conscription. It began in earnest in January 1918.

As expected the Military Service Act was divisive, polarizing sections of the country, ethnic groups, communities and families.

For many it was important and necessary to help the faltering war effort; others saw it as oppressive, forced on the public by a government more British than Canadian.

The mood in Quebec was ugly. Riots and street fighting broke out in Quebec City during Easter, 1918.
The government reacted by using the War Measures Act, sending more than 6-thousand troops in to quell the so-called ‘Easter Riots’ which lasted for five days. Gunfire was exchanged.

Riots grew more intense and violent, resulting in 150 causalities, with four civilians killed by soldiers returning fire.

It was said that Canadians were “not only fighting the Germans in Europe, thev were fighting themselves at home.”

By the spring of 1918, 404,395 young Canadians had registered for the draft. Of this number no fewer than 301,510 had sought exemptions.

After all exemptions were approved or rejected, 108,288 Canadian conscripts were available for service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Of these 47,509 proceeded overseas to England, while a total of 24,132 would face combat on the Western Front.

The conscripted soldiers would be a decisive and courageous addition during the last 100 days of the war as the Canadian army drove toward Mons, in a campaign that ended on the last day of the war, November 11, 1918.

Canada’s Great War experience exposed the irony between unity and discord. Both continue to be challenges for all Canadians – 100 years on.

As the noted military historian Desmond Morton declared: ”If war is one of those shared experiences which transforms a people into a nation, Canada indeed became a country of two nations.”

620,000 Canadians were in the First War, including 67,000 who were killed in action or died of wounds. 250,000 were wounded.

In 1919, Sir Robert Borden would take part in the Treaty of Versailles negotiations in Paris.
His arguments in London for greater independence from Britain would eventually prevail with the Statute of Westminster in 1931, which also reflected changing attitudes in Canada.

Sir Wilfred Laurier died in 1919. Borden died in 1937.

Incidentally, the last Canadian soldier to die in the Great War was Private George Lawrence Price.
He was shot and killed by a German sniper two minutes before 11:00 AM on November 11, 1918, not far from Mons.

Private Price was a conscript.

Q & A

Question: I have a double-barreled question. I didn’t see a figure about the percentage of the conscripts who were Quebecois as opposed to the others. It would be interesting to know. Now, I have a sense, but I’m not sure if this is actually accurate, that there is a high disproportion of French-speaking members of the Canadian military.

Answer: I don’t have a precise answer offhand, but I do know that I have that figure. I decided because of the brevity my talk today, I wanted to keep it short, to keep it out. My apologies for that. But I do have that figure. I am thinking the percentage of conscripts who were from Quebec would probably be less than Ontario because they too received an enormous number of exemptions. As we can see, only 24,000 men actually showed up on the Western Front. Borden, at the time, wanted 100,000 men. No way would that happen. General Arthur Curry had resisted at one point having conscripts in his army, but he changed his tune pretty fast when regular volunteer replacements were dried up. So, that changed.

Question: What is the current membership of the Canadian military forces in Quebec?

Answer: I would say that proportionally it is the same as everywhere else in the country, there is no particular animus, shall I say, against the Canadian Forces and Quebec as there may have been a hundred years ago. I hope that answers your question.

Question: The 24 detention camps that Canada had in the First World War, were for people of German extraction and Hungarians… were they Canadian citizens?

Answer: As far as I know, the assumption is that they were, in fact, Canadian citizens, but as I mentioned a moment ago there were some pretty Draconian attitudes at play by the government and with the support of, I would suggest, the Parliament, that these people could not be trusted. Ergo, they had to be rounded up and put into detention camps, of course, the same thing happened in the Second World War as we all know not just with the Japanese-Canadians, but Ukrainian-Canadians as well during the second war, and others. These men, who were all there and they were all over the place. I’ve yet to study that topic, but I think it’s a very interesting one to get into.

Question: I wondered why you hadn’t highlighted the fact that in a certain point in 1917, I think, the Canadian Forces were brought together under Canadian command and that is when they became to be known as the finest fighting force in the Empire of forces that were in Europe and became, as you would call, the sort of spearhead that led to final victory. It seemed to me that that is a point that most historians would say was a prominent factor in the creation of the situation that allowed Borden and others to make such a strong presentation at the peace treaty with the British government.

Answer: Yes, I agree totally with you, I glossed over that, I agree. My apologies for that. I’m well aware that the combined forces, all Canadians who took Vimy Ridge after the French and the British had failed, was a trigger point in our history. Not the only Turning Point, but it certainly began that thrust, that momentum. The last hundred days, it’s been known as, was a defining moment at the end of the war. It wasn’t the only reason the war ended but it certainly was one of the big, big factors. The interesting thing about it is that the Canadians arrived in Mons, which was the site of the very first shots of the First World War, four years prior. In any event, I hear what you’re saying, and I don’t disagree with you at all, again my apologies for glossing over a little bit, again I was trying to cut back a little on the content because of the time Factor today, but maybe that’s a good topic for another day and we can concentrate on the Grand Army shall we say. Thanks for that.

Question: I just finished reading The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, I really enjoyed it and recommend it to anyone in the audience, it’s an excellent book. But it struck me reading this that there was a big difference in the generalship. The German generals had planned this attack, they had this right hook which really went very quickly, and the Allied Forces fell back in disarray, there was a huge gap in generalship. My question is why do you think the generals of that era were so slow to adapt to the new technologies of machine guns? And you know they kept on sending troops over the top to be mown down by machine guns, a terrible loss of life. Why didn’t they change their tactics?

Answer: They say that generals are always fighting the last war. I figured some truth to that. The Allies didn’t count, or their intelligence with so weak, that they didn’t understand or appreciate the extent to which the German Army had trained itself to be the best machine gunners in the world, at that time. Machine guns were the anaphora of the Allied Infantry as you probably know, as you described. I think that the war itself began to increase the ability for planners, strategist, etc. to understand the quality and the appropriateness of mechanization which I think you’re referring to. Insofar as the Schlieffen Plan was concerned, again their intelligence was so weak that they called for it to come right around Paris, well we didn’t get that far, but they did use Belgium as we all know as the entry into France. The other point you made about Tuchman was, her book was excellent, The Guns of August, she wrote two other books relating the first war, I should mention to you, that one’s called the Ivory Tower which is the precursor to the first war and why these crazy Empires in Europe suddenly decided they wanted to go to war that’s rivalry over navies and things like that. The second book that I would recommend is a smaller one, it’s called the Zimmerman Telegram. Some of you may have heard of it. Zimmerman was the foreign minister of Germany at the time, and he came up with this bizarre plan to entice Mexico with the support of Germany to attack the United States. And, here’s what happened, the American Navy intelligence system was so good that they were able to intercept that telegram which was sent in code, that’s why it’s called the Zimmerman Telegram. And immediately, this prompted Wilson and his cabinet to look very, very seriously at entering the First World War It wasn’t just the thinking of the Lusitania as all of us know was a factor, but the Zimmerman Telegram is one of the key factors of the American entry in the First World War. And that’s a very good book, you should read that book. Again, I think it’s out of print, but go to the library and get it, it’s a fantastic book to read. That’s a long answer, but machine guns, the Germans they had it all figured out.

Question: You can tell by a lot of the British accents in this room *laughter* an awful lot of British came to British Columbia. What was, if you have any figures, the enrollment and support for the First World War in the sense of joining up by people here in British Columbia?

Answer: It was huge. Huge. In fact, it was almost as high as, proportionally, as Ontario. No question of that and as a matter of fact, a fellow historian, a military sergeant that I know, Keith Maxwell, he’s told me numerous times that on a ratio there was a higher percentage of deaths at Vimy by British Columbian soldiers than there was in any other part of the country and that reflects greatly the amount of recruitment that took place here in British Columbia, there were numerous regiments that had developed. And of course, Sam Hughes, who was the minister of militia as it was called in those days, decided to change, get rid of all the names of all the regiments, for example C4 Pilot in Canada became 777 and the British Columbia regiment in sub-battalion…anyway, there were numerous regiments all over the province, call the colours was very, very fast. I don’t have a percentage, but it’s very high.

Question: Why was Quebec against entering the war now that France was intimately involved?

Answer: Oh, interesting question. Quebec had no relationship with France period. As far as they’re concerned, France gave up on them 150 years earlier when Wolfe defeated the French in Quebec. The Quebecers today still call it today the conquest by the way. We were there about two months ago and it’s in common usage *chuckles*. It’s never called Wolfe’s Victory, it’s always called The Conquest. They don’t even mention Wolfe’s name. but, getting back to your question, for a time, the Borden government, and it should have shown you a couple posters they were very interesting, had recruiting courses directed at Quebecers, and they had the Tricolor in the background *chuckles* and the French-Canadian soldier’s arm around the French soldier saying, “I’m with you fellow” and all this stuff and, it didn’t work. It did not work. Because a French-Canadian then, and to this day, they are not a part of France. Quebecers consider themselves the true Canadians. This is one of the problems that Borden and the others had for the first war. It’s the language thing. English-Canadians thought of themselves as British, fair enough, and the French-Canadians considered themselves to be Canadians. And it’s an odd thing to think about today, that was the reality a hundred years ago, and the French in Quebec had no commiseration as you will with France at all. They understood what they were doing, but that’s why Bourassa said, “Why are you out over there over there protecting and worrying about the Belgians when you can’t do it here in Canada?” So, that tells you a great deal, that’s the underlying subtext, I think, of the problem that the government had at that time. Hope that answers your question.

Question: Under the law of Canada, Quebec should have joined up simply by being a part of Canada. It’s treason not to. *laughter*

Answer: Let me tell you a story. In 1976 when I was covering the visit of René Lévesque in New York, he was then the premier of Quebec, and he was addressing the biggest purveyors of money in the United States at this big luncheon. After he finished, trying to explain what Quebec had done in terms of seeking separation from the rest of the country, I was standing in the lobby, interviewing some captains of industry coming out. And every one of them said, “That man is a traitor.” Now, a Canadian wouldn’t use that, I don’t think at that time, but some might. Americans would. You see what I’m saying? *laughter* I hope that kind of answers your question.

Question: Were there any great industrial fortunes made in Eastern Canada, or western Canada from the First World War supplies?

Answer: Absolutely. You know I talked about corruption, you know Sam Hughes was a good example of getting all his friends involved in positions of authority over which they would control the government’s industry, and there was a great deal of that at the time. But as far as companies continuing, yes, of course, CIL is a good example, producing bullets. In the Second World War, there was a big ammunition factory over here in James Island just outside of Saanich. I’m sure some of those companies, are just new iterations of those companies.

Question: I’m wondering if professional historians, do they understand why this War started? What exactly were the main causes, if any causes? Or did it just happen?

Answer: Well, that would take more of the afternoon to talk about that. I think that the empires of they were known at that time, they became so jealous of that each other. I mean all you have to do is look over all the nephews of Queen Victoria, you know the Czar of Russia and grandchildren, and the Kaiser of Germany, they all hate each other. They have these family feuds. I don’t want to sound trite about it, but it was another era. This was a time when a lot of these European countries, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium they all started colonizing other areas of the world, take Africa for example and a tremendous amount of jealousy began to emerge out of all of that. A lot of it had to do with economics of course, mainly economic. But also, Prestige and things of that nature. I don’t even want to start talking about how what caused these people to fight each other. How some guy being assassinated in Sarajevo would cause a war that would kill millions and millions, and millions of people is beyond me. The Austrian-Hungarian Empire sort of imploded right after that, even though they were an ally of Germany, and look what happened in Russia. The people of Russia didn’t trust the Czar, they didn’t trust the army, and all the rest of it. In 1917, it imploded. I’m not trying to make it sound as though it’s not complex, it was complex. I’d love to have a panel sometime and be able to discuss the rationale for the First World War, but even at that, I don’t think you would have a clear answer.

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