Chronicles: For King and country they signed up to fight

From Cowichan, loggers, farmers, navvies, sawmill workers, bank clerks, merchants and volunteer firemen, all were off to Victoria to enlist.

From Cowichan, loggers, farmers, navvies, sawmill workers, bank clerks, merchants and volunteer firemen, all were off to Victoria to enlist.

News that Great Britain, hence Canada, was at war in August 1914 shouldn’t have come as a real surprise to anyone who’d been following international and national news.

For years, Great Britain and Germany had been vying to build the largest, most powerful navies. For years, from as far back as 1911, the Canadian Parliament had been bitterly divided over the so-called ‘Naval Question’: whether Canada should build its own navy for its own defence and as an ally of the mother country, or simply contribute money to construction of Royal Navy dreadnoughts.

Politically, the blustering and posturing had already provoked other international crises before the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the ever-volatile Balkans remained a powder keg of conflicting ethnicity, religion, politics and nationalism. National prides and political positions had hardened. War, at the very least a European war, had become inevitable.

In late July 1914 as the ultimatums and declarations of hostilities by Russia and smaller states escalated, Canadians followed the news as best they could. In The Lost Diary, privately published in 1941, Victoria journalist Sandham Graves recalled how citizens had “milled around the bulletin-boards of the newspapers all day long; reading flashes of tense developments that came in swift succession every few hours”.

Rather than be alarmed as the situation between the world’s greatest powers worsened, the crowds grew increasingly excited, even eager to see the might of the world’s greatest empire brought down on the German upstart.

The Royal Navy would sink the German fleet in “one crack,” said some; the Russian bear would pass over Germany like a steam-roller, said others. Official word that war had been declared between Britain and Germany was greeted not with expressions of regret or sorrow or misgiving or apprehension but with cheers of jubilation. Men dropped everything in their rush to join the colours, so convinced were they that they must enlist now if they were to play a part because the war would be over by Christmas. Sandham Graves captured that euphoria in his memoir:

“On to Valcartier!” The words swept over Canada in a night. From Halifax to Victoria, from trap-lines in the Yukon, south to the International Boundary-Line, men began besieging recruiting offices.

“They volunteered in battalions and by townships, in groups and by clubs; some trekking alone out of the wilderness, to answer the Lion’s call.”

When Sam Hughes the erratic and excitable Minister of Militia called for a single division to be trained on Valcartier Plain outside Quebec City, twice that many — 36,000 — responded. Six thousand, “bitterly disappointed,” were turned away. When a detachment of the Fifth Regiment, Canadian Garrison Artillery, left Victoria for active service in August, the community joined to give them a tumultuous send-off.

Graves: “The 50th Gordon Highlanders…and the 88th Victoria Fusiliers…fully mustered and impatient to be off, turned out to pay the respects of their arms. The Fifth Regiment band, playing the regimental march, ‘The British Grenadiers,’ ‘The Girl I left Behind Me,’ and old favourites of the day, played the detachment through the city, across the Causeway, and to the boat. Thirty thousand people jammed the harbour front. For once…Victoria cast off its reserve, and cheered.”

Came the turn of the 50th Gordons, the 88th Fusiliers, the Corps of Guides and the Canadian Signal Corps, Graves was one of the 600-odd young men and older veterans of South Africa who marched from the newly-built Bay Street Armoury through downtown Victoria to board a CPR steamship in front of the Parliament Buildings. To the strains of bagpipes the Gordons in their kilts “swung through the streets…

“As long as I live I shall never forget that day. Remember, for the most part we were youngsters; many who had never been away from home before. As…the last man in the parade I marched through Victoria in a warm kind of a daze. Victoria had turned out to the last man, woman and child. Even the dogs were there, marching… The cheers swelled into one constant roar, echoing and reverberating along the canyon walls of the business district. The crowd flooded in behind, in a great surging wave… Attempts to keep ranks were futile. Pipes and brass bands and cheers intermingled in one flat roar of sound.”

So it was in Victoria, so it was, on a smaller scale, in Duncan where men, young, middle-aged and older, came out of the woods, out of the fields and out of the stores to converge on the train station to go to Victoria to enlist. Logger, farmer, navvy, sawmill worker, bank clerk, merchant and volunteer fireman, they were off to Victoria or, while impatiently awaiting their enlistment to be accepted, drilled in farmers’ fields and at the Cowichan Mound with borrowed or simulated rifles. Military cadets, just boys still in school, some of whom were contemplating lying about their age, stepped up their drilling and training in the hope that the war would go on long enough for them to share in the excitement and the glory.

Sadly, it did.

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