Unending Seige

Canada in 1914

Canadian Involvement

When Britain went to war in August 1914 the Canadian economy had still not recovered from the harsh depression that had surfaced in late 1912 against a background of industrial overproduction. Unemployment rose and there was a severe credit squeeze. Farmers abandoned their land in the hope of finding city jobs that did not exist. At best, fortune smiled on them in the form of some small amount of material assistance. In 1914 even the companies that owned the two transcontinental railways were in difficulty.

Canada's colonial status meant that it was automatically at war as well. Clausewitz had written in the first half of the 19th century that war was the continuation of politics by other means. Yet Canada was at war with no foreign policy worthy of the term. In 1914 most people hoped that this conflict, the true scale of which was grasped by only a few, would be over quickly. Nonetheless the government vested itself with exceptional powers. On 18 August it introduced a War Measures Bill in Parliament that would enable it to govern by decree. The bill would be passed the following month.

When it went to war, the British Empire was not as united as some might have believed. Sinn Fein, already active in Ireland, fully intended to seize this opportunity to advance its cause. In South Africa the Afrikaners, just as white as their English countrymen, were divided over a proposed attack on Germany's South West Africa colony. In Canada their chief supporters were the Quebec Francophones, who would themselves refuse all-out participation in the hostilities.

From the first weeks of conflict, whites throughout the Empire voiced their loyalty to Britain's cause. Yet a murmur of division persisted. It would abate without altogether disappearing when the liner Lusitania was sunk in 1915; the Empire turned with virtual unanimity against Germany and her allies, beginning with Austria-Hungary and swelling over the months by the addition of Turkey and Bulgaria. People everywhere were asking the same question: At what price must this war be fought?

In general, the British colonies went to war relying on imperial experience. Later, the game would turn to slaughter and the colonies would give it their best. The end of the massacre, in 1918, would come as a great relief.