On a broiling August weekend in 1914, the Great War came to Canada. Most people bare- ly noticed. Canada was a rural country, where any news short of gossip trav- elled slowly. Decent country folk had too much to do, even in midsummer, to go lolly-gagging into town to find out what foreigners were up to. Cities, of course, were different. The first Monday in August, 1914, was a public holiday in many places. For their health, the rich escaped the summer heat to Muskoka, Lake of the Woods or the Lower St. Lawrence, and a long weekend allowed the menfolk a little extra time to join their families. The vast majority, of course, could only dream of escaping their airless rooms. Many wandered the streets on a holi- day, looking for excitement. On the 1914 August holiday, the rulers of Europe obliged.

The war was neither expected nor an entire surprise. After all, for the pre- vious decade European war scares had been as common as summer thunder and about as dangerous. For the three previous years in the Balkans, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and Montenegro had fought their enemies and then, without much pause, fought their allies. Meanwhile, Europe’s major pow- ers postured and threatened and enlarged their armies and fleets. Did the murder of Archduke Franz-Ferdi- nand and his wife at Sarajevo by a Serb terrorist really make any difference? Pundits might argue but the Canadian media gave them short shrift. Drought on the prairies, the collapse of British Columbia land prices and other symp- toms of a continuing depression wor- ried Canadians more than a European war. Though few argued that govern- ments either caused or cured depress- ions, bad times reassured many Liberals that Canadians would repent their Tory votes in 1911. With elections due in 1915, a newly-knighted Sir Robert Bor- den and his Tories would have little to show for their time in office. Canadi- ans would let old Sir Wilfrid Laurier fin- ish his work.

Suddenly, with the new month, newspaper editors cleared their front pages. Hapsburg Austria had ignored Serbia’s concessions and apologies, mobilized its armies and declared war. As defender of all Slavs and Serbia’s sworn ally, Russia must respond. When it did, Germany followed Austria. An 1894 treaty bound France to support Russia. For years, Germany had prepared for the threat: it would cross a neutral Belgium, knock France out of the war in weeks, as it had in 1870, and then turn eastward against the huge, incompetent Tsarist empire. At midnight on Friday, August 1, the Russian Tsar declared war on Germany. Berlin’s ultimatum to France to cancel its mobilization expired. When Belgium’s King Albert refused to yield to Germany’s invasion, Great Britain, as guarantor of Belgian neutrality for 80 years, felt obliged to intervene.

Early on Saturday morning, August 2, in Canada’s largest, richest and most cos- mopolitan city, French immigrants remembered their status as army reservists and gathered outside their consulate on Montreal’s Place Viger to wait for orders. Through the day, their numbers grew to an orderly throng in straw boaters and cloth caps. A few women stood on the edges but this was not a gathering for wives and children. Montreal journalists pestered Louis Raynauld, the French consul, for names of French Canadians who had volunteered or the name of ”œthe distinguished doctor who had offered his services.” It was enough, Raynauld insisted, to declare his pride at ”œcette marque d’attachement et de sympa- thie.” Names of French reservists could be published if they desired. La Presse reported that many of the men were members of Montreal’s fire depart- ment. Next the press corps moved over to the Coristine Building, where Belgium’s honorary consul, Clarence de Sola, had encouraged his reservists to lead the singing of La Brabançonne, the Belgian national anthem. Belgium, De Sola explained, would fight but 300,000 of its 400,000 soldiers had to be summoned from the Reserves.

Earlier that morning, local militia regiments had acted on pre-war emer- gency plans and mounted guards on canal locks and at the harbour gates. Major Pierre-H. Bisaillon boasted that his 85th Regiment was eager for over- seas service. Lt. Col. J.T. Ostell of the 65th Carabiniers de Mont-Royal, the city’s senior francophone regiment, cast a more sober note: ”œWar is not an outing to Saint Irene, it’s a calamity.” Two days after the British ultimatum, Canadians learned their official share in the distant struggle. On Wednesday, August 6, the Minister of Militia, Colonel Sam Hughes, announced a Canadian Expedi- tionary Force (CEF) of 20,000 men. Scrapping his department’s official mobilization plans, Hughes telegraphed militia colonels from coast to coast, summoning them to bring vol- unteers to Valcartier, an unde- veloped sandy expanse outside Quebec City. Thousands of would-be volunteers gathered outside armouries and learned that militia officers could pro- vide virtually no information on pay, allowances, even uni- forms. Few of the would-be war- riors quibbled. Excitement, escape, bravado and all the spices that draw men closer to deaths prevailed. The drab bur- dens of home and family and loved ones were easily forgotten or covered with the confidence that others would now provide.

That evening, separate French- and English-speaking crowds marched through their Montreal neighbourhoods, bel- lowing out La Marseillaise, Rule Britannia and God Save the King. A city policeman told a group to quit singing O Canada. They obliged. On Sunday, August 3rd, rain and cooler temperatures discouraged celebrations, though a cheerful mob invaded the Windsor Hotel in pursuit of the German consul.

Families were not part of war. For centuries, even millennia, war was an activity primarily reserved for young men, whether as highly trained, well capitalized professional warrior- specialists, like the knights of mediae- val Europe, or as a mass of humble, poorly-armed, ill-rewarded spear carri- ers who filled the ranks of the Greek or Persian myriads, the Roman legion or the mediaeval host. Periodically, reli- gion or barbarian invasions could rouse entire populations to fight, flight or massacre. Then, for a time, the memory of terror and horror would suffice to make war a minority activity. The scourge of Europe’s Thirty Years War was followed in the late seven- teenth and most of the eighteenth century by limited dynastic wars, waged by European monarchs with professional armies recruited from the least productive of their subjects, and with foreign mercenaries.

Mass armies were possible only because industrial methods allowed military conscripts to be cheaply fed, housed, clothed and equipped. As unskilled young men, conscripts were paid a pittance, usually wasted on gambling, cheap wine, cigarettes, prostitutes and other comforts of a garrison town. The rituals of mili- tary service underlined a citizen’s devotion to a duty-demanding, maternally-nourishing state. Sum- moning reservists for a wartime mobilization was another matter. Only after their compulsory military service were young men expected to marry, build a career, and acquire serious family and economic responsibilities. Of course, his civilian life might interrupted at any time by the call to duty.

Universal conscription and mili- tary training was no respecter of indi- vidual rights, though the rich and well-born usually found ways to modi- fy the rigours of the system. Some reg- iments proved more congenial to the better-off than others; and those with connections could meet the need for large numbers of ”œcadets” for officers’ commissions.

Nor could men and women escape their obligations by emigration from their demanding homeland. As some Canadian immigration agents discovered to their cost in the years before 1914, some European countries, notably Germany, forcefully discour- aged emigration. Distance did not alle- viate the duty to serve. In 1914, French and Belgian consulates expected their reservists to report for orders and pas- sage homeward; by early August, patri- otic Germans and Austrians began slipping discreetly over the Canadian border to the neutral United States to find passage home.

One country in Europe had con- spicuously and consistently ignored the European military model. Even in its Napoleonic era, Great Britain had rejected European-style conscription as a typical ”œforeign” imposition on freedom. More sub- stantively, it was also an extravagance for a country whose real bulwark was the Royal Navy. Possessing the world’s most powerful fleet allowed Britain to launch an army on whatever mar- itime shore it chose, rather than join- ing massive and costly land battles. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the British Army remained an eighteenth century force of ill-paid long-service volunteers under aristo- cratic officers, financially dependent on Parliament but owing true alle- giance to the Sovereign. Not all Britons approved. For all its loyalty and success in remote imperial wars, the British army’s poor performance in the Crimean War inspired the Victorian urge for institutional reform. After 1870, the evolution of Prussia into an aggressive German Empire changed the power balance in Europe. Even more alarming was Germany’s transformation under Kaiser Wilhelm II from Britain’s his- toric ally to a menacing industrial and imperial rival.

The British Army had served as a model for the Canadian Militia in vir- tually every aspect of its organization, administration and operations. The links had even been formalized in 1907 when Canada and other self- governing Dominions agreed that the British would set the standards for tac- tics, training, weapons and equipment so that colonial armed forces could easily become interoperable.

In the wake of the South African War, British and colonial politicians found such an arrangement complete- ly appropriate. In Canada, it was the natural outcome of half a century of self-conscious imitation of every detail of British military traditions, uniforms and etiquette, from the gold lace on senior officers’ sword belts to the titles chosen by socially-ambitious city mili- tia battalions. Wealthy Montrealers had transformed the 5th Royal Scots into Royal Highlanders or Black Watch, with a huge expenditure on Scottish military dress. Soon after, the city’s lacklustre 1st Prince of Wales Regiment blossomed into the Canadian Grenadier Guards with another huge investment in British uniforms financed by mining million- aire Colonel John Wallace Carson. In 1914, Lt. Col. Arthur Currie of Victoria’s newly-created 50th Gordon Highlanders of Canada, ordered ten thousand dollars worth of kilts, sporrans and whatever else was needed to resemble their British models from a Glasgow firm that advertised in Canada’s quarterly Militia List.

Canada’s tiny permanent force (P.F.) of about 4,000 men in 1914 made similar regulations and financial provi- sion for its married members. Officers’ rates of pay were somewhat lower than in Britain, but other ranks fared better in a country of significantly higher living costs than Great Britain. All ranks could claim quarters, rations, fuel, light and med- ical attention, or allowances in lieu of them, that ranged from 75¢ a day for a private to $2.00 for a lieutenant colonel. Like the British model, the permanent force reluctantly accepted that some of its soldiers would want to be married, but they could do so only after permission. ”œSubaltern officers may be permitted to marry by the Militia Council” but only after a commanding officer was satisfied that ”œthe officers’ means are such as will enable him to maintain himself and family in a man- ner befitting his position as an officer.” For other ranks, permission was dele- gated to the applicant’s commanding officer, but ”œSuch permission will not be given unless a vacancy exists on the married establishment and the C.O. is satisfied that the applicant is financial- ly able to marry and that the woman is a desirable character.”

Until 1914, the ”œmarried establish- ment” had been 12 percent of the unit’s authorized strength, but that year the rule was changed to allow all warrant officers and sergeants to marry, and 8 percent of the remainder. The chief benefit was the right to occupy married quarters ”” two rooms in bar- racks for a couple with one child, three rooms for two to three children and four for four or more children if any above the age of 10 were of different sexes. Faithful to its British exemplars, permanent force stations included a few married quarters, and provided rations, candles and fuel for families ”œapproved” by a commanding officer or a modest allowance in lieu. Since the bulk of Canada’s defenders belonged to a part-time militia, their marital arrangements were of no interest to the Militia Department, which went no farther in its regulations than to direct that ”œWomen of loose character should be carefully excluded from the camp; they are often employed as spies.”

What provision did the British or Canadians make for families or ”œNext of Kin” if a soldier was killed or died on active service?

Like its other military insti- tutions, pensions reflected a British conviction that the gulf between officers and other ranks was unbridgeable. Officers were gentlemen whose status, even in adversity, must be sustained; soldiers had pre- sumably enlisted as a temporary escape from starvation. An officer who lost an arm, a leg or an eyeball in the service of his King or Queen was entitled to a year’s pay as a gratuity, followed by half-pay for the rest of his life. If he had purchased his commission, its sale made it one of his retirement assets. A private ”œso disabled as to be incapable of earning his livelihood” could be offered up to twenty pounds a year. Since their families would, presumably, look after them, most got far less.

Pensions also depended on rank, longevity and widowhood. After Lt. Col. A.T.H. Williams, an MP command- ing the Midland Battalion, died of a broken heart because General Middleton was rude to him or, more prosaically, from typhoid fever, Parliament voted Mrs. Williams a pen- sion of $1,200. Mary French, whose husband, Captain John French, had died leading the assault on Batoche, received $2,397 as a gratuity and a pension of $342 for herself and $102.95 for each of her four children. When she remarried in 1887, she lost her pen- sion, but her sons received theirs until they were eighteen and her daughter until she was twenty-one. Captain John Morton left his wife Anne a pen- sion of $500 a year and a $1,000 gratu- ity. Each of their three children got a $333 gratuity and $100 a year.

Until the South African War, the British allowed soldiers’ widows to depend on private patriotic charities, frequently inspired by the current imperial campaign. The extent and cost of the war in South Africa per- suaded the British government that it would have to intervene, but for approved widows only. State-funded pensions for other dependants or for wives married ”œoff the strength” remained unthinkable. Since many of its permanent force soldiers had trans- ferred from the British army, Ottawa had decided to pay a ”œseparation allowance” to soldiers frequently absent from home for months in their role of training the militia. Two might live cheaper than one, but not if they lived under separate roofs.

After August, 1914, the Mothers’ Allowance debate was intertwined with the response to soldiers’ families. By allocating a separation allowance as part of a soldier’s income, the government acknowledged that ordinary pay scales did not match the ”œfamily wage” needed for a man to support his wife and chil- dren, though the amount was only suffi- cient to maintain a wife. The Patriotic Fund allowance primarily sustained the added cost of children. Both payments derived from the maternalist claim that, given adequate income, mothers were the ideal people to raise soldiers’ chil- dren, particularly if they could benefit from guidance from appropriately select- ed and trained female volunteers. In 1914, this still seemed better managed by a private charity, exercising discipline and discretion, than by a government bound to treat the deserving and the undeserving alike.

By no accident, the educat- ed middle class women who defined and guided mater- nal feminism soon devised themselves yet another career opportunity to add to teaching and nursing. Initially as volun- teers, and soon as trained social workers, women provided low- cost and instinctively qualified supervisors for the mothers of the poor. If, as a 1921 Ontario report suggested, ”œ[t]he mother is regarded as an applicant for employment as a guardian of future citizens of the state,” the social worker would be her supervisor and disciplinarian.

The Canadian Patriotic Fund provided both mothers and volunteers with plenty of experience in working out a new (or revised) experience with a form of ”œoutdoor relief.”

In Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and wherever reservists gathered to re- enlist, families had little public role. The pain of parting was a private emo- tion, ill-fitted to the public mood of patriotic defiance and romantic valour. For soldiers’ wives, the pain of separa- tion was all the greater once aban- doned families realized that, without their breadwinner, they faced destitu- tion. The social institutions which underpinned conscription in European countries simply did not exist in Cana- da. To their credit, the plight of reservists’ abandoned families was soon on many minds in Montreal and across Canada. A dockside reporter dutifully reported to La Presse that he had been overcome by ”œthe sobs of a mother and her children who saw the dearest being in their lives depart.”

As of August 4, thousands of British ex-soldiers and sailors in the British isles and around the world faced the obligation to report to their naval or regimental depot in Britain. In Ottawa, where a British officer had been stationed to pay reservists their pensions, the names of 3,232 British ex-soldiers were recorded. They were ordered to report to a special camp at Lévis, opposite the Citadel in Quebec City where transport to England would be arranged. By the end of August, 2,006 had embarked for England. The 153 reservists in the Canadian perma- nent force were exempted, and 106 others eventually sailed with the First Contingent of the CEF. Trained British veterans were worth their weight in gold for the Canadian contingent Colonel Sam Hughes was forming at Valcartier. Since the fighting might well be over before any official Canadian contingent saw action, a Montreal millionaire, Hamilton Gaunt, proposed to form a Canadian battalion of British reservists and former soldiers under the name of the Governor General’s daughter: Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. It was ready by August 28, though the War Office commanded that it disembark and accompany the main contingent.

On mobilization, explained the Imperial Pension Office in Ottawa, a reservist’s wife could expect thirteen pence a day, plus two pence per child in ”œseparation allowance”; from his own pay, a private would be obliged to con- tribute six pence for his wife and a penny per child. A British private’s wife and her three children would have to live on the Canadian equivalent of $17.10 a month. The dollar and ten cents a day per private that Hughes had announced as base pay for his Canadian Expeditionary Force soldiers might be half a labourer’s wage in Canada but it was four times more than the approxi- mately twenty-five cents a day a British private could expect, and he was well off compared to a French private at $0.055 a day or a Russian at $0.01.

Summoned back to the colours in the early days of August, reservists faced a conflict between their promise to do their patri- otic duty of defending the nation and their tra- ditional primary role as breadwinners for their families. In a modern age of shared parental responsibilities and dou- ble-income families, the role of the lonely breadwinner role now seem unfashionable or dis- counted, but in the typical Canadian family economy of 1914, a father’s competence was primarily measured by the quality of support he could offer his family. A marriage could sur- vive many strains, even violence, but non-support was a woman’s best grounds for divorce. A son was taught at home, church and school that his first duty was to his parents, and par- ticularly to his mother and unmarried sisters. What example could a man provide for his children, what virtues could he transmit to the next genera- tion, if he failed in this elementary test? Sadly, in the depression-ridden Canada of 1914, many fathers had failed that test through layoffs short- time working and other causes beyond their control. One reason for the crowding at local armouries in the wake of August 4 was a man’s hope that he could escape economic failure by enlisting. Whatever the rate of pay, a man could argue, Canada would not leave his family to starve. Wives who gave their approval to enlist knew that they were possibly sending their hus- band to his death in return for imme- diate support for themselves and their offspring. A few men, ill-intentioned or desperate, believed instead that enlistment in the Canadian Expeditionary Force would enable them to desert their families and escape their obligations.

Systematic unemployment statis- tics were still unknown in 1914 Cana- da, but contemporary estimates suggested that one worker in six was unemployed and therefore without income. A variety of causes, from infla- tion to over-production, had helped bring the Laurier boom to an end, even before Robert L. Borden’s Conserva- tives won power in September, 1911. When the two new transcontinental railways finally reached completion, the economic surge that had justified their construction was long since exhausted. Instead of retiring their huge construction debts, the Grand Trunk and Canadian Northern faced both falling traffic and revenues, plus a new government with close ties to the well-established Canadian Pacific and a record on the opposition benches of criticizing over-expansion. Thousands of construction workers, inevitably laid off on the completion of construction, found no alternative market for their strength and skills.

A familiar social blame-game attributed unemployment and its resulting misery to assorted per- sonal failings: drink, idleness, immorality, gambling and general ”œfecklessness.” Few ever applied that kind of blame to soldiers’ families. Instead, the wives and children of CEF recruits were identified as hapless but patriotic victims of a proper and manly response. Moreover, it would be a shame if would-be soldiers and dutiful reservists were deterred from offering their lives to the Allied cause because they might also be neglecting ”œthe wife and kiddies.” The war forced respectable Canadians to share a bur- den they had solemnly and irrevoca- bly assigned to the men of their species: family support. Of course, once they assumed even a share of the costs, the community also gained a share of another male role: family leadership. Even in their divinely ordained role, mothers could be imperfect. Even the most maternal of feminists acknowledged that a few of their sex could be irresponsible and false to their trust. Instinctively averse to regulating private matters of personal choice, Sir Robert Borden’s government assigned the major role in family policy to a federally-char- tered private agency, the Canadian Patriotic Fund or CPF. When Parlia- ment met in special session in August, 1914, creating the CPF and approving the War Measures Act were the MPs’ most significant statutory responsi- bilities. Understandably oblivious to the possibility that the war would continue for more than four years and strain almost every familiar institution and value, the country’s elected representatives asked few questions, did as they were told, and went home to do their patriotic duty.


Desmond Morton, founding director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, is the Hiram Mills Chair, Department of History, at McGill University. Fight or Pay, excerpted here by permission of the author and publish- er, UBC Press (2004), is his 40th book.

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