This year is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, the most destructive war up till that time. New artillery and chemical weapons were used, and both sides suffered heavy casualties.
Betty Jean Bjornson of Elfros brought in a collection of postcards that were sent by her grandfather Frank Townsend to his wife and son in Gainsborough, Sask., while he was serving in the Canadian Army during the First World War. Frank’s handwriting in pencil on the back of this one says, “This is where the Canadians are buried that die in Bramsholl Hospital.”
It was supposed to be a short war, the “Great Adventure,” according to initial propaganda. “It will all be over by Christmas,” military leaders proclaimed. It did not turn out that way.
Europe prior to 1914 had a troubled political climate, with many countries vying for supremacy in the post-Victorian era. Turkish power around the Mediterranean Sea was ending, and the Balkans and Slavs, along with Russia, were trying to unite. Britain was having trouble with Ireland over the Ulster movement to block Irish home rule. France, trying to claim more territory in Africa, was blocked by Britain. Germany was determined to be the supreme power at sea and was building a large army and navy. Austria, whose empire included the Slav provinces, started allying with Germany.
The instigator of conflict was probably the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife while they drove through the streets of Sarajevo in Bosnia on June 28, 1914. Austria sought the support of Germany and on July 24 issued an ultimatum of cessation of hostilities to Serbia. Serbia replied that “she would accept all the demands which did not impair her own sovereignty, and that on disputed points she would accept the judgement of the Hague Tribunal or of the great powers of Europe,” (Sask. school textbook, 1922). On July 28, Austria declared war.
On July 29, Russia supported Serbia and mobilized against Austria. Germany protested and by Aug. 3, 1914, it was Germany and Austria-Hungary against Russia and its ally France.
Britain was not officially allied with Russia and France, and the foreign minister Sir Edward Grey had attempted to avert war between the continental countries. British sentiment was with Russia and France despite ties with Germany and so on Aug. 4, Britain joined the war against Germany and Austria.
It must be one of history’s great ironies that just over a month before the Great War started, the Commonwealth was making plans to celebrate peace, with the centenary of the Treaty of Ghent, which marked the end of war between Britain and the United States.
“This is how the soup you have to go out and get the rations in the night but there is no trees left there like this.” (sic)
It was late November 1915 when the Wadena Independent Company first started calling for volunteers from the area. This company eventually became the 214 Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The 214 continued recruiting until June 1916 when they went to Camp Hughes in Manitoba for training, but most of the battalion was not sent overseas until April 1917, nearly a year later. Meanwhile those who had travelled elsewhere to join up were in other battalions and reached the conflict earlier. Many joined the Princess Patricia’s or the 65th Battalion, being raised in Prince Albert and Saskatoon.
The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry battalion was initially composed of veterans and so required less training before going overseas. The first of the Canadian Expeditionary Force battalions to take a boat for Britain, they reached their first camp on Salisbury Plain in November 1914 and landed on Dec. 21 at Havre, France.
The 65th Battalion, which also recruited some of our local boys, became part of the 4th Canadian Division that participated in the Vimy and Passchendaele battles, among others.
The initial tactics for the war, on the British side at least, included use of the British cavalry. However, while cavalry charges were effective against infantry, the mud, barbed wire and machine guns used in trench warfare were devastating to cavalry units and so they were used sparingly. Cavalrymen often fought as infantry, and cavalry horses were commonly used to pull wagons and other transport.
Trench warfare was prevalent in the Great War. German forces, prepared for war, had an organized system with roofing, kitchens and barracks. In addition, they held the higher ground. When the British and French forces reached the front lines, they spent a lot of time digging their own trenches for protection and, being on lower ground, had to contend with water. There are incidents on record where the water in the trenches was waist-deep and the soldiers had to eat, sleep, keep watch and fight while dealing with cold water.
Not all the danger was at the front. Accidents during training or behind the lines, or stray enemy bombs on marches to the front, accounted for many casualties. Poor communications were sometimes responsible for troops coming under “friendly fire,” where Allied troops fired on each other, thinking they were the enemy. Illness from closed quarters or flooded trenches was common. Suicide was not uncommon either.
This is one of several beautiful hand-embroidered postcards in Bjornson’s collection. Unfortunately our scan has not brought out the still vibrant colours of the thread.
Support for the war and the War Act was not universal; many, called “conscientious objectors” or “conchies,” were usually pacifists who opposed war on moral or religious grounds; others wanted Canada to stay out of the war. Regardless, many of these volunteered or were assigned to serve in non-combat areas such as hospitals and transport.
Even in our own area there were dissenters. In late August 1914, spikes were driven between the rails of the CN tracks between Paswegin and Clair just before a passenger train carrying French reservists came through. Fortunately for the passenger train, a freight train ahead of it noticed the spikes and was able to prevent derailment.
Despite some opposition, voluntary enlistment continued in the area until conscription was put into place in 1917.
By Charlene Wirtz
Of course, postcards crossed the ocean in both directions.
For more information on the start of the First World War, there are many available sources:
- Canada’s History magazine has already published several articles about the First World War and is publishing Canada’s Great War Album this month.
- National Geographic magazine’s August 2014 issue has the article “The Hidden World of the Great War.”
- Library and Archives Canada has quite a bit of information, including service records of First World War soldiers and war diaries of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, at collectionscanada.ca.
- The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation presented a radio series this summer, utilizing interviews done in 1964 with First World War veterans for the special In Flanders Fields. “The Bugle and the Passing Bell” is available as a podcast or online at cbc.ca/bugleandthebell.