New Recruits, Valcartier Camp, Quebec, August or September 1914.
National Archives of Canada (PA-107280, photo by Horace Brown).

New Recruits, Valcartier Camp, Quebec, August or September 1914.

When the Great War first started, most volunteers came forward out of a sense of adventure, duty, and patriotism. The reality of military life, however, did not always meet these idealistic expectations. Here, new recruits are shaved and shorn upon their arrival at camp.

The German army took the initiative in the opening phases of the First World War. The German strategy was called the "Schlieffen Plan" after Alfred von Schlieffen, a German commander who died in 1913. The plan was designed to deal with a two-front war against France and Russia. Schlieffen had calculated that the French were the most immediate threat, and planned a lightning quick assault that was designed to knock France out of the war before the Russians could fully mobilize. Accordingly, the German army was to sweep through Belgium and northern France in a vast encircling movement. It would then smash the main French army, which was concentrated along France's border near the German territories of Alsace and Lorraine.

Von Schlieffen's strategy was successful in the initial weeks of the war. By the end of August 1914, however, Germans troops had outrun their supply columns and encountered stiff resistance from French and British troops. In September and October, the Allied armies counterattacked the Germans. German setbacks in the field were worsened because Germany had to recall several divisions from the west to serve on the Eastern Front, where Russia had mobilized more rapidly than anticipated.

By 11 November, after almost three weeks of fighting between the Germans and the British near the railroad centre of Ypres, Belgium, the active phase of the war had come to an end. The lightning attack of Germany had failed. Both sides dug in along the Western Front, which extended 500 miles from the English Channel to France's border with Switzerland. By early 1915, the war, that some thought would be over by Christmas, settled into the stalemate of trench warfare.

"Enlisting at Calgary for the 56th Battalion," n.d.
Canada; An Illustrated Weekly Journal, 9 October 1915. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

"Enlisting at Calgary for the 56th Battalion," n.d.


At the beginning of the First World War, the Canadian army consisted of only 3,000 permanent force soldiers and the 57,000 or so citizen-soldiers of the militia. The considerable resources of rifle associations (48,000) and school cadets (44,000) were also available to the military. (1) The government put out a call to the militia and authorized sending 25,000 men to Europe. In response, more than 31,000 volunteers came forward. Most volunteered out of a sense of duty and patriotism while others joined seeking adventure. Many of these volunteers were recent immigrants from Britain -- their patriotism was largely for the mother country, rather than for Canada.

Deliberate steps were taken to put a Canadian stamp on the nation's overseas contingents. Legally they were imperial troops, but Borden's government ensured that all volunteers, if not coming from the militia, were enrolled in the militia and all officers were granted Canadian militia as well as imperial commissions. British attempts to have the Canadian army used simply as a source of individual reinforcements for British divisions were quickly dismissed.

Harold R. Peat, Private Peat (Toronto: George J. McLeod Limited, 1917), pp. 19-22.

Military Discipline

Private Peat recalls the state of military discipline among the first members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force to arrive in Britain.
The Fortyniner, No. 2, 1915, p. 6.

"We Prepare for War," by "Junius."

After months of training in England, the Canadian Expeditionary Force was impatient to reach the front lines.
Canada; An Illustrated Weekly Journal, 3 April 1915, pp. 5-6.

"The Canadians at the Front: The First Dispatch of the Canadian 'Eye-Witness.'-General Alderson's Stirring Speech."

The Canadian Expeditionary Force arrives at the battlefield.

Canada's volunteer soldiers were, at first, poorly equipped and poorly organized. (2) Many of the officers had little military experience, and the men were undisciplined. They had to be trained in England before being sent to France in the spring of 1915, under the leadership of a British general. Over 5,000 Canadians were killed or wounded during the first week in which they saw action. The Canadians proved to be tough and effective fighting men, however, often engaging in hand-to-hand combat against the Germans. As the war continued for months and then years, Canada's military would become more and more professional, paralleling Canada's transformation from a colony of Great Britain to an autonomous dominion.

"Artistes of the 49th."
The Fortyniner, No. 1, 1915 (cartoon by George Brown).

"Artistes of the 49th."

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