On August 4, 1914, Great Britain sent an ultimatum to Germany, insisting they withdraw German troops from Belgium, a country whose sovereignty they had long defended. The Germans did not withdraw, which put Great Britain at war with Germany. That meant the entire British Empire was now legally at war with Germany, including Canada and Newfoundland (which was still an independent colony); however, Canada was able to decide to what extent they would participate in the war effort.
Not all Canadians agreed with Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier when he said “when Britain is at war, Canada is at war. There is no distinction,” but many did. Proof of that was in the sheer numbers of Canadian men and women who enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. At that time, Canada’s entire population was under 8 million, and yet approximately 619,000 Canadians signed up. That’s about seven per cent of our population. And that doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of Canadians working on the home front to support the troops and the war effort.
Of those enlisted Canadians, over 35,000 were Nova Scotians. Three Nova Scotian battalions saw combat in France and Belgium: The Royal Canadian Regiment, the 85th Battalion, and the 25th Battalion. The Royal Canadian Regiment had been in existence for decades, having fought in the Northwest Rebellion in 1885, but it couldn’t join the deployment until August 1915 due to an earlier assignment. The 85th Battalion (the “Nova Scotia Highlanders” was deployed in February 1917. The first unit to see action was the 25th Battalion (also known as the “Nova Scotia Rifles”, “MacKenzie Battalion”, “Master Raiders”, “Raiding Battalion”), and that was the unit I followed in “Tides of Honour”. One thousand Nova Scotians started with the 25th Battalion, serving in Belgian trenches, fighting at Ypres, the Battle of the Somme, Passchendaele, and other battles. After one year, 900 had been killed, taken prisoner, missing, or injured.
The No. 2 Construction Battalion (“Black Battalion”) is a little recognized Canadian battalion, and it had no mention in “Tides of Honour”, but I’d like to mention it here. Since the outbreak of the war, black Canadian men had tried to enlist but had been soundly rejected by recruiters from Nova Scotia all the way across to British Columbia. After two years of lobbying, the men were finally told they could enlist if they could find enough men to form their own, segregated battalion. 600 men were mustered (including about 300 from Nova Scotia), only to be given the news that they would be a non-combat force. Yes, they could enlist, but no, they would not be issued guns. Instead, they were given shovels and forestry tools, assigned to digging trenches, carrying the dead, building roads and prisons, felling trees, and other such duties. Their story is rarely told.
On November 11, 1918, the Great War ended with an Armistice—not a surrender—which was an agreement that arms would be laid down and all fighting would immediately cease. The Germans had begun suggesting such an agreement since early October, since the war’s devastating four years had resulted in massive casualties on their side, and their resources were wearing thin. The Allied Forces agreed. Even with their superior forces, the very idea of invading Germany was exhausting. An Armistice was the fastest way to peace.
By then, the war had killed almost 7 million civilians and 10 million military personnel. 66,000 Canadians had died and over 170,000 spent the rest of their lives suffering physical and mental wounds inflicted during the war.
At a conference in Versailles following the Armistice, the Allied powers came up with a peace treaty which they signed in June 1919. The treaty was especially harsh to Germany and included war reparations in the amount of about $37 million (about $492 billion in today’s terms). The humiliation suffered by Germany was one of the major factors which lead to the outbreak of World War Two twenty years later.