“Canada’s Answer”


Canada’s Answer”, 1914

The painting above, by W.T. Topham, is part of the RMCC Art Collection. It was presented in 1919 by the Royal Naval College of Canada to thank the College for ‘housekeeping’ the Naval College as it moved west from Halifax, after the Explosion of 1917, to Victoria late in 1918. Entitled “Canada’s Answer”, it shows the First Contingent leaving the Gulf of St Lawrence on 3 October, 1914 en route to England.

The article below, written by S 124 Ron Haycock on behalf of the RMCC Heritage & Museum Committee, tells the story.

In that fateful and hot summer of 1914, Canada was still a placid and peaceful place far from the urgencies of the world. On 28 June when the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated in Sarajevo Serbia, save for a few in Ottawa, little public attention was paid to the shooting or to its potential significance. Nor was there a sense of crisis in the next 33 days as Europe stumbled into war. The Governor General, HRH Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught (the youngest son of Queen Victoria)  was  ‘taking the waters’ in Banff,  Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden  was enjoying bass fishing  on Georgian Bay and Parliament was in recess.

But all that serenity changed abruptly. By 4 August, all of the European Great Powers were at war. As an integral part of the British Empire, Canada, the Senior Dominion, was at war automatically when Great Britain was at war. And so the question was what was to be ‘Canada’s Answer’. On the surface – if the pre bellum period was any indication, the country did not seem capable of much – but its peacetime military establishment was small. The 3,000 Regulars were used almost exclusively as training cadres for the 59,000 Militia men who that June had gone into the very limited annual training camps. In the embryonic Navy, created just 4 years before, there were more desertions than enlistments in 1911-12 and no recruits were taken in at all in 1913.  And the government had clearly disavowed it, although it did buy two submarines on 4 August, 1914. Equipment in every arm was often old, in very short supply or non-existent. Combat support units were new creations – in 1903 No.82 Bruce Carruthers had started the Signal Corps (10 years before the Royal Signals); the Canadian Engineers were formed in 1904 with No. 444 W.B. Lindsay as one of its original officers.

Both were Ex-Cadets. RMC was, on the surface and to the uninformed, a small college that only produced few officers in peacetime. How, therefore, could it contribute to ‘Canada’s Answer’ in 1914? In fact, during past military crises, the College had responded with significant numbers – during the Second Anglo- Boer War, 1899-1902, of the 493 who had entered RMC since its founding, 113 served in that conflict and gained much valuable and later very useful experience from it. By 1911, the  last recruit to enter  who could have graduated by 4 August 1914 was No. 944, L.H. Macaulay. Since the start 38 years before, about 140 graduates had been commissioned in the Canadian Permanent Force with approximately 300 others holding commissions in Imperial or Indian Service.  In terms of potential staff and command positions for ‘Canada’s Answer’ this record and the numbers were substantial. Why then did the undiscerning not seem to understand or know of RMC’s excellent past participation? One reason might be that RMC, then as now, is not perceived to be an operational “unit” in the traditional sense. College graduates would usually be identified by the unit they joined, and this may have clouded the reality for those not in the know. 1914 would do a great deal to make things clearer.

The abrupt change to war that August came about with amazing speed. On 6 August the British Government accepted the Canadian offer to send an Expeditionary Force of divisional strength. From a dead start in less than 6 weeks ‘Canada’s Answer’ was close to 33,000 soldiers assembled in a functioning military camp north of Quebec City, a camp that did not exist the day war was declared. This stunning response  had  two  central loci – one was the overwhelming enthusiasm of  many Canadians to enlist for a whole variety of reasons, patriotic, practical or personal , and the other was the energy  and conviction of the current  Minister of Militia and Defence Sam Hughes ( later Sir Sam). Whether Hughes’ faults lie gently or not in history, at the time, no one could doubt his drive and enthusiasm to temper and guide the Nation’s answer as much as the Nation was willing to give it. Ignoring the command structure and a yet incomplete but still useful mobilization plan, on the evening of 6 August, Hughes sent out 226 telegrams to Militia COs across the country. It was a ‘call to arms’. They were to mobilize and get their troops, with whatever kit they had, to Valcartier,  yet to be built. And throughout August and early September they poured in on 100 special trains, quickly organized.

As for where they would go, simultaneously with his telegrams, Hughes commandeered the construction team which, as the conflict had erupted, had nearly completed building the Connaught Ranges near Ottawa. They were to move immediately to Valcartier where the Militia Ministry had recently expropriated land, mostly on the east side of Jacques Cartier River. Moreover, the site was conveniently close to Quebec City, the chosen place of embarkation when ‘Canada’s Answer’ would sail off to war. In the next 30 days, and amid the clutter, clatter and confusion of troops arriving and machines and horses moving sweating men, lumber and dirt, the camp virtually erupted out of the land.  Commanded by No.186 Col. V.A.S. Williams, the camp’s 13,000 acres was a shimmering sea of tents, some buildings and noisy and dusty training grounds. By mid-September the troops numbered 32,665; they got issued what equipment there was, as it came streaming directly off frantic manufacturers’ machinery such as the Ross Rifle Company of Quebec City or the Bain Wagon Company of Woodstock Ontario or was culled from Militia stores across the country. Troops were sorted into units, officers assigned and unassigned, and as the totals swelled the composition and numbers of units changed rapidly. Little but rudimentary training was done or even possible. But the two and a half miles of rifle ranges and 1,500 target frames allowed some familiarization with their weapons. It was a citizen formation built on the Canadian Militia, but much of its qualitative substance came from RMC, and it did not take long to show itself.

By the end of September 1914 , the war news was most urgent, even desperate. Only two weeks earlier the Allied battle fronts in France and Flanders had been reeling backward from the onslaught of the German juggernaut. The British Expeditionary Force, dubbed the ‘Old Contemptibles”, while bloodied but still orderly, had retreated from Mons, and the French left and centre had barely stabilized its front on the Marne. Paris was still threatened. With at least two large, hot and dusty camp parades  in-hand, led by the Hughes in uniform  and attended by huge crowds  of enthusiastic Canadians  including the Governor General, the Prime Minister and many of his Cabinet, the troops were ordered to embark at Quebec City. ‘Canada’s Answer’ was on the move.

Given this urgency, moving ‘Canada’s Answer’ to England was another Herculean task. Hughes put William Price, the “Lumber King of Quebec” in charge of the embarkation at Quebec City. Price, a Militia Major, had been instrumental in the acquisition and laying out of Valcartier. He was also a man of vigour, connexion and talent.   As Hughes often did with the many civilians of expertise he solicited to do things quickly, the Minister made Price an honorary Lieutenant-Colonel, with clout, to meet a need that was not always available in the military and fitting nicely into Hughes’ view of the conflict as a ‘national’ war carried out by citizens as well as soldiers (later Hughes said it also gave him the authority ‘get a hold’ of his appointees if they failed him). Price quickly welded together a team of civilian transport and shipping people handle the embarkation, and while to some it seemed that ‘chaos reigned supreme’ as they began loading on 30 September, a day and half later 30 ships were full and were dropping one by one down river to anchor at Gaspe Harbour. There they awaited final assembly and the promised British protective naval escort before sailing on 3 October, 1914.

It was an impressive sight as the ships left Gaspe Harbour. The line took 3 hours to pass and was spread over 21 miles.  Once in the Gulf, it became a fleet formation of 3 columns, each ship 3000 yards apart. There were 32 ships including that carrying the Newfoundland Contingent escorted by 4 cruisers of the Royal Navy’s 12th Light Cruiser Squadron. In mid- Atlantic, they were joined by 2 battle ships and by the 26,000 ton battle cruiser, Princess Royal.  Twelve days later, all arrived off Plymouth Harbour. There, nearly 33, 000 Canadians and equipment began going ashore. Interestingly, it took them nearly three times longer to disembark in England than it took to load in Canada.

As we all know, this was only the beginning. No one dared to think that it would take four bloody years, or that by 1918, it would ultimately strain every fibre of the national fabric. At the end Canadians would be of all emotions: exhausted, grieving, sobered, appalled, suspicious or proud. Well over 600,000 served – over 60,000 of them would die and three times that be wounded. But there would also be a new national spirit and sense of accomplishment echoing names like Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, Passchendaele, or the Hundred Days. These all surrounded and created the mystique of the Canadian Corps.  But this was all in the future. In the heady days of 1914, many felt it was a great adventure and that it might be over by Christmas.  Others said simply and patriotically, ‘we can do this’!  But from a perch in the 21st Century, it is hard for our generation to catch the totality of it all.

And in that totality,  RMC played a very significant role of leadership – indeed , of the First Division’s commanders and staff officers fully 22 per cent  were Ex-Cadets, the senior of whom was No.246 Harry Burstall, the Commander Royal Artillery. Consistently over the next four years, as the war grew in size and intensity, Ex-Cadets continued to lead. For those who want to read the comprehensive description of the many others whose record made up this amazing service, R.A.  Preston’s  Canada’s RMC tells the whole story. Preston summed it up succinctly when he wrote that practically all of those Cadets who graduated once the conflict began went into the Services; but then he poignantly observed, “it can be said that about 80 percent of those who went through RMC in peacetime and were available, are known to have actually served.”  They filled about 23 percent of command and staff appointments in the CEF throughout the entire war.

No.186 Victor Williams was appointed the Adjutant –General (AG) at Militia HQ  in 1912; a vital member of the Militia Council, the advisory body to the Minister. He successively became Valcartier Camp Commander, commanded the troops on the voyage overseas , and held important posts in England. He commanded the 8th Brigade and was wounded and captured in June  1916, spending the rest of the war as a POW, all the while remaining the AG. The first Ex-Cadet casualty of the war was, No. 774 C.G.G.Mackenzie , killed in action at the First Battle of Ypres in late October 1914 while serving as a Lieutenant in the Royal Scots Fusiliers. The immediate effect of RMCs’ contribution to these initial forces was recognized  by more than a few  at the time. In early 1915, just weeks before  the First Canadian Division  would  hold their own in their first major test,  the bloody battle of Second Ypres , the MP for Frontenac County  read into Hansard  in the House of Commons  a  “glowing tribute”   to the College and its long list of Ex-Cadets  who had taken commissions in the Forces  so quickly and were playing such an important part. Such stories go on and on, and those named here are only representative as the tip of the RMC participation.

5 Comments

  • Mike Kennedy

    September 1, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    Overall, an excellent article, but one small but important correction is needed. #246 Henry Burstall was actually the Commander of the Royal Canadian Artillery, not the British Royal Artillery. He later commanded the Second Canadian Division at Vimy Ridge, retired from the Army around 1925, and died in 1945.

    There is an interesting sidebar to Burstall’s life story, in that 35 years prior to the outbreak of the Great War he had actually failed out of RMC in his second year. In what now seems like a supreme twist of irony, the subject of his failure was the same field which would eventually become his life’s calling – Artillery.

    According to the account in Canada’s RMC, Burstall’s mother, an influential member of Kingston society, pleaded privately with Sir John A. MacDonald to reinstate her son at the College. The case (one of two failures that year) was discussed at a special meeting of the Cabinet, which upheld the decision to dismiss both cadets involved. Burstall managed to secure a commission in the Permanent Militia though his father’s political connections, and rose slowly but steadily in the peacetime ranks. When the war came in 1914 he was a Colonel in his mid-40’s, and went on to distinguish himself in the field, one of very few Canadian officers who served throughout the entire duration of the war.

    Interestingly enough,another Ex-Cadet who accompanied the first Canadian contingent to the war was #458 Garnet Hughes, son of the Minister of Militia, the enigmatic Sam Hughes. The younger Hughes had earned the top mark in the entrance examination to RMC in 1898 and graduated in 1901 as BSM, winning both the Gold Medal and the Sword of Honour. However, his less than stellar performance at the front during the early months of the Great War caused Arthur Currie (who ironically had been a close friend in pre-war days) to have grave misgivings about Hughes’ competence.

    Hughes was eventually reassigned to staff duties and was never given any further opportunity to command in combat. This decision apparently became the source of a great deal of bitterness between Currie and Sam Hughes, who never forgave Currie for stymieing his son’s career.

    Perhaps if anything, the lesson here is may be that a cadet’s success at RMC, or lack thereof, may not provide the most reliable predictor of his (or her) future ability to perform in a wartime situation. One can only wonder what might have eventually become of Henry Burstall if his father had lacked the political clout to resurrect his son’s military career. Likewise, we can similarly wonder what might have transpired had Garnet Hughes ever been given the field command that he so desperately wanted.

  • H2951 Ramsey Withers`

    September 1, 2014 at 11:09 pm

    My class, 1952, had a direct connection with the First World War in that our Commandant was 1137 Brigadier Donald Roger Agnew had served in France as a junior officer of the Royal Canadian Artillery.

  • Ross McKenzie

    September 3, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    Mike’s ‘important correction’ doesn’t apply. The term “Commander Royal Artillery” or CRA was a command appointment held by the senior artillery officer in the Division. Burstall was CRA, 1st Canadian Division, 29 Sep 1914 to 12 Sep 1915. He held the appointment, “General Officer Commanding Royal Artillery” for the Canadian Corps, 13 Sep 1915 to 14 Dec 1916. These terms were common to all British Empire armies.

  • Mike Kennedy

    September 3, 2014 at 9:48 pm

    Looks like I stand corrected, at least with respect to Burstall’s title. However, the rest of the comment is factually correct.

    I guess this just goes to show you that maybe we need to spend a lot more time teaching Canadian military history in 1st year. That would undoubtedly be of much greater value to the cadets than most of what was on the curriculum when I was at RMC in 1976-77.

    Now you know the real reason why I never made CWC !