Canada Builds Its First Army: World War 1
From "The Salient: A Novel of the Great War" by Kim Kinrade: (Release date September 2014
"His Majesty's Government gratefully accepts your offer
to send an expeditionary force to this country,
and would be glad if it could be dispatched
as soon as possible."
- King George V to the Prime Minister
of Canada: August 1914
From her inception as an independent country in 1867 until the summer of 1914, Canada was without an organized military system, relying instead on a small regular force supported by both the Northwest Mounted Police and regional militias. The latter was trained to retain order and, if the need arose - like the Riel Rebellion - quell regional hostilities. However, as a result of her commitment to Britain's war effort, the young country began in earnest to train and equip a real army - or at least a small part of one.
Valcartier training camp - a wooded wilderness about sixteen miles northwest of Quebec City bordered by the St. Charles and Jacques Cartier rivers - was the brain-child of Minister of Militias, Sam Hughes. It had been originally settled and farmed by former British soldiers who had distinguished themselves at Waterloo and had received land entitlements for their service to the Crown. This in itself had an ironic ring considering the mud flats and shallows of the St. Charles River had foiled General Wolfe in his first attempt at capturing Quebec from France's General Montcalm in 1759, sixty years earlier. The descendants of these British soldier-farmers, in turn, sold their property to the government of Canada in 1912, who wanted the land as the central training area for the Quebec militia. When the threat of hostilities loomed, Hughes seized it for the training of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. This was no small part because Quebec City's port facilities would make the loading of the troop ships more efficient than from the military's original plan for a base at Petawawa, Ontario.
Unfortunately, Hughes' well of efficiency soon dried up. Patronage ran rampant at Valcartier leading to unnecessary and wasteful construction as well as materiél purchases. This later led to damning accusations in the House of Commons which told of Hughes' gross favouritism while choosing contractors and suppliers, who, in effect, made the most they could from government contracts - oftentimes at the expense of the soldiers, themselves.
Work on the camp began on August 8, 1914. Lumberjacks felled trees and machinery levelled the mostly, sandy ground for buildings and parade grounds. Barracks and staff quarters went up quickly; as did a powerhouse, ice house, cinema, pay office, larder storage, headquarters, post office and stables. Two main water lines were lain in ploughed trenches leading from a pump house on the Jacques Cartier River. These fed two huge water tanks resting on fifty foot towers, each with its own chlorination unit.
For marksmanship training, a swamp was drained and a rifle range built on the many tons of sand-fill replacing it. The training area contained 1500 targets up against nearby Hart Hill.
The details regarding transportation were supplied by the Canadian National Railway, which laid 20,000 feet of track and, along one of the sidings, built three loading platforms with freight sheds and an ordnance building. In only four weeks, despite the ill-placed lavishness of Sam Hughes, Valcartier was a vast military camp able to accommodate the thousands of troops needed for the required war effort.
The organization of the new Canadian army, however, was not entirely good news for the regular regiments who had built their reputations and esprit de corps in various British campaigns. But Hughes' mistrust of the military establishment and its small, regular army was so deep that he took great satisfaction in splintering their commands and unit formations. Proud regiments whose names were synonymous with victory and heroic accomplishment found themselves listed as numbers. Overnight the Canadian Scottish became the 16th Battalion and the Royal Montreal Regiment was hence referred to as the 14th Battalion - but Hughes had at least allowed them their Highland attire and colourful standards. To further demonstrate his jealousy, the much vaunted Royal Canadian Rifles found themselves exiled to Bermuda to relieve a British regiment that was stationed there - a banishment that, as the events of the next six months unfolded, was really a lucky break for them.
When the dust finally settled and hackles somewhat lowered, the Canadian First Division was born. It contained four brigades, each containing four battalions of 1000 men:
The 1st Brigade was made up of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd,and 4th Battalions, all from Ontario, under the command of Lieutenant- Colonel M.S. Mercer.
The 2nd Brigade consisted of the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th Battalions which hailed from the west. These were placed under the command of Lieutenant- Colonel A.W. Currie, a real estate salesman from Victoria, B.C.
Highland Battalions made up the 3rd Brigade and were led by Lieutenant-Colonel R.E. Turner, a recipient of the Victoria Cross for bravery in the South Africa campaign. These were designated the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th Battalions. They retained their Scottish kit, as well as their pipe and drum bands.
The prairie and maritime provinces made up the 4th Brigade, which were the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th Battalions under Lieutenant-Colonel J.E. Coho. Attached to each of the various brigades were compliments of artillery, supplies, engineers and cavalry.
Sam Hughes named as the camp commandant; Colonel V.A.S. Williams, a veteran of the South African campaign with the 1st Canadian Rifles and a former Northwest Mounted Police inspector.
On August 18th, the first recruits arrived at the loading platforms and by September 18th that number rose to over 32,000 - 6,000 more than they needed. However Hughes ordered that the extra manpower stay, stating that cuts would be made before leaving for Europe. So before the first day of autumn, 1914, and less than three weeks after the war had started, 32,000 men began training. For the first time in history, the Canadian military not only had a mandate, but a centralized structure and training facility.
Because, despite all of his amateur dabbling, favouritism and the confusion caused by his petty prejudices, Sam Hughes had assembled, in record time, the Canadian Expeditionary Force.