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Canada Joins the Great War

For the week of Monday August 4, 2014

On August 4, 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany, and the British Empire, including Canada, was automatically at war. The war would have a profound effect on Canadians; of the roughly 425,000 men and women that served overseas, approximately 66,000 never returned.

Robert Borden and Winston Churchill leaving the Admiralty
© Library and Archives Canada / C-002082

Prior to the declarations of war, European politics had been rife with alliances, conflicting colonial aspirations, and militarism. The situation on the continent was volatile. On July 28, 1914, the heir to Austro-Hungarian crown Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist determined to create an independent Serbia. Austria-Hungary declared war on the Serbs, which forced Russia, Serbia’s ally, into the conflict. Germany, a faithful ally of Austria-Hungary, countered by declaring war on Russia (August 1). Then, on August 3, Germany declared war on Russia’s ally France and set out to invade it through neutral Belgium. Responding to the escalating conflict and German’s refusal to remove itself from Belgium, Great Britain declared war against Germany on August 4.

The declaration of war did not catch Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden off guard as he understood well that tensions had been mounting for some time in Europe. He, like many Canadians, shared the view of one parliamentarian who stated that “when Britain is at war, Canada is at war.” So, Prime Minister Borden quickly assembled his cabinet and began making arrangements to send troops and materials to aid the British in their war efforts.

Canadian recruitment poster: Enlist! New Names in Canadian History. More are coming— Will you be there?
© Library and Archives Canada / 1983-28-826

Following the government’s decision, many people;throughout Canada were swept up in a patriotic fervour, taking to the streets of major cities, singing songs and demonstrating their desire to aid their European allies. By August 8, preparations had been made by the Minister of Militia and Defence, Sam Hughes, to assemble the Canadian troops at a training camp in Valcartier, Quebec. By October 1, the 33,000-strong first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force was ready to set sail for Europe.

Sir Robert Borden and Sir Samuel Hughes were designated persons of national historic significance.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the First World War! To learn more about Canada’s contribution to the war effort please read Canadians Join the Fight at Passchendaele, Canadian Victory at Vimy!, United at Vimy Ridge, A Missed Memo: Japanese-Canadians Enlist in the First World War, and The First Black Battalion in Canada from the This Week in History archives. For more on the First and Second World Wars, visit the Government of Canada’s World War Commemorations page.

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