Recollections

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When England declared war in early August 1914, the Governor General immediately sent a telegram to the British Government, offering Canada's services. It was quickly decided that the deployment of an expeditionary force to France under British command would be appreciated. Parliament had not yet been recalled, and the Canadian government had not been officially consulted.

Sam Hughes, Canada's Minister of Militia, immediately took charge of war measures and decreed that all Canada's military units would assemble at a camp at Valcartier, close to Quebec City, so they could be quickly embarked on naval convoys out of the Port of Quebec.

Every militia unit was summoned to entrain for Valcartier with all the volunteers it could muster. However, Hughes also decreed that these units would be regrouped into new units to form an infantry division of about 20,000 men. Each unit would be numbered based on a new Canadian Expeditionary Force numbering system, regardless of the geographic origin of its members.

French Canadians from Quebec and across Canada were also invited to come to Valcartier, but Hughes made it very clear that there would be no French-speaking units in the First Canadian Division. In his opinion, the use of a language other than English would hamper operations and interfere with training. French Canadians who wanted to enlist were expected to serve in English-language units with no accommodations to facilitate communication. Many French Canadians who went to Valcartier therefore decided to return home, when it became obvious that there was no great need for soldiers with little command of English. In his hot-headed, irascible and blunt way, Sam Hughes insulted an entire group of citizens, stating publicly that French Canadians were known for showing up in small numbers and deserting in large numbers.

This soured the relations not only between Quebec City and the Minister of Militia at Valcartier but also between English- and French-speaking Canadians.

While many English-speakers barely managed to tolerate the Minister's bombastic and peremptory remarks, French-speakers were clearly enraged and insulted by his dismissive behaviour and ignorance.

The First Division was formed in the fall of 1914 and embarked for England in October. And Valcartier started to train the Second Division. It was then that some influential Quebeckers decided that it was unacceptable not to have a French-language unit in the division, when there were so many young unilingual French-Canadian men with the same taste for adventure and patriotic fervour as English-speaking recruits. An influential group of men with wealthy backers offered to help cover the expense of raising an infantry battalion for the division. In mid-October, Robert Borden's Conservative government, against the advice of its Minister of Militia, authorized the formation of a French-Canadian regiment, at Saint-Jean, near Montreal. The regiment would train in Amherst, Nova Scotia, it was decided, and from there it would join the division's other units in a convoy to England. Like the First Division, the Second consisted of three brigades, each with four battalions. The French Canadian battalion was given the number 22 and was part of the fifth brigade. Several members of this brigade were from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, including some French-speaking Acadians.

The 22nd Battalion had many intense wartime experiences. It was part of the Canadian Corps throughout the war and, in the end, was the only French-language unit in that corps. Several other French-language units were subsequently formed, but for a variety of reasons were not incorporated into the Canadian Corps' frontline units. Instead they became training units, in Canada or in England, preparing the men fed into the 22nd French Canadian Battalion or other units. Of the four divisions that ultimately formed the famous Canadian Corps—48 frontline infantry units—only the "VanDoos" battalion was officially recognized as French Canadian. Both the British commanders of the Canadian Corps (generals Alderson and Byng) and its sole Canadian commander, General Arthur Currie, opposed the addition of further French-language units. French Canadians who did not serve in the 22nd Battalion served in English-language units, some of which admittedly had enough French-speaking members to allow a unilingual Francophone to serve effectively in their ranks.

In these circumstances, no French Canadian ever commanded a division, and very few obtained senior staff positions.

French Canadians reacted to the lack of sympathy from the armed forces by becoming increasingly reluctant to serve. By the time enthusiasm for overseas service diminished in English Canada in 1915 and 1916, it was too late. Political conflicts in Canada and relations poisoned by animosities resulting from experiences with mobilization had already had their impact on public opinion. The result was the conscription crisis of 1917, which created the most serious divisions in Canada since Confederation.

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