The Conflict Begins

An assassination in Sarajevo in June 1914, went almost unnoticed in Canada. Few Canadians expected that it would lead to war; fewer still anticipated the sacrifices Canada would be called to make. Yet the war was to change the world they lived in, and in a very real sense the Canadian nation was born on the battlefields of Europe.

International relations in Europe in the summer of 1914 were, apparently, quiet: but great tensions existed under the surface. The Great European Powers were ranged against each other in two alliances—The Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) and the Triple Entente (France, Russia and Great Britain). The situation was heightened by economic and imperial rivalries, national pride, the nationalism of new countries, ambitious statesmen, the instability of eastern Europe (particularly the Balkans where the Ottoman Empire was collapsing) and the constant talk of wars somewhere. All the ingredients were there for a small international fire to become a raging inferno. Once started by those fatal shots, efforts to stop the blaze proved futile.

On Sunday, June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was shot and killed by a Serbian nationalist during a visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia. Convinced that the Serbian government was involved in the plot, Austria-Hungary, supported by Germany, sent a harsh ultimatum to Serbia. Although Serbia met nearly every demand, Austria-Hungary, bent on conquest, declared war. The fire spread. Russia, the self-proclaimed protector of the Slav nations, mobilized. Germany demanded promises of peace from Russia and France and, when there was no answer, declared war on Russia on August 1, and on France two days later. France looked to Britain for support. Although Britain was not bound by a formal treaty to join France in a war, Sir Edward Gray, the Foreign Secretary, had made an informal agreement with the French. Then, on August 4, the German Army on its way to France invaded neutral Belgium. Britain sent an ultimatum demanding withdrawal of German troops and reminding Germany of the Treaty of 1839 guaranteeing Belgium's neutrality, to which Prussia (effectively the predecessor of Germany) was also a signatory. Unanswered, the ultimatum expired at midnight on August 4. Britain was at war. And when Britain was at war, Canada was at war. That was her sole obligation. How Canada reacted to the war and what measures she took in support of Britain was up to her own government.

It was with a spirit of light-hearted optimism and exuberant enthusiasm that Britain and her Empire went to war. It would be exciting; it would be good for business; and the boys would be home by Christmas. They did not know that four years of death and destruction lay ahead in a war revolutionized by high explosive shells, rapid-firing machine guns, poison gas, mighty dreadnoughts, stealthy submarines, and airplanes. Nor did they know that it would destroy thousands of young men and transform society

Germany, France and Russia already had elaborate war plans and proceeded to put them into effect—all failed. The object of the German Schlieffen Plan was to strike quickly against France, destroy her armies, and then turn against the more slowly mobilizing Russians, on the eastern flank. The plan almost succeeded. Massive German armies struck through Belgium, battered the fortified cities of Liège and Namur, and wheeled southward into France. At Mons a small British Expeditionary Force made a determined stand, but the task was impossible, and the "Old Contemptibles" were forced to retreat. Then, the German advance weakened, and the French and British counter-attacked. In the First Battle of the Marne the invasion was checked, and the Germans were driven back to a line along the Aisne River. The Schlieffen Plan had failed.

The French "Plan XVII" also failed as French drives against Germany in Alsace and Lorraine were bloodily repulsed.

On the eastern front the outcome was similar. At first the Russians, moving with unexpected speed, threw back the Austro-Hungarians and advanced into Eastern Prussia. But Allied hopes were dashed as the Germans under von Hindenburg inflicted a crushing defeat on the Russian armies at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes. By late autumn a military deadlock had been reached on both the eastern and the western fronts.

In the west, after the "Miracle of the Marne," there followed a race to the sea as German and Allied armies tried to outflank each other in a desperate bid to gain the Channel ports. While the heavy fighting moved north, the battlefields to the south became quiet. The soldiers there dug themselves into the ground to provide shelter and security from bullets and shells. The Germans were able to select the best positions for a defensive position—already they were expecting to defend a line rather than to attack on the Western Front. The positions they selected were not only, generally, excellent from the point of view of defence, they also ensured that vital strategic railways to maintain their armies were secure and away from enemy artillery, well behind the lines. They also took full advantage of the heavily industrialised areas of France and Belgium now under their control. These early and primitive fortifications were a start to a complex system of trench lines, machine gun and artillery positions that were to reach their height with the construction of the Hindenburg Line in the winter of 1916/1917. But at this stage they were simple trenches defended at best with a few strands of barbed wire. By the end of the war, the line stretched for approximately 750 kilometres from the Belgian coast to the Swiss frontier; and it was on this Western Front that Canada was to be chiefly engaged.

On October 29, the German Army made one final effort to reach the Channel ports. In the First Battle of Ypres, in a little corner of Belgium known as Flanders, the British Expeditionary Force and their French allies held against overwhelming odds and the ports were saved. Unfortunately in these early campaigns Britain lost the greater part of her precious regular army, while the efforts to protect the Ypres Salient were to be even more costly in the future.

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