Unending Seige


First Phase of the War and Canadian Mobilization

German bombardment of Arras, 1914

Caption: German bombardment of Arras, 1914

According to the German plan, an attack based on a broad, wheeling movement to contain the French armies would seal France's fate within six weeks. Having invaded Belgium, the German wheeling flank would advance into northeastern France, its objective being to take Paris and pin the French combatants between this flank and the almost stationary wall created in Alsace-Lorraine. Things did not go as expected. The French did retreat, but in an orderly manner punctuated by costly counterattacks. So the Germans narrowed the invasion zone by passing to the east of Paris. Thus exposed, the German flank became the target of an attack, celebrated in history as the Battle of the Marne, that forced them to yield part of their conquered territory. It was followed by some mutual outflanking moves that left no immediate victor but did make it possible for the French to liberate a large tract of occupied France and a small part of Belgium. Soon there were two lines of trenches facing each other between the Swiss border and the North Sea.

The manoeuvre warfare begun in August shifted to siege warfare in mid-October, with the Central Powers as the strong points to be surrounded.

Canada, which had not had time to intervene during the first phase of the conflict, still had laid the foundations for its role in the events to follow. The Militia Act of 1904 empowered the Governor in Council to call up part or all of the militia for active service either in Canada or externally. According to the 1911 mobilization plans, which were drawn up to reflect British views, Canada could, in circumstances deemed critical by its government, send a contingent made up of an infantry division and a mounted brigade to fight in a country in the civilized world - in the language of the time - with a temperate climate.

However, these plans were cloaked in such mystery that Sam Hughes, minister of militia and defence since 1911, was unaware of their existence until 1913. At that point, the Active Militia was the largest Canada had ever been able to form in peacetime: 59,000 men were trained, and there were plans to increase their numbers to 64,000 in 1915. Purchased by the Canadian government, Camp Petawawa received nearly 34,000 men during the summer of 1914. Training exercises would often take place before an audience of elegant women - guests of the officers.

One might wonder what the eight million Canadian civilians thought of the training-camp circus. In 1943, Father Alphonse Fortin described the pre-1914 militia packs rallying at Camp Lévis as training in "formless exercises that meant nothing to grown men at that time. Canadians had lived so long in peace that they had lost even the memory of a military tradition ... we had the impression of a paper militia, comic officers - in short, a kind of waste." 64