It will soon be 100 years to the day since the First World War ended on November 11, 1918. The war began in August, 1914, when Britain’s ultimatum for Germany to withdraw from occupied Belgium expired. The entire British Empire, including Canada, was automatically at war. The House of Commons was on summer break when the war broke out, and MPs had to be assembled from every corner of the country. Robert Borden, the Conservative prime minister and a Halifax lawyer, imposed the Emergency War Measures Act, providing the government with wide-ranging powers to act. Borden was not known as a grand orator, although he was highly educated man who spoke French and German and could write Greek and Latin. His speech in the House on August 19 was sombre and deliberate.
“We stand shoulder to shoulder with Britain”
The war has come upon us in the end very suddenly indeed, and perhaps we have not all adequately considered the awful responsibility that must have rested upon the foreign secretary and the prime minister of the United Kingdom when they and their colleagues took the issue which meant . . . the first general European war for a hundred years, and beyond all question the most appalling war history has ever known. We read in the press of the haggard faces and the tremulous lips of Mr. Asquith and Sir Edward Grey when they made their announcements; but there as here they were sustained by the thought that for the time being party strife was stilled; and we do not forget that those in the British Isles who had protested most strongly in the first place against the participation of Great Britain in this war united in upholding the hands of the government and in maintaining the interests and duty of the empire . . .
No quarrel with German people
We have absolutely no quarrel with the German people. I believe that they are a peaceable people, that they are not naturally a warlike people, although unfortunately they are dominated at the present time by a military autocracy. No one can overestimate what civilization and the world owe to Germany. In literature, in science, art, and philosophy, in almost every department of human knowledge and activity, they have stood in the very forefront of the world’s advancement. Nearly half a million of the very best citizens of Canada are of German origin, and I am sure that no one would for one moment desire to utter any word or use any expression in debate which would wound the self-respect or hurt the feelings of any of our fellow citizens of German descent . . .
Therefore we have declared by Order-in-Council and by proclamation under the authority of His Royal Highness the governor general that those people who were born in Germany or in Austria-Hungary and have come to Canada as adopted citizens of this country, whether they have become naturalized or not, are entitled to the protection of the law in Canada and shall receive it, that they shall not be molested or interfered with, unless any among them should desire to aid or abet the enemy or leave this country for the purpose of fighting against Great Britain and her allies . . .
The men of Canada who are going to the front are going as free men by voluntary enlistment, as free men in a free country. They are coming forward voluntarily for the purpose of serving this Dominion and this empire in a time of peril. Already I am informed by the minister of militia that thousands more than will be required have volunteered to go. I desire to express my absolute concurrence in the view . . . that it is the duty of the people of Canada, and of the government of Canada too, so far as may be necessary, to make all suitable provision for the families and children of those who are going to the front. We are giving to our country and our empire at this time of our best, and we are proud to do it; but we must not forget our duty to those who are left behind. Neither the people of Canada nor the government of Canada will ever for one moment forget that duty . . .
I desire to express appreciation at this moment of the action of the provinces of Canada and of individuals in Canada during the past week or ten days. From provinces and from individuals, gifts have come, great and small, showing the intense eagerness of the people and of every province in Canada to associate themselves in this great issue with what we are doing in the Dominion as a whole, and with all that is being done in every dominion of the empire. The people as a whole, not only here in Canada, but in the mother country itself and in every dominion will, I am sure, feel the most grateful appreciation and render the warmest thanks for all the aid thus tendered . . .
Support mother country
From every part of Canada, we have had most unmistakable evidence of the determination of the people of this Dominion to support the mother country and the other dominions which are bound together by the strongest possible ties, the ties of absolute British liberty and of perfect self-government. Those ties bind together the provinces of Canada in this Dominion. Those ties bind together the dominions of the empire with the mother country; and we rejoice to know that, in a time of stress and perhaps of peril such as this, they have proved the strongest possible ties that could be devised by any government throughout the world . . .
The cause of honour
It is not fitting that I should prolong this debate. In the awful dawn of the greatest war the world has ever known, in the hour when peril confronts us such as this empire has not faced for a hundred years, every vain or unnecessary word seems a discord. As to our duty, all are agreed: we stand shoulder to shoulder with Britain and the other British dominions in this quarrel. And that duty we shall not fail to fulfill as the honour of Canada demands. Not for love of battle, not for lust of conquest, not for greed of possessions, but for the cause of honour, to maintain solemn pledges, to uphold principles of liberty, to withstand forces that would convert the world into an armed camp; yea, in the very name of the peace that we sought at any cost save that of dishonour, we have entered into this war; and, while gravely conscious of the tremendous issues involved and of all the sacrifices that they may entail, we do not shrink from them, but with firm hearts we abide the event.
Source: Canada. Parliament. House of Commons Debates, 12th Parliament, 4th session, August 19, 1914, pp: 11—19 (Images 11-19).
Biographical material: The Canadian Encyclopedia
Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada/Mikan 3623356