2 – The Why and the When of war.

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When war was declared in August of 1914, Will Grummett, had just recently graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Arts degree. That summer, he was probably at home on the family farm near Osprey in Grey County, Ontario. He had applied for and had been accepted to attend the program of law at Osgoode Hall, commencing in the fall term, 1914.

Of course, events touched off by the assassination in June of that summer of the Austrian Archduke, Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, led to a war that mobilized much of the world behind Europe’s rival alliances.  It was a war like nothing that preceded it. Driven by the relatively recent developments of trinitrotoluene (TNT), the internal combustion engine, the mass production of steel, and a new and powerful spirit of nationalism, its sheer power to take lives was nearly unfathomable and largely unappreciated by the public and world leaders as they drifted toward war.

The term “industrial warfare” is often used to describe the First World War, emphasizing as it does the war’s scale in several dimensions: large armies built on massive civilian conscription with a seemingly endless supply of guns, bullets, shells and bombs at its command resulting in an unprecedented slaughter. Gone was the limited warfare of the Crimean conflict or the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The war that began in the autumn of 1914 marks the beginning of the era of total war.

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Archbishop Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife Czech Countess Sophie Chotek are shown in this photo circa 1914. After a reception at the City Hall in Sarajevo, Bosnia on June 28, 1914, the couple were assassinated by a Serb nationalist. (AP Photo/Keystone)

Through his studies and by keeping up with current events, something he did religiously throughout his life, Will would have been familiar with the background, the nature of the alliances  and something of the motivation of European nation states. I am sure he would have thought about the War that was coming and may well have realized or at least glimpsed its potential as a long and deadly conflict.  The “over by Christmas” naivete that is often trotted out to describe the common perception of the coming war would not have been his view if he was keeping a close watch on what leaders and more in depth reports were saying.  The British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith referred to the war that was coming as “real Armageddon”  and, his Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey characterized it in this way, “instead of a few hundreds of thousands of men meeting each other in war, millions would now meet – and modern weapons would multiply manifold the power of destruction.”  I believe Will made his decision to go to war knowing full well that this war would be no mere skirmish.  

Since he left no diary, it is not possible to conclusively determine what reasons Will may have given for willingly going off to war as he, eventually, did. I think it is safe to assume, despite what his rational analytical mind may have been telling him about the deadly nature of this war, that the sheer adventure of the thing, the chance to travel to the old world and to be involved in a world event were significant motivations. And, there was his simple loyalty  and love for his country – when Britain declared war, Canada as a dominion of the British Empire was also at war.  

That said, I can’t imagine Will would be satisfied with, “my country, right or wrong” and would have thought about what he was fighting for and against.  While it is a popular conclusion to cast the First World War as a tragic mistake, the product of a flawed system of international affairs that dragged states into the war unwillingly and therefore without purpose, it is unlikely that this is how Will saw it.  What he would have seen at the time was the precarious effort by the Great Powers, Britain, France and Russia, to maintain their hold on power while contending with the rise of a relatively new and certainly powerful Germany.

Aggressive attempts to join the Great Power game resulted in a not undeserved but somewhat ironic (in the sense that Germany was behaving in these efforts in much the same  fashion as the so-called Great Powers) characterization of Germany between 1890 up to 1914 as “a bellicose and ambitious state whose world power ambitions were ill-concealed.” (Hughes-Wilson, 2014). The German state was formed in 1871 through the unification of smaller states and quickly became an economic powerhouse.  As its economic power grew so did its desire to join Britain, France and Russia as a world power.  Germany’s efforts to vie for colonial possessions in Africa and its development of a battleship  navy were seen as a direct provocation of the Great Powers -particularly Britain, and evidence of preparation and a willingness to wage war.

To get the full impression of Germany in the years leading up to the First World War it is also important to recognize that despite the existence of a democratic and very progressive German Parliament,  German foreign policy was completely controlled by the monarch,  Kaiser Wilhelm the II, and his self-appointed generals and ministers (Hart, 2013).  All decisions regarding the merits and necessity for war were taken by what was, effectively, a military autocracy; the Kaiser and a Prussian aristocratic elite at the centre of executive power that had become  synonymous with the ideas of militarism. The essential character of this militarism is perhaps best summarized in the following quote by the Prussian General Helmuth Von Moltke,

War is an element in the order of the world ordained by God. In it the noblest virtues of mankind are developed… Without war the world would stagnate, and lose itself in materialism. (Helmuth Von Moltke The Elder)

That Wilhelm the II was the face and the public voice of this autocracy did little to inspire international confidence with regard to German intentions as, “most of his (the Kaiser’s) contemporaries, including the statesmen of Europe, thought him mildly unhinged and this was probably clinically the case. ” (Hastings, 2013) This is the Germany that Will would have been familiar with from the bulk of the information available to him in the media: a nation that turned on the whim of a monarch as yet unfettered by his parliament and holding his country’s ability to wage war as its most exalted value.

When the Kaiser and his Generals declared war and attacked France, violating Belgian neutrality along the way, I am sure that Will felt that German intentions were made plain.  The counter argument is that the Germans were simply acting in a preemptive and defensive effort to defeat France so that they might then turn their attention to Russia, France’s ally, and not be forced to defend themselves on two fronts at once. Could Will have seen this as a valid reason for Germany’s attack? Given the posturing and the seemingly clear desire on the part of German Kaiser and his Army to assume a place for Germany at the world power table I think the conclusion would have seemed absurd.

Britain’s overt reason for going to war was the defence of Belgian neutrality (which they had agreed to protect in a treaty concluded some years previous) and the larger principle that resort to war in the fashion demonstrated by Germany should no longer be considered acceptable behaviour for modern nation states. The British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith made the British position clear in his speech to the house of August 6th , 1914, “…we are fighting to vindicate the principle that nationalities are not to be crushed in defiance of international good faith by the arbitrary will of a strong and overmastering Power.” (War Speeches, 1917). 

Here was the principle behind the term made popular in a pamphlet written by H.G. Wells (The War That Will End Wars, 1914) and is rarely heard today, for obvious reasons, that this would be the “war to end wars”. The notion of fighting for the principle that resort to war as a tool of statecraft was wrong would, I think, have had traction with Will. In a letter he wrote to Marie Gaouette while they were courting in 1923, Will writes,

“Many a time when I was in Mesopotamia during the War, during the long hours of the night when we were on guard duty, I turned towards the west and wondered just what stars were blinking over my old home and the Canada I loved and was willing to bear my share of hardships for.”

The threats inherent in the war against Germany were not, to him, remote threats that could be ignored.  I think he saw Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality as a moral wrong, a direct result of its autocratic rule based on its militaristic values, and that to allow that kind of behaviour to go unchecked would be a threat to peace and security everywhere.

The scene in Canada following the declaration of war is often described as a sort of frenzied celebration, “nearly all of English Canada went mad trying to enlist after the declaration of war in the fall of 1914.” (Cook, 2007) Contrary to this popular response, Will took up his seat at Osgoode Hall in September and stayed into the beginning of the second academic term. I think the explanation for this reasoned, cautious approach was that he made a promise to his parents that he would take his hard-earned place at Osgoode, establish his academic record there and then, if the fighting continued, he could join with the knowledge that he could resume his studies on his return from war.

Will’s enlistment or “attestation form” notes that he enlisted on the 11th of February of 1915, part way through the second term of his first year in law school (see page one of the Attestation Form below). He signed up in Toronto and listed his “Trade or Calling”, on the form as, “Student”. These two facts are, I think, significant. First, that he states his status as a student, confirms that he was enrolled and active at Osgoode Hall. Secondly, that he signed up in Toronto (Osgoode Hall is in Toronto) far from his parents suggests that he might have been doing so without their full consent. I think it is likely that his agreement with his parents included finishing the entire first year; their logic and their hope being that the war would be over before the end of the year.

Will Grummett’s Attestation Paper, page 1

That the war did not end before Christmas and that it was growing in scale and intensity early in 1915 must have made completing the academic year difficult. Then, in early February two things happened that seem to have made it impossible for Will to stick it out for the remainder of the term. First,  Osgoode Hall offered to credit enlisted students with the full academic year in which they were enrolled.

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Front page article from The Varsity, The Undergraduate Newspaper, University of Toronto, February 5, 1915

Secondly, there was a strong indication that a University of Toronto student battalion would be included in the next contingent of Canadian soldiers to be sent overseas (The Variety, U of T student newspaper, Feb. 5, 1915).  I believe Will saw his opportunity and was reluctant to miss the chance to, possibly, serve with his friends.   I am sure he convinced himself that the spirit of any promise he had made to his parents was met and he was free to enlist – or that, at the very least, he had a reasonable argument when it came time to explain.

The second page of the attestation form provides a “Description on enlistment” and the results of the medical examination. Will was described by the intake clerk as having a dark complexion, with dark brown hair and brown eyes. He was 5 ft 10 1/4 inches tall (about three inches shorter than most family estimates) his chest at maximum expansion was 36 3/4 inches and he possessed a vaccination scar on his left arm and a “slight scar” on the left wrist. He lists the Church of England as his religious affiliation. The doctor conducting the physical examination pronounced him “fit, for the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force” and that was that. He was now a soldier in Canada’s fledgling army.

Page 2 of the Attestation



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Private W.J. Grummett of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 2nd Contingent, 1915

Coming in February, Training and deployment to England with the Eaton Motor Machine Gun Brigade

One thought on “2 – The Why and the When of war.

  1. Great work once again. I did receive an email from the blog on Sunday telling me that the next instalment was available. So that is working. Keep them coming


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