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First World War effort began 100 years ago

NANAIMO – Young men signed up en masse to join armed conflict between European powers.
Janel Jezierski

Nanaimo’s sons were going to war.

On Aug. 20, 1914 – less than three weeks after Britain declared war on Germany – 19 British Army reservists prepared for the trip to England. The Brigade band led a parade from city hall to the wharf with half the city’s population following behind to wish the men a safe return. Wives, families and friends held the men tight until the very moment they had to board the steamer.

From his place on the wharf, Mayor Albert Planta gave them an official farewell.

“Men of the Reserve,” he said. “In the name of the citizens of Nanaimo I bid you Godspeed. Those of you who leave wives and families behind ... feel no anxiety with regard to them for I can assure you that the city will be proud to take care of them while you are at the front.”

The mayor called for three cheers for the men, which was given with great enthusiasm, according to an old Nanaimo Free Press article. The men replied with three “lusty cheers” of their own and struck up the strains of Auld Lang Syne as the steamboat pulled away from the harbour.

“For all of these young men it was an adventure,” said Brian McFadden, vice-president of the Vancouver Island Military Museum. “They had no idea what they were getting into.”

A hundred years ago this week, the world broke out into its first global conflict.

One month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

By Aug. 4 the battle lines had been drawn: France, Russia, Britain and her Empire against Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Nanaimo, still in the midst of a coal mine strike, celebrated when headlines announced Britain was going to war. If the motherland was at war, so was Canada.

Within the coming months, the strike would come to an end, the community would get behind the war effort and Nanaimo-area parents would see their sons to the wharf or railway station as they left for Victoria, Quebec and the war front. More than 100 would not return, like John Nicholson, who was 19 when he enlisted in the army. Or 24-year-old machinist Alfred Patterson. The city would also see one of its own – Raymond Collishaw – become one of Canada’s greatest fighter pilots.

During the war, dozens of Nanaimo men volunteered for the militia. There was a sense of  civic responsibility and a community expectation for people to serve their country, said McFadden.

“It was almost automatic that you would join up and peer pressure ... there was no greater peer pressure than this. I mean, these guys joined up in a mass. Guys who were in school together, the whole class would join,” he said.

The community also got behind the war effort. The Daughters of the Empire raised money for a Dominion gift to Britain and organized a farewell for the Nanaimo Independent Company. Women in Nanoose Bay formed a patriotic club to make supplies for soldiers and school children raised money for soldiers’ dependents. Mayor Planta fulfilled his promise to by helping to start the region’s Patriotic Fund, which aided nearly 1,000 families of soldiers.

The war lasted four years. At least 10 million men were killed and 29 million were wounded, captured or missing, according to Veterans Affairs Canada. Sixty-seven thousand Canadians died. This anniversary is a way for people to say thank you, McFadden said.

“Having a remembrance means that they ... didn’t die in vain and that someone will remember,” he said.