The First World War: Victory Abroad, Grief at Home

by Conrad Black (December 2014)

As the First World War was grinding to its conclusion in 1918, there was severe anti-conscription rioting in Quebec City starting on March 29, which the municipal police ignored, and which included the destruction of the registrar’s office. Four thousand troops were dispatched, although only 1,000 were deployed. On April 1 fire was exchanged and several soldiers were seriously wounded and four rioters were killed. What amounted to martial law was imposed. There were some anti-French reflections by private members in Parliament (by Conservatives Colonel J.A. Currie and H.H. Stevens) and Opposition Leader Wilfrid Laurier replied judiciously, supporting the imposition of the law but strenuously rebutting what amounted to ethnic slurs from Currie and Stevens. Prime Minister Robert Borden followed and rebuked his own caucus-members in unambiguous strictures. It is generally believed that there were about 35,000 French-Canadian volunteers in the armed forces. There was a perceptible gap in war enthusiasm between French and English Canadians, but that is neither surprising nor discreditable.

The Germans had launched their supreme play on March 21, with an attack in great strength toward Amiens, at the hinge of the British and French armies, with the goal of wheeling northwards and forcing the British into the sea. The French commander, Ferdinand Foch, reinforced the British, who held, although the force of the attack pushed them back up to 40 miles. The Germans renewed their offensive with another very heavy blow on April 9, west of Lille, still aiming to crack open the Allied line, and wheel north to the sea. The British commander, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, had prepared a deeper defensive position and held the German advance to 17 miles, and those at heavy cost. The Germans renewed the offensive on May 27, to the south of Amiens, now at last marching on Paris, from whose gates they had been beaten back nearly four years before.

They captured Soissons and closed to within 40 miles of the French capital, but the French lines did not break at any point, and every inch of ground was contested with extreme tenacity. The German offensive resumed with intense attacks of massed infantry heavily supported by artillery from June 9 to 15 east and north of Paris, against fanatical French resistance. Paris, as the symbol of freedom and of the Great Alliance of the French and English-speaking peoples, and at the hour of the historic coruscation of French culture and civilization and martial bravery, had become in the minds of much of the world almost a holy city of light. The Germans reached the Marne again, less than 20 miles from the Arc de Triomphe, at the end of June, as Foch declared “We will fight before Paris, within Paris, and beyond Paris,” and demanded of all units to hold their ground at any cost, (i.e. to the last man). The supreme climax of the Great War had come at last.

The Second Battle of the Marne was fought between July 15 and Aug. 6 by 58 Allied divisions, (44 of them French, eight American, four British, two Italian), and 52 German divisions; about 1,000,000 soldiers and over 1,000 heavy guns on each side. The Allies had several hundred tanks and both sides had hundreds of primitive warplanes. The Allied lines held, and Foch counter-attacked; the Germans had no more reserves and gradually gave way. The main salient that had threatened Paris between Soissons and Rheims was eliminated by Aug. 6. Paris was safe, the tide was turned. The Allies had taken 130,000 casualties (95,000 French, 17,000 British, 12,000 American and 9,000 Italians from only two divisions), but had inflicted 160,000 German casualties. The German offensive was broken.

Foch became Marshal of France and the British, Canadian and Belgian armies, supported by 50,000 Americans, surged forward on Aug. 8 and pushed the Germans back from Amiens. Foch ordered a series of offensives along the entire front from the English Channel to the Swiss border, to win the war.

Foch’s great offensive was irresistible. By early November the Allies were at a ragged line from Brussels to Namur, Luxembourg, Metz and Strasbourg, and the Germans had been cleared from Alsace and half of Lorraine. The Germans requested an armistice and Marshal Foch was authorized by the Allied powers to receive German peace representatives. Foch, who now commanded the greatest force in human history, over six million battle-hardened soldiers, did this in his mobile command headquarters, his famous wagon-lit train, on a siding in the Compiegne Forest on Nov. 8, and an armistice was signed by which all hostilities would end at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

On Feb. 17, 1919, in Ottawa, Sir Wilfrid Laurier fainted in his office, but recovered quickly and by himself, and determined that he should go home. Rather than call for his chauffeur, possibly causing concern, he left unobtrusively and took a streetcar home, to his comfortable house on Laurier Avenue. He went to bed for the evening, and was dressing in the morning when he again fainted, and recovered consciousness to find himself back in bed, being ministered to by Sister Marcelline, who had cared for him before when he was unwell. He smiled and said, “It is the bride of the Divine Husband who comes to help a great sinner.”

Though he declared himself to be “only a little weak,” he received the sacrament of the dying. Amid “a murmurous hush” he felt another constriction, tightened his hand on that of his wife of 51 years, Zoe, impassively uttered his valedictory, “C’est fini;” and passed on. He was 77, and though Borden was absent at the ongoing peace negotiations in Paris, he sent a generous cable to Lady Laurier, and ordered a state funeral that would render maximum homage to one who, as he said in the statement he issued from France, “was from the first a commanding figure, and during a long period the chief figure in our public life.” (In fact, from the death of Macdonald to the moment he died, nearly 28 years.)

Apart from what he achieved as prime minister, and especially the rapid growth of the country and its population, Laurier, by the power and integrity of his own personality, alone preserved the character and potential of Canada as a bicultural confederation. Laurier’s stance, in accepting conscription with reluctance if it was the subject of a referendum or election, but accepting to go down to defeat, while the country divided sharply along French and English (by ancestry or assimilation) lines, is all that saved a party that could serve as an ark for the conservation and safe maturation of the original bicultural spirit of Confederation, until the virtue of the original vision was generally appreciated and Canada was free to fulfil its potential. Laurier could have been a virtual co-prime minister in a grand coalition, as he could, years before, have become a member of the House of Lords. He knew what he had to do to preserve himself as a force of national legitimacy, to preserve his Liberal party as the continuator of the Great Ministry of Baldwin and Lafontaine and of the Great Coalition of Macdonald, Brown, Cartier and the others, and to prevent French Canadians from being hijacked by Bourassa in permanently embittered separation, longing and scheming for actual independence.

Without Laurier, there would have been two parties, one French and one English, with a permanent English majority, a climate of permanent hostility between the two communities, and a completely dysfunctional country. Because of him, there was a Quebec prime minister of Canada or de facto Quebec co-prime minister for French Canadian affairs for 70 of the 85 years following the next election after his death, in 1921. As leader of the government he always struck the right compromise, as he did in opposition over participation in the war.

When Sir Wilfrid Laurier died, William Lyon Mackenzie King was a resident of the United States, a close friend and adviser to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. He was also under offer from Andrew Carnegie to take over his philanthropies at the then high salary of $25,000 a year and likely to write his biography also, for $100,000. Rockefeller was miffed at this effort to raid his industrial adviser and friend and matched Carnegie’s salary offer. Though diffident, devious and unprepossessing, King, 44, had been extremely successful. Laurier’s biographer, Schull, wrote, a bit tartly: “That chubby Joan of Arc, with the voices of destiny and duty always harping at one ear and the voice of the Rockefellers at the other, was hardly the stuff of heroes. His bank account grew and he watched it with anxious eyes. He still yearned for a soulmate and shied like a wary faun from each prospective woman.”

He was, in his caution, his lack of spontaneity, and his endless manoeuvre and obscurantism, the anti-hero. But as time would prove, he possessed the ingredients for astonishing political success: He knew little of French or of Quebec, except that it was necessary, as a whole-hearted participant, to make Canada work and assure the country a sufficiently interesting future to lift it to complete independence from the British and the Americans. In this, he was a true federalist, a true nationalist, whose head would never be turned by the attentions of Canada’s senior allies.

Excerpted from Mr. Black’s new bookRISE TO GREATNESS: A History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present. First published in the National Post.


Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of FreedomRichard M Nixon: A Life in FullA Matter of Principle, and Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He was the chairman of the Telegraph newspapers in Britain, 1987-2003, and founded the National Post in Canada, where he remains a columnist. He also writes in the National Review Online and Huffington Post. He has been one of Canada’s best known financiers for 35 years and has returned to that occupation, and has been a member of the British House of Lords since 2001.


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