Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

The Week Before War

Jul 28, 2014

Next Monday, August 4, will mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War One. On that day in 1914 Britain's ultimatum to Germany to get its troops out of Belgium expired and the British Empire, including Canada, went to war.

The clergyman Charles Gordon (who was better known under his pen name as the popular novelist Ralph Connor) left an evocative account of the last days of peace in his memoir Postscript to Adventure. At the end of July Gordon was camping with his family on an island in Lake of the Woods near Kenora, Ont.

"It was glorious weather. With our canoes and boats, with our swimming and tennis, with our campfires and singsongs our life was full of rest and happy peace. It was a good world. On Thursday July 30 our boat returning with supplies from the little town brought back a newspaper with red headlines splashed on its front page. Austria had declared war on Serbia... This was a full month after the Sarajevo murder, which we had all forgotten.

"On Sunday morning, August 2nd, we motorboated in to church. A little group of men were standing on the wharf listening to one of their number reading from a morning paper, in which red headlines announced that Germany had declared war on Russia. Germany, Russia, Austria, Serbia were at war, but thank God! our Empire was out of it and would doubtless keep out.

"On August 4th ...the British ambassador at Berlin informed Sir Edward Grey that he had received his passports. Half an hour later Britain declared war on Germany and the old world had passed away.

"I remember taking the newspaper from my son and going off into the woods to look at the thing and to consider what it had to do with me."

At the same time as Charles Gordon was receiving the dire news, so was the prime minister, Robert Borden. He had been enjoying a brief holiday swimming and golfing at Port Carling in the Muskoka Lakes. On July 31 he was called back to Ottawa by the developing crisis in Europe and on August 4 he was the leader of a country at war.

This is how almost everyone remembers this week, one hundred years ago: a time of blue-sky innocence abruptly interrupted by the hammer's fall.