Unending Seige

French Canadians and the French Language in the Canadian Expeditionary Force

22nd (Canadien-Français) Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, July 1916

Caption: 22nd (Canadien-Français) Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, July 1916

The initial call-up of volunteers obliterated the existing militia units and the country's linguistic identities. Pressure from a number of quarters prompted the government to establish the 22nd (French-Canadian) Battalion, forerunner of the Royal 22e Régiment. However, decades of ignoring the Francophone fact in the Canadian military would have repercussions. The historian J. L. Granatstein reckons that a maximum of50,000 Francophones came forward as volunteers - less than eight percent of all recruits. Conscription would cause serious disturbances in Quebec in 1917-18, in addition to destroying the Conservative party in Quebec for generations to come.

At the outset of the war, however, enthusiasm reigned throughout the country. On 1 August 1914 the 6th Canadian Artillery Regiment from Quebec City and Lévis offered to join in. The authorities, however, were not inclined to mobilize the units. In the event, given the submarine threat, the 6th Regiment was ordered to take coastal defensive positions at Fort de la Martinière and lie d'Orléans below Quebec City. The 6th would be confined to this role for each shipping season until the end of the war. During these periods of service, the officers and men lived in tents and served two batteries. Volunteers from the regiment would also sail to the island of St Lucia where they remained until war's end. Several men from the regiment would volunteer to be sent overseas. Some would be stationed in Bermuda as members of a replacement garrison for the British.

Elsewhere in the country, the Winnipeg Libre Parole reported on 20 April 1916 that 30 descendants of the Métis of 1870 and 1885 - 19 of them apparently Francophones - had just enlisted at QuAppelle. At the same time, the Winnipeg Free Press published an article by Captain MA. Fiset of the 36th Field Battery describing the exploits of Private P. Riel, a nephew of Louis Riel, who between March 1915 and January 1916 had killed 30 Germans as a sniper. When Pte Riel was himself mortally wounded by a shell-burst on 13 January 1916 his rifle was prominently displayed in the window of a London building. 75

Given these two examples, one may wonder how many Francophones across the country would have willingly gone overseas had there been a welcome for them before and after the outbreak of war. The insensitivity to the Francophone fact in the Canadian military of the day had repercussions, though not all officers were anti-French. Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Farquhar, the governor-general's military secretary until placed in command of the PPCLI, told his officers he wanted them to be able to read and send a simple message in French. Farquhar believed that officers should know 500 basic French words before reaching France. Courses were given during the Atlantic crossing, though most of the men would gladly have done without them. 76