Telegrams have a reputation for delivering bad news.
In their own times, telegrams led Canada and then the United States into World War One.
The infamous Zimmermann telegram of Jan. 19, 1917 triggered the United States’ declaration of war on Germany.
German Foreign Minister Alfred Zimmermann’s note requested the German ambassador to Mexico to propose to the Mexican government, “…we shall make war together and together make peace. We shall give general financial support, and it is understood that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona...”
Mexico rejected the proposal, but once the text was publicized by the American press March 1, the United States declaration of war on Germany and its allies followed April 6, 1917.
The telegram precipitating Canada’s entry into the conflict was mundane and bureaucratic in comparison.
Aug. 4, 1914, an official telegram from the British Secretary of State for the Colonies to the Governor General of Canada, the Duke of Connaught, informed him Britain was at war with Germany.
With that Canada, the other dominions and colonies were at war, too.
For context, the Canadian population was 7,879,000.
Aug. 10, the government of Canada issued an order-in-council authorized an initial military force of 25,000 for overseas as requested by the British government. Following early training at the newly established camp at Valcartier, Quebec, they sailed for England on Oct. 3 from Quebec City.
Before mobilization, the regular force was 3,110 and the part-time militia had 74,213 members. By the end of the war, the Canadian Corps was 100,000-strong with 619,636 service people in uniform, including more than 3,000 Nursing Sisters.
The first Canadian casualties of the war died Nov. 1, 1914 at the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile.
Midshipmen Malcolm Cann, John Victor Hatheway and Arthur Silver from Nova Scotia, and William Palmer of Ottawa seconded to the Royal navy were lost when Admiral George Cradock’s aged squadron was defeated by Admiral Maximilian von Spee’s fleet of commerce-raiding cruisers.
While Canadians joined the Royal Navy, Americans joined the Canadian Army. As many as 50,000 enlisted by crossing the border or were already residing in Canada.
“American” units included the 97th and 213th Battalions, the Toronto Americans; 211th Alberta Americans; 212th Winnipeg Americans; and the 237th New Brunswick Americans. As casualties in Europe grew, only the New Brunswick Americans was not broken up to reinforce the four Canadian divisions in Flanders and France.
The Canadian contingent continued training in England as new recruits arrived. The 1st Division went to the Western Front in January 1915.
In March the 1st Canadian Division engaged in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. In April Canadians fought in the Second Battle of Ypres, where they were subjected to the German’s first use of gas.
At Ypres, when French colonials withdrew, the Canadians extended their line and maintained fire discipline with small arms and artillery to hold the line. They battled the gas by breathing through handkerchiefs soaked in their own urine.
From their arrival until the Nov. 11, 1918 armistice the Canadians fought in 53 battles.
They earned 70 Victoria Crosses, equivalent to the Congressional Medal of Honor. Four American-born men are included in that number.
Sept. 2, 1918, Captain Bellenden Seymour Hutchison, Canadian Army Medical Corps, went through the Queant Drocourt Support Line with his battalion, remaining on the field until every wounded man had been attended
Also Sept. 2, at Arras Lance Corporal William Henry Metcalf, Manitoba Regiment, advanced alone under intense machinegun fire to guide a tank along the German trench in a hail of bullets and bombs. The machinegun strongpoint was overcome.
At Passchendaele, Belgium Oct. 30, 1917 Sergeant George Harry Mullin, Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry, captured singlehanded a machinegun pill-box causing heavy casualties. Mullin rushed the Germans, shot two gunners. Ten survivors surrendered.
Aug. 9, 1918 near Warvillers, France Sergeant Raphael Louis Zengel, Saskatchewan Regiment, pushed ahead of his platoon to silence a gun emplacement, which was slowing the advance. He killed the officer and the gunner and dispersed the crew.
The first American to earn the Victoria Cross was Ordinary Seaman William Henry Harrison Seeley serving in the Royal Navy 50 years earlier. Sept. 6, 1864 at Shimonoseki, Japan, he undertook a reconnaissance of an enemy stockade. Although wounded, he joined in the final assault.
There is much to tell about World War One that will have to wait.
The last American and last Canadian to die in the war fell a minute apart.
The last Canadian to die was Nova Scotian Private George Lawrence Price of 2nd Canadian Division who was killed at Mons at 10:58 Nov. 11. Price was also the last Commonwealth soldier to be killed.
The last American killed was Private Henry Nicholas Gunter of Baltimore. Officially, Gunter of the 313th Infantry Regiment was the last man to die in World War One, killed at 10:59.