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ARCHIVED - Canada and the First World War

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We Were There

Ernest Nelson

Going Overseas

Originally from Orillia, Ontario, Ernest Nelson enrolled in the 157th Battalion in October 1916. For him and thousands of compatriots, this step had many consequences and for many marked the beginning of an experience that led to a new outlook on life. Like many soldiers, Ernest Nelson kept a personal diary of his observations and thoughts about his service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The first pages of Ernest Nelson's personal diary, describing his path from the recruitment office to the training camp in Witley, England, reflect the optimism of recruits who had not yet experienced combat and life in the trenches.

Ernest Nelson was not the only optimistic soldier in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Far from the Front, recruits did not have a very clear idea of what it would be like there. The soldiers of the Expeditionary Force were not experienced military officers but rather, in most cases, young men in search of adventure, spurred on by the prevalent patriotic mood or drawn by the prospect of a steady income. Few of them thought about what might await them overseas.

Ernest Nelson's Military Career

The personal diary of Ernest Nelson describes, in the optimistic tone typical of recruits who have never experienced life in the trenches, his path from the recruitment office in Orillia, Ontario, to his arrival at Camp Witley, in England. He talks about the public celebrations held by the community to mark the departure of local troops to Europe. He recounts his train trip through Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, always mentioning the public enthusiasm for the new recruits. In 1916, when Nelson enrolled, the military authorities did not give civilians on the domestic front a very accurate picture of the events of war; this was a deliberate attempt to maintain public support for the war effort.

Nelson also describes his boarding of the S.S. Cameronia and life on board the ship. The last pages selected from Nelson's diary recount his arrival in England and his first days in Europe spent at a British training camp, and the daily life of the Canadian soldiers there.


At the beginning of the First World War, a wave of patriotism swept Canada: many Canadians felt a duty to enroll in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. With little military experience, most Canadians had never been involved in armed conflict. For many citizens, enrolling in the Canadian Expeditionary Force was considered a duty to their motherland, while others viewed it as an opportunity to earn a regular salary, to embark on a great adventure or to test their courage and moral fibre.

The first contingents of the Expeditionary Force were formed in record time. But after the initial burst of enthusiasm, enrolment started to drop off. Military authorities resorted to all kinds of measures to provide a continued supply to the recruitment offices, from a ever smaller pool of potential recruits. The recruitment of Canadian soldiers culminated with compulsory military service, imposed by the Borden government in 1917, to the great dismay of many and going back on previous promises.

Going Overseas

The departure of Canadian Expeditionary Force troops for Europe involved not only sending thousands of individuals, but also the creation of an organizational infrastructure to supply them with uniforms, weapons, equipment, food, shelter, medical care, sanitary facilities and transportation in the field.