On Aug. 4th, 1914, Red Deer received word that Great Britain had declared war on Germany and its allies. As a member of the British Empire, Canada was automatically part of this declaration of war.
The news was greeted with great enthusiasm in the community.
Young men flocked to the Armouries to enlist. Many felt that if they did not join up as soon as possible, they might miss the ‘big show’ before it was over by Christmas.
The 35 Central Alberta Horse, the local militia unit, left Red Deer on Aug. 21st, 1914 to join the First Canadian Contingent. That fall, Red Deer was designated as a main recruiting station.
Large numbers of volunteers continued to head to the Armouries to enlist.
Some went then off to Calgary and Edmonton to join such units as the 31 and 49 Battalions.
In December, the military authorities announced that a squadron of the 12 Canadian Mounted Rifles would be raised and trained in Red Deer.
The Armouries were far too small to handle a full squadron of men.
Red Deer’s City council consequently offered the use of the fairgrounds as training quarters. Since the onset of cold weather prevented the immediate conversion of the exhibition buildings to training facilities, temporary billets continued to be provided at the Armouries.
In order to feed the men, contracts were signed with the local Commercial and Olympic restaurants. The partners at the Commercial Café, George Moon and Charlie Chuck (later the founders of the famous Club Café) thought they had hit a lucky spot with their offer to supply the meals at 21¢ each. However, they did not realize the how much food would be devoured by the men. Consequently, the ‘golden’ deal almost bankrupted the business.
By early spring, the fairgrounds were finally ready for the soldiers. The livestock barns had been converted into barracks and the horticultural building had been converted into a dining hall.
Because of concerns about sanitation, the medical health officer had all the men inoculated for typhoid fever.
Meanwhile, the Canadians of the First Contingent saw their first major action at the Battle of St. Julien (Second Battle of Ypres) in late April, 1915. The Germans released several tons of lethal chlorine gas as part of their assault.
Incredibly, the Canadians managed to hold the line and close the gap in the Allied defenses.
However, the casualty rate from the gas, and the intense combat that followed, was horrific.
Consequently, the need to speed up recruitment and training of fresh troops intensified. On May 23rd, 1915, the men of the 12 C.M.R. left Red Deer for service overseas. In contrast to previous send-offs, there were no rounds of cheering or formal speeches when the troop train departed. The realism of the true horrors of the War was now setting in.
Once in England, the 12 C.M.R. was broken up.
The men were used as reinforcements for other units that had already suffered heavy casualties in the fighting on the Western Front. However, because the military saw the value to morale of keeping men together with friends and existing comrades, many of the 12 C.M.R. men transferred to the Fifth Battalion.
These men saw their first major action during the Battle of the Somme in the summer and fall of 1916. The battle was an incredible bloodbath. The casualty rate for the British and Canadian forces averaged nearly 3,000 men per day.
As the Battle of the Somme finally came to a close in late November 1916, nearly 50 men from Red Deer and district had lost their lives. Three times that number were wounded.
As an example of the enormity of the losses, William Richards, initially with the 12 C.M.R., was the only surviving non-commissioned officer in his platoon when fighting finally ceased at the Somme. Tragically, Will Richards lost his life the following spring at the Battle of Vimy Ridge.