State Involvement

French school system: History, 3rd and 1st • Canadian grade level: Grades 9 to 12


In Paris on March 8, 1918, in the Chamber of Deputies, French Prime Minister and War Minister Georges Clemenceau answered a question with:

“Like everyone else, I want peace as soon as possible, and only an evil criminal would think otherwise. (…) It is not by crying for peace that we will stop Prussian military aggression. (…) My foreign policy and my domestic policy are one and the same: I am constantly waging war in both spheres. (…) Russia has betrayed us? I’ll continue waging war. Unlucky Romania has had to capitulate? I’ll continue waging war, and I’ll keep at it until the last shot is fired.”

This quote illustrates the total commitment of countries as government policies were implemented to mobilize all the resources at hand to end the First World War victoriously. In some democracies, the war situation changed the rules and the course of political life, with party divisions and even bitter disputes being put aside. In France, in August 1914, the parliamentary representatives unanimously supported President Raymond Poincaré’s call for a “Sacred Union”: a government made up of ministers from different parties. The scope of government action in the belligerent countries greatly expanded in the organization of the war effort, encompassing the recruitment and training of soldiers, the engagement of active and previously inactive civilians, the provision of supplies, the financing and manufacturing of material, and the mobilization of minds. All of this was taken in hand by the state.

The German Empire’s declaration of war, signed by Kaiser Wilhelm II and countersigned by Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg at the New Palace in Potsdam on July 31, 1914.
French mobilization order of August 2, 1914, for the infantry, air force, and navy. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie [ENT QB-1 (1914)-FT6].

In Canada, with the outbreak of war, the government began ruling by decree. The quasi-unanimity that reigned in Parliament at the beginning of the war only ended when the question of conscription arose.

Enlistment was voluntary and did not follow the mobilization plan of the chiefs-of-staff. The Minister of Militia and Defence, Sam Hughes, ordered all the volunteers to gather at the newly created army base of Valcartier, north of Quebec City. There, the soldiers were assigned to numbered units without regard to the existing traditional battalions. More than 30,000 men and women were quickly sorted out in this way and sent to England at the beginning of October 1914.

In this first wave of mobilization in Canada, French Canadians were indiscriminately placed in units along with the rest of the volunteers, and voices were raised to change this situation. In consequence, a French-Canadian regiment was created, drawing from the second contingent of volunteers, who left for Great Britain in May 1915. This regiment was given the number 22 in Sam Hughes’s new battle order.

Front Lines - The Officer’s Role (08:13)

Officers needed strong morale and served as a model for their troops. This film gives us an outline of the officers' responsibilities and the structure of the Canadian forces in the First War.
Directed by Claude Guilmain, produced by Anne-Marie Rocher
© National Film Board of Canada, 2008

Setting up war economies

“If the women in the factories were to stop working for just twenty minutes, the Allies would lose the war,” affirmed Général Joffre during the Shell Crisis of 1915. The Allied armies were handicapped by a drastic shortage of armaments due to the exponential increase in the use of artillery since the beginning of the war of position. The crisis did not only concern shells, but all weapons and munitions supplies. In response to the situation, a number of countries created bodies with powers to enforce exceptional measures. In the United Kingdom, the production of military equipment in all the Commonwealth countries, notably in Canada, was reorganized and placed under the authority of the Imperial Munitions Commission (IMC). In addition, the London-based Ministry of Overseas Military Forces was established to facilitate the overall administration, management, and coordination of Commonwealth troops. In 1916, Canada set up the Ministry of Canadian Military Forces in Great Britain so that affairs concerning Canadian forces in Europe could be organized on the spot through a recognized, autonomous Canadian political body. In their home countries, the respective national governments of the Commonwealth took the initiative in setting up true wartime economies with the aim of ensuring that industrial and agricultural production would be sufficient to last out the period of conflict and win the war.

The belligerent countries opened thousands of factories that mass-produced cartridges and shells, fuses, explosives, and every possible part for artillery guns, other armaments, and vehicles, mobilizing the greater portion of their human, mineral, and chemical resources in the war effort. Protected warehouses for storing and loading millions of tons of munitions were also needed, as well as facilities for the recovery and reworking of millions of cartridge cases and all other used metal items, including shell heads. Given the urgency of the situation, production was mainly carried out by existing factories that re-purposed their assembly lines in favour of arms production.

Workers in a munitions warehouse at the National Shell Filling Factory, Chilwell, Nottinghamshire, England, in July 1917.
Photograph by Horace Nicholls, Imperial War Museums, Photograph Archive Collection.

Automobile makers played an essential role in the war effort, with all the companies partially or totally converting their production systems to munitions manufacturing and assembly. In France, automobile magnate André Citroën answered the government’s appeal to industry for the urgent production of at least 100,000 shells per day, as the French arsenals’ maximum capacity of 13,000 shells per day was insufficient. In less than three months, Citroën set up an assembly-line facility capable of turning out 10,000 shells per day, specializing in Shrapnel-bullet shells. The company guaranteed the production of one million shells of this type in 200 days in a government contract worth 24 million francs. To achieve this, Citroën expanded its factory on the Quai de Javel in Paris, a site accessible by rail and by the Seine River. Eighteen thousand square metres of one-storey shops were built and made ready for production in two months. Thanks to massive investments, production far surpassed its objectives, delivering up to 50,000 shells per day in 1917. In the years from 1915 to 1918, the Citroën company produced some 26 million shells.

Half of the workers in these factories were women, working 11-hour day or night shifts, including weekends. In France alone, in 1918, the munitions industry as a whole was producing 261,000 shells per day.

The Renault automobile company as well was ordered by the French government to manufacture huge quantities of shells. Moreover, the 1,200 taxi cabs requisitioned by Général Gallieni in September 1914 to transport reinforcements to stop the German advance at the Marne were Renault vehicles. For the next four years, Louis Renault’s intense personal participation in the war effort continued. Besides automobiles, trucks, tractors, and shells, Renault manufactured guns and airplane motors, and the company founder handed over all of the 1914 models to the army. In 1917, with the support of Général Estienne, Renault designed and built the first light tank with a revolving gun turret, the FT-17, a revolutionary technological advance at that time.

In all of the belligerent countries, participation in the war economy was considered crucial. Canada, essentially an agricultural country, sharply increased the production capacity of its factories under the aegis of the IMC. By 1917, almost two thirds of the shells for the British army were made in Canada. Canadian shipyards were enlarged and refitted, not only to replace vessels destroyed by German U-boats, but also to build aircraft. By the end of the war, 600 factories had built more than 100 ships and 2,600 airplanes. When the IMC ceased operating in 1919, it was the largest civilian employer in Canada, with over 290,000 workers.

Construction of the War Kitimat by the New Westminster Construction & Engineering Co., August 15, 1918.
George Metcalf Archival Collection [MCG 19910238-22], Canadian War Museum.

To ensure production of all the needed material and equipment, the mobilization of manpower was central to the war effort. In France, a massive appeal was made to women and workers from the colonies, and 500,000 skilled workers were recalled from the front on special assignment. At the peak of production in 1918, the munitions industry employed 1.7 million workers in France.

Women of Brittany working in a munitions factory during the First World War.

In order to finance this massive war effort, colossal amounts of funds were needed. National governments were obliged to diversify their sources of income. Borrowing became the rule, done first by appealing to the populations of the respective countries (this was one of the major purposes of much of the propaganda) to take out “national loans.” In Canada, Ottawa’s first Victory Bond campaign brought in 100 million dollars, twice as much as had initially been hoped for. In total, Canadians bought more than 2 billion dollars’ worth of war bonds.

French poster urging participation in the war effort, 1914.

Loans were also sought from other nations, notably the United States (from banks and the federal government) who became the Allies’ principal provider of loans, which totalled 10 billion dollars.

Governments turned to additional taxation, of course, but at a time when prices were rising steeply, they hesitated to increase fiscal pressure to a point that would produce discontent.

In the United Kingdom, 28 percent of war costs were paid by income tax revenues. In France, income tax was legislated in 1914 and only financed 15 percent of the country’s war costs; for Germany, the figure was 14 percent. Indirect taxation was favoured, including war taxes on industrial profits. In France, external loans may have been the most noticeable type of borrowing, but internal borrowing in the form of war bonds remained the mainstay of the war economy. Governments printed more paper money instead of tackling the rising prices, an effort that everyone considered necessary; thus, inflation became another indirect method of financing the war.

These war-directed economic policies led to a significant internal and external postwar debt load for all the countries concerned. In 1928, the United States Congress issued a list, addressed to American financial institutions, prohibiting loans to Canada, Germany, Australia, Argentina, and Brazil.
For the sake of greater efficiency, new state structures were created that included ministries and secretariats with specifically war-related functions, such as the ministry of armament supply in France, headed by Albert Thomas. International structures were also put in place; for example, the Allied Maritime Transport Council, a cooperative organization that allowed the Allies to coordinate the shipping of millions of tons of merchandise from the United States to Europe, was set up in March 1918.

Facing the very real risk of shortages, the respective national governments had to immediately adopt systematic policies that would establish priorities and make the necessary resources available not only to industry but also to the population through the agro-food sector, thus initiating a veritable economic mobilization with respect to infrastructures and the production of staples and raw materials. In Great Britain, agriculture was subsidized, and in Canada and the United States, a plan to modernize this sector was implemented to help meet the increasing demand from Europe.

This vast multinational mobilization ushered in a new global geopolitical and economic order. The role and place of the state were lastingly transformed by the commitment to this “total” war effort. The United States in particular benefitted economically from the emergence of the new equilibrium in world geopolitics.

Controlling hearts and minds to uphold the war effort

The national governments of belligerent countries organized and promoted intensive campaigns to encourage military and civilian involvement in the war effort. Propaganda was used to recruit, solicit, and encourage greater human and financial mobilization, but also to maintain national unity, which was threatened by the shortages and hardships in daily life, and in general, to arouse and reinforce patriotic feelings. No matter which country used it, war propaganda always pushed the same buttons and appealed to the same values: defence of the homeland, solidarity, and civic-mindedness.


While propaganda influenced people’s thoughts and behaviour, censorship ensured consistency in the governments’ messages.

In wartime, the press was controlled for reasons of security and military strategy by laws such as the one which was passed in France on August 5, 1914, and applied throughout the First World War. In this legally sanctioned framework, armies could censure any news and information on essential points concerning national defence, with the exception of official government releases. In France, censorship authority was centered in a press office attached to the War Ministry. All the newspapers had to submit proofs to censorship offices for approval before publication. Censors would indicate which items had to be removed from the layout, which is why newspapers were occasionally printed with blank spaces in them.

Censorship in the September 6, 1916 (No. 10) edition of <i>Le Canard enchaîné</i>. For use in class only.

It was in France that the control of information was the strictest, the best organized, and the most effective. In caricatures, censorship was represented allegorically as Anastasie, a woman wielding a huge pair of scissors to snip out items from newspapers.

Censorship allegorized as "Madame Anastasie" by political cartoonist André Gill. Front page of L’Éclipse, No. 299, July 1874. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In Canada, the War Measures Act, passed on August 22, 1914, gave the government extraordinary powers to fight the war, including censorship (in Article 6). The elevation of this measure to the level of military strategy allowed the authorities to immediately establish a system of information surveillance never before seen in the country.
As newspapers were subjected to censorship by both government and editors, the date of the arrival of Canadian troops in Europe remained secret. Even while the Canadian public increasingly demanded war news, control was extended to all communications media, including the telegraph system, fulfilling the two-pronged objective of hiding information from the enemy and encouraging the war effort by boosting morale at home.

In London, starting in August 1914, the Press Bureau filtered all the news from Canadian reporters in Europe, and like the other Dominions, Canada was only allowed to send one war correspondent into the action. Moreover, the military command set strict limits on the movements of the journalists allowed into war zones. At home, the Canadian Government decree of June 10, 1915, sanctioned newspaper censorship. All information had to pass through Ottawa, with the Canadian Press news agency going over the information with a fine-tooth comb before it could reach the papers.
Censorship of photographs was also of the strictest kind. From 1915 onward, Canadian soldiers at the front were prohibited from taking pictures without the permission of the British War Office, whose authority in this respect included the Dominions. This policy had prevailed in Britain since the Crimean War (1854–1856), when the photographs of the front taken by William Howard Russell had raised doubts about the competence of the chiefs of staff by their depiction of soldiers suffering.

Thus, information about what was happening in Europe was very difficult to obtain after 1915. Even films made in the United States (a neutral country until 1917) were subject to draconian censorship in Canada.


Disinformation was also practised without compunction, even presenting a softened, sanitized image of life in the trenches. Photographs of devastating Allied defeats went unpublished to prevent discouragement among civilians on the home front, where difficult living conditions had added to the suffering caused by anxiety, separation from loved ones and, all too often, grief for lost lives.

To give two well-known examples of the type of misleading stories published in France during the First World War, in the regional weekly paper, La Petite Gironde, on Saturday, February 26, 1916, it was reported that: “French gunfire wiped out the Germans, causing them to fall in great numbers;” and in the Paris daily, L’Intransigeant, of August 17, 1914: “The Germans’ bullets pass clean through the flesh, without causing any damage.”


State governments published and mass-distributed striking posters that aimed to encourage the economic effort by civilians, particularly urging them to contribute by  national loans, or war bonds. Recurrent themes included patriotism and defending the homeland, heroic soldiers pictured either as victorious combatants or martyrs, and the demonization of the enemy.

Children were important in the indoctrination aspects of the war. They were used as objects in visual propaganda, symbols of violated innocence intended to emphasize the idea that fighting a war against “barbarians” was morally justified. Propaganda also targeted the children themselves in books and in comic albums such as Bécassine mobilisée, in games and toys, and above all, in the schoolroom.
As early as 1914, the term “bourrage de crâne” (“brain-stuffing” or “eyewash,” the equivalent of the postwar “brainwashing”) was used by French soldiers to describe war propaganda and this term was further popularized when it appeared in anti-propaganda articles by journalist Albert Londres. On November 29, 1916, the newly-founded French satirical daily, Le Canard enchaîné, asked readers: “In your opinion, which of the star journalists of the daily press deserves the title of Grand Chieftain of the Brain-Stuffer Tribe?”.

In countries where conscription laws had not yet been passed, propaganda was seen as an essential way to induce able-bodied men to join the army; when their home territories were not directly under threat, it was felt that additional means were needed to convince them. In the colonies, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, numerous poster campaigns appealed to the patriotic sentiments of men eligible to enlist.

“WHO’S ABSENT? <i>Is it You?</i>” Poster No. 125, issued by the British Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in 1915.
Imperial War Museums.


Bibliography / Webography

  • Beauregard, Claude. “Censure et propagande par l’image au Canada (1914-19)”. Proceedings of the symposium Canada and France in the Great War 1914-1918. 2015 (forthcoming).
  • Bernier, Serge. Le Patrimoine militaire canadien. D’hier à aujourd’hui. Vol. III: 1872-2000. Montreal: Art Global, 2000, pp. 96-100.
  • Bizimana, Aimé-Jules. “Le Canada et la Grande Guerre : les nouvelles du front”. Bulletin d’histoire politique [on line]. Vol. 17, No. 2, 2009.
  • Gagnon, Jean-Pierre.  Le 22e Bataillon (canadien-français) 1914-1919: étude socio-militaire. Quebec City and Ottawa: Les Presses de l’Université Laval, in collaboration with the Department of National Defence and the Queen’s Printer, 1987.
  • Le Naour, Jean-Yves. Le Petit Livre de la Grande Guerre. Paris: First Edition, 2008 (expanded and illustrated edition, J’ai lu, 2014).
  • Morton, Desmond. “L’impact de la Grande Guerre sur le Canada”. Proceedings of the symposium Canada and France in the Great War 1914-1918. 2015 (forthcoming).
  • Palmer, Michael. “William Russel, du  ‘travelling gentleman’ au ‘special correspondent’, 1850-1880". Le Temps des Médias, No. 4, “Dire et montrer la guerre, autrement". 2005, pp. 34-49.
© Réseau Canopé, 2015