Canada and the Great War

It has been called the “Great War”, and  “The War to end All Wars”. In reality it was neither. It was a start to 75 years of continued fighting, lasting until the end of the Cold War.

The War was inevitable. The imperialistic tendencies that European countries had at the start of the 20th century ensured this would happen; the war had been simmering for 15 years. In 1879 the independent Teutonic states were unified into a single Germany by Kaiser William I. Germany had isolated France from their foreign policy in the 1880’s, seeing their expansionist policies as a threat. By the late 1880’s, France and Russia had forged an economic alliance and by 1895 had established a mutual protection treaty. Germany aligned itself with Austria-Hungary and Italy. By 1904, Britain had abandoned a longstanding disagreement with France and entered into friendly discussions, and in 1907 had secured an alliance with Russia. Germany felt threatened by having non-aligned nations on two fronts, coupled with the British mastery of the seas. In 1908, Austria had officially annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina. Serbia protested this, which led to an alliance with Russia. Tensions had also been rising between Austria and Serbia, and the Austrians were looking for an excuse to start a war with Serbia.

By the early 1900’s almost every country in Europe knew that a War was coming. None of them knew the magnitude of the slaughter they would be unleashing.

On June 28th, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, and the Serbian government was blamed. This touched off a conflict between Austria and Russia who was sided with the Serbs. Germany, who had a military pact with Austria, entered the fray. Other countries aligned against Austria/Germany and on August 3rd, Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium. Britain sided with France and on August 4th entered the war. Because of the British involvement, Canada, a member of the British Commonwealth, could not remain neutral and by August 8th, 1914 Britain accepted Canada’s offer of 25,000 troops[i].

Canada was at war.

The first Canadian contingent, numbering 33,000, reached England soon after the outbreak of war in 1914, and was in Flanders by early 1915. Their baptism of fire came at the second battle of Ypres, in May 1915.. By 1916 the Canadians had formed four divisions, with a fifth formed in late 1917 that was ultimately broken up to provide reinforcements.

The First World War brought many changes to the way wars were fought. It introduced trench warfare, airplanes to provide reconnaissance, strafe troops and bomb cities and troops. By late 1916 amoured vehicles and tanks had been introduced to the front, re-introducing the concept of a cavalry which had disappeared from military thinking 3 years earlier. It also introduced a new level of carnage not seen before. High Explosive shells killed from a great distance, obliterating or destroying beyond recognition those nearby. Fully half of the British and Commonwealth troops killed in the war were never found or properly identified.

The war also ushered in a new social environment. The class system in Britain was scrutinized by the influx of soldiers from the “colonies”, who had discarded it. The war was a huge factor in woman’s rights, primarily in the right to vote. The advances made in motor vehicles and airplanes changed the way that we live and work. Russia contributed the social revolution, strikes for better pay and working conditions.

The Canadians that served in the First World War were not professional soldiers. They were young men from the cities, towns and farms; the late American historian Stephen Ambrose popularized the very apt term “Citizen Soldiers”. They came from all over Canada, and approximately 40,000 were our American cousins[1], who didn’t wait for the United States to join the war in 1917. Many of the men volunteered, some induced by emotional ties to England, some for the adventure. Others came because their country asked them. In the end, Prime Minster Borden divided the country by invoking Conscription in 1917.

Typically, when anyone thinks of the Canadian involvement in World War I, they think of Vimy Ridge. Because of the successful and dedicated participation of the Canadian troops in the battle, it is often referred to as the event that led to “The Birth of Canada” where we earned the recognition, respect and admiration of the rest of the world. On Easter Monday, April 9, 1917 the Canadian Corps captured more ground, more prisoners and more guns than any previous British offensive in two-and-a-half years of war. It was one of the most complete and decisive engagements of the Great War and the first major Allied victory up to that time. At the start of the war, many men enlisted because of their British roots; they were going to fight on behalf of their country of birth. These men, who signed on as “British”, came home as Canadians, proud to be a part of the country that had adopted them.

Without downplaying the importance of Vimy, the battles that took place the following year, in August and September 1918, near Arras in northern France, were much more strategic. These were a series of three major battles where the Allied troops, spearheaded by the Canadians and Australians, and with the participation of fresh American troops, broke through the German lines and pushed them back towards Belgium, starting the German retreat that eventually ended in the Armistice on November 11th, 1918.  This victory came at a high cost: 20% of all Canadian deaths in the war came during the last 3 months, 12:00 in total. The Canadian Army had built their reputation: hard fighting troops that seldom failed to take their objective, regardless of the cost. General Sir Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian troops from mid-1917 until the end of the war said:  "In no battle did the Corps ever fail to take its objective, nor did it lose an inch of ground, once that ground was consolidated; and in the 51 months that it had been in the field the Canadian Corps has never lost a single gun (i.e. no piece of artillery was captured) I think one cannot be accused of immodesty in claiming that the record is somewhat unique in the history of the world's campaigns".

At home, Canadians reacted to the hardships imposed on the civilian population. Over 66 million shells were produced in Canadian factories. The gross national debt soared from 544 million dollars in 1914 to almost 2 1/2 billion dollars in 1919, most of the money being raised in Canada itself through public war loans.

By mid 1919, the war was over for the Canadians. The soldiers had gone to do their duty, their cause had been just and they had prevailed. Each and every soldier who came had achieved something remarkable; they had survived.  All had scars, physical or mental, for the devastation, carnage and waste that they had experienced. Most of the soldiers had forged tight bonds with the others in their company. Most had seen the death of their comrades.

Canada had entered the war as a colony, and exited as a Nation. Canada became a signatory Nation at the Treaty of Versailles, and became an inaugural member of the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations. Canada had come of age; at a huge cost.

  • In total, over 65 Million individuals served in World War 1, on all fronts. 8.5 Million died and an additional 30 Million were wounded.

  • The British Empire, including Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand supplied 8.9 million troops to the war effort. Of these, 900 thousand were killed, 2.3 Million wounded.

  • Canada provided 595,000 soldiers, approximately 13.5% of the male population of Canada at the time. Of these, 418,000 served overseas.  37% (155,799) were wounded, 14% (60,383) died.  Approximately 11,285 Canadians who served in Europe in World War I have no known grave; their names are inscribed on the Memorial at Vimy.

The First World War is sometimes referred to as a “Generation Lost”. The above statistics show why.

When we look back at the incredible hardships that soldiers in the CEF endured we have to ask how they did it; how they could have kept in the front line trenches, day after day, with shells landing, machine guns firing and death surrounding them. If asked, I believe that many of them would have said, “It had to be done”.

I think that sums up their generation.

With the Treaty of Versailles, the Allies placed heavy sanctions and reparations on Germany after the war.  Sir Winston Churchill summed it up as "A sad case of complicated idiocy." The sanctions caused unrest in Germany, eventually leading to a new type of nationalism.

Twenty years after the Canadian troops came home, the Nation found itself at war again.

On November 11th each year, Canadians wear a poppy to honour the men and women that have served in all wars. We owe them an incredible debt: they gave their lives because their country asked them to fight on foreign soil. The poppy has been adopted as the Flower of Remembrance in Canada, France, the U.S, Britain and Commonwealth countries.



[1]  The numbers range from 20,000 to 40,000. Historian Norm Christie puts it at 40,000.

[i] Morton, A Military History of Canada