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Canada and the Great War

The War of 1914-1918 has commonly 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 and bloodshed, lasting until the end of the Cold War.

War was inevitable. The imperialistic tendencies that European countries clung to at the start of the 20th century ensured this would happen. In fact, war had been simmering for 15 years.

In 1867, the smaller independent German states were unified with the larger Prussian state into a single unified Germany by Otto von Bismarck (Lindemann 104). Germany had also begun to isolate France from their foreign policy in the 1880’s, seeing their expansionist policies as a threat.

Germany aligned itself with Austria-Hungary in a defensive alliance in 1879, which Italy joined three years later to make a Triple Alliance (Nicholson 3). By the late 1880’s, France and Russia had forged an economic alliance, and in 1894 they established a mutual protection treaty (Nicholson 4). By 1904, Britain had abandoned a longstanding disagreement with France and entered into friendly discussions, and in 1907 had secured an alliance with Russia, making an Triple Entente (Lindemann 177). 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 after years of occupation (Nicholson 3). Serbia protested this, and sought out an alliance with Russia.

Tensions had been rising between Austria and Serbia for quite some time, as Serbia had been looking to establish their national sovereignty, and the Austrians were looking for an excuse to start a war with Serbia to prevent this and re-establish Austrian dominance in the area (Nicholson 3, Blake et al., 87).

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, Bosnia, by a Serbian national, and the Serbian government was blamed (Nicholson 3). After a month of rising tension, on July 28th 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia (Nicholson 3). Austria was initially prepared for a smaller war with Serbia, but their hopes were dashed when Russia, who had made an alliance with the Serbs, became involved (Nicholson 3). Germany, with the intension of upholding their military pact with Austria, also entered the fray and declared war on Russia on the 1st of August due to Russian mobilization of troops a few days prior. (Nicholson 3).

Due to their own alliance, France stood to Russia’s defence, eliciting another declaration of war from Germany on the the 3rd of August (Nicholson 4). The next day, Germany invaded Belgium in order to attack the French, therefore violating Belgium’s neutrality (Nicholson 5, Blake et al., 88). Britain rose to defend Belgium, and entered the war that same day (Blake et al., 88). As a member of the British Commonwealth, Canada could not remain neutral, and by August 8th, 1914, Britain accepted Canada’s offer of 25,000 troops (Nicholson 18).

Canada was at war.

The first Canadian contingent reached England in November 1914 soon after completing training in Canada (Nicholson 39), and was in Flanders by early 1915. Their baptism of fire came at the second battle of Ypres, in March 1915 (Nicholson 49). 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, and the use of airplanes to provide reconnaissance, as well as strafe troops and bomb cities and troops (Paxton and Hessler 75). By late 1916, armoured vehicles and tanks had been introduced to the front, as well as the use of the creeping barrage, which hadn’t been previously used due to shortages of ammunition (Nicholson 167). The war also introduced a new level of carnage not seen before. High explosive shells killed from a great distance, obliterating or destroying those nearby beyond recognition. It is estimated that half of the British and Commonwealth troops killed in the war were never found or properly identified.

The Canadians who served in the First World War were not professional soldiers. They were young men from the cities, towns and farms across Canada. The late American historian Stephen Ambrose popularized the very apt term “Citizen Soldiers” to describe them. They came from all over Canada, and approximately 40,000 were American cousins, who didn’t wait for the United States to join the war in 1917 (Nicholson 298). Many of the men volunteered, some motivated by their emotional ties to England, some for the promise of adventure beyond Canada’s borders. Others simply joined because their country asked them to. In the end, Prime Minster Robert L. Borden divided the country by invoking Conscription following a general election in 1917, leading to approximately 125,000 men being conscripted (Nicholson 345, Blake et al., 107).

Typically, whenever Canadian involvement in World War I is considered, Vimy Ridge is the main event historians refer to. Because of the successful and dedicated participation of the Canadian troops in the battle, Vimy Ridge is often referred to as the event that led to “The Birth of Canada” where Canadians earned the recognition, respect and admiration of the rest of the world. (Blake et al., 101) On Easter Monday, April 9th, 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 (Nicholson 266). It was one of the most complete and decisive engagements of the Great War and the first major Allied victory up to that point in 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. The casualties were still costly, resulting in 3,598 Canadian dead (Blake et al., 101).

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 far more strategic. (Nicholson 460) These were a series of major battles where the Allied troops, spearheaded by the Canadians and Australians and the participation of fresh American troops, broke through the German lines and pushed them back towards Belgium. These events started the German retreat that eventually ended in the Armistice on November 11th, 1918 (Nicholson 516). This victory came at a high cost: 45,000 Allied deaths came during the last hundred days of the war (Blake et al., 109).

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 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 2.5 billion dollars in 1919. Most of the money to pay for these debts were raised in Canada itself through public war loans, raising approximately 660 million dollars in 1918 alone (Blake et al. 105).

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 previously discarded it. The war was a huge factor in woman’s rights, primarily in the right for women to vote. The advancements made in motor vehicles and airplanes changed the way that Canadians lived and worked. Social changes led to the strikes across Canada in 1918 and 1919 as its citizens advocated for better wages and rights for labourers (Blake et al., 109, 111).

By mid-1919, the war was truly 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 deaths of many 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 (Blake et al., 110). Canada had come of age, though at a huge cost.

In total, over 65 million individuals served in World War 1 on all fronts. The major European countries reported 10 million dead and an additional 20 million wounded (Lindemann 197).

The British Empire, including Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, supplied 8.9 million troops to the war effort. Of these, 900,000 were killed, and 2.3 million wounded.

Canada provided approximately 620,000 men and women to serve in the First World War. (Nicholson 535) Of these, 418,000 served overseas, 172,950 were wounded, and 59,544 died (Nicholson 594). Approximately 11,285 Canadians who served in Europe in World War I have no known grave, though their names are inscribed on the Memorial at Vimy (Nicholson 267).

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, it is likely that many of them would have said, “It had to be done”.

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.

Works Cited:

Blake, Raymond B., Jeffrey A. Keshen, Norman J. Knowles, and Barbara J. Messamore. Conflict & Compromise: Post-Confederate Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017.

Lindemann, Albert S. A History of Modern Europe: From 1815 to the Present. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2013.

Nicholson, G.W.L. Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1962.

Paxton, Robert O. and Julie Hessler. Europe in the Twentieth Century. Boston: Wadsworth, 2012.