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When World War 1 broke out in 1914, all Dominions of the British Empire, including Canada, were called upon by Great Britain to fight on her behalf. Canada's sacrifices and contributions to the war changed its history and enabled it to become more independent, while opening a deep rift between the French and English speaking populations. For the first time in its history, Canadian forces fought as a distinct unit under a Canadian-born commander. Battles such as Vimy Ridge, Second Battle of Passchendaele and the Battle of the Somme are still remembered today by anglophones as part of Canada's founding myth, to both its identity and culture. Canada's total casualties stood at 67,000 killed and 173,000 wounded. When Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, Canada and the other members of the British Empire were automatically involved; they had not been consulted beforehand. On August 5, 1914, the Governor General declared a war between Canada and Germany. Canadians of British descent—the majority—gave widespread support arguing that Canadians had a duty to fight on behalf of their Motherland. Indeed, Sir Wilfrid Laurier spoke for the majority of Canadians when he proclaimed: "It is our duty to let Great Britain know and to let the friends and foes of Great Britain know that there is in Canada but one mind and one heart and that all Canadians are behind the Mother Country." [1] Prime Minister Robert Borden offered assistance to Great Britain, which was quickly accepted.


Outbreak of war



1915 military parade in Toronto

Prior to the war, Canada had a small standing army and a much larger Canadian militia. Sam Hughes, the Minister of Militia and Defence, was ordered by Robert Borden to train and recruit an army for overseas service. At the time, Canada had a regular army of only 3110 men and a fledgling navy. [2] However, within a mere two months, Canada could boast of an army of over 32,000 men as men flocked to recruiting stations. Most of the militia trained at CFB Valcartier, just north of Quebec City and within two months the First Contingent, Canadian Expeditionary Force, was on its way to England in the largest convoy ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean.


As well as military men, three thousand Canadian women went overseas, as part of the Canadian Army Nursing Service. In general, non-whites were not welcomed into the military. When fifty blacks from Sydney, Nova Scotia volunteered their services, they were told, "This is not for you fellows, this is a white man's war."[1] Nonetheless, some segregated units were formed. In 1915, Aboriginal Canadians were allowed to enlist and accepted into a 114th battalion as well as others. In total, about 3,500 Aboriginal Canadians would serve with the Canadian Forces.[1] The Canadian Japanese Association in British Columbia put forward a volunteer reserve force of 227 men, some of whom were later admitted into the military. The No. 2 Construction Battalion included black soldiers from both Canada and the United States, the latter having crossed into Canada in order to participate.[1] The over one thousand Black Canadians who served would continue to be segregated during their tour, both on ships and in camps.[1]

Canadian Corps

The Canadian Corps was formed from the Canadian Expeditionary Force in September 1915 after the arrival of the 2nd Canadian Division in France. The soldiers of the Corps were mostly volunteers, as conscription wasn’t implemented until the end of the war (see Conscription Crisis of 1917). The Corps was expanded by the addition of the 3rd Canadian Division in December 1915 and the 4th Canadian Division in August 1916. The organization of a 5th Canadian Division began in February 1917, but it was still not fully formed when it was broken up in February 1918 and its men used to reinforce the other four divisions. Although the Corps was within and under the command of the British Army, there was considerable pressure among Canadian leaders, especially following the Battle of the Somme, for the Corps to fight as a single unit rather than spreading the divisions through the whole army.

Originally commanded by Lieutenant General Sir E.A.H. Alderson until 1916, command was then passed to Lieutenant General Sir Julian Byng, later, Lord Byng of Vimy and Governor-General of Canada. When Byng was promoted to a higher command during the summer of 1917, he was succeeded by the commander of the 1st Division, General Sir Arthur W. Currie, giving the Corps its first Canadian commander.

In the later stages of the war, the Canadian Corps, like the Australian Corps, was among the most effective and respected of the military formations on the Western Front.[2]

Western Front

Neuve Chapelle

Headquarters of the Canadian 2nd Brigade at Fleurbrix.

The Canadian Expeditionary Force saw their first battle of World War I in the French town of Neuve Chapelle. After arriving from Salisbury Plain, the Canadian forces were instructed to prevent the Germans from reinforcing the sector of Neuve Chapelle. This would allow the British 1st Army, under General Douglas Haig, to successfully push through German lines and establish a new Allied front line on conquered territory.

Although the British were unable to exploit their advantage due to poor communication, it taught Canadians that artillery bombardment was too light to suppress the enemy trenches; that better artillery observation points were necessary; that reserves were too few to follow up success quickly; and most importantly, that the procedure of transmitting information and sending orders to the advanced troops was slow and difficult, and that the systems of communication were much too vulnerable. [3]

Second Battle of Ypres

In the first week of April 1915, the soldiers of the 1st Canadian Division were moved to reinforce the salient where the British and Allied line pushed into the German line in a concave bend. On April 22, the Germans sought to eliminate this salient by using poison gas. Following an intensive artillery bombardment, they released 160 tons of chlorine gas from cylinders dug into the forward edge of their trenches into a light northeast wind—the first use of poison gas in the war. As thick clouds of yellow-green chlorine drifted over their trenches the French colonial defences and British colonial forces on either side of the Canadians crumbled, and the troops, completely bemused by this terrible weapon, died or broke and fled, leaving a gaping four-mile hole in the Allied line. A soldier in the Canadian lines discovered the neutralization of the chlorine gas was possible by pressing urine soaked rags over their noses and mouths. The Canadians were the only division that were able to hold the line. [4]

All through the night, the Canadians fought to close this gap. On April 24, the Germans launched another poison gas attack, this time at the Canadian line. In those 48 hours of battle, the Canadians suffered over 6,000 casualties, one man in every three, of whom more than 2,000 died.

The Battle of the Somme

Canadian POWs. February 1916.

The next area where Canadians fought was at the Battle of the Somme july to mid-November. Initially launched as a campaign to relieve pressure from the beleaguered French forces at the Battle of Verdun, the Allied casualties actually exceeded those at Verdun. On July 1, 1916, the British launched the assault which resulted in the largest massacre of British forces - over 57,550 casualties in one day. Among them were 732 men from the 1st Newfoundland Regiment ; of the 801 men of the Newfoundland Regiment, only 68 men answered the regimental roll call after the attack. 255 were dead, 386 were wounded, and 91 were listed as missing. Every officer who had gone over the top was either wounded or dead. On the day that the British forces suffered their worst losses in history, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment also suffered its worst loss in its history.

As the fighting continued, the Canadians (with the support of a new 4th Canadian Division) were asked to secure the town of Courcelette. In the major offensive which began at dawn on September 15 the Canadian Corps, on the extreme left of the attack, assaulted on a 2,200-yard sector west of the village of Courcelette. By November 11, the 4th Canadian Division finally secured most of the German trenches in Courcelette and then rejoined the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge.

The Battle of the Somme claimed 24,029 Canadian casualties. But it also gave Canadian units the reputation of a formidable assault force. As Prime Minister Lloyd George wrote, "The Canadians played a part of such distinction that thenceforward they were marked out as shock troops; for the remainder of the war they were brought along to head the assault in one great battle after another. Whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line they prepared for the worst."[3]

The Battle of Vimy Ridge

The battle plan for Battle of Vimy Ridge.

For the first time, all four Canadian divisions were to be assembled to operate in combat as a corps. The Canadian divisions were joined by the British 5th Infantry Division, and reinforced by artillery, engineer and labour units.[4] The Canadian Corps was supported to the north by the 24th British Division of I Corps which advanced north of the Souchez river and by the advancing XVII Corps to the south.[5] The attack began at 5:30 a.m. on Easter Monday, 9 April, 1917 whereupon every artillery piece at the disposal of the Canadian Corps began firing. Light field guns laid down a barrage which advanced in predetermined increments, often 100 yards (91 m) every three minutes, while medium and heavy howitzers established a series of standing barrages further ahead, against known defensive systems.[6]

The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions reported reaching and capturing their first objective, the Black Line, by 6:25 a.m.[7] The 4th Canadian Division encountered a great deal of trouble during its advance and was unable to complete its first objective until some hours later.[7] After a planned pause, during which positions were consolidated, the advance resumed. Shortly after 7:00 a.m., the 1st Canadian Division had taken half of its second objective, the Red Line, and moved a brigade forward to mount an attack on the remainder.[8] The 2nd Canadian Division reported reaching the Red Line and capturing the town of Les Tilleuls at approximately the same time.[9] Units at the 3rd Canadian Division reached the their section of the Red Line at around 7:30 a.m.[10] However, due to an exposed left flank caused by the failure of the 4th Canadian Division to capture the top of the ridge, the 3rd Canadian Division was forced to stop and establish a divisional defensive flank to its north.[11] It was not until 11:00 a.m. that the defending German 79th Reserve Division mounted a counterattack, by which time only the 4th Canadian Division had not reached its objective.[12]

Canadian artillery firing at night

Three fresh brigades were moved up to the Red Line by 9:30 a.m., 10 April to support the advance whereupon they leapfrogged existing units occupying the Red line and advanced to the Blue Line.[13] By approximately 11:00 a.m., the Blue Line, including Hill 135 and the town of Thélus, had been captured.[14] The advance briefly halted, the artillery barrage remaining stationary for 90 minutes to give troops time to consolidate the Blue Line and bring supporting machine guns forward.[15] Shortly before 1 p.m., the advance recommenced with the Brown Line being secure around 2:00 p.m.[16] By this point only the northern half of Hill 145 and "the Pimple", a fortified highpoint outside of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, remained under German control. Fresh troops finally forced the remaining German troops from the northern half of Hill 145 at around 3:15 p.m and by nightfall of 10 April, the only objective not yet achieved was the capture of "the Pimple".[17] Supported by a significant amount of artillery and the 24th British Division of I Corps to the north, the 10th Canadian Brigade attacked the hastily entrenched German troops and captured "the Pimple" on 12 April, bringing an end to the battle.[18] By nightfall on 12 April 1917 the Canadian Corps was in firm control of the ridge.

The corps had suffered 10,602 casualties; 3,598 killed and 7,004 wounded.[19] The German Sixth Army suffered an unknown number of casualties with an approximate 4,000 men becoming prisoners of war.[20] Four Victoria Crosses, the highest military decoration awarded to British and Commonwealth forces for valour.[21] The Germans did not attempt to recapture the ridge, including during the Spring Offensive, and it remained under British control until the end of the war.

The Battle of Passchendaele

The four divisions of the Canadian Corps were transferred to the Ypres Salient and tasked with making additional advances on Passchendaele.[22] The Canadian Corps relieved II Anzac Corps on 18 October from their positions along the valley between Gravenstafel Ridge and the heights at Passchendaele.[23] Interestingly, it was virtually the same front as had been occupied by the 1st Canadian Division back in April 1915.[23] The Canadian Corps operation was to be executed in series of three attacks each with limited objectives, delivered at intervals of three or more days. As the Canadian Corps position was directly south of the inter-army boundary between British Fifth and Second Army, the British Fifth Army would mount subsidiary operations on the Canadian Corps' left flank while the I Anzac Corps would advance to protect the right flank.[24] The execution dates of the phases were tentatively given as 26 October, 30 October and 6 November.[24]

Canadian nurses helping the wounded.

The first stage began on the morning of 26 October.[25] The 3rd Canadian Division was assigned the northern flank which included the sharply rising ground of the Bellevue spur. South of the Ravebeek creek, the 4th Canadian Division would take the Decline Copse which straddled the Ypres-Roulers railway.[26] The 3rd Canadian Division captured the Wolf Copse and secured its objective line but was ultimately forced to drop a defensive flank to link up with the flanking division of the British Fifth Army. The 4th Canadian Division initially captured all its objectives, but gradually retreated from the Decline Copse due to German counterattacks and mis-communications between the Canadian and Australian units to the south.[27]

The second stage began on 30 October and was intended to capture the position not captured during the previous stage and gain a base for the final assault on Passchendaele.[27] The southern flank was to capture the strongly held Crest Farm while the northern flank was to capture the hamlet of Meetcheele as well as the Goudberg area near the Canadian Corps' northern boundary.[28] The southern flank quickly captured Crest Farm and begun sending patrols beyond its objective line and into Passchendaele itself. The northern flank was again met with exceptional German resistance. The 3rd Canadian Division captured Vapour Farm at the corps' boundary, Furst Farm to the west of Meetcheele and the crossroads at Meetcheele, but remained short of its objective line.[28]

To permit time to facilitate inter-divisional reliefs, there was a planned seven day pause between the second and third stage. British Second Army was ordered to take over section of the British Fifth Army front adjoining the Canadian Corps, so that the central portion of the assault could proceed under a single command.[29] Three consecutive rainless days between 3 and 5 November aided logistical preparations and reorganization of the troops for the next stage.[30] The third stage began the morning of 6 November with the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions having taken over the front, relieving the 3rd and 4th Canadian Divisions respectively. Less than three hours after the start of the assault, many units had reached their final objective lines and the town of Passchendaele had been captured.

A final successful action to gain the remaining high ground north of the village in the vicinity of Hill 52 was launched 10 November.[31] This attack on 10 November brought to an end the long drawn-out Third Battle of Ypres. The Second Battle of Passchendaele cost the Canadian Corps 15 654 casualties with over 4 000 dead, in 16 days of fighting.[32][33]

Hundred Days Offensive

Throughout these three final months, the Canadian troops saw action in several areas. The first was near the enemy salient on August 8 where the Canadian Corps (along with the New Zealanders, Australians, French and British) was charged with the task of spearheading the assault on the German forces in Amiens. In the subsequent battle, the morale of the German forces was badly shaken. In Ludendorff's words, the battle of Arras was a "black day for the German army." After their breakthrough at Amiens, the Canadians were shifted back to Arras and given the task of cracking the Hindenburg Line in the Arras area.

Between August 26 and September 2, the Canadian Corps launched multiple attacks near the German front at Canal du Nord. On September 27, 1918, the Canadian Forces broke through the Hindenburg Line by smashing through a dry section of the Canal du Nord. The operation ended in triumph on October 11, 1918, when the Canadian forces drove the Germans out of their main distribution centre in Battle of Cambrai.

In the final one hundred days of the war, the Canadian Corps marched successfully to Mons. However, during this period, the Canadian Corps suffered 46,000 casualties. The last Canadian to be killed was George Lawrence Price, two minutes before the armistice took effect at 11 am. on November 11. He is traditionally recognized as being the last soldier killed during World War I.

Home Front


The underlying tension between French and English Canada exploded during World War I. Prior to the war, the French Canadians did not see themselves obliged to serve the British interests. The issue reached its zenith when Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden introduced the Canadian Military Service Act of 1917. Although some farmers and factory workers opposed the legislation, it was in Quebec where conscription was most vociferously denounced. Leading the campaign against conscription was Quebec nationalist Henri Bourassa and Sir Wilfrid Laurier who argued that the war pitted Canadians against each other. In the subsequent election, Robert Borden was able to convince enough English speaking Liberals to vote for his party. In the Canadian Federal Election of 1917, the Union government won 153 seats, nearly all from English Canada. The Liberals won 82 seats. Although the Union government won a large majority of seats, the Union government won only 3 seats in Quebec.

Of the 120,000 conscripts raised during the war, only 47,000 actually went overseas. Despite this, the rift between French and English-speaking Canadians was indelible and would last for many years to come.

Influence on Canada

National identity

The impact of the First World War on the evolution of Canada’s identity is debated by historians. There is general agreement that in the early twentieth century, most English-speaking Canadians saw no conflict between their identity as British subjects and their identities as Canadians. In fact, the British World or British Empire identity was a key part of the Canadian identity. Many Canadians defined their country as the part of North America that owed allegiance to the British Crown. Historian Carl Berger showed that there were relatively few dissenters from this view in English-speaking Canada. In 1914, most English-speaking Canadians had a hybrid imperial-national identity.[34]

Other historians add that Canadian nationalism and belief in independence from the British Empire was strongest in French Canada, whereas imperialism was strongest in English-speaking Canada. These historians focus on Henri Bourassa, who resigned from Wilfred Laurier’s cabinet to protest the decision to send Canadian troops to fight in the South African War. Bourassa’s resignation is widely regarded as involving a clash between imperialism and Canadian nationalism.[35]

Some historians suggest that Canada was already beginning to move toward greater autonomy from Britain well before 1914. They note that Canada’s government established a Department of External Affairs, or de facto foreign ministry, in 1909. However, these historians also stress that the Department worked closely with British diplomats.[36] Historian Oscar Skelton noted that Alexander Galt, a Canadian government official, negotiated treaties with foreign countries such as Spain and France in the 1880s with only the token participation of British diplomats. These negotiations were precedents followed by Canadian diplomats after 1919, when Canada began to conduct its foreign relations without the involvement of British officials. In other words, Canada's gradual move towards independence was already underway before 1914, although this process may have been accelerated by World War I.[37]

While there is a consensus that on the eve of World War I, most English-speaking Canadians had a hybrid imperial-national identity, the effects of the war on Canada’s emergence as a nation are contested. The Canadian media often refer to World War I and, in particular, the Battle of Vimy Ridge, as marking “the birth of a nation.”[38] Some historians consider the First World War to be Canada’s “war of independence.”[39] They argue that the war decreased the extent to which Canadians identified with the British Empire and intensified their sense of being Canadians first and British subjects second. These historians posit two possible mechanisms whereby World War I intensified Canadian nationalism: 1) They suggested that pride in Canada’s accomplishments on the battlefield promoted Canadian patriotism, and, 2) they suggest that the war distanced Canada from Britain in that Canadians reacted to the sheer slaughter on the Western Front by adopting an increasingly anti-British attitude.

Other historians robustly dispute the view that World War I undermined the hybrid imperial-national identity of English-speaking Canada. Phillip Buckner writes that: “The First World War shook but did not destroy this Britannic vision of Canada. It is a myth that Canadians emerged from the war alienated from, and disillusioned with, the imperial connection." He argues that most English-speaking Canadians "continued to believe that Canada was, and should continue to be, a “British” nation and that it should cooperate with the other members of the British family in the British Commonwealth of Nations.”[40]

Still other historians point out that the war’s impact on Canadians’ perception of their place in the world was limited by the simple fact that so many of the Canadian Expeditionary Force soldiers were British-born rather than Canadians. Geoffrey Hayes, Andrew Iarocci, and Mike Bechthold point out that about half of the CEF members who fought at the famous battle of Vimy Ridge were British immigrants. Moreover, their victory at the ridge involved close cooperation with artillery and other units recruited in the British Isles.[41] Seventy percent of the men who enlisted in the CEF were British immigrants, even though British immigrants were just eleven percent of Canada’s population. Anglo-Saxon Canadians whose ancestors had lived in North America for generations had low enlistment rates similar to those seen in French Canadian communities.[42]

Historian José Igartua argues that the hybrid imperialist-nationalist identity in English Canada collapsed in the 1950s and 1960s, not during or immediately after the First World War. It was in this period that Canada adopted its current flag and began to oppose Britain on substantive foreign policy issues, as it did during the 1956 Suez Crisis.[43]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d "History of the Canadian Peoples, 1867-Presehhahnt," Alvin Finkel & Margaret Conrad, 1998
  2. ^ Godefroy, A. (April 1, 2006). “Canadian Military Effectiveness in the First World War.” In The Canadian Way of War: Serving the National Interest Bernd Horn (ed.) Dundurn Press. ISBN 978-1550026122
  3. ^ Veterans Affairs Canada. 1916 - Prelude to the Somme. Canada and the First World War.
  4. ^ Nicholson p. 229
  5. ^ Turner p. 39
  6. ^ Cook p. 117
  7. ^ a b Nicholson 254
  8. ^ Nicholson p. 255
  9. ^ Campbell pp. 178–179
  10. ^ Hayes p. 200
  11. ^ Hayes pp. 202–203
  12. ^ Godefroy p. 231
  13. ^ Campbell p. 179
  14. ^ Campbell pp.179–181
  15. ^ Nicholson p. 257
  16. ^ Campbell p. 182
  17. ^ Godefroy p. 220
  18. ^ Nicholson p. 263
  19. ^ Moran p. 139
  20. ^ Gibbs, Philip. All of Vimy Ridge Cleared of Germans New York Times 11 April 1917
  21. ^ Godefroy p. 233
  22. ^ Bean 929
  23. ^ a b Nicholson 312
  24. ^ a b Nicholson 314
  25. ^ Wolff 246
  26. ^ Nicholson 318
  27. ^ a b Nicholson 320
  28. ^ a b Nicholson 321
  29. ^ Nicholson 323
  30. ^ ":: CWGC:: The Ypres Salient". Second Passchendaele. Commonwealth War Graves Commission. n.d.. Retrieved 2009-02-08.  
  31. ^ Nicholson 325
  32. ^
  33. ^
  34. ^ Carl Berger, Imperialism and nationalism, 1884-1914 : a conflict in Canadian thought (Toronto : Copp Clark Pub. Co., 1969). Carl Berger, The sense of power : studies in the ideas of Canadian imperialism, 1867-1914 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970).
  35. ^ Martin P. O'Connell Henri Bourassa and Canadian nationalism (Toronto, Ont. : University of Toronto PhD Thesis, 1954).
  36. ^ F.H. Soward, The Department of External Affairs and Canadian Autonomy, 1899-1939/Le ministère des Affaires extérieures et l'autonomie canadienne, 1899-1939
  37. ^ Oscar Skelton, The Life and Times of Alexander Tilloch Galt. Oxford University Press, 1920.
  38. ^ Nersessian, Mary (April 9, 2007). Vimy battle marks birth of Canadian nationalism.
  39. ^ Cook, Tim (2008). Shock troops: Canadians fighting the Great War, 1917-1918. Toronto: Viking.
  40. ^ Buckner, Philip, ed. (2006). Canada and the British World: Culture, Migration, and Identity. p. 1. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.
  41. ^ Geoffrey Hayes, Andrew Iarocci, Mike Bechthold, eds. Vimy Ridge: A Canadian Reassessment (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007)
  42. ^ Desmond Morton, When Your Number is Up: the Canadian Soldier in the First World War (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1994).
  43. ^ José E. Igartua, The other quiet revolution : national identities in English Canada, 1945-71 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2006).


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